Exmoor National Park lies in West Somerset and stretches into Devon. The vast majority of the National Park is within Somerset. It covers 267 square miles of heather moorland, farmland, ancient wooded valleys, spectacular coastal cliffs and rivers. For a long time Exmoor was a Royal Forest and hunting ground and much of that tradition has continued today and is part and parcel of Exmoor's culture. Exmoor is a beautiful and peaceful place to visit. The small windy roads take you through the varied countryside which is punctuated with historic villages such as Dunster, Dulverton, Wheddon Cross, Exford and Simonsbath.
The Exmoor National Park Authority run several Visitor Centres at Dunster, Dulverton and Lynmouth. An independently run Visitor Centre is also available in Porlock. These are useful for picking up all sorts on information on places to visit, events and guided walks within Exmoor. You can also buy a range of maps and publications for more in depth information. There are informative displays on Exmoor and the area local to the particular Visitor Centre. The free Exmoor Visitor newspaper is also helpful for events and things to do during your stay and can be obtained from the Exmoor National Park Centre or online from the Exmoor National Park website. The highest point on Exmoor is the heather clad Dunkery Beacon. The Beacon lies south of Porlock at a summit of 519 metres. On a clear day you can see the Bristol Channel and across the English Channel to the Brecon Beacons in Wales. There are several Bronze Age burial mounds around the summit. The quickest ascent to Dunkery Beacon is from the car park at Dunkery Gate.
Many of the habitats within Exmoor including the upland heathland, woodlands, coastal heath are all hugely important wildlife sites. The woodlands are ancient semi-natural woodlands that are home to dormice, rare bat species and fritillary butterflies. Horner Woods owned by the National Trust is one of the most beautiful ancient oak woods in the country. It is part of the Dunkery and Horner Wood National Nature Reserve. This is a particularly rich woodland with fantastic carpets of mosses, lichens and liverworts and is some of the largest remaining continuous stands of coastal woodland in Britain. You can access the woodlands from Horner Village where there is parking, toilets and tearoom. A network of footpaths will take you into the woods themselves. Characteristic wildlife associated with Exmoor is the red deer which can be seen roaming the moors in herds. Exmoor Ponies still run freely on the moors. These are thought to be the closest relatives of the wild horse left in Europe. They're distinctive with their white muzzle and thick shaggy coat.The moors are also excellent for bird watching. Merlin, peregrine falcon, curlew, stonechat, dipper, dartford warbler and ring ouzel can all be spotted. In contrast you can find guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and ravens nesting on the steep cliffs on the coast.
The romantic story of Lorna Doone has become blurred between fiction and fact. The story was written by R D Blackmore and first published in 1869 and has never been out of print since 1870. The Doone's were known to live on Exmoor during the seventeenth century but are believed to have returned to Scotland. The whole story is set in Exmoor in the 17th century during the Monmouth Rebellion and tells the story of the Ridd and Doone families whose feud started when the Doone clan, renowned Exmoor outlaws, killed John Ridd, a farmer. The Doone Family lived in Doone Valley and the difficulties arise when the John Ridd falls in love with Lorna who turns out to the grand-daughter of Sir Ensor Doone!
The parish church at Oare to the west of Porlock is where Lorna Doone is said to have been shot by her half-brother while she stood at the altar about to marry John Ridd. There is a memorial to RD Blackmore and a note showing which was likely to be the window through which she was shot.
Tarr Steps is a popular location to visit within Exmoor National Park. It's not far from Dulverton, about two and a half miles south east of Withypool. The main attraction is the prehistoric clapper bridge which spans the River Barle. This is made out of stone slabs that weight around 5 tons each! It is believed to date from around 1000 BC or local legend has it that they were placed there by the devil to win a bet!
A great way to explore the wildlife, archaeology, farming history and historic buildings of Exmoor is to take a 4x4 safari across the moors. Discovery Safaris, based in Porlock, offer a range of different tours typically taking in some of Exmoor's best known sites such as Tarr Steps, Lorna Doone Valley or this historic villages of east Exmoor. Tours last around two and a half hours.