National Parks – just the word makes me excited. These often vast, open areas of public land in the UK are without a doubt the places I feel the most comfortable. Whilst it’s true that the UK struggles to compete with the USA’s Yellowstone or the African savannah of Kenya, what we can offer is pure, quiet and relaxed tranquillity. No bison, no mountain lions and no leopards, just colourful flowers year-round and gently undulating hills. I’ve already shown you the northern Yorkshire Moors as well as the wet and windy Brecon Beacons in Wales.
Exmoor National Park, hidden away in the south-west corner of England is a fine example of this type of peaceful beauty. It’s not the sort of beauty that takes your breath away, but who wants that anyway. I reach out to these natural places not to surprise me, but to comfort and soothe me.
I reach out to these natural places not to surprise me, but to comfort and soothe me.
The Exmoor National Park sits about an hour and a half from the large city of Bristol. It’s very much in an unnoticed and less visited corner of the UK, and is probably one of the least well-known natural areas, with less than two million visitors annually. But don’t let that fool you – this is one of the largest national parks in the UK (only four are larger – Brecon Beacons is the largest) with 694 square kilometres of open space and woodland.
The park was created in around 1190 as a royal hunting forest for the Norman nobility, but was in use even before then. There is plenty of evidence of pre-historic habitation in the area, with monuments like the Tarr Steps. This ‘clapper bridge’, which means a bridge with large stones resting on the river bed instead of arching over the water, has potentially been a central river crossing in the area since 2000 BCE or even before. People may have been crossing the River Barle in this place for more than 5000 years.
Whilst I said that unfortunately there aren’t the lions and leopards of the African savannah in Exmoor National Park, perhaps I spoke too soon. There is a long-standing rumour that a puma or panther stalks the forests and plains of the park, killing sheep and cows at will. The Beast of Exmoor, as it is usually called, was first ‘spotted’ in the 1970’s, and there have been numerous ‘sightings’ over the years. As with all the best weird animal rumours, you won’t find a good picture anywhere, but plenty of strange events around it. The British Navy sent an elite sniper team from the Royal Marines (an internationally respected and feared military infantry unit) to seek and destroy this dangerous animal in 1983. After six months and no results, the mission was called off and nothing more has been done to solve the mystery.
Exmoor National Park also has the advantage that the western edge features a wild and savage coastline, that is well worth exploring. If you get tired of exploring the magical forests and open fields, get up on the cliffs here, and look out to sea.
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