While oﬀering spectacular views and a whole treasure trove of things to do, our National Parks – namely Exmoor, Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor – are of huge importance to the West Country, for a number of reasons. From providing vital habitats for wildlife and holding thousands of years’ worth of historical remains, to inspiring artists, writers and ﬁlmmakers, there’s much more to these incredible landscapes than ﬁrst meets the eye.
Exploring the moors opens you up to a world of holiday pursuits, from climbing, cycling and walking to wildlife watching and unearthing your ancestry. So, sit back, relax and read on; you’re sure to ﬁnd inspiration for your next Helpful Holidays break in the West Country.
KNOW YOUR HISTORY
On Exmoor, we recommend seeing Cleeve Abbey, the 800-year old remains of a Roman Catholic monastery torn down during Henry VIII’s reign. Also worth a visit is Barle Bridge; it’s said that on the rear parapet of this medieval stone structure is an inscribed tablet, dating all the way back to 1624. Stop for lunch at Porlock Weir – a stone quay curving around a pebbly beach and weir that dates back to the Domesday Book – where you’ll ﬁnd pubs and picnic spots aplenty.
Cleeve Abbey [Steve Bittinger]
On Dartmoor, remains dating back to prehistoric times can be found, such as the chambered tomb – a burial site made of granite that’s thought to be around 6,000 years old. What’s more, if exploring the moor’s north and west slopes, you’ll almost certainly come across large, medieval memorial stones. Dating to the 5th and 7th centuries, these commemorate the tribal leaders and princes of the immediate post-Roman period.
To see Dartmoor’s darker and more recent history, head to Princetown and visit the museum of Dartmoor Prison, once used to house category ‘A’ inmates. While you’re in town, stop for lunch at one the lovely eateries, such as the dog-friendly Fox Tor Café, where you’ll ﬁnd beer from Dartmoor Brewery and scones and cream teas, which are made on site, as well as a tempting range of cakes and coﬀee.
STRETCH YOUR LEGS
With hundreds of tors to climb, waterways to follow and some absolutely breathtaking views to gaze on, walking is a great way to make the most of your countryside retreat. Take a picnic and make a day of it, with lunch at one of the many idyllic spots you’re bound to chance upon.
A two mile riverbank walk should only take around an hour at a leisurely pace. Don’t rush, as you’ll want to enjoy the peaceful babbling of the river as it meanders by. Take time to appreciate Tarr Steps, an ancient stone clapper bridge that’s thought to date to 1,000 BC. The massive granite slabs give an eerie credence to local lore, which suggests that the Devil himself used them to sunbathe. Keep an eye out for wildlife, too, especially red deer and families of otters that thrive in Exmoor’s waterways.
This easy Dartmoor walk, of around two and a half miles, is one of our favourites. Following disused tram tracks around the old quarries of Haytor, the mixture of land and water is a real treat for the eyes, especially on a sunny afternoon as the sun glitters on the water. You’ll be tempted to jump in and have a swim, and why not? There’s nothing quite as invigorating as a wild Dartmoor dip!
Haytor quarry [Edmund Gall]
Brown Willy, Bodmin Moor’s crowning tor and Cornwall’s highest point, oﬀers gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding landscape so be sure to go on a clear day. Head across the moor to the dramatic rocks of Rough Tor, another viewpoint well worth the scramble; you’ll know you’re there when you come across the De Lank River, gently winding its way round Rough Tor’s foothills.
On Exmoor, you’ll almost certainly glimpse the majestic red deer. Numbering roughly 3,000, these hardy creatures have been residents of the moor since pre-historic times and are the largest wild land animal in England. In fact, Exmoor was once a Royal forest, with strict forest law protecting the deer in order to maintain a supply of venison, as well as a hunting ground for the king. Keep an eye out in wooded areas, where you can usually ﬁ nd these fascinating animals using the trees for cover.
While not truly wild, Exmoor ponies, like those on Dartmoor, are crucial to the moorland ecology, playing a key role in keeping the landscape in good condition. If visiting in the spring and early summer, you’ll likely spot new born foals running free with their dams and learning about the world.
Exmoor ponies [Tom Lee]
Happily, you’ll also ﬁnd over 30 species of butterﬂy on Exmoor. The diverse nature of the heather hills and wooded coombes supports a whole host of species, some of which are very rare. In fact, a vast array of insects, bird life and land animals can be found across all the moors, from dunlin and golden plover nesting on high blanket bogs of Dartmoor, to dormice, badgers and voles in the wooded areas. Head out at dusk and you might just catch a pale glimpse of an owl as it leaves its nest to hunt. Near Ashburton, on the edge of Dartmoor, you’ll ﬁnd an owl sanctuary, where The Barn Owl Trust team bring in injured owls, helping them to rehabilitate and make it back into the wild.
Exmoor Zoo plays host to an even wider variety of mammals, birds, amphibians, arthropods and ﬁsh; you’ll even ﬁnd one of only ﬁve black leopards in English captivity.
You and your little ones can feel the snakes wriggle, hear the wolves howl and see the big cats feed when you meet the residents of Dartmoor Zoo. Making a day of it? Stop for a drink and bite to eat at the Jaguar Restaurant. Overlooking the African paddock, you can choose from excellent coﬀee, local pasties, homemade cakes and much, much more while watching the ostriches and lechwes going about their day-to-day business!
CLIMBING AND CYCLING
The moors are wonderful for getting your ﬁ x of outdoor pursuits. In particular, they oﬀer fantastic opportunities for climbing and cycling, whatever your ability.
In fact, Exmoor is one of the UK’s top, most challenging oﬀ -road cycling spots. Combining stunning and varied scenery with an intricate network of cycle paths, lanes and bridleways, there’s plenty to explore on two wheels. What’s more, if you like to get out on the open road with your two-wheeler, nothing beats the panoramic views and steep valley climbs of the moors. Up for a challenge? Why not climb the 1,705 feet to the highest point at Dunkery?
On Dartmoor, you’ll ﬁnd more than 200 miles of bridleways to explore, perfect if you’re an oﬀ -road enthusiast, while the Dartmoor Way – a 95-mile circular route around the National Park – will take you through hamlets, villages and towns, heaven for the avid road cyclist and showing oﬀ some unbeatable scenery on the way.
Cycling on Dartmoor [Takver]
If climbing is more your bag, Dartmoor is hard to beat. Rugged granite tors oﬀ er some quality climbing and bouldering opportunities for individuals and groups of all abilities. To make the most of the Dartmoor landscape with expertly guided climbing courses, visit www.adventure360uk.com.
If you’re in Cornwall, contact Adventure Cornwall who can take you into the hills of Bodmin Moor for some excellent climbing. They can even combine your climb with a moorland expedition, which is great if you’re the adventurous type looking to get the most out of Bodmin Moor.
EXMOOR: EUROPE’S FIRST DARK SKY RESERVE
Even with advances in technology and discoveries extending beyond our solar system, looking up at the night sky still retains that same sense of mystery. As night falls, it’s this – the feeling of staring into the unknown – that draws our gaze skyward. However, as time passes it becomes harder and harder to ﬁnd a night sky that remains unspoiled by light pollution.
The Milky Way over Exmoor [Christopher TD]
Exmoor National Park oﬀers absolutely spectacular stargazing opportunities. Indeed, a great deal has been done to minimise light pollution by the Exmoor National Park Authority, Devon and Somerset County Councils, landowners, local businesses and individuals. Impressively, in 2011 this combined eﬀort resulted in Exmoor being named as an International Dark Sky Reserve – the ﬁrst of its kind in Europe.
This status doesn’t just protect the night sky’s beauty – it’s hugely beneﬁcial to wildlife, too, particularly birds and insects that use natural light from the moon and stars in ways we can’t yet fully comprehend. Light pollution has been known to confuse animals, which rely on consistent, natural light patterns, meaning the Dark Sky Reserve status is a massive step forward for Exmoor in protecting the many species that call it home.
So, whether you’re on a pre-bedtime stroll with the dog, or simply enjoying a breath of invigorating air in the garden after dinner, there’s really nowhere better to see the stars. County Gate, Wimbleball Lake and Haddon Hill are especially ﬁne spots to wonder at the celestial display – you can even hire a telescope from Exmoor National Park Centres.
For a useful guide to the heavens, download a free Exmoor National Park Dark Skies Guide, with stargazing tips, interesting facts and the best places to see the sky.
WHERE TO STAY
Take your pick from our collections of cottages in every corner of the National Parks, where you just step outside to find yourself amongst nature: Exmoor cottages; Dartmoor cottages; Bodmin Moor cottages.
For inspiration, these stunning National Park destinations are ready to welcome you:
Rookwood Cottage, Drewsteignton - a thatched idyll in a Dartmoor village surrounded by wooded coombes and heather hills.
Waysideford Barn, Ashburton - a secluded cottage, perfectly placed for the most spectacular southern slopes of Dartmoor.
The Stables, Lynton - a large, detached house near the Valley of the Rocks, where rivers pour from Exmoor.
Heyden Cottage, Bratton - a classic Exmoor cottage in 150 acres of woodland.
Briar Cottage, Tregadillett - a 19th century gamekeeper's cottage, sheltered by ancient woodland and hedgerows.
Main image: Exmoor [Stuart Allen]