As you look out across Swansea Bay a coastal outline that mirrors our own appears on the horizon. Merely 35 miles away as the crow flies and oh I wish that was possible, instead of driving nearly 4 times the distance. Though I have to say the journey is definitely worth it, I fell in love with the unspoilt rugged, wild shoreline, when I visited earlier this summer.
Separated by the Bristol Channel, Devon and Somerset in the South West of England are graced by spectacular coastline, with rock formations, shingle and sand beaches. Moorland and forests, hues of soft green, brushed by the purple from heather form the backdrop to some of the highest sea cliffs in England. Along the edge of Exmoor the land rises steeply up to 1,000 feet in places.
A long weekend was just enough to get a feel for the area camping near Porlock (west Somerset). Hillsides covered by ancient oak woodland fringed the site making up one of the most extensive coastal forest in the UK. For anyone that loves the outdoors, especially walking the locale is ideal as well signposted paths criss-cross crystal clear streams, past waterfalls and colourful fields of scented summer wildflowers.
About 1.5 miles from the inland village lies Porlock Weir a quiet coastal settlement. Fishing boats and a small flotilla of yachts shelter in the secret harbour, watched over by a row of thatched cottages. A sleepy hamlet, where you can browse local artists work, taste some local dishes, have a drink and just let the sea breeze wash over you seated at the water’s edge.
Further along the coast are the twin villages of Lynton which stands 450ft above Lynmouth connected by the steepest fully water-powered cliff railway in the country. Much of the town’s development can be contributed to Sir George Newnes an affluent publisher. During the 18th and 19th Centuries the resort was visited by the wealthy and famous including the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Also Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth who composed works inspired by the strange, spectacular, landscape they encountered along one of their favourite walks, through the valley of stones.
The unspoilt Victorian town of Lynton adorned with tea rooms offers spectacular views of Lynmouth Bay. Nestled at the foot of the cliffs sits the pretty harbour town. Old world fishing cottage line the narrow streets leading down to the quay, dotted amongst galleries and clotted cream fudge shops.
A free exhibition housed at the Flood Memorial Hall is well worth a visit, black and white film footage, graphically captures the aftermath of the event. Alongside personal accounts, photos, newspaper cuttings and a scale model of the town pre flood. Prepared to be moved, by the stories and the sheer determination of the inhabitants to rebuild their community and lives after such a loss.
As you walk along admiring the picturesque surroundings it is hard to imagine all the buildings have been reconstructed. A short distance inland two rivers the East Lyn and the Hoaroak, merge at Watersmeet, flowing along a gorge, then through the town and out to sea. On August 15th 1952 after days of torrential rainfall over Exmoor a surge gathered trees and boulders, damming the river. This forced a torrent of water to burst through, sweeping away bridges destroying homes also businesses and far more devastating was the loss of 34 lives.
Half a mile west of Lynton the landscape changes and the Valley of the Rocks emerges, a dry valley created during the Ice Age that runs alongside the coast, offering dramatic views. A narrow ridge tops the blocky grey sea facing cliffs. Lower slopes are covered by grass, ferns gorse and with the arrival of spring a carpet of flowers. Stopping to take a photo I was nearly nudged off the path as a herd of wild goats came scrambling over the rocky outcrops, the valley’s local residents.
Following the road further will bring you past the Christian retreat of Lee Abbey, (a private estate still accessible to visitors by payment of £2.00 toll per vehicle) meandering through woodland and down to Lee Bay, where rolling waves break across the pebble shore. Burrowed into the cliff face above, behind large old wooden doors is an unusual place of worship, cool and dark, a tiny Beach Chapel.
Travelling inland there are many picturesque villages and small hamlets to discover. Set within the foothills of Exmoor National Park lies the beautiful medieval village of Dunster where an impressive castle dating back a 1,000 years rises over the town. Timber framed houses, remains of a priory, a Yarn Market, and Iron Age settlements makes it a unique place to stay awhile and explore. Or follow one of the walks leading into the surrounding hills.
Equally as special is the National Trust village of Selworthy, hidden away in the landscape of the 12,000 acre Holnicote estate. Spiralling smoke rises into the still air from buttercup yellow painted thatched cottages overlooking a village Green. Afternoon teas are served in floral gardens alongside a background of birdsong. A gem of a place tucked into a rural vale so picturesque you just want to stay.
And you can for a night or two at least, as Ivy’s Cottage a snug one bedroomed holiday let is available to book through the National Trust. So after the day visitors leave you have a timeless Chocolate box village to yourself.
Perched on the hillside is the white All Saints Church with panoramic views over the Vale of Porlock. From here you can follow a path leading up through a wooded valley and look across to Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor’s highest point.
Tails swishing irritating flies away, as they sought shelter beneath overhanging tree branches from the warm afternoon. Over 20 different herds have the run of the commons, grazing hills and moors, only in that sense are they wild, as each one belongs to somebody.
Seeing Exmoor ponies one of Britain’s native breeds, freely roam in their natural habitat is a wonderful sight. Driving across the moors we came across a group of mothers (dams) with their foals, glossy brown summer coasts glistening in the sunlight.
A few years ago having sailed from Swansea to Lundy on the MV Balmoral via Ilfracombe (just stopping to let off passengers) I now had the opportunity to see it for myself, just an hour’s drive from Porlock. A sea side town with numerous bed and breakfast signs swinging in the breeze at the end of garden paths. Alongside many interesting galleries showcasing the work of local and international artists. In walking distance lies a small sheltered sandy beach running down to the harbour from where a small fleet of Charter boats operate. Anglers can expect to catch a wide range of species during the summer months including mackerel, pollock, bass, ray, and tope.
Sneaky seagull’s ever watchful and opportunistic perch along the walls of the quayside, waiting for the unsuspecting visitor to emerge from the chip, pasty and sweet shops linked like an edible daisy chain opposite.
Overlooking the harbour stands one of the town’s iconic landmarks St Nicholas Chapel, dating back to 1321. Built as a place of worship for the people who lived and worked around the harbour, it also maintained a light to guide shipping. A spiralling path winds its way up the high rock of Lantern Hill to what is said to be the oldest working lighthouse in the country. Now maintained by Ilfracombe Rotary Club, occasional services are still held within.
The town’s other iconic landmark is Verity a stainless steel and bronze statue created by Damien Hirst. At 20.25m (66ft) in height, the figure is a daunting sight, positioned at the harbour entrance. The artwork arrived in 2012 on a 20 year loan by the artist. As with many of Hirst’s other pieces this one has also caused controversy he describes the piece as a “modern allegory of truth and justice”. The sculpture portrays a naked pregnant woman, a raised arm holding a sword, balanced by the scales of justice, standing on a pile of scattered law books.
Half of the sculpture clearly shows the foetus, hence she has been called obscene, bizarre, offensive whilst others see her as beautiful, creating a statement. I have to say the piece certainly is a visitor magnet, a plinth alongside carries information about the creation. Weathered by the elements the green – blue patina of Verity merges into the deep fathoms of endless sea as her skyward gaze looks out over the Bristol Channel towards South Wales.
145 Gwynedd Avenue
Swansea SA1 6LJ,
South Wales, UK
00 44 7961892890