Steep, wooded slopes flanking Minehead’s flat sands
Tiny hamlets nestle among wooded hills rising steeply from the Somerset coast. From vantage points such as Selworthy Beacon there are views northwards across the Bristol Channel and southwards on to Exmoor, with its wild ponies, open moors and bubbling streams. The coast changes its character at Minehead, where clean flat sands begin and sweep eastwards, with some shingle and smooth rock, towards the quiet port of Watchet.
A 2 mile woodland walk from Porlock Weir, following a track etched into steep slopes above the sea, leads to the remarkable church at Culbone. Hidden away in a lonely combe, the medieval building is only 34 ft long by 12 ft wide and is the smallest completed church in regular use anywhere in England. Seats for about 30 people include a family-sized box pew.
The walk can be reduced to a round trip of 3 miles by parking at the foot of the narrow toll road which climbs Ashley Combe and joins the A39 on Culbone Hill, more than 1,000 ft above the broad waters of Porlock Bay.
A sturdy arm of shingle enclosing a tidal inlet enabled Porlock Weir to become a small port when Porlock’s harbour was left high and dry by the fickle sea during the Middle Ages. Reached by a narrow channel between banks of sea-smoothed stones, the dock has gates which enable small craft to remain afloat when the tide ebbs.
Attractive old buildings, some colourwashed and roofed with thatch, look out over the 2 mile crescent of Porlock Bay to Hurlstone Point and the steep, green slopes of Bossington Hill. They provided food and shelter for sailors in the days when Porlock Weir’s coasters traded across the Bristol Channel, taking timber to South Wales and returning with coal. Boat trips are available.
Set in a natural bowl, flanked by hills whose gradients and acute corners were feared and respected by pioneering motorists, this old, mellow village looks out over fields to the sea that edged northwards centuries ago. The most convenient route to the shore is by way of the lovely little village of Bossington, at the foot of Bossington Hill. A track leads on to a point where the shingle bank is breached by a stream, and there is a small parking area. Strong currents make swimming dangerous anywhere in the bay, but there are good views and the shingle is SELWORTHY
Almost too good to be true, this magical little cluster of thatched, white-walled cottages climbs a tree-clad hillside and looks southwards to the high, rolling heart of the Exmoor National Park. It is watched over by the 14th-century tower of a lovely church whose elaborate roof is a triumph of the woodcarver’s art. The pulpit has a 17th-century hour glass used to time sermons, and the iron-bound parish chest dates from the same period. Allerford, 1 mile west, is another picture-postcard village whose ancient packhorse bridge is paved with cobbles.
Selworthy is the starting point for a memorable walk which climbs through woodlands to the gorse-gold summit of Selworthy Beacon, which can also be reached by road from Minehead. It is a superb vantage point, 1,013 ft above sea level, and views inland embrace Dunkery Hill, at 1,705 ft the highest point in Somerset.
Minehead’s small, snug harbour is at the end of Quay Street, where several 17th-century cottages with colour-washed walls and thatched roofs recall the history of a town whose records go back to Saxon times. The stone quay was built in 1616, when ships traded as far afield as Portugal, Africa and North America. Like other ports in Somerset, notably Porlock, Minehead’s fortunes ebbed as the level of the sea dropped – but the quay was extended to create what the novelist Daniel Defoe described as the safest harbour on this side of the Bristol Channel. The old part of the town climbs the slopes of North Hill and is dominated by a 15th-century church from whose tower a lanternsmooth enough to allow comfortable sun bathing. used to guide mariners home. There are walks along Culvercliff, and a nature trail explores North Hill.
Minehead is now a popular holiday resort and touring centre whose mile-long seafront frames a beach where a huge expanse of sand, lightly scattered with pebbles, is revealed at low water. The tide goes out for well over half a mile and sometimes exposes the blackened stumps of a long-lost forest. Strong tidal currents sweep the outer part of the bay, but bathing is safe at high water in the shelter of the harbour. There is a large holiday camp at the eastern end of the beach, where Warren Road ends at a golf course.
Seaside attractions include a miniature railway, and there are fishing trips, boat trips and horses for hire.
Minehead is the western terminus of the privately owned West Somerset Railway, which runs steam-hauled trains between the resort and Bishop’s Lydeard during the holiday season. Diesel trains carry passengers throughout the year on the 23 mile route. The company ran its first train in 1976, five years after British Rail closed the line.
STEAM REVIVAL The independent West Somerset Railway runs from Minehead along the coast to Watchet and then inland to Bishop’s Lydeard.
Walking through Dunster is like taking a time-machine journey back through more than 900 years of English history. The setting is beautiful, and few villages can boast such a fascinating collection of mellow, well-preserved buildings, some of which date from the 13th century. The broad High Street runs down to the foot of a steep, isolated hill where the towers and turrets of Dunster Castle rise above the trees. It dates from Norman times and remained in the same family from 1376 until 1976, when it was presented to the National Trust. In 1645-6, during the Civil War, the Royalist garrison withstood a six-month siege before surrendering to a Parliamentary army. One shot fired during the battle hit the picturesque Yarn Market at the opposite end of High Street, and the damage can still be seen.
Dunster’s rich heritage includes the Old Nunnery, a tithe barn and a dovecot – all built in the 13th century – a 17th-century watermill which still grinds flour, and a medieval packhorse bridge which spans the River Avill.
To the north, beyond the A39, Dunster Beach is a long stretch of stream-crossed sand and shingle where the tide retreats for more than half a mile. The shore is overlooked by Conygar Hill, whose wooded summit is crowned with a folly tower.
A caravan site overlooks a sandy beach, backed by a narrow strip of shingle, which runs westwards all the way to Minehead. At the eastern end of the beach, where the B3191 swings inland, there are flat rocks where pools are left by the falling tide.
Somerset’s seafaring traditions live on in Watchet, an old-established port whose small harbour is used by ships of up to 2,500 tons. They enter at high water, then rest on the mud while cargoes ranging from timber, cork and steel to wine, cars, farm machinery and chemicals are loaded or unloaded. Destinations range from Portugal and Spain to the Azores and Pakistan. The present harbour was built after its predecessor was destroyed in the winter of 1900, when a ferocious storm coincided with an abnormally high tide. The old wooden piers had been used to load iron ore, mined in the Brendon Hills, which was shipped to South Wales during the Industrial Revolution.
The port’s history is illustrated in the museum in Market Street. During the Civil War a Royalist ship stranded by the falling tide was captured by a troop of enemy soldiers on horseback. Watchet is almost certainly the place where Samuel Taylor Coleridge met the old sailor whose seafaring tales inspired the poet’s best known work, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
ST AUDRIE’S BAY
In the 19th century, Lord St Audrie built a private gasworks to supply his estate. Traces of the harbour where coal from South Wales was landed have survived, and so has the sunken track used by the fuel-laden pack-horses. It runs down to an extensive beach of shingle, sand and long, low tables of tilted rock. Parts of the wall built by Lord St Audrie support a small stretch of the bay’s high, crumbling, multi-coloured cliffs. A waterfall cascades on to the shingle a few yards away. The car park above the beach is reached by a toll road which runs down through trees to a small holiday camp.