After our stint in Wales we had returned to Taunton for some family time and my Brother in Law’s 50th Birthday. We had a few days to kill between that and picking up Mum for a couple of weeks holiday so thought we would stay reasonably close and explore a bit of Exmoor.
There are some places in the UK which are more tricky to drive round than others. On Exmoor the winding, narrow and steep A roads are only A roads because people need to get between the more populous towns and not because of their width or ease of driving. But because they are A roads they get all sorts of vehicles driving on them.
Exmoor is also beautiful, precisely because of the natural features that make the roads such a challenge to navigate. Steep sided combes, windswept moors, rugged coast. It has plenty to delight the tourist once they reach their destination. I can’t say I can enjoy the scenery while we’re on the roads though. I’m usually too busy holding my breath and flinching from potential wing mirror clashes.
Halse Farm Campsite
We found a reasonably priced campsite that was on a farm and right up against the edge of the moorland. Halse Farm have had a campsite since 1954 when the newly formed Exmoor national park authority asked them to allow campers. It felt as though the campsite had changed little since then, no excess commercialisation, just camping on a working farm and the addition of the facilities block.
Our sat nav navigated directed us most of the way via the wiggly A396 but kept trying to take us off over the moors. The campsite had provided directions, recommending that we should stay on the A396 until the Winsford turning. In these situations I always follow the campsite’s suggestion and so we got there on the A roads, unscathed, and with just a short narrow section uphill through Winsford to the camping field. On the way back we weren’t so lucky and lost a bit of trim off Bertie’s roof when we squeezed over for another vehicle and brushed a high branch.
We hadn’t really taken into account that the weather was so warm and sunny and this campsite, being on open grassy fields, had no natural shade. So when we turned up, hot and bothered from the journey, we immediately oriented ourselves to face away from the sun, drew all the blinds and retreated inside to the relative cool of Bertie’s interior.
No worry, we thought, with warm days and balmy nights we would have the chance to witness the famous dark skies of Exmoor. But no! Each evening a haze settled over the sky and reduced even the brightest stars to dim fuzzy spots.
Despite the weather we really liked this campsite and are definitely planning to go back. It was small and peaceful, with excellent views, direct access to the moors and a super clean facilities block. Our fellow campers were an international mix, including Dutch, German and French visitors. Fairly unusual for a British campsite where we are used to seeing a majority of Brits.
A walk to Tarr Steps
On our first day we took a walk to Tarr Steps, an ancient Clapper Bridge. These bridges are well known on Exmoor and on Dartmoor and usually made up of large stone slabs crossing stone piers. Some people think they date back to the bronze age and others think they are medieval. Either way they have been around for a long time.
Our walk took us from the campsite, over the moors at Winsford Hill and then across fields and down lanes to the River Barle.
To make the walk a little longer we decided not to go straight to Tarr Steps but walked up the east side of the river. We went past one bridge and only when we got to the next crossing did we realise it was a ford rather than a bridge. We couldn’t go any further without making the walk very much longer. Given that it was very warm and the water was not too deep we decided to take off our shoes and socks and ford the river. It was lovely and cooling for our warm feet although the stones were a bit ouchy underfoot.
Then we walked south down the other side of the river. It really was a lovely setting, but this was also where Paul found out that he has a fairly dramatic reaction to horse fly bites. At the time he just noticed that they seemed to be really attracted to him. It was only after we got back to the van that we noticed the swelling starting. Each bite had a raised welt about the diameter of a mug topped with an oozing bite. Paul’s solution for the intense itching and painful swelling was to strap freezer blocks to his legs. I wish I had a photo but he wasn’t in the mood for joviality.
Back to our walk. As we walked towards Tarr Steps we passed by a set of wires crossing the river. They are intended to protect the clapper bridge from the trees and debris that get swept down the river during floods. The stones that make up Tarr Steps have been washed away and rebuilt many times over the centuries and even the steel wires have been damaged. These days the stones are marked so that the local authority can rebuild the bridge accurately each time they get swept downstream.
At Tarr Steps we stopped to share a cream tea before making our way back over the moor to our campsite. On the way back we spotted a strange little hut and on investigation this was a shelter built for the Caratacus (or possibly Caractacus) Stone. A 6th century monument thought to have been erected by someone who claimed to be descended from an early British chieftain who held back the Romans. The only Caratacus I had ever heard of was Caractacus Potts of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Visiting Dunster Castle
After a day of complete rest (for Paul to tend to his horsefly bites) we decided that it was too hot to do anything energetic. Instead we investigated the local buses and decided to go to Dunster.
Dunster is a very well preserved medieval village between Winsford and Minehead. A bit of investigation found that we would need to take bus 198 so in the morning we toddled down to the bus stop in Winsford. A tiny 16 seater mini bus turned up and we felt slightly guilty taking up seats on what was obviously an important community resource. As the driver chatted to some of the passengers we could tell they were regular users of the service. Fortunately there were enough seats for everyone and a few left over.
Dunster is also the location of Dunster Castle; a National Trust property we have visited on a number of occasions.
We relaxed as we wandered around the village, the castle, the mill and the gardens. All familiar places that required no great effort on our part to enjoy.
We did have one new experience when we heard the Dunster Chimes; this mechanised bell ringing contraption plays a different tune every four hours each day. Either we have just managed to miss this on previous visits to Dunster, or the mechanism hasn’t been operational. This time we were treated to a few minutes of ‘O Worship the King All Glorious Above’.