Although it’s one of England’s lesser-known national parks, Exmoor has no shortage of things to do on a short break. Straddling the counties of Devon and Somerset, Exmoor National Park is famous for its ponies, unspoilt coastline and dreamy night skies. From exploring the park by steam train to swimming with seals, here are nine unmissable experiences to have on a weekend break in this secret pocket of the south west.
Indulge at the Tarr Farm Inn
Exmoor National Park is breathtaking and bountiful, so it’s no surprise that many of its eateries make use of its native produce. The Tarr Farm Inn is a great example. It sources local and seasonal ingredients, serving up classic dishes with a contemporary twist using the likes of Exmoor lamb, Devon Red Ruby beef and Cornish seafood.
Located by the Tarr Steps – a medieval stone bridge crossing the River Barle, this textbook ancient inn is an idyllic setting for lunch or dinner, especially with its choice of post-meal woodland walks.
Step aboard the longest heritage railway in Britain
With 20 miles of railway line along the Bristol Channel Coast and through the Quantock Hills, the West Somerset Railway is the longest heritage route in Britain.
Hop on board an olde-worlde steam train and journey between Minehead and Bishop’s Lydeard. There are ten stations along the route, all of which are worth stopping off at. Alight at Watchet to explore an ancient harbour town; hop off at Washford to see Cleeve Abbey or take a tour of Torre Cider Farm. Fancy a long ramble? Depart at Stogumber or Crowcombe Heathfield to explore the Quantock Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with panoramic views of the coast.
Trains are not currently running, however many of the stations host different activities and open days throughout the year. Check the website for more details and for information on upcoming services.
Thanks to low light pollution and miles of untouched countryside, Exmoor National Park, also accredited as an International Dark Sky Reserve, is the perfect place for stargazing.
On a clear night, pack a picnic and a blanket, and head to Wimbleball Lake, Webbers Post or the highest point on Exmoor, Dunkery Beacon, to enjoy a late-night show full of stars and astronomical delights. Or learn more about the reserve and the art of stargazing by joining onto a dark skies walk with Wild About Exmoor. With help from their handy telescopes and binoculars, you’ll get to marvel at the magnificent constellations of our Milky Way.
Enjoy luscious views aboard a water-powered railway
The seaside towns of Lynton and Lynmouth have been popular places to visit in Devon since the Victorian era. Lynmouth, once known for herring fishing, is a pretty harbourside town with lovely walks towards Watersmeet, where you’ll find wildlife, waterfalls and a riverside café. Perched 500-feet above Lynmouth is Lynton, full of 19th-century buildings, independent shops, galleries and tea rooms.
Connecting them both is a distinctive grade II-listed funicular Cliff Railway, which is the highest and steepest water-powered railway in the world. Originally built to transport Victorian holidaymakers up the hill to Lynton, the funicular is still popular today thanks to its postcard-perfect coastal views and retro aesthetic. It’s also the most sustainable way to get between the towns, as its unique engineering means it uses absolutely no electricity to operate.
Accompanied by fully qualified instructors, take to the water on a two-hour sea kayak tour to explore the secluded pockets of the Exmoor coastline. This scenic paddle will take you past The Hangman Hills – the highest sea cliffs in mainland Britain – to isolated beaches and into hidden caves, many of which can only be reached by boat. Make sure to look out for local wildlife too, like Peregrine falcons nesting in the sea cliffs, dolphins and wide-eyed seals who are known to pop their heads out the water to say hello.
Legend has it that the Valley of Rocks was once home to the Devil’s castle and that one day he came home to find his wives partying with the neighbours, so he fell into such a rage that he turned his wives into turrets of stone. Other people, however, believe the formations (also known as Ragged Jack, Devil’s Cheesering and the White Lady) were created during the Ice Age.
Whatever the story, the popular spot, just half a mile from Lynton, is famous for its dramatic views and population of feral (yet friendly) goats, who have lived on the jagged cliff edges for some 6,000 years. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see a herd of wild Exmoor ponies who are known to graze amongst the bracken.
Whether you stroll through the iconic Yarn Market, visit the remains of an Iron Age settlement or simply cosy up beside a fire at a local pub, medieval Dunster is a must-visit on an a short break in Somerset. Don’t miss Dunster Castle, an ancient fortress surrounded by luscious gardens that overlook the village.
This former Saxon stronghold was later developed into a Victorian country house, but its 13th-century gateway still survives to this day. The terraced gardens are definitely the jewel in the crown though, full of winding wooded paths, subtropical plants and a historic working watermill.
Please note, the castle is currently closed but the gardens and parkland are open. Tickets must be pre-booked online.
Buckle up and uncover hidden corners of Exmoor from inside a Land Rover 4x4 as you roll through steep, wooded valleys, past crystal-clear rivers and across dramatic windswept moors.
These family-friendly tours are led by local guides, who’ll let you in on some insider knowledge of the area’s history and folklore. You’ll also get exclusive access to ancient off-road tracks, owned by the National Trust, and have the chance to visit historical sites. Make sure your camera’s charged, too, as there’ll be plenty of opportunities to spot a variety of native wildlife, from red deer rutting and iconic Exmoor ponies to rarely sighted birds and seasonal flora.
If you’re looking for unique things to do in north Devon, then look no further. Just off the coast is the historic Landmark Trust island of Lundy – which sits at approximately three miles long and half-a-mile wide. Unspoilt and undisturbed by cars, the island is home to an array of sea life, like dolphins, puffins and grey seals.
You can spot all these and more on a boat trip around the island, or if you don’t mind getting wet, you can venture into the water on a snorkelling or diving experience to see some of these playful mammals up close. The seals are especially inquisitive, so don’t be surprised if they nip your flippers!