By guest blogger Sam Napthine
A flock of oystercatchers glide underneath the silver-grey sky on Dunster beach along the Exmoor coast, which is now heavy in the depth of winter. A powerful breeze pushes me along to the sound of crashing sea waves, into clouds of steamy breath hanging in the frosty air. And then, a nod from the elements, knowing that I am on the last leg of my coastal walk, rays of late-afternoon sunlight spill out onto the choppy waters, the oystercatchers I’ve been studying now dance, illuminated.
Winter is known as the quiet season in Exmoor. The ruins of sandcastles moulded by children enjoying their summer holidays are now long eroded by the sea. And the tourists are gone before migrating wading birds have taken their place. With waders, curlews, dunlins and oystercatchers making Somerset their winter retreat, following the South West Coast Path in the colder months is a delight for any rambler. Exmoor may get overlooked compared by its more boastful counterparts, but in the cooler months its modesty is perhaps one of the reasons it is so delightful, that and its surprisingly mild temperature (thanks to the Gulf Stream, it averages around 9-11 degrees).
The cottage I am staying in is known as The Old Sweet Shop, it sits in Minehead’s old town, a picturesque enclave which although just a short walk to the pubs and restaurants of the High Street, remains quiet and village-like. With knitted sweets and candy canes as Christmas ornaments, my home-from-home is crammed with drops of nostalgic and vintage charm that instantly conjure memories of childhood holidays. The beautifully restored interior, of this quintessential thatched cottage, has left every room in this sprawling abode with a bespoke design. The furniture is both elegant and homely and it is a pleasure to relax in front of a roaring log fire with a mug of hot chocolate after a winter walk. Each of the four bedrooms, with top quality beds and deliciously named after our favourite childhood sweets, are delightful to snuggle down in at the end of the day.
With the cottage sited on the edge of Exmoor, there is no shortage of long walks. The next morning, I stroll through Dunkery Beacon where the ancient oaks peer over both me and the carpet of lime green lichen I walk across. At a clearing, I take advantage of the bare trees exposing Exmoor’s vast landscapes, where you can stand atop the peaks of the moor and study the park’s famous statuesque beast, the red deer. If you are lucky, you may also spot the famous Exmoor pony gathering, an event which evokes images of a medieval market as the new-born foals are checked over and the older or sick mares are taken off the moor.
Any country walk, especially in winter, is not complete without a roaring fire and a local pub. These can be found in any corner of Exmoor’s villages, and any visit would not be complete without sampling a pint of the finest local cider. But it is not just the cider that will leave you impressed, for Exmoor’s pubs have undergone something of a gastronomical revolution in recent years and there is no shortage of award-winning food and drink to enjoy.
On the final day of my winter retreat, I visit the medieval village of Dunster, which has much to offer the winter wanderer, from independent shops filled with Christmas decorations and presents, to the fairy-tale fort of the castle which peers over the cobbled streets. Every year in December, hundreds line up these tights streets for a spectacle of lights for Dunster by Candlelight. But this afternoon the streets are peaceful, so I take advantage of the West Somerset Railway back to Minehead. With fewer crowds around I enjoy the sights of skeletal trees and wide-open skies, twisting through the scenery. With the spires of Butlin pavilion beginning to poke through the seaside town’s picturesque skyline as you approach Minehead the residue of Exmoor’s summer months can still be felt even in deep winter. In this corner of Somerset, the seaside holiday doesn’t seem to end, except right now I have it all to myself.
Make your own memories at Exmoor Character Cottages and get the best rates when you book direct with www.exmoorcharactercottages.co.uk