by Richard Madden, The Telegraph, November 9, 2017
Of all the many joys of walking, perhaps the best is the luxury of giving the mind, as well as the body, free rein to wander. As so many of our famous writers have discovered, there’s no better catalyst for exploring the winding footpaths of the imagination than the landscape itself.
Exmoor and the coastlines of north Somerset and Devon have inspired poets and novelists for centuries. Without them we might have been deprived of Coleridge’s mysterious poem Kubla Khan, composed at Ash Farm near Porlock, and R D Blackmore’s epic romance, Lorna Doone.
Beyond its central stretch of moorland, Exmoor National Park embraces the Brendon Hills to the east, the East Lyn Valley to the north and roughly 35 miles of coastline including the highest sea cliffs in England. Straddling the Somerset-Devon border, the park has three distinct landscapes: the ancient moorland surrounding Dunkery Beacon, its highest point; the deep coombes, ravines and wooded river valleys bordering the moor to the north and west; and the rocky headlands and clifftop coastal paths with their epic views over the Bristol Channel to Wales.
Inspirational walks through these areas are included in my selection below, starting and finishing at pubs oozing with West Country charm.
1. Porlock, Culbone Church: 4½ miles
Start/finish: The Bottom Ship, Porlock Weir
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS864479
A highly atmospheric walk through landscapes that almost certainly influenced the imagery of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. This route follows the woods, coombes and chasms of the Somerset coastline to medieval Culbone Church before continuing into the hills around Ash Farm where Coleridge wrote the poem and was famously disturbed by a delivery man from Porlock.
Turn left out of The Bottom Ship and follow the path west through fields and then along a track to the Toll Gate at Worthy Combe. Continue west through dense woods with glimpses of the sea to 12th-century Culbone Church (England's smallest parish church) and on through Withy Combe to Silcombe Farm. Here take the small lane that traverses Culbone Hill and passes Ash Farm. The return route drops down through woods to Worthy Combe and back to Porlock Weir.
2. East Lyn River Valley: 4½ miles
Start/finish: The Rockford Inn, Lynton
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS757476
Exmoor’s northern border is flanked by the East Lyn River, a thickly oaked gorge of ancient woodland. This walk includes part of the recent extension to the Coleridge Way trail and loops around through the woods to Watersmeet and back along the riverbank trail.
From the pub, follow the road up the hill and take the bridleway through the woods to lovely Watersmeet with a National Trust tea room), where the Easy Lyn and Farley Water combine. Cross back over the bridge and follow the bridleway to Hillsford bridge and back along the top of the ridge via two Iron Age forts (Myrtleberry North and South). Descend to the river once more and back to the Rockford Inn along the winding riverbank on the far side.
3. Countisbury Headland: 5 miles
Start/finish: The Blue Ball Inn, Countisbury
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS747496
The ever-welcoming, dog-loving, Blue Ball Inn near Lynmouth in north Devon is the perfect base for coastal walks both east and west along the South West Coast Path (SWCP) as well as inland. Seven excellent walks (between 2.5 miles and 10 miles) are detailed on the Blue Ball’s website but this variation heads out to Foreland Point and east along the high cliffs to the ominously named Desolation Point.
From the pub take the SWCP north along the gorse and heather-covered moorland cliffs to the lighthouse on Foreland Point with views west over Sillery Sands to Lynmouth Bay. Skirt around the headland and follow the coast path crossing the Devon-Somerset border just before Desolation Point, while skirting back along higher land past Kipscombe Farm to Countisbury.
4. Heddon Valley: 6½ miles
Start/finish: The Hunters Inn, Heddon Valley
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS655482
Of all the coastal river gorges and coombes in the area, the Heddon Valley is the narrowest and steepest. The 600ft cliffs at Heddon’s Mouth are the highest coastal cliffs in England with no landward access to the shore until Combe Martin six miles to the west. This walk can easily be shortened or lengthened with numerous variations.
From Hunter’s follow the footpath along the east side of the valley all the way down to the beach and then back again along the western side until the SWCP takes you up onto the cliffs past Trentishoe. Here take the Permissive Path south across Trentishoe Down, into the valley and up towards the village of Heal. Then follow the path over the fields back to Hunter’s Inn.
5. Ancient Exmoor and The Chains: 8½ miles
Start/finish: The Black Venus Inn, Challacombe
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS695411
This walk takes you to the heart of ancient Exmoor with standing stones and Iron Age barrows along the way. On a fine day it’s a joy, but The Chains plateau at the northern end of the walk can be ultra-boggy after rain and is the source of the River Barle, which inundated Lynmouth in the notorious flood of 1952.
Head south from the pub along the small lane that leads to Barton Town before taking the bridleway east over South Regis Common. At the Tarka Trail head south to the Sloley Stone (a lonely 18th-century gravestone) and then north east along the Macmillan Way West, which climbs up to Pinkery Pond and the exposed moorland of The Chains. The return journey heads back south along the Tarka Way and then west along South Regis Common.
6. Lorna Doone Walk: 9½ miles
Start/finish: The Culbone Stables Inn, Porlock (01643 862259)
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS831471
Quite a tough walk this, but a good one for fans of Lorna Doone, R D Blackmore’s classic tale of love and derring-do on 17th-century Exmoor. Highlights include the valley of Badgworthy Water (signposted Doone Valley) and the open moorland where the novel is set, with its Blackmore Memorial stone. Lorna Doone Farm has no specific connection but the waterslide (SS791452) in Lank Coombe is said to be where the hero, John Ridd, fell into the water while fishing.
From The Culbone, follow the path along the side of a valley to Robber’s Bridge. Then follow the bridleway south over moorland to South Common before heading back again along Badgworthy Water. At Malmsmead loop back around to Robber’s Bridge and back to The Culbone for a well-earned meal.
7. River Barle Walk: 7 miles
Start/finish: Exmoor Forest Inn, Simonsbath
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS773393
The ancient Royal Forest of Exmoor created by William the Conqueror once centred on Simonsbath, the focus of this walk; later it was bought by the Knight family, whose attempts to develop the moor for agricultural purposes have left their mark on the surrounding landscape.
Take the path just down the road from the pub on the left and up through the trees into Birchcleave wood, emerging high above the valley with superb views on both sides. Head east looking down on the Iron Age fort of Cow Castle to the south along the way.
Continue into open moorland until joining the Two Moors Way and descending into the valley for the return leg back west following the delightful riverbank path to Simonsbath.
8. Dunkery Beacon: 9 miles
Start/finish: Exmoor White Horse Inn, Exford
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS853384
No collection of Exmoor walks is complete without Dunkery Beacon, the highest point (1,704ft) on Exmoor. On a clear day you can see both the Bristol and English Channels, the Brecon Beacons in Wales, Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor to the west and even Cleeve Hill, nearly 90 miles away in Gloucestershire.
From The White Horse head around the corner to the north west, past the recreation park, and take a right along a high hedged lane that eventually turns into a bridleway leading up onto the moor.
Continue north and then west along the Macmillan Way West to Dunkery Beacon itself. On the return, head down past Dunkery Bridge and then directly east along a delightful lane that exits briefly onto the main road before returning to Exford via Kitnor Heath and Prescott Down.
9. River Beale & Tarr Steps: 9 miles
Start/finish: Royal Oak Inn, Withypool
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS847356
A superb river-trail walk that follows a well-signposted section of the Two Moors Way to Tarr Steps, a “clapper” bridge over the River Barle, an ancient monument that may have prehistoric origins. The return route crosses Withypool Hill with 360-degree views, a tumulus and a stone circle. R D Blackmore stayed at the Royal Oak and is said to have written part of Lorna Doone there.
From the pub, follow the small lane out of the village to where the Two Moors Way is signposted, crossing a field into some woodland down to the river. Follow the path (sometimes rocky and uncertain underfoot) to Tarr Steps. The return rises out of the valley to meet the Exe Valley Way heading north to Withypool.
10. Winsford Hill & Caratacus Stone: 8 miles
Start/finish: Royal Oak, Winsford
Explorer map OL9: OS Grid Reference SS906349
A wonderfully inspiring walk, which includes the dramatic moorland scenery of Winsfield Hill, the Wambarrows (Bronze Age burial sites), the Punchbowl (a deep hollow) and the Caratacus Stone, a sixth-century memorial to a descendant of the eponymous British chieftain.
From the attractive pub, head west out of town and take the footpath along the valley before climbing Bye Hill and crossing Ash Lane on the bridleway that heads up from Withycombe Farm. Continue along the western edge of the Punchbowl to the tumuli on top of Winsford Hill. Then follow the paths over the moor to the Caratacus Stone before looping back through the Yellowcombe Valley to the Royal Oak.