Exmoor is magnificent and beautiful, and it just so happens to be the perfect place for holidays with young kids. Why? To those who only know it from afar, it may conjure images of rolling hills and rocky waters. However, it has a secret to reveal to visitors that venture closer. We simply had no idea that the fairytale Dunster Castle and its Medieval market town existed until we visited. As we approached Dunster for the first time, a hidden gem, suspended as if by magic in the mystical hills of Exmoor, revealed itself. Our first trip to Exmoor suddenly became a whole lot more than we bargained for!
Family ‘staycations’ – a surprise delight
Now, we will not spoil the magic for you by revealing all that we have discovered… That is for you to find out yourself! However, we can tell you that we are a family of five, plus one dog. We had three young children who were three, nine and 11 when we first came to Dunster in 2018. Prior to that, we thought they needed holidays abroad with swimming pools and amusements for entertainment. Little did we know this is one of the best places to holiday in the UK with young kids!
Dunster – a magical adventure holiday destination for families
It was the arrival this year of our puppy Border Collie, Ridley, that initially led us to look for a holiday closer to home. We wanted to find a place that would welcome our new family member. As it turned out, it was the children who benefited most from the more local adventure! What we learnt most profoundly about our kids is that they love doing something new every day, discovering and exploring. They are much more capable of going for a walk than we thought. Sitting around the same pool every day in the searing Mediterranean heat is exactly what they don’t like. Here, the usual arguments and tantrums simply disappeared – could it be the magic of Dunster? Indeed, if your holidays with young kids call for a touch of wonder, why go to Disneyland to visit a plastic castle when you can experience a real one closer to home? Why not go for a walk up the hill opposite and explore the fairytale gothic folly – sorry we were not going to spoil it! And as for fairytale princesses; well, I can tell you, we had three sleeping beauties after a day out on Exmoor…!
Why our young family returns again and again to Dunster
Our original trip to Dunster was for just a few days. The Luttrell Arms Hotel was our accommodation of choice, partly due to it being dog-friendly and partly because we wanted to stay somewhere ancient and historic. We were looking for somewhere that would give the children a feeling of Hogwarts, which it certainly was. It was supposed to be a fairly short break with the children. However, we soon realised we would not get to experience everything, and so we extended the stay to five. Despite this, we still had an unfinished list! So, at the insistence of our children, we returned again for a little longer, then again for longer still, and again… You get the idea! We stayed once more at the hotel, but it became prohibitively expensive and restrictive for a family of our size. Longer-term lodgings that wouldn’t cost the earth, but still offer some of that local charm, was what we were after. We tried a cottage in a village close to Dunster, but it lacked the magic. You couldn’t pop out to the little chocolate shop near the castle for an ice cream – sorry we’re spoiling it again!
The Oval, Dunster – like living in a fairytale
On our fourth visit last year, we made our greatest Dunster discovery yet. Nestled among the higgledy-piggledy houses at the foot of the castle lay an ancient cottage with a big old castle door. And in the window – a little holiday let sign! It was The Oval, probably Dunster’s most interesting and certainly its most historic cottage. If you want to feel like you have walked into a fairytale, then this is where you should stay. Even the Time Team people have been here! Now, since we’re clearly not in the business of spoiling the magic for you we won’t tell you anymore. We’ll stick with practicalities only.
The Oval, one of four Exmoor Character Cottages, is a perfect size for a family of five (probably more) and, of course, the dog. What makes staying here so great for a young family?
The Oval really is such great dog-friendly accommodation. Ridley gets looked after as well as the rest of us! Not only is she welcome at The Oval (as are dogs at all Exmoor Character Cottages), but she has her very own bed, clean toys, and plenty of space in which to run around.
You can park right outside if there’s a space on West Street, but it also has a designated space along the road. Walk out the door and you are at several fantastic pubs, restaurants and tea shops within a minute or two.
Peace and quiet
That said, we would describe the road as quiet, certainly quieter than the main high street where you will find most of the hotels.
Outdoor adventure just around the corner
There is also a lovely little playground and stream in which to paddle just around the corner.
Self-catering holidays with kids
If you eat in, the kitchen is beyond expectations. It is very well-equipped with everything you need. You can walk to a local deli with all the wonderful produce of Exmoor that you would never get on Ocado. However, Ocado will deliver to the Oval (sorry, we had to!).
Dunster provides a backdrop from wherever you choose to look, and the Oval has a wonderful way to take advantage of this. Thanks to its elevated terrace, you can go out in the back courtyard, up some steep stone steps and don’t look round till you have got to the top – sorry we’re spoiling it again…!
Lorna Doone – an R.D Blackmore story come to life
Now if the children want to watch an actual fairytale film or Harry Potter, then fear not. There is a very good size smart TV internet-connected with Netflix. This sits snugly in a fantastic lounge that looks more like Gryffindor’s common room than anything in the average family home. Since you’re in Doone Country, we recommend watching the drama Lorna Doone (BBC 2000 version). It’s perfect – you’re there in the story setting! It is a real fairytale and a hidden gem of Exmoor just like Dunster. A few hundred years ago, the hero John Ridd stayed the night in Dunster on his way back from London to Doone Valley. Watch the film or read the book and then see if you can resist going off in search of the enchanting places and vivid beauty that R.D Blackmore describes so exquisitely.
Spectacular walks literally on your doorstep
And that is where we ought to finish up, before we spoil your experience. Just one last practical point about walking, Exmoor and magnificent scenery. From our experience, going on a walk usually involves packing up the car, taking a long drive, looking for a car park, locking up the car and searching for toilets. If all goes well, only then might you finally start your walk. Not here! From The Oval, it involves walking out the front door.
Holidays with young kids should, of course, be reviewed by the children themselves. So, don’t take our word for it, here’s what our three had to say!
On The Oval
Daisy, 13: “I loved the terrace and the garden felt peaceful and secluded.”
Alexander, 11: “The house was really old and interesting. I liked the old beams, the four-poster bed and Netflix.”
Poppy 5; “It had Peppa Pig DVDs and cake. I liked the house because it is really old.”
Daisy: “I like the scenery, tea shops and walks.”
Alexander: “I liked the walks – Doone Valley, Grabbist and the Valley of Rocks, the beaches with the World War II Bunkers; and Dunster Castle.”
Poppy: “I liked it when we went to the beach and I bought a bucket and spade, and the horse riding.”
A huge thanks to Sarah, Paul, Daisy, Alexander and Poppy Turner for this wonderful read. If you’d like to find out what makes Exmoor Character Cottages so special for other guests, be sure to visit our blog.