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The tiny harbor of Lynmouth curls around the estuary of the River Lyn.

Minehead has long been a seaside playground for West Somerset

Story and photos by Dana Huntley
Exmoor and the lush, sheer coastline of North Devon may be the most famous landscape never visited. Atlantis, Avalon and Camelot: For most people, this “Lorna Doone Country” has that same mystical quality. It’s a place more imaginatively conjured than actually explored. Unlike its mythical sisters, though, Exmoor and the channel coastline do exist—it’s just difficult to get to them. Perhaps that’s one of the elements that make the region so charming.
Train lines don’t run to this part of the country; even Brunel would have had a hard time building a line along this coast. There’s really only one way in and out of the area: the A39 west from the M5 at Bridgenorth. This is not dual-carriageway, but a country drive through the hedgerows of West Somerset. You might detour through the village of Nether Stowey for a visit to the cottage of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in season) or refreshment at the Ancient Mariner pub across the street.
A couple of miles before the coast at Minehead, the medieval village of Dunster is something not to be passed by. Park in the convenient lot on the village outskirts and walk down an unspoiled, cobbled medieval street (complete with early 17th-century timbered Yarn Market) to Dunster Castle.
Minehead has long been a seaside playground for West Somerset. One of the two remaining Butlins holiday camps dominates the seafront. From here, the A39 follows the channel coast all the way to Cornwall.
From the quaint village of Porlock, the road bobs and weaves two miles up Porlock Hill at a 25 percent gradient to the northern plateau of Exmoor. At the top, views sweep over the coast and the broad Bristol Channel to South Wales in the distance, and south across ripples of rock and heather to the horizon. A herd of wild Exmoor ponies grazes contentedly, unmindful of the chill wind off the Atlantic. The dark, stubby breed has broad faces and thick coats adapted to their environment.  
Extending 30 miles to the south, Exmoor National Park stretches over rolling moors swathed in heather, bracken and gorse. Waters off the hard, limestone plateaus have worn narrow river valleys on their way to the coast. In the valleys, trees and arable crops grow, and there are farms and villages.  Firm and stocky, wild Exmoor ponies are adapted to a wind-swept habitat
Across 50 miles or more to the southwest, the coastline drops precipitously into the sea, often from this plateau of hundreds of feet. Deep ravines in the coastline break down to the shore where the rivers meet the sea. In these breaks grew the harbor towns and villages that pock the coast from Minehead to Clovelly.
This is Lorna Doone Country. The ruggedly beautiful, very rural area takes it name from the eponymous heroine of R.D. Blackmore’s famous 1869 novel Lorna Doone. Subtitled A Romance of Exmoor, the late-17th-century adventure is set in the hidden river valleys, deep ravines and wind-swept moorlands of Exmoor. Lorna Doone was once almost universally known and on the standard reading list of English novels for students. Those days are past. Perhaps the most timeless element of Blackmore’s novel, however, was his depiction of the lush landscape and its impact upon life. Visitors today who have read the novel find his passionate verbal pictures just as he described them.
The tiny hamlet of Oare occupies one of the moor’s deep valleys. It is signposted to the left off the A39 about 15 miles west. A long, winding drive down to the stream at the valley bottom ends at the tiny medieval church. It’s always open. Here at Oare church, the climactic scene of Lorna Doone is acted out at her wedding. There is a memorial plaque to R.D. Blackmore near the door.

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