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National Park of England
National Park ( IUCN II)
View of the Porlock Vale over toward Bossington Hill from Porlock Hill
Country England
County Somerset, Devon
Districts West Somerset, North Devon, Mid Devon
Settlements Withypool, Exford, Simonsbath
Area 692 km2 (267 sq mi)
Highest point Dunkery Beacon
 - coordinates 51°09′45″N 3°35′19″W
 - elevation 519 m (1,703 ft)
Lowest point Sea Level
 - elevation 0 m (0 ft)
Geology Devonian, Carboniferous
Plants Oak, Ash, Hazel, Lichens, Moss, Fern
Animals Exmoor Pony, Exmoor Horn, Whiteface Dartmoor and Greyface Dartmoor, Cheviot sheep, Red deer, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Eurasian Curlew, European Stonechat, Dipper
National Park of England 1954
Managed by Exmoor National Park Authority
 - location Dulverton
 - coordinates 51°02′27″N 3°32′54″W
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Website :

Exmoor National Park is a National Park situated on the Bristol Channel coast of South West England. The park straddles two separate counties, with 71% in Somerset and 29% located in Devon. The total area of the park, which includes the Brendon Hills and the Vale of Porlock, covers 267 square miles (692  km2) of hilly open moorland, and includes 34 miles (55  km) of coast. It is primarily an upland area with a dispersed population living mainly in small villages and hamlets. The three largest settlements are Porlock and Dulverton, and the combined villages of Lynton and Lynmouth, connected by the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway, which together contain almost 40% of the National Park population.

Prior to being a park, Exmoor was a Royal Forest and hunting ground, which was sold off in 1818. Exmoor was one of the first British National Parks, designated in 1954, under the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, and is named after its main river, the River Exe.

Several areas of the moor have been declared a Site of Special Scientific interest due to the flora and fauna, which have some legal protection from development, damage, and neglect. In 1993 Exmoor was designated as an Environmentally Sensitive Area.


Exmoor is an upland of sedimentary rocks classified as gritstones, sandstones, slate, shale and limestone, siltstones and mudstones depending on the particle size. They are largely from the Devonian and early Carboniferous periods (the name Devonian comes from Devon, as rocks of that age were first studied and described here). As this area of Britain was not subject to glaciation, the plateau remains as a remarkably old landform. Quartz and iron mineralisation can be detected in outcrops and subsoil. The underlying rocks are covered by moors are supported by wet, acid soil. The highest point on Exmoor is Dunkery Beacon; at 1,704 feet (519 m) it is also the highest point in Somerset.


Exmoor has 34 miles (55 km) of coastline, including the highest cliffs in England, which reach a height of 1,350 feet (411  m) at Culbone Hill. However, the crest of this coastal ridge of hills is more than a mile (1.6 km) from the sea. If a cliff is defined as having a slope greater than 60 degrees, the highest cliff on mainland Britain is Great Hangman near Combe Martin at 1,043 feet (318 m) high, with a cliff face of 800 feet (244 m). Its sister cliff is the 716 feet (218 m) Little Hangman, which marks the edge of Exmoor.

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

The scenery of rocky headlands, ravines, waterfalls and towering cliffs gained the Exmoor coast recognition as a Heritage Coast in 1991. This dramatic coastline is an adventure playground for climbers and explorers, with its with huge waterfalls and caves. The cliffs provide one of the longest and most isolated seacliff traverses in the UK. The South West Coast Path, at 630 miles (1,014 km) the longest National Trail in England and Wales, starts at Minehead and runs along all of Exmoor's coast. There are small harbours at Lynmouth, Porlock Weir and Combe Martin. Once important for coastal trade, their primary use now is for pleasure sailing and fishing.


The East Lyn River

The high ground forms the catchment area for numerous rivers and streams. There are about 300 miles (483 km) of named rivers on Exmoor. The River Exe, from which Exmoor takes its name, 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 at a substantial ria ( estuary) on the south (English Channel) coast of Devon. Historically, its lowest bridging point was at Exeter, though there is now a viaduct for the M5 motorway about 2 miles (3.2 km) km south of the city centre. 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 sites of Special Scientific Interest. Another tributary, the River Haddeo, flows from the Wimbleball Lake.

The 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, 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. The River Horner, which is also known as Horner Water, rises near Luccombe and flows into Porlock Bay near Hurlestone point.


Horner Woods, Exmoor, in winter

Along with the rest of South West England, Exmoor has a temperate climate which is generally wetter and milder than the rest of England. The mean annual temperature at Simonsbath is 8.3°C (47°F) and shows a seasonal and a diurnal variation, but due to the modifying effect of the sea the range is less than in most other parts of the UK. January is the coldest month with mean minimum temperatures between 1 °C (34 °F) and 2 °C (36 °F). July and August are the warmest months in the region with mean daily maxima around 21 °C (70 °F). In general, December is the month with the least sunshine and June the sunniest. The south west of England has a favoured location with respect to the Azores high pressure when it extends its influence north-eastwards towards the UK, particularly in summer.

Cloud often forms inland, especially near hills, and acts to reduce sunshine amounts. The average annual sunshine is about 1,600 hours. Rainfall tends to be associated with Atlantic depressions or with convection. In summer, convection caused by solar surface heating sometimes forms shower clouds and a large proportion of rainfall falls from showers and thunderstorms at this time of year. The average annual total rainfall is 69.6 inches (1,768  mm), although 7.35 inches (187 mm) fell in the 24-hour period preceding 10 am on the 16 August 1952, which was one of the contributory factors leading to the flooding in Lynmouth. About 8–15 days of snowfall is typical. November to March have the highest mean wind speeds, with June to August having the lightest winds. The predominant wind direction is from the south west.


The Exmoor Coastline

There is evidence of occupation of the area by people from Mesolithic times onwards. In the Neolithic period, people started to manage animals and grow crops on farms cleared from the woodland, rather than act purely as hunter gatherers. 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. 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. Tarr Steps are a prehistoric (circa 1000 BC) clapper bridge across the River Barle, about 2.5 miles (4 km) south east of Withypool and 4 miles (6 km) north west of Dulverton. The stone slabs weigh up to 5 long tons (5,080 kg) apiece and the bridge has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building, to recognise its special architectural, historical or cultural significance. There is little evidence of Roman occupation apart from two fortlets on the coast.

Dunster Yarn Market (a covered market for the sale of local cloth, built in 1609) and Dunster Castle, Exmoor

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. 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. 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. 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 Parracombe, William de Falaise (who married Martin's widow) or Robert FitzMartin, 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.

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 this period a Royal Forest and hunting ground was established, administered by a warden.

In the mid-17th century John Boevey was the warden. He built a house at Simonsbath, and for 150 years it was the only house in the forest. The Royal Forest was sold off in 1818. The Simonsbath House was bought along with the accompanying farm by John Knight for the sum of £50,000. Knight set about converting the Royal Forest into agricultural land. He and his family built most of the large farms in the central section of the moor, and built 22 miles (35 km) of metalled access roads to Simonsbath. He built a 29-mile (47 km) wall around his estate, much of which still survives.

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. 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.


In addition to the Exmoor Coastal Heaths Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), two other areas are specifically designated. North Exmoor covers 29,666 acres (12,005 hectares) and includes the Dunkery Beacon and the Holnicote and Horner Water Nature Conservation Review sites, and the Chains Geological Conservation Review site. The Chains site is nationally important for its south-western lowland heath communities and for transitions from ancient semi-natural woodland through upland heath to blanket mire. The site is also of importance for its breeding bird communities, its large population of the nationally rare Heath Fritillary butterfly (Mellicta athalia), an exceptional woodland lichen flora and its palynological interest of deep peat on the Chains. The South Exmoor SSSI is smaller, covering 7,741 acres (3,133 hectares) and including the River Barle and its tributaries with submerged plants such as Alternate Water-milfoil (Myriophyllum alterniflorum). There are small areas of semi-natural woodland within the site, including some which are ancient. The most abundant tree species is Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea), the shrub layer is very sparse and the ground flora includes Bracken, Bilberry and a variety of mosses. The heaths have strong breeding populations of birds, including Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) and Stonechat (Saxicola torquata). Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) are common near stone boundary walls and other stony places. Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia) breed in scrub and tall heath. Trees on the moorland edges provide nesting sites for Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and Raven (Corvus corax).


Dunkery Beacon, with heather in bloom

Uncultivated heath and moorland cover about a quarter of Exmoor landscape. 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 32.4 square miles (84 km2) of woodland, 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 wood, 1,200 feet (366 m) above sea level, is at Birch Cleave at Simonsbath. At least two species of whitebeam tree: Sorbus subcuneata and Sorbus 'Taxon D' are unique to Exmoor. 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.


A herd of 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. Devon ruby red 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 remaining in Europe to wild horses. The ponies are rounded up once a year to be marked and checked over. 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. 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. 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 acres (6.9 hectares) of land with a further 138 acres (56 hectares) of moorland.

Red deer have a stronghold on the moor and can be seen on quiet hillsides in remote areas, particularly in the early morning. The moorland habitat is also home to hundreds of species of birds and insects. Birds seen on the moor include Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Eurasian Curlew, European Stonechat, Dipper, Dartford Warbler and Ring Ouzel. Black Grouse and Red Grouse are now extinct on Exmoor, probably as a result of a reduction in habitat management, and for the former species, an increase in visitor pressure.

Beast of Exmoor

The Beast of Exmoor is a cryptozoological cat (see phantom cat) that is reported to roam Exmoor. There have been numerous reports of eyewitness sightings, however the official Exmoor National Park website lists the beast under "Traditions, Folklore, and Legends", and the BBC calls it "the famous-yet-elusive beast of Exmoor. Allegedly." 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. It is reported as being between 4 feet (1.2 m) and 8 feet (2.4 m) from nose to tail. Descriptions of its colouration range from black to tan or dark grey. It is possibly a Cougar or Black Leopard which was released sometime in the 1960s or 1970s after a law was passed making it illegal for them to be kept in captivity outside zoos. However, considering that Cougar and Leopard life spans are 12–15 years, this is unlikely. 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 that "Based on the evidence, Defra does not believe that there are big cats living in the wild in England."

Government and politics

The National Park, 71% of which is in Somerset and 29% in Devon, has a resident population of 10,600. It was designated a National Park in 1954, under the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. The largest landowners are the National Trust, which owns over 10% of the land, and the National Park Authority, which owns about 7%. Other areas are owned by the Forestry Commission, Crown Estate and Water Companies. The largest private landowner is the Badgworthy Land Company, which represents hunting interests.

From 1954 on, local government was the responsibility of the district and county councils, which remain responsible for the social and economic well-being of the local community. Since 1997 the Exmoor National Park Authority, which is known as a ‘single purpose’ authority, has taken over some functions to meet its aims to "conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the National Parks" and "promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the Parks by the public", including responsibility for the conservation of the historic environment.

The Park Authority receives 80% of its funding as a direct grant from the government. The Park Authority Committee consists of members from parish and county councils, and six appointed by the Secretary of State. The work is carried out by rangers, volunteers and a team of 13 estate workers who carry out a wide range of tasks including maintaining the many miles of rights of way, hedge-laying, fencing, swaling, walling, invasive weed control and habitat management on National Park Authority land. There are ongoing debates between the authority and farmers over the biological monitoring of SSSIs, showing the need for a controlled regime of grazing and burning; farmers claim that these regimes are not practical or effective in the long term.

Sport and recreation

Although the hunting of animals, particularly deer, with dogs was abolished by the Hunting Act 2004, the Exmoor hunts still meet in full regalia and there is a campaign to resurrect this rural sport.

For others walking, climbing, and the scenery are the attractions. The Coleridge Way is a 36-mile (58 km) footpath 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. 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

The attractions of Exmoor include 208 scheduled ancient monuments, 16 conservation areas, and other open access land as designated by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Exmoor receives approximately 1.4 million visitor days per year. Many come to walk on the moors or along waymarked paths such as the Coleridge Way. Attractions on the coast include the 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, 20 miles (32 km) away. 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.

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

Exmoor has been the setting for several novels including the 19th-century Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by Richard Doddridge Blackmore, and Margaret Drabble's 1998 novel The Witch of Exmoor. The park was featured on the television programme Seven Natural Wonders twice, as one of the wonders of the West Country.

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