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Go wild in Exmoor
MMM magazine

Go wild in Exmoor

Posted 28 April 2015   |   747 views   |   Leisure Interest   |   Comments (0) The unique landscape and captivating sights and sounds of the southwest’s famous National Park will leave you awestruck

As we left home heading for a week away in the ‘van on Exmoor, Sarah’s  voice was again ringing in my ear, ‘You’ve been working too hard, it’s time you had a proper holiday so let’s just have a nice week away without you writing any articles’.

To be honest I’d been brainwashed by this message over the previous few weeks and I had played along with it to the point that I’d even started to give in and accept that I would have to have a ‘proper’ holiday.

But then we arrived at the aptly named Sunny Lyn campsite. The sun was indeed doing its best to raise the temperature above freezing during this, the coldest March on record for fifty years, and on the outskirts of Lynton we were camped beside a beautiful fast flowing river in a beautifully wooded valley.

My resolve to have a proper holiday was well and truly broken before I’d really stepped off the site. Dippers and grey wagtails on the river were the first encouraging sign and, walking into Lynton, I watched a raven displaying over the woodland and, whilst listening to the delightful song of siskins, I noticed a herd of red deer on the opposite side of the valley. A short reconnoitre took us as far as the  famous Valley of the Rocks where we bumped into a few of the feral goats and had two cracking views of a peregrine flying beneath us along the cliff line.

How could I come to Exmoor and not share my experiences with the loyal readers of MMM? It just wouldn’t be cricket! I agreed a pact with Sarah. I could write an article but only if I agreed not to drive the ‘van except when it came to moving site. I like a challenge and I liked the idea so that is what we did.

Fortunately there are plenty of options for walking from Sunny Lyn, crossing the bridge at the bottom of the site opens up a whole new world of paths, all of which seem to end at Watersmeet where there is a National Trust caf?. The paths are ever so slightly up hill and down dale so don’t come expecting a gentle amble. But on our way down to the East Lyn Valley my spirits were lifted, not only by the beautiful views but also the full-on singing of nuthatches, chaffinches and robins as well as the gentle calls of a pair of bullfinches. We could almost have thought spring was in the air if it wasn’t for the easterly blast from Siberia in our faces.
Down in the valley bottom, the woodland floor still looked a little lifeless, but there were some flowers doing their best to add some colour. A few lesser celandines and primroses were very colourful; more numerous but less vivid was the opposite-leaved golden saxifrage which flourished in the damper spots, along with the understated dog’s mercury which carpeted the ground in places. It was clear that in a month or so the wild garlic would be as pretty as a picture and there was evidence of some patches of bluebells.

Between Watersmeet and Lynmouth the usual dippers were obliging, no doubt they are accustomed to people here and so tolerate a closer approach than normal so this is one of the best places in the country to watch these charismatic birds.

Being on the coast we wanted to make sure we explored in both directions. The first of our two coastal walks took us east as far as County Gate coming back via, you guessed it... Watersmeet! Highlights of the walk included a ring ouzel on some scree around Foreland Point. I am guessing that this was just a migrant bird rather than one settling down to breed as this is a scarce breeding bird on Exmoor restricted to just a few steep sided valleys or combes.

"My spirits were lifted not only by the  beautiful views but also the full-on singing of the nuthatches, chaffinches and robins"

Not far from County Gate is a village called Malmsmead, which sits at the foot of Lorna Doone country in the valley of the Badgworthy Water. This is a great spot for the whinchat, one of the special breeding birds of Exmoor, but since this is a summer visitor it wasn’t worth us making a detour on this occasion. Whinchats breed on moorland where there are tufts of grasses, it is at the base of these tufts that they make their nest.

For our second coastal walk we took a bus to Parracombe, partway towards Ilfracombe, and then walked down the Heddon Valley and back along the coast via Woody Bay. Here we had a remarkably confiding view of a male goldcrest as well as several treecreepers. What’s great about these steep wooded valleys is the chance to see into the treetops at eye-level.

As beautiful as the Heddon Valley is at any time of the year, I found myself wishing I could be here at every time of year in one trip! I know that on the slopes of Trentishoe Combe for example it is possible to find high brown fritillaries in early summer (late June is good) and I would love to see these beauties: but not this time. At the same location it is possible to find other fritillaries including dark green, small pearl-bordered and silver washed – be prepared for an identification challenge.

The walk back from Hunter’s Inn to Lynton must be one of the most beautiful in this very pretty National Park. The dramatic coastline around Woody Bay is as good as it gets but be ready for some steep climbs on the coast path.

Next day we de-camped and headed off along the coast to the east. Our first stopping points were at Porlock and Porlock Weir. Within walking distance of Porlock is probably the most beautiful woodland on Exmoor: Horner Wood. It is an exquisite oak woodland, which, from May to July hosts pied flycatchers and redstarts, another two special birds, these, found mostly in the west of Britain in oak woods. We visited too early in the year to see these birds but that didn’t stop us enjoying a wonderful walk through the woods and up onto the commons above. Probably the best bird of our walk was a Dartford warbler amongst the gorse on one of the commons, this is a bird whose numbers on Exmoor have increased in recent years.
Having stayed at Minehead Caravan Club site a couple of years ago, we decided to pass by this busy seaside resort and, after stopping briefly at the quaint village of Dunster, complete with its castle and several ‘ye olde tea shoppes’, we headed for the much quieter small town of Dulverton, which has its own Caravan Club site.

Dulverton is situated on the southeast side of the National Park, it too is very quaint and the campsite is close to the shops. For pie lovers, there is a cracking bakery and for naturalists the churchyard is of interest, as here there is a noticeboard giving the species of each tree, of which there are several, and scattered around the gravestones are masses of wild or semi-wild flowers including crocuses, snowdrops, lesser celandines and primroses. There is even a pair of nuthatches nesting in the sycamore near the entrance.

From Dulverton, it is a six-mile walk to Tarr Steps, a famous clapper bridge, which was destroyed by flooding in 2012 and reassembled thanks to a big digger. Instead of taking a linear walk we decided to catch a bus to Exford and walk back along the valley. This is a varied walk, often beautiful through a slightly gentler countryside than on the north coast. The wildlife was similar, the only new species was a pair of mistle thrushes but we did have a cracking view of a herd of red deer beside the river between Tarr Steps and Dulverton. I was struck by how such a large group of big animals could completely dissolve into the woodland in a matter of seconds.

For our second day, we walked from the site to Wimbleball Lake, a reservoir to the east of Dulverton. To avoid walking along roads the route we took was slightly circuitous, but rewarding, with yet another herd of red deer along the way. Another highlight came in the form of a teashop called Pulhams Mill near Brompton Regis... I’m a complete sucker for chocolate cake!

Wimbleball Lake is a reservoir with a path around its edge, though a nine-mile path wasn’t top of our list of priorities having walked about six miles to get there, so we walked a little of its edge before disembarking down the valley from the dam. The highlight at the reservoir was a great crested grebe but, with watersports a priority, I suspect that wildfowl numbers will never be as high as they could be. We particularly enjoyed the return route along the valley beautifully named Hartford Bottom, a pair of foxes showed up well as they ran alongside a pheasant-enclosure and the usual dippers and grey wagtails continued to enthral us.

For the last day of our visit we bought another pie and caught another bus, this time we disembarked at Exford and returned from Timberscombe. Our walk between the two took us to literally the high point of our trip on Dunkery Beacon though wildlife was in short supply with only meadow pipits and skylarks to keep us company. Strangely the birding got better as we headed back to the site with a pair of goosanders seen from the bus along the River Exe not far from Dulverton and a lesser spotted woodpecker which I heard from the site drumming in Burridge Wood.

Exmoor is undeniably a great place for a walking holiday. Our challenge achieved, we drove no more than 40 miles during the week, between the two sites, and walked more than 70 miles in search of wildlife. The National Park is one of the most beautiful and the wildlife is both varied and fascinating. If I were to change one thing about our trip it would be the time of year, I reckon late June would probably be best for seeing wildlife, particularly birds and butterflies, but I’m not complaining!

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