Friday, 20 November 2015


I have visited the small North Devon seaside town of Lynmouth several times, but one visit stands out in my memory.  This was the first weekend after the terror attacks of 9/11, and like most people at that time I was suffering from a deep feeling of anxiety and insecurity – a feeling sadly reinforced after recent events in Paris.  I remember being struck by what a lovely, peaceful place Lynmouth was to be after such a terrible event, so much so that it was hard to drag myself away.  This feeling was helped by Lynmouth’s geographical location at the bottom of a steep wooded valley, which gives the impression of being almost cut off from the world and its problems.  

Unfortunately, there is a downside to the geography of Lynmouth and the surrounding area.  The steepness of the terrain, combined with the fact that two rivers, the East and West Lyn rivers, converge in the town,  makes Lynmouth vulnerable to flooding.  This was tragically demonstrated on the night of 15-16 August 1952 when heavy rain caused the rivers to swell, sending a wall of water cascading down through the town, made even more dangerous by the boulders being swept along with it.  34 people lost their lives on that dreadful night, and over 100 buildings were destroyed.  There is a permanent exhibition on the disaster down by the harbourside in the Flood Memorial Hall, and there is archive footage on the British Pathe website about the disaster and subsequent rebuilding efforts.  Suspicions have been voiced that the flooding was caused by rainmaking experiments by the RAF and a team of scientists, but this has been dismissed by experts.  More recently, Lynmouth was one of many locations on the British coast affected by flooding in 2014, but earlier this year it was announced that the town would get a grant for flood defences.

Lynmouth's harbour is surrounded by a small cluster of shops, pubs and restaurants, with the picturesque harbourside inn The Rising Sun forming a focal point.    One of the main attractions in the town is the Cliff Railway, which links Lynmouth to its neighbour at the top of the cliff, Lynton.  This makes a pleasant alternative to walking up the steep hill for the carless.  Lynmouth is great for walking, with a lovely trail leading from the town up to Watersmeet, taking in a National Trust tea room.  Another wooded valley which can be explored by visitors is the Glen Lyn Gorge.  There is an entrance fee for this one, but in return for this there are a range of interesting features on view such as the chance to learn about renewable energy, water wheels, water cannons and hydroelectric turbines, while visitors to the gorge can view the 1952 flood level reached there.  Just outside Lynton, the Valley of the Rocks is a lovely, rugged spot for wandering around on foot, taking in part of the coastal path.  The rock faces are dotted with cute goats going about their business and observing the walkers.  

Map of the area. 

Lynton and Lynmouth webcams.

The harbourside

Thursday, 12 November 2015


There are actually two Porlocks.  There is the village of Porlock a short distance from the shoreline, and then there is Porlock Weir, a proper little working harbour nestling at the foot of Exmoor.  Porlock village has some interesting historical features, most notably in the parish church, a 13th century church dedicated to St Dubricius, which houses the tomb of John Harrington, who fought alongside Henry V in France.  The Dovery Manor Museum, which occupies a medieval manorial dower house dating from 1450, has local artefacts, displays and pictures as well as a physic garden with plants grown for medicinal and culinary use.  The village and surrounding area was frequented by the poet Coleridge, who lived nearby and who went walking in the area with Wordsworth.  Their friend Robert Southey wrote a poem called “Porlock” in 1798.  The poem describes the “verdant vale so fair to sight”, “lofty hills which fern and furze imbrown” and “waters that roll musically down thy woody glens” – a pretty accurate depiction of Porlock’s picturesque surrounds.  There is a walking trail named after Coleridge, the Coleridge Way, which ends in Porlock outside the Visitor Centre.

One of the things Porlock is particularly well known for, particularly among cyclists, is the legendary Porlock Hill, which forms part of the A39 heading west towards Lynton.  According to the RCUK cycling website, the hill’s vital statistics are: length 2.5Km, elevation 304m, average gradient 12% and maximum gradient 25%.  However, for those who find such gradients too much of a challenge there is an alternative route in the form of the Porlock Toll Road, which is longer but only with an average 5% gradient.  The Toll Road, which is used by cars and walkers as well as cyclists, also offers fabulous views.

Porlock Weir with its 15th century harbour was once a busy port thanks to its role in handling coal imports from Wales.  Now it is frequented by yachts and fishing boats, and is a popular tourist spot due to its beautiful setting and its handful of shops, its harbourside inn and fine dining hotel.  It was the Saxons who originally developed a port and fishery here and it was also they who repelled two major attacks by the Danes in 886 and again in 918.  In 1052 a further attack came, this time at the hands of Harold (he of the Battle of Hastings), who had come across from Ireland.  The many quaint buildings in the vicinity of the harbour include the 17th century Gibraltar Cottages.  The waterside location of the cottages proved to be their downfall in 1910 when a tidal wave event flooded them.  On Porlock Beach the remains of a submerged forest can be seen at low tide, and in 1999 the bones of an aurochs (wild ox) were discovered on the beach.  A 2-mile walk from Porlock Weir leads to Culbone, where England’s smallest church, St Beuno’s, can be found.  You may as well leave the car behind for this one, because the church is only accessible on foot.

Map of the area. 

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Porlock Weir. Photo by Geoff Lees, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 3 November 2015


Minehead has all the trappings of a popular family resort, with a mile of sandy beach, amusements and a promenade, as well as a long-standing Butlins holiday camp (more recently elevated to ‘resort’ status).  However, there are also more quaint parts of town to explore such as Quay Town dating from the 11th century.  The harbour here was once busy with ships and there was a thriving trade with America.  In 1901 a pier was built to accommodate the White Funnel steamers, but the pier had to be demolished during the Second World War in order to give better visibility for the gun emplacements stationed there.  Another older part of town is Higher Town, built around the 14th century St Michael’s Church.  Lower Town, where the main shopping centre is now, was largely destroyed by a major fire at the end of the 18th century, and had to be rebuilt.

One of the big attractions nowadays is the West SomersetRailway, which starts in Minehead and follows the coast for a while before turning inland towards Bishops Lydeard near Taunton.  There are boat trips from the harbour in summer, including trips on the MV Balmoral, a survivor from the White Funnel line.  Each year around May Day there is a festival which is similar to the better-known Obby Oss festival in Padstow.  In Minehead’s version the Sailors’ Hobby Horse, decorated with ribbons, dances through the streets to the accompaniment of a drum.  Traditionally the ritual was intended as a way of fending off marauding Vikings.  Minehead’s main literary claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer.   

Looking to the north-west of Minehead, the eye is drawn to a steep, wooded elevation.  As well as being the first (or last) part of the South West Coast Path – a baptism of fire for those starting the path at this end, as they are carried up a steep incline towards Selworthy Beacon – this wooded mound marks the start of what is one of my favourite stretches of coast in Britain, a glorious roller coaster of tall dramatic cliffs and deep wooded valleys stretching from West Somerset along the North Devon coast - of which more anon.  

For a list of events in Minehead, see here

Map of the area.

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Minehead Harbour. Photo by Lewis Clarke, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 28 October 2015


Blue Anchor Bay, named for the colour of mud residue on the anchors of boats moored there, is a quiet seaside spot occupied by a holiday park enjoying lovely coastal views and sunsets.  The bay has an interesting geology courtesy of its rocks and cliffs which include layers of alabaster.  The cliffs come in two tones from different geological ages: the red Triassic cliffs and the grey Jurassic cliffs.  Fossils can be found in the latter, mainly remains of fish such as small bones.   The bay is on the West Somerset Steam Railway, and railway buffs will also find a Railway Museum housed in the station’s former waiting room.  The museum opens in the summer, and tells the story of the Great Western Railway.  In the village of Blue Anchor is Home Farm, a small working farm open to visitors.

It is possible to walk from Blue Anchor Bay to Dunster Beach, a shingle and sand beach which is also served by the Steam Railway.  One mile inland is the charming village of Dunster with its castle, owned by the National Trust.  There has been a castle at this spot since at least Norman times, and during the Civil War it was a focus of tussles between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, who held it until 1650.  Among the main attractions today are the 17th century oak staircase and the terraced gardens with plant life including rhododendrons and magnolias.  Part of the original village walls are still visible, along with two gateways, and there is a 12th-century church, priory and gardens, as well as a 17th-century watermill, an old tithe barn and a monks’ dovecote.   

Map of the area. 

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Dunster Castle. Photo by marcntomsmum0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 20 October 2015


Watchet Harbour has a narrow entrance so that boats above a certain size find it a challenge to enter, particularly if it happens to be after dark.  This was the fate that befell Timothy Spall and his wife Shane when they paid a visit to the town during the filming of their entertaining Somewhere At Sea series.  The battle to navigate their Dutch barge Matilda through the narrow gap took its toll on Matilda, but Tim insisted she could take what he described as "the scars of war".

Way back, early Britons living in Watchet traded with Wales from here, and this early trade included the export of lime from the many lime kilns along the coast.  Other exports included seaweed, alabaster and gypsum, while later on coal was imported - over 13,000 tons of it in 1862.  The harbour had to be rebuilt after a disastrous storm in 1900, and there was further damage during subsequent weather events.  Work on the present-day Marina started around the Millennium, and this now occupies a substantial part of the inner harbour.  Watchet Harbour provided the inspiration for The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he arrived at the town and looked down on it from St Decuman's Church:

The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill
Below the lighthouse top.

Watchet is one of the stops on the West Somerset Steam Railway, which starts in Minehead to the west.  Adjacent to the Railway Station is the Watchet Boat Museum, housed in a former railway goods shed and offering free admission.  The museum showcases the nautical history of the area and there is plenty of hands-on fun for the kids, including a boat to climb in and out of.  Watchet Museum is housed in a former Market House and tells the history of the area starting with the Romans, as well as providing information on the maritime history and the railways.  

Map of the area. 

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Watchet Marina. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 6 October 2015


In 7000 BC the shoreline around Stolford and Hinkley Point extended three miles further out than it does now, but by 3800 BC the woods on the shoreline were becoming submerged due to a surge of water.  The remnants of this ancient submerged forest are still visible during exceptionally low tides, as was the case earlier this year during the lowest tides for two centuries, when submerged forests around the Westcountry coast were exposed, including the one at Stolford and at Minehead to the west.  Stolford is part of the civil parish of Stogursey, a village just inland with a castle dating from at least the 12th century, chosen as a base by William de Courcy, Steward to Henry I.  The moated 17th century gatehouse, which is all that is left of the original castle, is now available as a holiday let through the LandmarkTrust. 

Back in August 2011 in my piece about Sizewell and Minsmere, I found myself marvelling at the juxtaposition of a monstrous nuclear power station and a tranquil nature reserve.  I am reminded of that now as I turn my attention to Hinkley Point, which is a popular spot for birdwatching.  The birds frequenting the Point include Brent geese, Eurasian Wigeon and Northern Pintail, while the fields inland host Meadow Pipit and Merlin among others, and the sea defence boulders are visited by migrant Northern Wheateaters and wintering Black Redstarts.  Bordering on all this feast of feathers is the Hinkley Point B nuclear plant, a successor to the decommissioned Hinkley Point A.  Hinkley Point B was begun in 1967, but due to a series of hiccups did not start generating electricity until 1976.  Hinkley Point C was given planning consent in March 2013, and George Osborne recently raised eyebrows by inviting the Chinese to participate in the development of this new plant.  What could possibly go wrong...?

For those who are curious about what goes on in a nuclear power station there is a Visitor Centre at Hinkley Point B with interactive displays, and tours of the plant can be arranged, all for free. 

Map of the area. 

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Hinkley Point Power Station from the Quantock Hills. Photo by Anthony O'Neil, via Wikimedia Commons