Dec 13

A weekend of stargazing and winter joy in Exmoor

by in Blog trip, Outdoors, UK

Exmoor Blagdon_Cross_Startrails - image darkskytelescopehire.co.uk

Star Trails; Exmoor – image darkskytelescopehire.co.uk

“Starry, starry night …” Don McLean and Vincent Van Gogh would love Exmoor at night. I have NEVER seen such a star-studded sky in the UK, as the one I saw whilst staying at West Withy Farm Holiday Cottages. On arrival on the edge of Exmoor, the night sky took my breath away. Ablaze with a myriad of sparkling lights, it looked as if a child had thrown a huge bag of glitter up into the darkness.  It was almost impossible to make out familiar constellations such as The Plough and Orion because they were embedded within so many others. The Milky Way arched overhead in a whirling mass. With virtually 360° visibility in this area and very little human habitation, it’s not surprising that Exmoor was named Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve.

Stargazing in Exmoor

Telescope in Upton Cottage - West Withy Farm Exmoor

Telescope in Upton Cottage

Ian, owner of West Withy Farm, showed me round Upton Cottage, a converted haybarn, which sleeps 5 in homely comfort. In the lounge a large telescope sat waiting to be used; you can hire it by the day here and the garden has a plinth on which to use it. On the second night, astronomer Seb Jay of Dark Sky Telescope Hire came over to give a talk on astronomy and the skies overhead. It was cloudy so we didn’t use the telescope, but he had a ‘live-sky’ programme on his laptop to show the constellations, asteroids and planets that had been so clear the night before. It was a fascinating evening and I learnt a great deal about our amazing universe …

Exmoor star gazing with Seb Jay

Astronomer Seb Jay

 

Over the weekend I visited a number of interesting places in Exmoor: here are a few highlights.

Dulverton, Exford and Simonsbath

Exmoor signpost in Exford - image zoedawes

Signpost in Exford

The pretty village of Dulverton has got a number of independent retailers, including boutiques and antique shops, plus a good variety of pubs, cafes and restaurants. I had dinner at Woods Bar and Restaurant; a warm ,welcoming place, combining a pub atmosphere with quality dining. Owner Paddy is passionate about seasonal local food, sourcing much of it off his own farm, and wine; he has over 400 to choose from. (It’s been National Wine Pub of the Year for 5 years running.) I can highly recommend the confit of lamb shoulder; meltingly delicious.

Dinner at Woods Dulverton Exmoor

Confit Shoulder of Northcombe Lamb

The next day I set off to explore more of Exmoor, going through a number of quaint villages with thatched roofs and attractive pubs. At the White Horse Inn by the bridge in Exford a horse and rider trotted by as Christmas decorations were being put up.

Exford and river Exe Exmoor

Exford

In Simonsbath, a tiny hamlet, the smell of sawdust filled the air as a young man cut up logs beside the River Barle. The moor spread out all around as I headed towards the coast and two of Exmoor’s most well-known towns.

Lynton and Lynmouth

Lynmouth Exmoor - photo zoedawes

Lynmouth and Cliff Railway

I remember visiting Lynmouth with family on a hot, sunny day a few years ago. It was really busy and delightful. In winter the museum, chippie and souvenir shops may be closed but you can wander along the jetty overlooking  the river mouth and get a real feel for its historic and literary past. In the early 19th C the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed here briefly with his young wife, Harriet. The Rising Sun Hotel is a picturesque sight with its thatched roof and excellent position overlooking the boat-bobbing harbour. Above the excellent Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre is the Pavilion Dining Room with great views over the Bristol Channel.

Lyton Town Hall Exmoor

Lynton Town Hall

The Cliff Railway, open between February and mid-November, connects Lynmouth to Lynton. It fits the ‘eco-traveller’ remit as its two carriages use the weight of water to pull them up and down. Lynton has a genteel Victorian air with some decent touristy shops and a splendid Town Hall, somewhat larger and fancier than you’d expect in such a small town. Not far away is the Valley of Rocks, a fairy-tale collection of rocky towers and hillocks with a splendid cliff-walk. It’s exhilarating and uncrowded in the winter months.

Porlock

Porlock Exmoor

Porlock

Apparently Coleridge was interrupted in the composition of his epic opium-induced poem Kubla Khan, by a ‘person from Porlock‘. On the day I visited, the people of Porlock were more intent on getting ready for Christmas, than visiting poets. It’s the heart of Lorna Doone country, as the local hotel indicates, and Porlock Bay Oysters are in great demand. They are the first Pacific Oyster site in England & Wales to achieve the top A classification. Sadly none were available when I was there; a good reason to go back.

Dunster

Dunster by Candlelight Exmoor - image zoedawes

Dunster by Candlelight

Possibly the most famous festival in Exmoor, Dunster by Candlelight is a glorious event held over two evenings in the run-up to Christmas. The medieval town opens its doors to visitors from around the world. The shops are brightly-lit, candles decorate the streets, performers entertain the crowds and a procession of costumed revellers carries a stag shoulder-high, accompanied by musicians and enthusiastic participants. I got the Park and Ride from nearby Minehead and spent a magical few hours watching the fun, wandering round the shops and enjoying carol-singing in Dunster Castle.

Exmoor Ponies

Exmoor ponies at Foreland Point - image zoedawes

Exmoor ponies

No visit to Exmoor would be complete without seeing the hardy Exmoor Ponies. Living all over Exmoor National Park, there are particular places you’re more likely to find them. I saw them on Haddon Hill, overlooking Wimbleball Lake and also at National Trust Foreland Point, on the rolling moorland road between Lynmouth and Porlock. They roam freely across the moors, but are not truly wild, being owned and looked after by various people. You can get fairly close but don’t try to touch them. In winter their thick coats give them extra protection against all weathers. Exmoor also has herds of wild red deer and plenty more interesting wildlife.

Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre

Exmoor National Park

Many thanks to Visit Exmoor for hosting my weekend, and to Ian and Lorena of West Withy Farm for their warm welcome, hospitality and invaluable advice on what to see in this beautiful area in south west England. Check out their website for details of stargazing weekends – a whole new world could open up for you …

Quirky Travel Guide to West Withy Farm 

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9 Responses to “A weekend of stargazing and winter joy in Exmoor”

  1. From Zoe Dawes:

    There’s something very special about visiting places ‘off-season’. As well as being far less crowded and easier to see things, people have more time to chat and you feel far lesser stressed 🙂

    Posted on December 15, 2016 at 5:57 am #
  2. From Sara Dobak:

    Oh Zoe, this is right up my street (the one without too many street lights causing light pollution, of course!)! My perfect kind of article, blending a spot of cosmic capers with other points of interest in the area. Thoroughly enjoyed that 🙂

    Posted on December 15, 2016 at 10:32 am #
  3. From Zoe Dawes:

    So glad you enjoyed it Sara 🙂 If you’ve not been to Exmoor, I am sure you’d love it. Not jsut for the astronomy but also its natural beauty, culture and cuisine.

    Posted on December 15, 2016 at 1:00 pm #
  4. From West Withy Farm:

    We came to Exmoor seven years ago, drawn by it’s tranquility, clean air and timelessness – it is an ‘easy to get to’ remote place. Exmoor has abundant wildlife, great eating, and dark skies, all available every day of the year. It is uncrowded, unhurried (Exmoor traffic jam – two farmers blocking narrow lane chatting landrover to landrover), unspoilt and unchanging – the perfect place to destress and chill at any time of the year.

    Posted on December 20, 2016 at 11:59 am #
  5. From Zoe Dawes:

    You so obviously love Exmoor and have made a welcoming place to stay on your farm. As you say, a great place to chill-out any time of year. Hopefully you will have many more people experiencing the Dark Skies and varied attractions of Exmoor whilst they stay with you.

    Posted on December 20, 2016 at 1:56 pm #
  6. From Charlie Mason:

    Looks lovely. We’ve been to Cornwall and parts of Devon but never visited Exmoor. One to add to our 2017 UK Bucket List!

    Posted on January 2, 2017 at 3:11 pm #
  7. From Zoe Dawes:

    Sure you will enjoy it Charlie. It’s not a huge area but jam-packed with plenty to see and do, either for a weekend or for a longer stay 🙂

    Posted on January 2, 2017 at 3:14 pm #
  8. From Mary Wood:

    What a delightful place to visit. Must admit we have never been to Exmoor so definitely adding to our list. Hoping to go to the south west coast this summer.

    Posted on January 12, 2017 at 3:24 pm #
  9. From Zoe Dawes:

    Mary, if you’re going in the summer make sure you have a go on the little cliff railway up from Lynmouth to Lynton. And the chippie there is supposed to be very good too!

    Posted on January 12, 2017 at 3:56 pm #

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