An impromptu road trip to Exmoor National Park

The Easter bank holiday week-end was getting close. I was due to work most of it, but I had a couple of days off during the week. Spurred by the holiday mood and the longer brighter days, I decided to go on a microadventure. I would take my bicycle, head to Glastonbury and then the seaside. But something about this plan felt wrong. I would be on my own, leaving my partner behind for yet another excursion.

I had been away a lot recently, using my days off to meet up with friends, attend events, or simply do my own thing. Indulging in another solo trip felt selfish and uncaring. So I changed my plan.

‘How do you fancy going to Exmoor on Wednesday,’ I asked her as we got ready for bed at the beginning of the Easter week.
‘This Thursday?’
‘Yes. We could book a B&B and have a little road trip with Exmoor as a vague direction. What do you think?’
‘Okay.’

We opened our laptops and began the search for a place to sleep. On my own I wouldn’t have bothered. I would have packed the tent and headed off somewhere new. But camping, and especially wild camping, is not everybody’s cup of tea. We found a reasonably priced room, booked it, and went to sleep. We were set to go later that week.

We packed our bags hastily, threw them in the car, took our seat and began to negotiate the roads of Bristol before finding an escape into country lanes. We meandered happily to the music blasting off the radio. The hills of the Mendips flattening out as we reached Wells. We parked the car and began our exploration. We stumbled upon St Cuthbert’s Church, its grandeur reflected inside and out with its brightly painted roof and many sculptures.

We lingered a while before giving in to the call of our stomachs. We settled in a coffee shop, tucked in a small street away from the high street and sat at one of the tables.

‘What can I serve you,’ the owner asked.
‘A latte with your Columbian roast and a cappuccino with soya milk please.’
But soon our orders had been changed. The latte would be with another blend as the flavours would shine more, and the cappuccino would be with oat milk as their experimentation had proved more successful with such milk.

The drinks arrived, we ordered our food, and sipped tentatively at the coffees. The owner had been right to change our orders. We chatted lazily as the food arrived, handmade and flavoursome. More customers began to walk in, all known faces in the shop, chatting with the owners about the events in their lives and the news from town.

I would have liked to soak in this genteel atmosphere for a while longer but time was ticking on and we wanted to see the cathedral. We happily paid for the service and went out, this time towards the centre. We were stopped by a sweet shop, filling up on favourites and unknowns for the road, before we finally managed to reach the imposing building.

Set over a small park, the cathedral dominates everything around it. Big and bold, it declaims its importance, a centre of power more than a place of worship. I marvelled at the architecture, its features reminding me of religious French architecture. I would have like to go inside but the price of entry was too much for the little time we had left before our parking ticket expired. So we walked away, taking a route through residential streets, observing another part of the city.

We drove on, past Glastonbury and its Tor, and into the Somerset levels. We selected small roads passing between green pastures and yellow rapeseed fields rather than busier arteries filled with cars and lorries.

‘Can we turn back and have a look at that ruin,’ I asked my partner craning my neck to look behind us.

Alone on a hill, stood what looked like the remains of a church. It probably wasn’t much but I wanted to check it out. We weren’t driving for the sole purpose of reaching our destination. Stopping was an integral part of the trip. So we turned back and pulled into the small parking lot by the hill. A signed informed us that the hill was named Burrow Mump and the building on top was the remain of an 18th century church. We climbed the short walk up and were immediately taken aback. Whichever way we turned, we could see for miles, the countryside spreading in every direction, farmed and ploughed. In the far distance, the tower of Glastonbury Tor appeared a dot in the landscape.

‘It’s quite a view, isn’t it?’ A woman had appeared, surprising us by her presence. For a few minutes this mound had been ours, the stronghold of our kingdom.
‘Absolutely,’ we agreed.
Lillian, as she was called, had lived in the area for most of her life. She was actually from the Quantock Hills were we were heading. She gave us tips and told us of the best places to go, knowledge more valuable than the ones from guidebooks. We thanked her, chatted a while longer about legends and stories of the mound, before walking back to the car park together, each on our separate ways.

The land rose and our views become restricted by hills once more as we approached Wiveliscombe. We checked in our accommodation and relaxed for a while before setting on foot to explore the village. Out of the high street, the roads narrowed, gently ascending, while in the distance the hills filled our visions. It was Thursday night and there was barely a soul out. Lights were beginning to shine from house’s window. It was just another week night for most of the population. But not for us. We had been transported to another world, a place of hills and quiet where time slowed. Here, we had time for an evening stroll. Chores didn’t seem urgent and the only reason to walk back was the encroaching darkness and the call of food.

We settled in a corner of a busy family pub and ordered food and drink, scheming for the following day. Reluctant for the evening to end, we ordered another round of drinks and relaxed in our seats. It wasn’t until children high on sugar began to run all over the pub that we retreated to the shelter of our room. Tired from a long day on the road, we slid under the cover and fell asleep.

The next day as we were finishing our breakfasts, a group of men arrived, ordering beer with their food, the start of their Easter celebration. I wondered if their four days week-end was going to be fuelled by alcohol only. I shrugged. I guess we had different ways to celebrate days off from work.

We packed up, paid for our room, and went on our way. We headed for Dunster, taking as many small roads as we could find. Enclosed between high hedges our views were often limited but as soon as they disappeared we were greeted with wide valleys and big hills, the landscape managed but largely inhabited. We passed a sign welcoming us in Exmoor National Park, cars growing rarer until we approached our destination.

We parked and made straight for the tourism office. There we asked for direction to the Giant’s Chair. We had read the name in a leaflet the previous day and it sounded like a nice spot to hike to and we liked the name.

‘You get fantastic views up there. Let me show you on a map.’ She got the relevant one out and began tracing the paths with her fingers. ‘Don’t go this way, this is steep, really steep,’ she commented as she followed the direct line to the hill top. ‘Instead you can go via ducky path or goosey path. They’re more gentle.’ The two paths formed an oval around the hill, a nice loop for an afternoon stroll.

We purchased a small map of the area and set off through the town. In direct contrast with Wells and Wiveliscombe, the town felt devoid of locals, overtaken by tourists and shops to cater for them. Uncomfortable with an apparent falseness to the town, we headed out, following the green lines of the map. Soon we were by an old military churchyard overlooking the sea. We stopped and gazed at the calm waters for a minute, remembering that the sea is never far on the big island of Britain.

We entered the shelter of the woods and left the village behind. A family passed us by, heading for a different path, and we were left alone. We forgot the bustle of the town as we breathed in the freshness of new leaves and dried earth. We climbed gently for a few minutes, the hills beyond hinted at between the branches of the forest. We eventually emerged to find a bench overlooking Minehead and the sea beyond. A couple of horses grazed in a field directly in front of us, unaware of the human activity around them.

We sat down to take in the view. There was no rush to arrive at Giant’s Chair. The family we had encountered at the beginning of our hike passed us by. The father who was storming ahead suddenly came to a halt at the intersection of paths. The mother arrived, silent and unimpressed, while the children trailed behind, arms crossed over their chests and unhappy to be outdoors.

‘Do you need help,’ I asked the man.
He looked at me quizzically. I wanted to laugh at his hesitation. I had clearly just undermined what he considered his manliness.
‘Huh… yeah sure,’ he mumbled glancing briefly at his family.
‘We’re here,’ I pointed out on the map.
‘Yeah, right. It’s fine to go straight, it’ll loop back.’ His eyes were vaguely considering the map, not seeing that to loop back into Dunster you would have to walk quite a bit further away and prolong a walk nobody was enjoying. ‘Thanks,’ he added as if an afterthought and stormed away, his family grudgingly following him.

We lingered for a while, happy not to be part of this family, and sad at the idea that this man was not instilling a joy and curiosity of the outdoors to his children.

We walked on, soon finding our path to the Giant’s Chair. We weren’t even 200 metres above sea level but there was nothing to stop our view from north to south, east to west. The water of the Atlantic merged with the Bristol Channel calmly, the sea a promise of an idyllic summer. Far off, in a haze of blue lay Wales, another land and yet the same. We soon diverted our attention south, where a bench welcomed us and found us cuddling as we forgot the urban world we had come from, gazing at the hills of Exmoor. They rolled out for miles on end, houses, roads, and cars hard to stop in amongst their green.

In spite of our proximity to Dunster, we saw no one of top of that hill. It was only as we began our descent that we met a few dog walkers. Instead of going back through the town, we followed another footpath, losing our ways and finding an exit into a disused quarry turned woodlands by the main coastal road. We just had time for an ice-cream and a cold drink before the parking ticket expired. But it wasn’t time to go home just yet. Instead we crossed Exmoor once more, choosing roads we hadn’t seen, to arrive at Dulverton. Our hunt for a place to eat was unsuccessful but we settled in a pub anyway, sampling the local beer and playing a game of dominoes by the amber of a fire.

Eventually we had to leave, another parking ticket was expiring and it was time to go home. We avoided the motorways as much as possible, navigating a mixture of A roads and B roads, climbing over the Mendips and down again as we rode into Bristol. The roads were familiar but slightly different from having been gone from our sight for a couple of days.

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4 thoughts on “An impromptu road trip to Exmoor National Park

    • It was a change from my usual travels but one that was good.
      I hope you’ll stop as much too. The point shouldn’t be about the destination really. Will you be wild camping or have you booked accommodations?

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      • We’ve got campsites or other accommodation booked for about half the nights we’re away. We were just discussing today, actually, whether to book the rest of the nights or to wing it. The pros of not booking are many (possible wild camps, impulse stops, finding unexpected places to stay, talking to more local people to find accommodation), but there are also cons (spending hours trying and failing to find somewhere when we could have been doing something else, legit campsites being full, other last minute accommodation being really expensive, etc). I think we’ll leave at least a few nights here and there without anything booked!

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      • That sounds like a good plan 🙂 With a car, it’s easier anyway to make stops and detours. Plus you can always take notes for places to come back to at another time ^^

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