A circular walk in Exmoor

Warm your cockles in one of Exmoor’s cosiest pubs after a bracing coastal walk that takes in glorious hilltop views, wild woods and riverside paths

By Tor McIntosh

The spectacular Exmoor coastline in winter

The spectacular Exmoor coastline in winter

Grade: Medium/Hard
Distance: 9 miles
Time: 4.5 hours
Location: North Devon, UK

For us outdoorsy types, we’re more than happy to wrap up warm during the winter months for a bracing walk in a stunning location… as long as there’s a cosy pub offering real ales and a roaring fire at the end. And this tough but rewarding circular walk includes all these ingredients, although it is best served with a crisp, clear winter’s day.

The starting point is the charming Blue Ball Inn, a 13th century coaching inn located in Countisbury on the old coaching route between Porlock and Lynmouth. From the inn’s car park follow the path through a churchyard to meet the first of many spectacular views on this walk: a 180 degree vista along the dramatic Exmoor coastline — north to Devon’s most northerly outcrop, The Foreland, and south to the twin villages of Lynton and Lynmouth and beyond — and across the Bristol Channel to South Wales. Follow the path inland to Barna Barrow before carefully crossing the A39 to join a bridleway that offers wonderful views over the densely wooded East Lyn Valley before descending into a combe. After crossing two streams the bridleway gradually climbs to the hamlet of Wilsham before entering woodland and descending steeply to meet the East Lyn River at a ford near the Rockford Inn.

From here the walk enters a relatively flat stage as it follows a woodland path along the picturesque East Lyn river — with its rocky rapids and tranquil deep pools — to Watersmeet House, a former fishing lodge and now a National Trust shop and café (closed in December). From the house climb the steps to the viewing platform for Watersmeet Falls, which you hear long before you see it cascading into Hoar Oak Water. The route continues to steadily climb through woodland to meet the A39 at Hillsford Bridge. Briefly follow the A39 uphill and where the main road bends sharply left keep ahead to join the Two Moors Way as it rises through sessile oak woods and past the ramparts of Myrtleberry South Iron Age enclosure.

On this next section you’re once again treated to glorious views across the East Lyn Valley to Countisbury Common, the walk’s starting point, on the opposite side of the steep-sided wooded valley. But don’t be fooled into thinking this stretch along the Two Moors Way to Lynmouth remains level — steep descents into small combes result in lung-busting climbs up the other side. The walk’s final descent winds between cottages on a tarmac path into Lynmouth; originally a small fishing port, it is now a popular tourist spot and was the scene of a devastating flood in August 1952 in which 34 people lost their lives. With a final testing 1.5-mile climb back to the Blue Ball Inn, there’s no better excuse for pausing in Lynmouth for some sustenance in the form of a cream tea at one of the many cafés.

The final leg follows a magnificent section of the South West Coast Path as it zigzags through woodland before climbing steadily up Countisbury Hill on an exposed coast path. The climb may be tough, but the views along the coastline are truly stunning. And waiting for you at the top is that promised roaring fire in the Blue Ball Inn and a well-earned pint of local ale.

From the moment you step inside warmth and coziness emanates from the buzz of punters clutching their pints while gossiping or sharing stories over hearty home-cooked meals — a top choice being the sausages produced using the meat from the inn’s hand-reared pigs. Its traditional low ceilings with their blackened beams, along with the many nooks and crannies that offer places to rest your weary legs, nod to the inn’s heritage and adds to the feeling of escaping into another realm. A favourite spot of mine is the small room tucked behind the bar with its welcoming sofas perfectly placed next to one of the four wood-burning stoves dotted throughout the rooms on the ground floor. But be warned, once settled in your sofa it can be tough to leave the warm embrace of the Blue Ball Inn.

Blue Ball Inn
Countisbury, Lynmouth, Exmoor EX35 6NE; 01598 741263
With oodles of Christmas decorations and three Xmas trees, the inn fully embraces the festive season throughout December. It is open every day of the year and offers real ales and excellent food, as well as Bed & Breakfast accommodation.

This feature was originally published in the Cosy Christmas: Great Days Out section of BBC Countryfile Magazine, December 2015.

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