Coastal rambles, gentle excursions into the wild and lots of staring out to sea help Sian Lewis unwind in this quiet Exmoor village
Porlock is a coastal village of two halves. Perched high above the sea is Porlock itself, an ancient huddle of thatched cottages flanked on three sides by the heather-clad moors of Exmoor in Somerset. Wind down a steep hill to the ocean and you come to Porlock Weir, Porlock’s rather ragamuffin little sister. The harbour has been a fishing port for the last thousand years, and today its pretty shingle beach is perfect for seaside rambles and stone skimming. Here one of Britain’s largest tides leaves painted fishing boats high and dry and plays host to the UK’s only community-led oyster farm. Postcard-worthy thatched cottages sit forever gazing out to sea and a pirate flag whips proudly in the air.
Both halves of Porlock have their own distinct character, but they do have one gem in common – each is home to one half of a fascinating pub. Up in Porlock you’ll find 13th century coaching inn The Ship, a favourite haunt of poets and pirates alike. Down by the sea is The Bottom Ship – run by the same team and equally warm and welcoming. From its door, the South West Coast Path winds along the edge of the sea and then up onto the moors, where wild ponies roam free. In summer Porlock is a lively spot, especially when the annual Weir Fest in July fills the harbour with music and bunting. But the village is just as appealing in the colder weather, and its many cafés and delis (plus those wonderful local oysters) make it the perfect place for a coastal foodie escape.
8AM COFFEE AND A VIEW
We wake up at Glen Lodge, a relaxed B&B perched above the village. Nursing mugs of hot coffee, we sit and look out over Porlock to the glittering ocean from our bedroom’s big bay windows. Staying here feels more like spending the weekend at a friend’s country house than a hotel – Meryl, the charming owner, whips up some pancakes and granola which we wolf down before heading out, passing the tempting library room, where a cheerful stove roars and the shelves groan with books about the local area (01643 863371; glenlodge.net).
10AM TIME TO PADDLE
No more looking longingly at the sea – it’s time for us to get out on the ocean ourselves. Dan of Exmoor Adventures is ready and waiting for us with bright kayaks down on the harbour and, although the sky has now turned iron grey, the sea is still invitingly calm. We don our life vests, grab our paddles and glide along the coast, leaving the beach behind and exploring the waters beneath the tall cliffs of Exmoor National Park. Dan’s trips are beginner-friendly and, like everywhere else in Porlock, there’s a real focus on local producers – his comfortable sit-upon kayaks are made in Somerset (07976 208279; exmooradventures.co.uk).
12PM DELI DELIGHTS
We can’t resist stopping for lunch at the tempting-looking Big Cheese deli in Porlock village. Inside, a cheese counter groans with local and exotic dairy delicacies and the knowledgeable staff offer up tasters and lots of recommendations. The rest of the shop is given over to shelves full of treats such as English truffle oils, ciders produced by local makers Ex-Press and homemade jams and pickles, including Porlock’s famous speciality, whortleberry (the local name for bilberry) jam. We settle for some leek and Stilton soup, a cheeseboard and a hefty slice of homemade cake (01643 862773; thebigcheeseporlock.co.uk).
1PM COAST PATH CLIMB
Time to walk off all that delicious local fare. Planning a seaside walk in Porlock is a no-brainer – the glorious South West Coast Path runs straight through Porlock Weir and climbs high up the cliffs to either side. We head left and after a lung-burning climb are rewarded with panoramic views – down to the sea, across to Porlock and, behind us, across miles of heather moors, where inquisitive Exmoor ponies watch us wander past. Porlock prides itself on being the place where ‘land meets sea’, and up here on the cliffs it’s easy to appreciate why (southwestcoastpath.org.uk
7PM SHIP SHAPE
There’s one pub at the heart of village life in Porlock – or should that be two pubs, given that the ‘Top Ship’, as it is fondly known by locals, has a sister, the ‘Bottom Ship’, down in Porlock Weir? The original thatched Ship Inn has been a coaching inn since 1290, and it feels like it. Inside, dark beams and polished brasses are lit by a warming fire. We linger over fresh local mussels and wine while trying to guess the whereabouts of the secret tunnel that is rumoured to be hidden somewhere in the pub dating from its time as a smuggling hotbed in the 1600s (01643 862507; shipinnporlock.co.uk
10AM GOING ON SAFARI
Porlock may face out to sea, but nestled behind it is a mystical landscape – Exmoor National Park. No-one knows this wildlife-rich moorland like Richard Squire, who runs Discovery Safaris from his rugged Land Rover, the Exmoor Wanderer. We clamber in and Richard, whose fascinating running commentary is both captivating and hilarious, takes us on a rip-roaring tour of the cliffs. We spot some placid Highland cows and flighty Exmoor ponies. Then, magically, we stumble upon a herd of wild red deer. We watch a huge, stately stag leading his group of hinds through the gorse against the backdrop of the sea – an unforgettable sight. Who needs the African savannah when there are wildlife delights like this on our own coast? If you pick just one adventure in Porlock, make it this one (01643 863444; discoverysafaris.com
2PM POETRY, PLEASE
Before we leave Porlock there’s time for a Sunday roast at the Bottom Ship and an amble along the seafront, our walk reminding us of the words that poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once penned in The Ship Inn (probably after some of their wonderful local mussels I suspect). ‘Porlock, thy verdant vale so fair to sight / Thy lofty hills, which furze and fern embrown / The waters that roll musically down / Thy woody glens, the traveller with delight / Recalls to memory, and the channel grey / Circling its surges in thy level bay.’
3PM THE OYSTER CATCHERS
We walk past a painted sign swaying in the wind. It depicts an oystercatcher boat out to sea above the words ‘Porlock Bay Oysters’. Outside a diminutive wooden shed we find Roger Hall checking on the day’s oyster harvest. He set up the community-led and funded initiative in 2013 as a way to champion Porlock’s seafood and employ more local people in the village. He walks us down to the water, where the low tide has revealed rows upon rows of glistening oysters. This bounty is harvested a few times a month and sold in local shops and restaurants. So how does Roger recommend eating his coveted catch? ‘Centuries ago oysters were actually a staple food, and oyster and beef stew was very popular. These days, we suggest a simpler approach to really appreciate the flavour – a little lemon juice and perhaps some shallots.’ We decide to take a few home, as reminders of the village where land meets sea (porlockbayoysters.co.uk
NEED TO KNOW
STAY AT… GLEN LODGE
Glen LODGE B&B. Big rooms look out past Porlock to the ocean and there’s a little library, a delicious breakfast and a hot tub in the garden. There are self-catering apartments in the grounds, too (01643 863371, glenlodge.net
, from £70pp per night).
Sparkhayes campsite. This large campsite is perfect for letting kids run free. Barbeques and dogs are allowed, and the sound of the sea will lull you to sleep (07721 045123, sparkhayes.co.uk
, £9pp per night).
HOW TO GET THERE
The nearest railway station is Taunton, 1hr 45mins from London and 40mins from Bristol, and Porlock is an hour’s drive from the station. By road, leave the M5 and follow the A39 to Porlock. There are daily flights from Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh to Bristol. For more information, visit porlock.co.uk