At just 693 square kilometres, Exmoor is one of Britain’s smallest National Parks. However, what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in beauty and variety, being world-renowned for its dramatic moorlands, spectacular coastline, wooded valleys and energetic rivers and streams.
However, amongst its picturesque villages and ancient woodlands are a number of historic sites that reflect Exmoor’s fascinating history. Most of Exmoor’s major historic sites are ancient or medieval, with sites such as the 6th-century Caratacus Stone and the Iron Age remains of Bat’s Castle contrasting with sites such as the sprawling Dunster Castle.
Remarkably, Exmoor even features historic sites that are still in use today, with the prehistoric Tarr Steps offering visitors safe passage across the River Barle, just as they have for thousands of years.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best historic sites in Exmoor.
Tarr Steps is a 17 span clapper bridge and is constructed entirely from large stone slabs and boulders, the longest of its kind in Britain. The name ‘Tarr’ is thought to be derived from the Celtic word ‘tochar’, meaning ’causeway’. The river has silted up over the last century and often now comes over the stones in times of flood. The bridge has had to be repaired several times as stones of up to two tonnes have been washed up to 50 metres downstream.
There is no definite date of origin to the Tarr Steps, with various theories to support different ages. Some date it back as far as 1000BC in the Bronze Age. The official listing is to the medieval period. One rationale for the suggestion of a prehistoric date includes evidence that a number of prehistoric tracks passed through here, although the presence of a bridge as a result of this remains debatable. Today, Tarr steps is a popular destination for walking in the area for those exploring Exmoor National Park.
2. Dunster Castle
There was evidence that an Anglo-Saxon burgh existed prior the medieval castle being built by William de Mohun in 1086. In the 1130s England descended into the Anarchy and King Stephen besieged the castle, which was successfully defended by a Mohun’s son, also called William. The castle left the Mohun family when descendent John passed away in 1376 and it was sold to a leading Norman, Lady Elizabeth Luttrell.
During the English Civil War in 1640, the Luttrell family, who were siding with the Parliamentarians, were ordered to increase the size of its garrison to protect it from Royalists, who took until 1643 to take it. Still with the Luttrell family in 1867, they delivered a big modernisation and refurbishment plan. Incredibly, and with a few twists and turns involving crown ownership, the castle remained in the Luttrel family until 1976 when it was left to the National Trust.
3. Combe Sydenham Hall
Combe Sydenham Hall is an Elizabethan manor house built in 1580 by Sir George Sydenham . According to legend, the house stands on the site of medieval monastic buildings associated with Cleeve Abbey. The Combe Sydenham estate was first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it was held by William de Moyon, who also owned Dunster Castle. From the 15th century, it was home to a branch of the Sydenham family. The last of the Sydenham owners sold the estate in 1693, and it was then sold again by Lady Langham in 1796 to the Notley Family, who owned it until 1958.
Today, the house and its many acres of land are owned by the Theed family, who operate the estate as commercial woodland. The manor house park is open throughout the year, while the house is open to visitors by appointment only.
4. St John the Baptist Church
St John the Baptist Church is both a place of worship and reflection and a popular tourist destination. The first Anglican church to be built in Lynmouth was a wooden church known as ‘the Ark’, while the present, more significant church was built in 1870.
It features a nave, chancel, North porch and bell turret, while a south aisle was added in 1920 and later, a vestry, with funds from the US Air Force after a flood in 1952. Indeed, the church contains a memorial to the 27 people who lost their lives in the flood, which has been described as the worst river flood in English history: the amount of water that fell in one day would be enough to supply the water needs of Lynmouth’s total population for some 108 years.
5. Caratacus Stone
The Caratacus Stone is an inscribed stone on Exmoor. Thought to date from the 6th century, it was first mentioned in 1219. The inscription, in Latin, reads ‘CARACCI NEPVS’, though some experts have argued that it should read CARATACI NEPVS, which can be roughly translated as ‘grandson or immediate descendant of Caratacus’. It is thought that it was erected as a memorial to a person who claimed the first-century chieftain Caratacus as an ancestor.
In 1906, a shelter was built over the stone, while in 1937, results from an excavation revealed that it wasn’t associated with a burial site. It has been a scheduled monument sine 1925.
6. Conygar Tower
Built in 1775, the Conygar Tower is a circular, 3-storey folly tower built of red sandstone that looks over the village of Dunster. It’s about 18 metres high, and was designed to be seen from Dunster Castle on the opposite hillside.
There is no evidence that the tower ever had floors or a roof. Instead, it has been suggested that the name Conygar comes from two medieval words ‘coney’, meaning rabbit, and ‘garth’, meaning food, suggesting that it was once a warren where rabbits were bred for food. Today, it is a grade II-listed structure.
7. St. Peter's Church
St Peter’s Church in Exton features a crenelated, two-stage 13th-century tower and 15th-century aisle. The Anglican, Grade-II listed building still features some of the original Norman stonework in the nave, while the rest of the building has been reconstructed, most recently in 1876, when the chancel was rebuilt.
Today, it is both a place of worship and reflection as well as an attraction for tourists.
8. Dunster Butter Cross
This medieval Butter Cross likely once stood at the south end of the market in the high street, and marked the location of butter-sellers as well as functioning as a religious symbol, the crucifix. Likely dating from the 15th century from when Dunster was a prosperous small town, the cross was likely originally much taller, at 6 or 7 metres high.
It is unclear when the cross was damaged: it may have happened during the English Reformation of the 16th century, or the 17th century Civil War, which regarded symbols such as crosses as suspicious. It was likely moved to its present position, on a bank beside the Alcombe road, during the 18th century.
9. Allerford Forge
Though owned by the National Trust today, Allerford Forge dates to the 17th century and has formed an important part of life for many people living in the area for centuries. It consists of two stone buildings that back onto the stream, which were originally the farrier’s workshop and the local cobbler’s shop. The blacksmith loved in a building close by, which is now a private house.
Today, the large building has been lovingly preserved and still serves as a traditional blacksmith’s workshop. The original coal forge remains a hub of activity, while the smaller building works as a the blacksmith’s gallery, office and drawing-room.
10. Bat's Castle
Bat’s Castle is an Iron Age hillfort on a hill above the parish of Carhampton in Dunster. Incredibly, the site was discovered in 1983 after a group of schoolboys found eight silver-plated coins there which date between 102 BC and 350 AD. It was previously known as Caesar’s Camp, and is possibly associated with the nearby Black Ball Camp.
Though all that remains today are two stone ramparts and two ditches, it may have once been known as the legendary fortress Din Draithou, a place known to have been built or used by Irish king and raider Crimthann mac Fidaig.