A high bare plateau sliced by wooded combes and splashing rills, EXMOOR can present one of the most forbidding landscapes in England, especially when shrouded in a sea mist. When it’s clear, though, the moorland of this National Park reveals rich swathes of colour and an amazing diversity of wildlife, from buzzards to the unique Exmoor ponies, a breed closely related to prehistoric horses and now on the endangered breeds list. In the treeless heartland of the moor in particular, it’s not difficult to spot these short and stocky animals, though fewer than twelve hundred are registered, and of these only about 150 are free-living on the moor. Much more elusive are the red deer, England’s largest native wild animal, of which Exmoor supports the country’s only wild population, currently around three thousand.
Endless walking routes are possible along a network of some six hundred miles of footpaths and bridleways, and horseback riding is another option for getting the most out of Exmoor’s desolate beauty – visitor centres can supply details of guided walks and local stables. Whether walking or riding, bear in mind that over seventy percent of the National Park is privately owned and that access is theoretically restricted to public rights of way; special permission should certainly be sought before camping, canoeing, fishing or similar.
Inland, there are four obvious bases for walks, all on the Somerset side of the county border: Dulverton in the southeast, site of the main information facilities; Simonsbath in the centre; Exford, near Exmoor’s highest point of Dunkery Beacon; and the attractive village of Winsford, close to the A396 on the east of the moor. Exmoor’s coastline offers an alluring alternative to the open moorland, all of it accessible via the South West Coast Path, which embarks on its long coastal journey at Minehead, though there is more charm to be found further west at the sister villages of Lynmouth and Lynton, just over the Devon border.