7 February 2012

Wild ponies couldn't drag me away

Last summer I spent a few days in north Devon. It's a wonderful place, and this is what I did there...

Children and dogs are splashing in the clear waters of the pool at Watersmeet as I cross the bridge over the two rivers that join at this tranquil north Devon spot. It's taken me over an hour of hard walking in the hot August sun to get down into the wooded Lyn Valley from my campsite perched on the hill above Lynton and Lynmouth and I'm glad of the opportunity to fill my water bottle at the National Trust tearoom at Watersmeet House. Families are already lunching in the garden outside the 19th-century property, but I resist the delicious-looking cream teas and push onwards, following the East Lyn upstream.

After only a few minutes, silence reigns, the sociable chatter of Watersmeet a distant memory. The water here moves slowly and the handful of walkers I meet coming in the opposite direction speak in hushed tones suitable to their surroundings. I make good progress on the well maintained riverside path.

The East Lyn River
Another hour of walking through the densely wooded valley brings me to the scattering of whitewashed houses that make up the tiny village of Brendon, whose ancient pub, The Rockford Inn, is a favourite with walkers. I eat my sandwiches on a bench overlooking a small tumbling waterfall, but do not linger in this peaceful, isolated spot. It may be a warm day, but down in the valley the air is damp and cool and it's not long before the sweat on my back turns cold in this sunless place.

My decision to make north Devon the destination for this late summer break was a largely pragmatic one. Only an hour's drive from the Wiltshire town where some friends were getting married last weekend, Exmoor National Park boasts an enviable diversity of landscape for walking. Between rolling heather moorland, rich woodland and the park's extraordinary coastline, there are enough options to keep even the most fickle walker occupied. It's also a place where no one will judge you for eating a cream tea every day.

I am still short of breath from the fiendishly steep hike up out of the Brendon Valley when I am stopped in my tracks by the sight of a herd of Exmoor ponies. I caught a glimpse of these punky-maned, semi-feral horses on the drive in, but seeing them close up – so close I can smell them in fact – is a thrilling, visceral experience. This unique breed has lived on Exmoor longer than people have, and although the animals you see here are all either privately owned or the property of the National Park Authority, they roam free as they have always done.

As I take the path across the fields, walking straight towards the iridescent blue of the late summer sea, the ponies keep their deep black eyes on me. The herd is calm and still and several foals are sprawled lazily on the tightly cropped grass, but I get the sense that were I to step off the path towards them, the whole lot would be away in a thunder of tiny hooves.

Gorse and heather on Exmoor
Further on – I'm walking across the moor proper now – the heather and gorse are in flower, their nectar attracting what seems like hundreds of thousands of black flying insects. Their buzzing is loud in my ears and I have to cover my face with my sleeve to stop them flying into my mouth and nose. Exmoor's many bird species don't share my pickiness and feast on this insect bounty, swooping and diving low over the flowers.

A vertiginous, zig-zagging descent on a narrow paved road through the moorland brings me to Foreland Point, Devon's most northerly point. Lynmouth Foreland Lighthouse has been automated since 1994, but the turn of the century lighthouse keepers' cottage which perches perilously on the cliffside next to it is a working holiday home (run by the National Trust). The sun is shining in a cloudless sky as I clamber up onto the coastal path above the lighthouse, but this remote spot must feel brutally exposed in winter.

The walk up to this point has been tiring in places, but never particularly challenging. Here is where that changes, as for the next quarter of an hour I pick my way along the treacherously narrow footpath that runs around Foreland Point. Loose scree bounces down towards the Bristol Channel with each step and the wind buffets me as I go, the rich scent of the heather rising through the air. It is completely exhilarating and when I regain the safety of the main route of the South West Coast Path I find my legs are shaking and my heart pumping hard.

Walking the other direction around Foreland Point, I only
saw this sign after having done the tricky bit
The remainder of the walk is a fairly gentle 4km ramble around Lynmouth Bay and down into the pretty village of Lynmouth. This patch of coastline is so ruggedly beautiful – reminiscent of the cliffs of Sardinia – that it's hard not to dawdle through the heather and gorse, especially when I spot another herd of ponies cropping the grass on a worryingly steep bit of bluff. I could stay here and gaze all day, but it's late afternoon and the call of the cream tea is too much to resist.

Lynmouth Bay, with Lynmouth in the distance (spot the ponies)
I drag my weary frame into Lynmouth, gorge myself on scones and fall asleep in the sunshine on the village's tiny grey-pebbled beach. 

Travel details

North Devon & Exmoor official visitor information: www.northdevon.com

Where to stay
Channel View Camping and Caravan Park (Manor Farm, Lynton; 01598 753349) is a 20-minute walk up a steep hill from Lynton, but the views of the bay and the peace and quiet are worth the climb. 

Where to eat
The Oak Room (Lee Road, Lynton; 01598 753838) serves classy Spanish-inspired food, including some excellent fish dishes and original desserts, in an elegant setting. 

Where to drink
The Rising Sun (Harbourside, Lynmouth; 01598 753223) dates back to the 14th century and has a good range of ales and ciders on tap.