Thursday, 19 April 2012

Give me moor!

Exmoor is full of closely-guarded secrets. Thankfully, sometime resident Rachel Johnson is willing to share some of the best. Just keep them under your hat…

Written by Rachel Johnson
Its only with reluctance that I am prepared to share with you one of this island’s richest secrets, which is Exmoor National Park, a patchwork of hog’s back cliffs, heathery moorland, green valleys, burbling rivers, wooded cleeves, where I have been lucky to live all my life. This is because it is blissfully free of traffic and even its honeypot sites – such as Tarr Steps outside Dulverton, or the medieval town of Dunster – never seem to teem with tourists, or as my late grandfather (a hill farmer) used to call them, ‘grockles’. And those of us who are happiest stomping the hills with our dogs would ideally like it to stay that way.
But here goes anyway. Here is my perfect Exmoor day. Wake up early (not that I ever do, one sleeps like a log on the moor) and fortify yourself with a proper English breakfast. Then resist the temptation to collapse on to a sofa, bank up the fires, put on your walking boots and drive to Malmsmead, where you will do the staggeringly lovely Doone Valley walk.
Half way, you can stop for a homemade pasty or a Scotch egg you will have already purchased from Christine Nelder’s Exclusive Cake & Catering Company in Dulverton. At the end, you can reward yourself again with a cream tea (it’s not teatime but you’ll have earned it) at Cloud Farm en route. If it’s summer, you can cool off in Badgworthy Water, a peaty, chill stream.
On the way back, drive via Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor (which feels bigger than its 700 sq km) and if you want to work off the pasty and scones, I recommend parking and walking to the cairn at the top, which will afford you astonishing views of moorland and coast: on a clear day you can see Wales (though I should add there aren’t that many clear days).
My alternate choice for a drive is via Simonsbath ‘the heart of Exmoor’ towards the coast, perhaps Porlock, or if you’re feeling more ambitious, Coleridge’s Cottage – newly restored by The National Trust - in Nether Stowey, where your children can sit where he wrote Kubla Khan and be forced to write their own ditties with quill pens.
After that, I would suggest driving to a pub for liquid refreshment. As with walks, and views, and sport on the moor – this used to be a Royal Hunting Ground – with pubs you are spoilt for choice. There’s the Crown in Exford, or the White Horse if you want to sit by the river outside; but my two locals are both Royal Oaks and do a wonderful pint of the amber fluid provided by Exmoor Ales: you can choose from Fox, Gold, Stag, Beast, or, if it’s during the festive season, the brackish porter called Exmas, which is five per cent proof. All are good.
Leave the pub because now it is time to do some light retail therapy after all your exercise, so head to Dulverton, where you will pick up presents in the delicious Brimblecombe emporium (my husband actually has coined a verb for when women buy things they don’t need simply because they’re pretty and most importantly, there, which is ‘brimbling’), and everything for your hunting, shooting and fishing needs in Lance Nicholson.
You will find meat in Gerald David, and excellent organic produce of all sorts in Farthings Farm Shop, and there is a proper grocer, too. There is a famous second-hand bookshop called Rothwell & Dunworth, which has all the local books, antiquarian books, out-ofprint books (ie, mine) and so much more you can easily lose a pleasurable hour or two in there, and then leave with a tattered little picture book about Exmoor ghosts.
After this you really have deserved a sit down, so return to where you are staying (I’ve never stayed anywhere else but on our family farm so I can’t help you there but have heard good things of Tarr Farm and Millers at The Anchor in Porlock). Remove your boots, throw more logs on the fire, make sure that something is simmering in the Aga for supper, and fall asleep by the fire.

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