Tall cliffs and deep combes where Exmoor drops to the sea
Exmoor’s hills reach the Bristol Channel in a sequence of lofty cliffs and headlands which form one of the most memorable coastlines in England. A few roads wriggle seawards down deep, wooded combes, but the best of the scenery is reserved for walkers. Lynmouth has a sheltered harbour, but elsewhere strong tides and the scarcity of anchorages make this an unsuitable coast for small-boat sailors without expert local knowledge.
Men from Derbyshire and Wales were employed in Con.oe Martin’s prosperous silver mines during the Middle Ages, but the last workings were closed in the 19th century and all but a few traces have vanished. Strung out along a deep valley, with Exmoor’s western flanks rising steeply on one side, the unusually long main street leads to a rock-flanked, shingle-scattered beach with low-tide sands.
Secluded coves, such as Wild Pear Beach, are only a short walk away, and there are many rock pools to be explored. More ambitious walkers can climb the 716 ft Little Hangman and follow the coastal path to its neighbour, the Great Hangman, which towers 1,043 ft above the sea.
The collection of motor cycles on display in Cross Street includes a Brough Superior once owned by T. E. Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – while tame monkeys from South America roam the grounds of Higher Leigh Manor on the outskirts. Fishing trips, boat trips and horse riding are available, and a carnival is held in July or August.
A 20 minute walk from Hunter’s Inn follows the clear waters of the River Heddon down a steep, wooded valley to a secluded cove of pale, sea-smoothed shingle and low-tide sand. Just above the high-water mark are the ruins of a kiln, built in the 18th century, where limestone from South Wales was burned to ‘sweeten’ Exmoor’s acidic soil. Paths on both sides of the river make the walk a delightful circuit. The path that follows the cliffs eastwards to Woody Bay passes the site of a small fort used by the Romans in the 1st century to keep watch for hostile Welsh tribesmen.
The narrow lane from Hunter’s Inn to Combe Martin skirts the summit of Hold-stone Down, a heather-clad viewpoint 1,146 ft above sea level. Its neighbour, Trentishoe Down, is part of an extensive tract of beautiful National Trust land that includes the cliffs above Elwill Bay, the lower valley of the River Heddon, and Heddon’s Mouth.
Named after the oak woods which sweep majestically down to the sea, Woody Bay is reached after a 25 minute walk down from the narrow coast road. High cliffs shelter a beach of rocks, shingle and sand. The cliffs are a breeding ground for many sea-birds, including auks, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars, shags, razorbills and various gulls. The colonies are seen at their best between March and the end of July.
The most accessible beach between Combe Martin and Lynmouth is sheltered by high, tree-clad slopes and has a broad triangle of low-tide sand framed by smooth expanses of rock. Signs warn that fast-flowing tides can trap walkers exploring the foreshore. Strong currents sweeping past the twin headlands make the bay unsuitable for small boats, but bathing is safe close to the shore in calm weather. Mink have been seen near the stream that runs into the bay, and it is also the haunt of dippers, wagtails and the infrequent heron.
A toll road climbs eastwards past Lee Abbey – built as a private house, despite its name – and passes through the Valley of Rocks on its way to Lynton. The valley is remarkable for its jagged pinnacles of eroded limestone known by such names as the Devil’s Cheesewring, Ragged Jack and Castle Rock. Mother Meldrum’s Cave recalls an old woman who lived in the valley in the 19th century, on whom the novelist R. D. Blackmore based the character of the witch consulted by the heroine of Lorna Doone.
LYNTON AND LYNMOUTH
Although its roots go back to before the Norman Conquest, Lynmouth was not ‘discovered’ until 1812 when it became a temporary refuge for Percy Bysshe Shelley and his 16-year-old bride, Mary Wollstonecraft. They spent nine weeks in the picturesque little village, avoiding the wrath of the girl’s outraged parents. Lyn mouth’s praises were soon being sung by other poets, including Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, and it became one of Devon’s most popular beauty spots.
Lynmouth became front-page news in August 1952 when weeks of heavy rain culminated in a cloudburst over Exmoor. An estimated 90 million gallons of water fell on the catchment areas of the East and West Lyn rivers in a single night, creating a flood which raged down the gorge-like valleys, swept many buildings into the sea and claimed 34 lives. The ‘new’ village retains much of the charm of the original. Civil engineers have tamed the rivers which meet near the shore and flow to the sea past a harbour wall whose Rhenish tower was rebuilt in 1954. Its 19th-century predecessor was built by a colonel to supply his home with salt water for the bath. The shore is a mixture of rocks and shingle, but there is a tide-filled swimming pool.
Lynton is reached by a l-in-4 road or an even steeper cliff railway whose ‘gravity power’ is provided by the 700 gallon water tank fitted to each car. The 862 ft long track, which climbs about 500 ft, was opened in 1890 after most of the money had been provided by the publisher Sir George New-nes, who also built Lynton’s Town Hall to commemorate his son’s 21st birthday. The Lyn and Exmoor Museum has exhibits which tell the story of the area. There are fishing trips, boat trips and horses for hire.
The rushing East Lyn River meets the Hoaroak Water in a wooded gorge 2 miles east of Lynton. There are beautiful riverside walks, and the National Trust has turned a quaint Victorian fishing lodge into a tea room. The scenery is at its best in the early summer and when autumn turns the leaves to gold, brown and orange.
The gorse-clad cliffs on the western edge of the common rise 991 ft above the sea and are said to be the highest in England. There are superb views over the Bristol Channel, and a secluded beach awaits walkers who venture down the long, steep path to Sillery Sand. Footpaths and a narrow lane, closed to cars, run northwards to Foreland Point whose lighthouse is open on weekday afternoons. County Gate, on the A39 east of Countis-bury Common, is the start of a 3 mile nature trail which takes walkers to Glenthorne, where trees shelter the beach. There is a car park at County Gate, where the road crosses the Devon-Somerset boundary.