The Toronto Star
West country wanderings in England
Words and pictures by Sara Moss (special to the Star)
EXMOOR, ENGLAND—I’d missed the hourly bus into North Devon’s national park Exmoor by three minutes.
But had I caught the bus I wouldn’t have met Jim.
After two train rides, I’d arrived in Barnstaple, North Devon’s commercial and cultural centre for more than 1,000 years. It’s set on the banks of the River Taw on the fringes of Exmoor.
That’s where I met Jim, a crazy, North Devon-loving, middle-aged former East Londoner who’d moved to the area from the capital with his wife six years ago. On this day he was also my taxi driver. Jim liked to go very fast along terrifyingly narrow lanes flanked by tall hedges.
His ducking and weaving along both major and minor roads meant that several ridiculously picturesque clutches of stone cottages only registered in my brain once we had flown a kilometre past them.
I had taken the train from London because I was enticed by the area in southwestern England. Exmoor National Park is known for its heather-clad moorlands, rugged coastal cliffs and wooded ravines.
I’d also been told Moorlands Hotel “can’t be missed” and that phrase was asking to be proven wrong. Jim and I had skipped by it at first, and after an unplanned tour of the surrounding area, I was checking in at a former gentlemen’s residence built in the late 1800s. Moorlands’ website had seduced me with the promise of “six acres of grounds in Exmoor National Park,” proximity to miles of walking trails, a warm welcome and a deeply delicious menu. It didn’t disappoint.
I devoured a tasty three-course meal, taking dessert — strawberry mousse — to my room to enjoy in a large bubble bath before succumbing to sleep at the bedtime of a 6-year-old.
The next day, after a hearty breakfast, there was no shortage of scenic walks if I felt the need to work off the calorie count.
Closest was the vehicular road to the nearby handful of medieval stone houses of Martinhoe. The narrow bitumen strip was framed by rolling fields of variegated green hemmed by hardy, moorland trees shaped by prevailing winds.
The track’s altitude revealed an off-road gem: pastures giving way to untamed vegetation that gripped cliffsides at the edge of the Bristol Channel, with views to Wales.
North Devon’s coastline cuts a dashing topographical figure, featuring cliffs at the edge of Exmoor — at up to 350 metres — among England’s highest. From this spot, the first 56 kilometres of the South West Coast Path (1,013 kilometres) are strung along the Exmoor coast, offering views that entice hikers year-round.
Along this part of the trail is the delightful clifftop town of Lynton. I caught a bus from Moorlands’ driveway for a 10-minute trip to this centuries-old village sporting a raft of architectural styles — Gothic, Tudor and English Manorial, to name a few. Lynton perches 182 metres above its neighbour Lynmouth, linked to its sister town by a vertiginous funicular railway that’s operated since 1890.
A train ride down the cliff is a tourist favourite, but even just the view from the station is spectacular.
If you’re into trains, but not a fan of heights, Moorlands is certainly the hotel for you. It’s next door to Woody Bay station and the restored section of the Lynton-and-Lynmouth-to-Barnstaple narrow gauge train line.
Originally opened in 1898, the line closed in 1935 and was subsequently dismantled because of increasing motor car competition. Tireless work by enthusiasts has restored steam engines to ply the 16 ½ kilometres of recreated heritage track at Woody Bay.
Phil — a train buff from the eastern county of Essex — has been staying at Moorlands Hotel for at least eight years, and is one of the regulars who talk up a storm in the bar/restaurant with proprietors Ian and Christine Corderoy.
You could rent a car to fully explore the beauty of the area, but you might be missing out. The journey by train from London leaves you in a charming, out-of-the-way region where you have little choice but to walk your heart out. And when you do need a ride, maybe Jim can send your pulse speeding like he did mine.
Sara Moss is an Australia-based freelance writer.