A wander in the hinterland that lies beyond Somerset's wild coastline – and is in fact rather wild itself.
The phrase ‘Empty Quarter’ was coined to describe the Rub’ al Khali, the largest sand desert in the world – an expanse of dunes that consumes much of the Arabian peninsula. It’s a famously good place for an adventure – the first recorded crossing only came in 1931, and even today, only the most intrepid explorers set out to traverse it.
So ‘Empty Quarter’ has become a byword for extreme territories, places where human comforts – indeed, human life at all – are the exception rather than the rule. And with the long days of summer at hand, we set out to locate England’s Empty Quarter. You might think it would be Dartmoor – to many, it’s the epitome of lonely wilderness. But in fact it turned out to be Exmoor – the high, wild hinterland behind Somerset’s exposed north coast.
There are two main reasons why we chose Exmoor over Dartmoor. One: Dartmoor is actually more civilised than Exmoor. It is dotted with pockets of civilisation: towns and villages which break up the lonely landscapes. Exmoor has far less ‘conurb’ to serve as a crutch.
Two: Exmoor is quieter. Emptier. It has a smaller indigenous population, and according to a 2009 survey, it also has the lowest visitor numbers of any of Britain’s national parks.
Where it differs from the Rub’ al Khali is in life. Exmoor is alive and teeming with all the creatures that thrive where few humans go, from red stags to redstarts. It is a nature-lover’s paradise.
This, then, is England’s Empty Quarter. And thus is it is the place that Country Walking set out to cross, with a walk that became truly epic.
Exmoor has four main landscapes: hills, moorland, river valleys and coast, and this three-day linear walk showcases each of them in turn.
It forms a huge triangle running from Porlock to Simonsbath to Lynmouth and back to Porlock. It’s a genuine walking adventure, but that comes with a few caveats. It’s one of the biggest challenge walks we’ve ever printed: three long days of high mileage and tough terrain, often with little shelter.
You’ll need to carry everything with you for three days, including washbag and extra clothes. There are very few options for cutting it short and there is very little public transport (as befits an Empty Quarter). So once you start out from Porlock, you are pretty much committed, with only taxis to help if there’s a problem.
But if you’re still reading this, and you have a long weekend and a decent forecast, we can promise you a definitive Exmoor trek that will immerse you in the landscapes, history, flora and fauna of this wonderful place.
DAY ONE: PORLOCK TO SIMONSBATH
It’s very hard to leave Porlock. It’s a beautiful place, sheltered in a wide bay between Porlock Hill and Bossington Hill, its main street fringed by pubs, tearooms and curio shops. The air is alive with salt and seagulls, and having arrived so close to the sea, it feels somewhat counter-intuitive to walk away from it. But console yourself that on your return here in two days’ time, you’ll have much greater freedom to explore – and the return route also includes the very best bit of Porlock. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The first phase is a leg-stretching climb on the quiet lane of Doverhay, giving way to woodland trails which carry you to the hamlet of Horner. Instantly the landscape has become wilder; a place where nature rules. As you leave Horner and climb into hill country, you pass through an oversized gate which keeps the native red deer confined within the ancient forest.
The path climbs through the trees of the Holnicote Estate, with sandstone earth underfoot, to emerge from the treeline atop Horner Hill. In a little under an hour from Porlock, you have climbed into a grand jumble of rounded, woody hills. Round here they are known as ‘balls’, and a fine example – Cloutsham Ball – sits opposite you, presiding over the East Water Valley.
Next comes the even finer viewpoint of Webber’s Post. Apparently named after a huntsman who loved to stand here watching the Exmoor Staghounds at their sport in the valley below, it also brings your first big gawp at the day’s major objective: Dunkery Beacon. The highest land on Exmoor rises magnificently ahead, a central dome flanked by rounded outliers and clad in robes of heather.
The line of attack is beautifully simple: a high moorland terrace, which carries you away from the tourist road and out across the upper slopes of the beacon. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see red deer here, skulking among the heathery tuffets.
With a final push, the enormous cairn of Dunkery Beacon appears. With it comes the sense of Exmoor unfurling all around – coast to the north, hills close to hand, farmland below and moorland ahead. This is the pinnacle of Exmoor’s hill country and the birthplace of the pure moor.
What follows is an arrow-straight trek to the west, an adventure into the heart of the moor over ridge and heath. The tourists, roads and car parks are left far behind (and they’ve mostly taken phone signal with them). Now, it’s just you and Exmoor. And ponies.
Even the Ordnance Survey draws a blank round here. Aside from small print like ‘Alsworthy Common’ and ‘Larkbarrow Corner’, the Explorer map has very few placenames to offer you.
After many miles you’ll reach Warren Bridge. Here, virtually within sight of your final destination of Simonsbath, Exmoor gets a bit naughty, suddenly putting the deep ravine of the River Exe between you and your bed. The OS joins in, showing a simple-looking right-of-way which slinks through the ravine to drop in on Simonsbath from the north. It isn’t there. Trust us, we looked.
Instead, you must cross the ravine directly, enduring a short but sharp climb up the far wall and a final downhill slog along the road into Simonsbath.
As endings go, it is a slight downer for such a sensational day, but at least there is some recompense. Exmoor is an officially approved Dark Sky Reserve, so whichever of Simonsbath’s two accommodations you have chosen – the Exmoor Forest Inn or the Simonsbath House Hotel – you will find a warm welcome, a fine meal and a cozy bed, beneath a sky that is exploding with stars yet silent as velvet.
DAY TWO: SIMONSBATH TO LYNMOUTH
Simonsbath (say “Simmonsbath”) sits just off-centre in the heart of the national park. It sprang from what was originally the first building in the hunting forest – a house built by 17th-century warden James Boevey. For 150 years it was the only house in the forest. Today it is the Simonsbath House Hotel, and the village as a whole is scarcely much larger.
It’s in a dell at the confluence of four streams, and the next habitation is six hilly miles in any direction. At Simonsbath, you truly dwell in the soul of Exmoor.
You’ll feel this as you set out on Day Two, climbing out through the pretty gulch of Lime Combe. The landscape is green and fertile, but it’s still definitely Exmoor, and it’s all a very long way from a shop.
As much as today is about moorland, it’s also about river country. Water defines Exmoor, and the day’s first landmark is the place that provides its name. At Exe Head, high up in the moorlands, the River Exe pops out of the ground and begins a journey that will see it carve its way through the national park and then 50 miles south to Exeter and the sea.
It’s always fascinating to see the birth of a great river; interestingly the Exe is already gushing as it emerges; it has been careening for a good few miles underground before showing itself.
‘Exe’ comes from the Celtic word ‘isca’, which simply means ‘water’. And here it is, the water that defines and shapes Exmoor. Small place, big moment. But you part company with the Exe as soon as the birth is over; while it dashes east towards Exford and the south coast, you turn for the north.
The next stretch was possibly my favourite of the whole trail: a gentle descent down a twisting clough towards a remote hollow. It feels a million miles from anywhere, as empty as our Empty Quarter gets.
At the heart of the hollow is another Exmoor landmark, the Hoar Oak. Standing all by its lonesome, the oak has become a landmark mainly because it is the only distinct physical feature for miles around. It also gives its name to the beck you have followed down the clough: this is Hoaroak Water, and it will now run a course parallel to yours all the way to the sea.
Leaving the hollow, the trail climbs the whaleback of Cheriton Ridge, and follows this tongue-shaped scarp northwards to the hamlet of Cheriton.
And now the moorland is done with; your path is funneled into the wooded river gorges of Combe Park and Myrtleberry Cleave and will not leave this terrain until the moment the latter emerges by the sea at Lynmouth.
But this phase also features what will be for many the most beautiful place on the walk: Watersmeet. Here Hoaroak Water collides with the East Lyn River, deep in the confines of Myrtleberry Cleave, creating possibly the most descriptive placename in Britain.
And here the National Trust keeps one of its best-loved attractions: the sandstone-and-slate idyll of the Watersmeet tearoom.
Naturally, the beauty of the location and the presence of the tearoom mean that this is where you say a very definite goodbye to wildness; on any warm-weather summer weekend, this place will be heaving. But you can bask in the slightly smug knowledge that you have walked here from the wildest ends of Exmoor. If cups of tea symbolise a reward for pure effort, yours would be an urn.
The gorge continues, your path climbing high along its right bank, and eventually debouches beside the tiny but sublime harbour of Lynmouth.
If time permits and there are coins in your rucksack, a short detour up the Glen Lyn Gorge is well worth the entrance fee.
Even more worthwhile is an evening walk to the Valley of Rocks, just to the east of town. Sadly there was no way to add this iconic landscape to the trail without making it at least a day longer, so this is your only chance to have a gawp at it, if you haven’t seen it before. Everyone should.
On the other hand, these have been two long days so far. If you just want to sink into the Rising Sun Inn and let the day melt away by the harbourside, we couldn’t blame you for that, either.
DAY THREE: LYNMOUTH TO PORLOCK
Lynmouth, like Porlock, is hard to leave.
With its fishing boats, watery gorge and Victorian cliff-lift, you could stay here quite happily for a day or seven. But the final line of our Exmoor triangle beckons, and it’s no short hop – in fact it is the longest of the three days – so an early start is wise.
The simplest thing to say would be “follow South West Coast Path; keep sea on left”. That would get you back to Porlock, but it wouldn’t quite tell the story.
It is one of the great joys of Exmoor that its northern fringe is entirely coastal, and that the nation’s favourite trail also weaves its way along that seaward edge. But the Coast Path has a split personality here; for much of the stretch from Lynmouth to Porlock it operates on two levels, one sitting halfway up the sloping cliffs, the other much higher up, and set way back from the waves and the clifftops.
Having walked both, we reckon it’s best to mix and match the two, as the cliffside stretch can (at the risk of offence) become rather dull. These are not the epic granite cliffs of Cornwall or the sandstone screes of Combe Martin; these cliffs slide gently into the sea and are smothered in lush woodland, meaning that for large sections, you can’t actually see the sea at all.
But you should definitely stay cliffside for the first stretch, which climbs sharply out of Lynmouth, initially beside the A39 coast road. The view aft to Lynmouth becomes more and more stunning with each step – which is handy, as the ascent requires plenty of breathers. You can still spot the funicular cliff-lift beetling up and down its track, even when it’s over a mile and a half away.
The path rises past Countisbury and its pretty church to the transmitter on Butter Hill, after which it descends to a hause that connects onto Foreland Point. Here Lynmouth disappears, the road is silenced, and solitude begins again. Foreland Point is a rather bleak promontory thrusting out into the Bristol Channel, but it has a fine distinction: it is the most northerly point on the entire South West Coast Path. Across the channel, Porthcawl and Swansea square off against you; another nation, a world away.
After some customary Coast Path down-and-upping, the path enters the tree cover which, if followed all the way to Porlock Weir, would be pretty much total. But duck out of the woods after the eye-catching well known as Sister’s Fountain, and you can climb to the clifftops and reach County Gate. Here a small visitor centre presides over a stunning set of views – north to the sea and south into Exmoor. You can even see Dunkery Beacon, now seeming a staggering distance away to the south-east, and serving as a reminder of how far you’ve walked.
From County Gate a series of obvious paths will connect you with the higher-level Coast Path, and this makes a much more varied and view-friendly way to commence your descent back to Porlock.
Along the way are two gems. The first is Culbone church, allegedly the smallest church in England. Sitting in a woody combe, the 30-seater holy place is blissful on any day, but especially on a calm, sunny one, when the stone walls and oak benches give cool respite to the weary adventurer on the final leg of a three-day epic.
The gravestones outside chart the genealogy of Culbone, with the same names cropping up again and again, generation after generation.
Just up from here is Ash Farm, where in 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from an opium stupor and instantly wrote down the poem Kubla Khan, which had come to him in a dream. Sadly for literary history, his feverish scribbling was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock”. When he dismissed the visitor, he found he could not remember the ending, and thus the great poem finishes mid-thought.
And now it’s you that has business with Porlock. You can safely resume the cliff path here, descending through Yearnor Wood to reach a fine gatehouse which is the tollbooth for the Porlock Weir scenic road. And a few fields later, Porlock Weir itself arrives.
This is, as promised at the start, the best bit of Porlock. It’s a haven in every sense: a harbour hamlet of clanking masts and shining sea; of fishing boats and cruising yachts; of flat saltmarsh crowned by the distant sprawl of Bossington Hill. And best of all, the Ship pub; known locally as the Bottom Ship. (The Top Ship is a mile further on in Porlock itself.)
Follow the shingle and the saltmarsh, and within a mile or so you’ll be trotting wearily (but I hope, elatedly) into Porlock again. It may scarcely seem the same place you left two days previously. The seagulls are shriller, the whitewashed walls brighter and the textures of its sandstone walls rougher and more real. Post-walk eyes and ears tend to see and hear more than those of the walker eagerly setting out on his adventure.
And there’s that word again. Adventure.
What is adventure, really? A quest beyond the normal? A challenge to yourself, beyond your usual comfort zone? An experience at the outer fringe of support and help, where you can feel like you’re out there, by yourself, seeing something rare and special? If so, this has been one on every count.
But I’d also like to think of an adventure as needing a narrative; a continuing, unfolding story which takes you somewhere and affects you. In this case, the narrative has been operatic in scale and seismic in impact. You’ve walked across and through Exmoor, witnessed its ever-changing landscape, and tested your mettle against lonely hilltops, vast moorland, and deep gorges. You’ve almost certainly faced one or two extremes of weather. You’ve even encountered wild beasts. Well, ponies.
So adventurer, we salute you. The freedom of England’s Empty Quarter is yours.
Words: Nick Hallissey
This feature originally appeared in Country Walking Magazine