As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Exmoor National Park, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of historic sites, and natural and cultural spots in this glorious protected area in southwest England.
Though Exmoor can sometimes seem impossibly raw and untameable, people across the centuries have left their mark on the moor – and the history of our endeavours is etched in the landscape as well as being represented in castles, museums, bridges and mills throughout the region.
From Dunster Castle, where the Luttrell Family constructed their majestic stronghold, to the manors, schoolrooms and malthouses of villages across the park, there’s a wealth of historic artefacts to discover. Tourism and industry also left their mark, in a small way: the fabulous Cliff Railway has ferried holidaymakers and goods between Lynton and Lynmouth for well over a century, powered only by water – the greenest mode of transport in the park? – while the restoration of the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway is a reminder of the golden age of steam.
We’ve compiled details of organisations to help you discover these wonders for yourself – in the greenest possible fashion.
Perched on a wooded eyrie gazing across its namesake village to the coast, Dunster Castle blends Medieval ambition – the 13th-century gateway is the oldest surviving element – with a Victorian ideal of fortified grandeur. Part fortress, part comfortable country house, it’s also a flagship green property for the National Trust, part solar-powered and maximising composting, recycling and efforts to reduce energy consumption. Mostly, though, it’s a chance to wander lush gardens, play king of the castle, delve into the crypt to learn about the resident bats, and explore the 600-year family history of the Luttrell family, inextricably linked with the village and surrounding area. nationaltrust.org.uk/dunster-castle-and-watermill
Dulverton Guildhall Heritage & Arts Centre
A small, ramblng complex of buildings (which, 200 years ago, comprised the stables, malthouse, courtyard and outbuildings for the Lamb Inn) houses a collection of archive photos, oral history and film footage that opens a window on Exmoor life. One of the four original Victorian cottages has been preserved to give a snapshot of the life of ‘Granny Baker’ at the turn of the 20th century – her kitchen, her bedroom, her laundry equipment (wince at the mangle!) with a charming commentary in her Somerset accent. The Gallery and main exhibition areas host changing displays, often featuring art or natural history. http://www.dulvertonheritagecentre.org.uk/
West Somerset Rural Life Museum
Go back to school – and back in time – with a visit to this fascinating museum in the idyllic National Trust hamlet of Allerford. Housed in the old school house, built in 1821, the museum incorporates a replica schoolroom from that era (complete with original desks and benches!), offering an insight into educational mores of two centuries ago. Elsewhere, displays illustrate various domestic and trade topics – imagine taking on the laundry duties of a Victorian maid – as well as artefacts from across Exmoor, while the photographic archive reveals snapshots of local life over the past 200 years. allerfordmuseum.org.uk
Dunster Water Mill
The River Avill powers the region’s finest working water mill, alongside Exmoor National Park and just steps from Dunster Castle. Watch flour being milled as it was for hundreds of years, the wheat grain fed down to huge grinding stones. The attached museum features a fascinating collection of ancient agricultural machinery, once again demonstrating the efforts of farming and food production in years gone by. As well as selling the mill’s own stone-ground wholemeal flour, the Mill Shop is also stocked with home-made muesli and other local treats, and you can settle in for an indulgent cream tea in the adjacent tea room or riverside garden. nationaltrust.org.uk/dunster-castle-and-watermill
Lynton and Barnstaple Railway
Woody Bay was one of the original stations on the Lynton and Barnstaple railway, which was 19 miles long, much of it on a gradient of 1 in 50. It was built to the narrow gauge of one foot eleven and a half inches (600mm) and opened in 1898. Faced with increasing competition from road transport, it closed in 1935. The one-mile of track from Woody Bay to Killington Lane was reopened in stages between 2004 and 2007, and is currently the longest-closed section of a railway to be reopened anywhere in the world. From the carriage window there are views of the sweeping Exmoor landscape, and on a clear day you can see the coastline of Wales. The railway is owned by a Charitable Trust and is operated as a 'not for profit' business, with the majority of work undertaken by volunteers. lynton-rail.co.uk
Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway
You step on, the brakes are released, and you glide up (or down). It’s that simple – yet this elegant water-powered Victorial railway is something of a work of genius. Designed by George Marks and opened in 1890, the vertiginous railway was intended to provide an easier access route for tourists and goods to reach clifftop Lynton from the harbour at Lynmouth. Powered only by water from the River Lyn, the railway has a carbon footprint the size of an ant’s, and a ride in one of the two racing-green carriages, albeit lasting scant minutes, is as charming a travel experience as you’ll encounter. cliffrailwaylynton.co.uk
For information on characterful places to stay, local food and drink, and nearby outdoor activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Exmoor National Park