Exmoor

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Exmoor landscape

Exmoor is an area of hilly open moorland in western Somerset and northern Devon. It is named after the River Exe, the source of which is situated in the centre of the moor, two miles northwest of Simonsbath. This is one of the three great moors of the southwest, along with Dartmoor in Devon and Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.

Exmoor was once a royal hunting forest from the Middle Ages. This area was officially surveyed 1815–1818 as 18,810 acres in extent.[1] The moor has given its name to a National Park, which includes the Brendon Hills, the East Lyn Valley, the Vale of Porlock and 34 miles of the Bristol Channel coast. The total area of the Exmoor National Park is 267 square miles, of which 71% is in Somerset and 29% in Devon.[2]

Geography and geology

Dunkery Hill

Exmoor presents a contrast with the other two great moors of the region, for while Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor are of granite, the exposure of a vast granite basolyth, Exmoor is an upland of sedimentary rocks classified as gritstones, sandstones, slate, shale, limestone, siltstones and mudstones depending on the particle size. This gives the hills a very different shape and appearance.

The highest point of the moor is Dunkery Beacon near Wheddon Cross, which at 1,703 feet is Somerset's county top.

The Exmoor rocks are largely from the Devonian and early Carboniferous periods (the geological term 'Devonian' comes from the Devon part of Exmoor, which rocks of that age were first studied and described). As this area of Britain was not subject to glaciation, the plateau remains as a remarkably old landform.[3][4] Quartz and iron mineralisation can be detected in outcrops and subsoil.[5] The Glenthorne area demonstrates the Trentishoe Formation of the Hangman Sandstone Group. The Hangman Sandstone represents the Middle Devonian sequence of North Devon and Somerset.[6] These unusual freshwater deposits in the Hangman Grits, were mainly formed in desert conditions.[7] The underlying rocks are covered by moors and supported by wet, acid soil.[8] The highest point on Exmoor is Dunkery Beacon; at 1,703 feet (519 m) it is also the highest point in Somerset.[9]

Coastline

The Exmoor coastline near the Valley of the Rocks

Exmoor has 34 miles of coastline, including the highest sea cliffs in the south of Britain, which reach a height of 1,030 feet (314 m) at Culbone Hill. However, the crest of this coastal ridge of hills is more than 1.0 mile (1.6 km) from the sea. If a cliff is defined as having a slope greater than 60 degrees, the highest sea cliff on mainland Britain is Great Hangman near Combe Martin at 1,043 feet (318 m) high, with a cliff face of 820 feet (250 m).[9] Its sister cliff is the 820 feet (250 m) Little Hangman, which marks the edge of Exmoor.

Exmoor's woodlands sometimes reach the shoreline,[2] especially between Porlock and The Foreland, where they form the single longest stretch of coastal woodland in England and Wales.[10] The Exmoor Coastal Heaths have been recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the diversity of plant species present.[11]

The scenery of rocky headlands, ravines, waterfalls and towering cliffs gained the Exmoor coast recognition as a 'Heritage Coast' in 1991.[12] With its huge waterfalls and caves, this dramatic coastline has become an adventure playground for both climbers and explorers. The cliffs provide one of the longest and most isolated seacliff traverses in the United Kingdom.[13] The South West Coast Path, at 630 miles the longest National Trail in the United Kingdom, starts at Minehead and runs along all of Exmoor's coast.[14][15] There are small harbours at Lynmouth, Porlock Weir and Combe Martin. Once crucial to coastal trade, the harbours are now primarily used for pleasure; individually owned sail boats and non-commercial fishing boats are often found in the harbours.[16]

The Valley of the Rocks beyond Lynton is a deep dry valley that runs parallel to the nearby sea and is capped on the seaward side by large rocks and Sexton's Burrows forms a natural breakwater to the Harbour of Watermouth Bay on the coast.

Rivers

The East Lyn River

The high ground forms the catchment area for numerous rivers and streams. There are about 300 miles of named rivers on Exmoor.[17]

The River Exe, for which Exmoor is named,[18] rises at Exe Head near the village of Simonsbath, close to the Bristol Channel coast, but flows more or less directly due south, so that most of its length lies in Devon. It reaches the sea, the English Channel, at a substantial estuary on the south coast of Devon. It has several tributaries which arise on Exmoor. The River Barle runs from northern Exmoor to join the River Exe at Exebridge, Devon. The river and the Barle Valley are both designated as 'biological Site of Special Scientific Interest'. Another tributary, the River Haddeo, flows from the Wimbleball Lake.

Parracombe in winter

Most other rivers arising on Exmoor flow north to the Bristol Channel. These include the River Heddon which runs along the western edges of Exmoor, reaching the North Devon coast at Heddon's Mouth,[19] and the East and West Lyn which meet at Lynmouth.

Hoar Oak Water is a moorland tributary of the East Lyn River the confluence being at Watersmeet.[20]

The River Horner, which is also known as Horner Water, rises near Luccombe and flows into Porlock Bay near Hurlstone Point. The main exception to northward-draining rivers is the River Mole which arises on the south-western flanks of Exmoor. It is the major tributary of the River Taw which itself flows northward from Dartmoor.

Badgworthy Water is one of the small rivers running north to the coast, and is associated with the tales in the novel Lorna Doone.

Conservation and designations

Exmoor landscape

National Character Area

Exmoor has been designated as a National Character Area - No. 145 - by Natural England, the public body responsible for England's natural environment. Neighbouring natural regions are: The Culm to the southwest, the Devon Redlands to the south and the Vale of Taunton and Quantock Fringes to the east.[21][22][23]

Exmoor National Park

Exmoor was designated a National Park in 1954, under the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.[24] The Exmoor National Park is primarily an upland area with a dispersed population living mainly in small villages and hamlets. The largest settlements are Porlock, Dulverton, Lynton, and Lynmouth, which together contain almost 40% of the park's population. Lynton and Lynmouth are combined into one parish and are connected by the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway.

Others

Exmoor was once a Royal forest and hunting ground, which was sold off in 1818. Several areas within the Exmoor National Park have been declared Sites of Special Scientific Interest due to their flora and fauna. This title earns the site some legal protection from development, damage and neglect. In 1993 an Environmentally Sensitive Area was established within Exmoor.

The Exmoor coastland of rocky headlands, ravines, waterfalls and towering cliffs were recognised as a 'Heritage Coast' in 1991.[25]

History

Tarr steps clapper bridge

There is evidence of occupation of the area by people from Mesolithic times onward. In the Neolithic period, people started to manage animals and grow crops on farms cleared from the woodland, rather than act purely as hunters and as gatherers.[26] It is also likely that extraction and smelting of mineral ores to make metal tools, weapons, containers and ornaments started in the late Neolithic, and continued into the bronze and Iron Ages.[27] An earthen ring at Parracombe is believed to be a Neolithic henge dating from 5000–4000 BC, and "Cow Castle", which is where White Water meets the River Barle, is an Iron Age fort at the top of a conical hill.[28] Tarr Steps are a prehistoric (circa 1000 BC) clapper bridge across the River Barle, about 2½ miles southeast of Withypool and 4 miles north west of Dulverton. The stone slabs weigh up to 5 tons apiece and the bridge has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building,[29] to recognise its special architectural, historical or cultural significance.

There is little evidence of Roman occupation apart from two fortlets on the coast.[27]

Holwell Castle, at Parracombe, was a Norman motte and bailey castle built to guard the junction of the east–west and north–south trade routes, enabling movement of people and goods and the growth of the population.[28] Alternative explanations for its construction suggest it may have been constructed to obtain taxes at the River Heddon bridging place, or to protect and supervise silver mining in the area around Combe Martin.[30] It was 131 feet (40 m) in diameter and 20 feet (6 m) high above the bottom of a rock cut ditch which is 9 feet (3 m) deep.[31] It was built, in the late 11th or early 12th century of earth with timber palisades for defence and a one or two storey wooden dwelling. It was probably built by either Martin de Tours, the first lord of the manor of Parracombe, William de Falaise (who married Martin's widow) or Robert fitz Martin, although there are no written records to validate this. The earthworks of the castle are still clearly visible from a nearby footpath, but there is no public access to them.

Royal forest

According to the late 13th century Hundred Rolls, King Henry II of England (d. 1189) gave William of Wrotham the office of steward of Exmoor.[32] The terms steward, warden and forester appear to be synonymous for the king's chief officer of the royal forest.

The first recorded wardens were Dodo, Almer & Godric who were named in the Domesday Book (1087) as "foresters of Widepolla", Withypool having been the ancient capital of the forest. William Dacus (a Latinised version of "The Dane" or "Le Denys") was forester in the 12th century.[33] The family of Denys were associated with Ilchester[34] and "Petherton". William of Wrotham, who died in 1217, was steward of the forests of Exmoor and North Petherton, Somerset. Walter and Robert were named as foresters of Exmoor when they witnessed an early 13th century grant to Forde Abbey.[35] In 1276 the jurors of Brushford manor made a complaint about John de Camera in the Court of Exchequer in which he was described as forester of Exmoor. William Lucar of "Wythecomb", the brother of Elizabeth Lucar, was forester temp. under Henry VI, between 1422 and 1461. William de Botreaux, 3rd Baron Botreaux was appointed in 1435 warden of the forests of Exmoor and Neroche for life by Richard Duke of York.[36] The Botreaux family had long held the manor of Molland at the southern edge of Exmoor, but were probably resident mainly at North Cadbury in Somerset. Sir John Poyntz of Iron Acton, Gloucestershire was warden or chief forester of Exmoor in 1568 when he brought an action in the Court of Exchequer against Henry Rolle, the powerful lord of the manors of Exton, Hawkridge and Withypool. In 1608 Sir Hugh Pollard was named as chief forester in a suit brought before the Court of Exchequer by his deputy William Pincombe. James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, was named as Keeper of Exmoor Forest in 1660 and 1661.[37] James Boevey was a forester in the 17th century. Sir Richard Acland (or possibly Sir Thomas Dyke Acland) was the last forester up to 1818.

Wool trade

Dunster Yarn Market and Dunster Castle

During the Middle Ages, sheep farming for the wool trade came to dominate the economy. The wool was spun into thread on isolated farms and collected by merchants to be woven, fulled, dyed and finished in thriving towns such as Dunster. The land started to be enclosed and from the 17th century onwards larger estates developed, leading to establishment of areas of large regular shaped fields.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the commons were overstocked with agisted livestock, from farmers outside the immediate area who were charged for the privilege. This led to disputes about the number of animals allowed and the enclosure of land.[38] In the mid-17th century James Boevey was the warden. The house that he built at Simonsbath was the only one in the forest for 150 years.[39]

Nineteenth century

When the royal forest was sold off in 1818, John Knight bought the Simonsbath House and the accompanying farm for £50,000. He set about converting the royal forest into agricultural land.[38] He and his family also built most of the large farms in the central section of the moor as well as 22 miles of metalled access roads to Simonsbath and a 29 mile wall around his estate, much of which still survives.[40]

In the mid-19th century a mine was developed alongside the River Barle. The mine was originally called Wheal Maria, then changed to Wheal Eliza. It was a copper mine from 1845–54 and then an iron mine until 1857, although the first mining activity on the site may be from 1552.[41] At Simonsbath, a restored Victorian water-powered sawmill, which was damaged in the floods of 1992, has now been purchased by the National Park and returned to working order; it is now used to make the footpath signs, gates, stiles and bridges for various sites in the park.[42]

Wildlife

Flora

Dunkery Beacon, with heather in bloom

Uncultivated heath and moorland cover about a quarter of Exmoor landscape.[8] Some moors are covered by a variety of grasses and sedges, while others are dominated by heather. There are also cultivated areas including the Brendon Hills, which lie in the east of the National Park. There are also 7,400 acres (3,000 ha) of Forestry Commission woodland,[43] comprising a mixture of broad-leaved (oak, ash and hazel) and conifer trees. Horner Woodlands and Tarr Steps woodlands are prime examples.

The country's highest beech tree, 1,148 feet above sea level, is at Birch Cleave at Simonsbath but beech in hedgebanks grow up to 1,608 feet.[2]

At least two species of whitebeam tree: Sorbus subcuneata and Sorbus 'Taxon D' are unique to Exmoor.[9] These woodlands are home to lichens, mosses and ferns. Exmoor is the only national location for the lichens Biatoridium delitescens, Rinodina fimbriata and Rinodina flavosoralifera, the latter having been found only on one individual tree.[9]

Fauna

Exmoor pony foals

Sheep have grazed on the moors for more than 3,000 years, shaping much of the Exmoor landscape by feeding on moorland grasses and heather. Traditional breeds include Exmoor Horn, Cheviot and Whiteface Dartmoor and Greyface Dartmoor sheep. North Devon cattle are also farmed in the area.

Exmoor ponies can be seen roaming freely on the moors. They are a landrace rather than a breed of pony, and may be the closest breed to Wild horses remaining in Europe. The ponies are rounded up once a year to be marked and checked over, they are also one of the oldest breeds in the world. In 1818 Sir Richard Acland, the last warden of Exmoor, took thirty ponies and established the Acland Herd, now known as the Anchor Herd, whose direct descendants still roam the moor.[44]

In the Second World War the moor became a training ground, and the breed was nearly killed off, with only 50 ponies surviving the war.[45] The ponies are classified as endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, with only 390 breeding females left in the UK. In 2006 a Rural Enterprise Grant, administered locally by the South West Rural Development Service, was obtained to create a new Exmoor Pony Centre at Ashwick, at a disused farm with 17.3 acres (7.0 ha) of land with a further 138.4 acres (56.0 ha) of moorland.[46]

Red deer have a stronghold on the moor and can be seen on quiet hillsides in remote areas, particularly in the early morning. The Emperor of Exmoor, a red stag (Cervus elaphus), was Britain's largest known wild land animal, until it was killed in October 2010.[47]

The moorland habitat is also home to hundreds of species of birds and insects. Birds seen on the moor include Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Curlew, Stonechat, Dipper, Dartford Warbler and Ring Ouzel. Black Grouse and Red Grouse are now extinct on Exmoor,[48] probably as a result of a reduction in habitat management, and for the former species, an increase in visitor pressure.[49]

Beast

The Beast of Exmoor is a cryptozoological cat that is reported to roam Exmoor. There have been numerous reports of eyewitness sightings, however the BBC calls it "the famous-yet-elusive beast of Exmoor. Allegedly."[50] Sightings were first reported in the 1970s, although it became notorious in 1983, when a South Molton farmer claimed to have lost over 100 sheep in the space of three months, all of them apparently killed by violent throat injuries. Descriptions of its colouration range from black to tan or dark grey. One theories postulates that a cougar or black leopard was released after it became illegal in 1976 for such animals to be kept in captivity outside zoos. In 2006, the British Big Cats Society reported that a skull found by a Devon farmer was that of a puma; however, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) states, "Based on the evidence, Defra does not believe that there are big cats living in the wild."[51]

Sport and recreation

Exmoor hunts are a long tradition and still meet in full regalia notwithstanding the current ban on hunting with dogs. Nine hunts cover the area-the Devon and Somerset Staghounds and the Quantock Staghounds, the Exmoor, Dulverton West, Dulverton Farmers and West Somerset Foxhounds, the Minehead Harriers, the West Somerset Beagles and the North Devon Beagles.

During the Spring, amateur steeplechase meetings (Point to Points) are run by hunts at temporary courses such as Bratton Down and Holnicote. These, along with thoroughbred racing and pony racing, are an opportunity for farmers, huntstaff and the public to witness a day of traditional country entertainment.[52]

For others walking, climbing and the scenery are the attractions. The Coleridge Way is a 36 mile footpath[53] which follows the walks taken by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Porlock, starting from Coleridge Cottage at Nether Stowey, where he once lived. It starts in the Quantocks before moving onto the Brendon Hills and crosses the fringes of Exmoor National Park at Dunkery Beacon before finishing in Porlock.

The Two Moors Way runs from Ivybridge in South Devon to Lynmouth on the coast of North Devon, crossing parts of both Dartmoor and Exmoor.[54] Both of these walks intersect with the South West Coast Path, Britain's longest National Trail, which starts at Minehead and follows the Exmoor coast before continuing to Poole.

Places of interest

Porlock Vale over toward Bossington Hill from Porlock Hill

The attractions of Exmoor include 208 Scheduled monuments, 16 conservation areas, and other open access land. Exmoor receives approximately 1.4 million visitor days per year.[55] Many come to walk on the moors or along waymarked paths such as the Coleridge Way. Attractions on the coast include the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway, which connects Lynton to neighbouring Lynmouth, where the East and West Lyn River meet. Woody Bay, a few miles west of Lynton, is home to the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, a narrow gauge railway which connected the twin towns of Lynton and Lynmouth to Barnstaple, about 19 miles away.[56] Further along the coast, Porlock is a quiet coastal town with an adjacent salt marsh nature reserve and a harbour at nearby Porlock Weir. Watchet is a historic harbour town with a marina and is home to a carnival, which is held annually in July.[57][58]

Inland, many of the attractions are centred around small towns and villages or linked to the river valleys, such as the ancient clapper bridge at Tarr Steps and the Snowdrop Valley near Wheddon Cross, which is carpeted in snowdrops in February[59] and, later, displays bluebells. Withypool is also in the Barle Valley. The Two Moors Way passes through the village.[60] As well as Dunster Castle,[61] Dunster's other attractions include a priory,[62] dovecote, yarn market,[63] inn,[64] packhorse bridge, mill and a stop on the West Somerset Railway. Exford, is on the River Exe.

Exmoor in literature

Exmoor has been the setting for several novels including:

  • Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor]], an epic 19th century novel by R D Blackmore
  • The Witch of Exmoor (1998) by Margaret Drabble

Parts of Exmoor are marketed as "Lorna Doone Country"

Outside links

Commons-logo.svg
("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Exmoor)

References

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  59. BBC. "Exmoor's Snowdrop Valley". http://www.bbc.co.uk/somerset/content/image_galleries/snowdrop_valley_2006_gallery.shtml. Retrieved 1 January 2008. 
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  61. "Dunster Castle and gatehouse". Images of England. http://www.imagesofengland.org.uk/details/default.aspx?id=264651. Retrieved 28 September 2007. 
  62. Images of England — details from listed building database (264660) Priory Church of St George
  63. Images of England — details from listed building database (264694) Yarn Market
  64. Images of England — details from listed building database (264681) The Luttrell Arms Hotel

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Coordinates: 51°06′N 3°36′W / 51.1°N 3.6°W / 51.1; -3.6