From show-stopping views, wild moorland and vintage steam trains to boutique B&Bs, intimate cafes and spectacular sunsets, this idyllic part of the UK is the ideal retreat. Words: Lesley Gillilan
Sandwiched between the Quantock Hills and the wilds of Exmoor, this quiet corner of the Somerset coast extends an open invitation to step back in time. A place without motorways, mega-stores or much in the way of urban life (tiny seaside Minehead, is the region’s largest town), its attractions include thatched tea rooms in pretty villages, ancient mineral harbours, a classic steam railway and miles of long and sometimes challenging woodland walks and giddy clifftop vistas from hills that swoop down to the sea. In April, the area wakes up to the inevitable crowds of visitors (most of them heading for Minehead’s promenade, medieval Dunster or the beaches of Porlock Bay); a walking festival begins at the end of the month; and there are emerging signs of 21st-century living, like foodie restaurants and a boutique B&B. But even in summer, you will find lonely corners – just you, a gaggle of Exmoor ponies, a whisper of wind in the trees, or the Bristol Channel tide washing over pebbles.
HISTORY AND ROMANCE
On the coast road between Watchet and Porlock, Dunster Castle appears like a vision from the pages of a fairy story. All turrets and ancient masonry, this magical National Trust monument rises from a hillock of private woodland overlooking the sea. A visit takes in the Norman gatehouse, a ruined turret and, inside the castle, the haunted King Charles bedroom, but the highlight is the estate’s Mediterranean-style gardens, a Victorian wonderland of sub-tropical palms, citrus trees and magnolias with views across the channel.
Below the castle, in Dunster, potter around shops and galleries, on cobbled streets which surround the old Yarn Market (built in 1609 to serve the region’s medieval wool trade). Buy vintage gifts at the Humming Bird, or pop into the Chocolate House, home of local confectioner, Nutcombe Chocolate.
Walk off the calories on Dunster Beach – with its community of 250 vintage beach huts, all privately owned but many offered as a bolthole for two.
A NIGHT OUT
There’s not much in the way of nightlife around here, but when the sun sets behind the hills, head for a lonely corner of Exmoor for an hour or two of nocturnal star-gazing. Exmoor National Park has been designated the first international Dark Sky Reserve in Europe – and is, perhaps, the best place in the country to see Cassiopeia, Polaris and the Plough. The closest spot to the coast is woodland Webber’s Post, high above Porlock, away from the glare of artificial light.
OUT AND ABOUT
A ride on the West Somerset Steam Railway brings out the child in everyone. Its vintage steam trains chuff up to the coast from Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, to Minehead, calling at a string of seaside pitstops along the 22-mile route. Everything from the steam-hauled rolling stock to the quaint stations and the staff uniforms, are a genuine blast from the past. Stop off at Watchet (for its 1000-year-old mineral harbour), at Blue Anchor (for the beach), or Dunster for nature walks around the beautiful Dunster Estate.
IF IT RAINS
Wander around the Watchet Museum, a former market house which has done time as the town prison, a mission church and an ironmonger’s. Inside, you will learn all about the region’s fossils, mineral railways and maritime history – or that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, The Ancient Mariner, was inspired by Watchet Harbour. A statue of the mariner sits on a nearby quay.
WALKS ON THE WILDSIDE
Minehead’s harbour statue, a giant Ordnance Survey map, marks the official start of the 630-mile South West Coast Path – and what a promising start it is. From Minehead, head for Porlock Bay, a nine-mile trek through coastal woodland, along the rugged clifftops which skirt the bracken slopes of Exmoor. With some of the highest cliffs in England, there are plenty of steep climbs and dizzy descents, but the views are stupendous. And you can stop for a reviving cream tea at Kitnors. The cute thatched tea room, close to the beach at Bossington, is open from April to October.
With a meandering high street of interesting little shops, close to walks, wildlife and the beach at Porlock Weir, the village of Porlock is a great place to hang out.
West Somerset is roughly three and a half hours from London by car. The nearest station is Taunton, served by First Great Western trains and 17 miles from Watchet by bus or car. To find out more visit visit-exmoor.co.uk.
A GREAT PLACE FOR…
BIG NIGHT OUT
For its moorland setting alone, the Culbone is worth the trek up mighty Porlock Hill. The relaxed bar and restaurant has dreamy views across the Lorna Doone Valley and a seasonal menu using local produce (Exmoor’s Devon Red beef and Brixham seafood, are among a larder of West Country goodies). If you drink too many Cornish ales the restaurant has rooms, too theculbone.com.
LUNCH BY THE SEA
The popular Driftwood Café at Blue Anchor is one of those old-fashioned beach-hut numbers redolent of the 1950s – all hand-painted signs, sky-blue décor and a verandah overlooking the beach. There’s a chalk-board of daily specials – homemade fishcakes, spinach and feta pie, classic cod and chips – and tables in the garden.
TEA AND CAKE
Serving homemade strawberry and rhubarb crumble and gluten-free orange and polenta cake, Chives Café in Watchet is not your run-of-the-mill tea room. Try the Afternoon Tea and tuck into a two-tier plate of sandwiches, cakes, scones and clotted cream chives-deli.co.uk.
SWAIN HOUSE WATCHET
When Jason and Annie Robinson opened Swain House last year, they brought a dash of London life to time-warped Watchet. Above their converted 19th-century shop – a junk shop before they turned it into the region’s first boutique B&B – they offer four stylish rooms. All feature king-size beds, digital wallpaper (a floor-to-ceiling detail from a National Portrait Gallery masterpiece) and the kind of luxury bathrooms you’d expect to find in an expensive hotel (think indulgent slipper baths and walk-in power-showers). Rates include a hearty Somerset breakfast, home-baked cakes and a wealth of local knowledge. Doubles from £135 per night swain-house.com.
MILLER’S AT THE ANCHOR PORLOCK WEIR
Martin Miller (the man behind the famous Miller’s Antiques Price Guides) is clearly in love with the area because he keeps opening hotels here. Part of his so-called ‘Exmoor Collection’, the Anchor is right on the harbour at Porlock Weir. Like most of Miller’s many ventures, it’s flamboyant, eccentric, crammed with antiques and furnished with a jumble of books and curios, shabby-chic sofas, open fires, four-poster beds and a palette of vivid colours. Doubles from £85 millersuk.com.