Beautiful Exmoor: 8 fun things to do outdoors this winter
PUBLISHED: 16:37 16 January 2016 | UPDATED: 14:23 18 January 2016
The wildlife presenter shares his top tips for making the most out of the Somerset side of Exmoor this autumn and winter
‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Keats was not writing about Exmoor, but in his wonderful poem, To Autumn, he could have been.
It’s a fantastic time of the year to enjoy the moor. From the magical coast, to glorious golden trees in the river valleys and the wide expanse of the open moorland, with few people about it is a great time to explore the landscape and its wildlife.
Here are eight of Johnny’s top tips for getting the most out of Exmoor in the autumn and winter.
1. Watch an Exmoor Pony gathering
It’s easy to spot Exmoor ponies any time of the year but late autumn is special. Every year the ponies are rounded up and checked over by their owners and it can be a spectacular, wild west experience. Ponies are owned by different landowners, including a herd owned by the National Park on Haddon Hill. They are a huge attraction for tourists but also play an important conservation role because they help keep the vegetation on the commons in check.
The foals are brought in and checked over and, if they meet the criteria of the Exmoor Pony Society, are registered. Older or sick mares are taken off the moor and those fit to go back to face the hard winter are released back on the commons with the foals and stallions. Here they live through the year, without any further interference from their owners, or Johnny.
You can get more information about where to see the ponies and dates of the gatherings from the Exmoor Pony Society website; exmoorponysociety.org.uk
2. Have a go at roaring like a red deer stag
Autumn is a busy time of the year for the jewel in Exmoor’s crown, the red deer, as it has its rutting time. Stags live apart from hinds for most of the year but they come together in the autumn and the rut can be spectacular. It’s always difficult to see red deer but you can often hear the stags roaring or ‘bolving’ as its known, as they try to round up the hinds.
Later in October locals organise a competition to see who can sound most like one.
It takes place a Draydon Rails above Dulverton, overlooking the River Barle, on a Sunday evening in late October. You will be helping a good cause too, because profits from the evening go to the Devon Air Ambulance.
Check with the National Park website for details and turn up and have a go.
3. Watch the winter migrating wading birds on the coast
Exmoor has a fantastic coastline and during the winter when the crowds have gone the birds turn up. Many of them are waders that overwinter in Britain, to shelter from arctic conditions further north. One of he best and most accessible places to watch them is Dunster Beach because here there are no less than three habitats, tightly bunched together, and with different species to enjoy. You can park at the car park and sit facing the beach or walk along the shore where you’ll see waders, curlew, dunlin and flocks of oystercatchers. Behind the beach is the ‘hawn’, a fresh water lake that has kingfisher and water rail, tawny owls and buzzards and behind the ‘hawn’ are fields where you can watch little egrets. When you have had enough you can nip into Dunster and warm up in one of the town’s many tea shops.
4. Go hunting for fungi
Exmoor has some of the most spectacular deciduous woodland in Britain, much of it hugs the river valleys and in late autumn and winter you can forgage for fungi. There is lots to choose from as the moor is one of the richest parts of the country when it comes to mushrooms. You can just wonder any of the woodlands with a decent guide to fungi. One superb area is the National Trust Holnicote Estate.
For a really enjoyable fungi forage go with the Exmoor Natural History Society on one of its Saturday days out in the fabulous woodlands on the estate. In the capable hands of Sian Parry, a fungi specialist, you will be able to discover what you can take home and fry up and what might cause you a problem. Check on the society’s website for guided walks for not only fungi but winter birds, red deer and all sorts of other wildlife.
5. Take a winter walk on the High Moor
There is something energising about walking on the open moorland in the winter. The colours are magnificent, the skies can be huge and you will have the place to yourself. There are so many places to choose from, but the area around Ley Hill on the Holnicote Estate is especially dramatic with views over the Bristol Channel. It is superb walking country through a wonderfully managed landscape of heather moorland, with a good chance of seeing red deer too. If you go at weekends you can get a decent cup of tea and a superb scone at Horner Tea Gardens.
6. Drink Cider at Porlock Apple Day
You can even see them making the cider in their own press behind the visitor centre. You can buy apple juice straight from the press or grab a bottle of juice or cider. You can also enjoy a range of apple based cakes, scones and jellies created by the volunteers. Orchards were once part of the Exmoor working landscape, but the days when farm hands were paid in part in cider have long gone, so have the farm hands. In Porlock a team of enthusiastic volunteers is bringing back a tradition that, in most places, has gone for good.
Check with the visitor centre for details.
7. Sing a new year Wassail in Carhampton
This is another Exmoor tradition that is about apples and orchards. The wassail was a fertility rite. Grown men would go into the orchards on old 12th night and hang cider soaked bread in the branches of he trees, and fire guns into the air. They would sing the wassail song in front a big bonfire and then adjourn to the pub for an almighty drink up. In many places they stopped doing it but on Exmoor, at Carhampton, they are built of sterner stuff and they still do it. It takes place on the evening of 17 January in the orchard behind the Butcher’s Arms and then in the pub itself.
8. Take a winter walk through a carpet of white flowers in Snowdrop Valley and celebrate the end of winter
Snowdrop Valley, close to the village of Wheddon Cross, is an interesting walk at any time of year. But in late January and early February it really comes alive when thousands of snowdrops come into flower. There is really nowhere else on the moor quite like it, the River Avill runs through it and you can follow its course up-stream past a leat and a ruined mill and then onto the moor if the fancy takes you. If it doesn’t and you want more snowdrops, you can cross the river by footbridge and make your way back to the road. You don’t even have to walk from the village. For a small fee (and even smaller if you are Johnny’s age) the district council lays on a bus that will take you to the valley and bring you back. And when you get back stop in at Exmoor House. Rosi Davis opens her dining room for the duration of the snowdrop flower show and her partner, Frank Velander home bakes all the cakes and breads, including melt in the mouth teacakes.
David Parker and Johnny Kingdom have recently collaborated on this new guide to enjoying Exmoor.