Are you an Autumn Explorer?
By Sam Napthine
In the backdrop of mid-September’s golden hue, we turn off the A39 onto West Somerset’s rural lanes. The canvas of Exmoor is in a process of transformation. As August’s lush green is washed away, and the bright reflective blue of the Bristol channel fades, the long summer blends into the pastel palette of autumn. The ancient moorlands become dotted with a collage of russet, vermilion, ochre, orange and yellow, with the newly dropped foliage dusting Exmoor’s woods and fields.
I find it hard to believe that a few weeks ago the villages and seaside towns I drive through would have been lively with tourists at the heat of the summer season. Emptied summer resorts may not seem the obvious holiday choice but the quiet of autumn is the perfect window to become a true Exmoor explorer. As summer’s sandcastles become formless damp ruins on Minehead’s far breezier beaches and the hordes of ice cream buyers have melted away, I begin to discover an Exmoor of quietude and contemplation.
This is the Exmoor that you may recognise in the verses of romantic poets, a place that sometimes feels wild with abandon but where experiencing the sublime really does feel possible. With the looking eye of the eager tourist now gone, the red deer appears on the moor with a regained confidence. The russet coat of the Exmoor native is like a fabric design woven into the fields. Somerset’s arresting National Park is the residence of a cornucopia of wildlife, the badger can be found in the woodlands, whilst you will need to look up to see the park’s buzzard sweeping the autumn breeze. The views are unique to this time of year with landscapes once hidden by coats of foliage clinging to oak and hazel trees now exposed for all to see.
My autumn break is based in the medieval village of Dunster, perhaps one of the South West’s best-kept secrets, where the historical pubs and shops that call Dunster home radiate an after-buzz akin to the end of a long party. Only a few weeks ago this medieval village was filled with crowds from far and wide, making sure no inn or tearoom was left empty, now the newly dropped leaves outnumber fellow visitors. As you enter the village you will see a quaint looking octagonal structure. Built in the early 1600s, this is The Yarn Market. an emblem of Dunster’s past significance in the wool and cloth trade. A village of historical importance, Dunster is bursting with listed buildings and monuments along its cobbled streets. A leisurely stroll (nothing strenuous) will reveal a fine choice of independent shops, smart boutiques and charming cafes, as a trip to this quintessential English village just wouldn’t be complete without afternoon tea! If you are feeling something more substantial and a glass (or two!) of the local brew, you’ll find some award-winning restaurants and well renowned watering holes!
The glorious red-sandstone turreted Dunster Castle perched on the top of the hill dominates the village. Dating from as far back as the Norman invasion it has only ever been owned by two families. The most recent inhabitants were the Luttrell family, a historically influential force in West Somerset, who lived here for 600 years. Now managed by the National Trust, the castle provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of lords and noblemen throughout English history. It rose to prominence during the English Civil War where Charles 1 used it as a rallying point for his supporters.
The village may not be a hotbed of war and a place of political importance anymore, but the castle is popular with families who come to enjoy its stunning parks and gardens that are easily accessible from Dunster’s historic streets. The castle is now open all year round which is perfect for my autumn getaway in The Oval holiday cottage, a listed building which lies right in the heart of Dunster. Dating back to the 14th century, this gloriously medieval cottage has been sympathetically decorated. It can also boast of being dendro-dated by the Time Team, whose analysis of the cruck beams in the main bedroom points to the cottage being constructed in the winter of 1366.
From playing medieval kings and queens to becoming a part of the industrial revolution, Dunster has it all. To experience the latter, climb on board the West Somerset Heritage Railway, an historic train line which weaves through the towns and villages of West Somerset. This time of year, you can expect fewer crowds and enjoy the sights of the trees losing their leaves. Twisting along Exmoor’s country lanes whether in a train carriage or an open-top car is a great adventure.
When looking out at the rolling vistas of autumn leaves, the words of Quantocks local Samuel Taylor-Coleridge surface “The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions – the little, soon forgotten charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look or heartfelt compliment.” It is the small details, often tucked away and not always obvious to the eye which makes this corner of England so humbly special. It is in autumn when you can truly appreciate Exmoor’s understated curiosities.