I had not been to north Devon since my student days and Exmoor had also escaped my attention, until last week. It was half term and my guilt trip about being a workaholic turned into a short trip with my daughter to blow away a few cobwebs and do the thing that all mothers and young daughters do so well: shop and eat.
Fern Tor came highly recommended on our website and so seemed the obvious choice. I will go to the ends of the earth to avoid the A303 and so I did: M25, M4 then the M5. The directions are easy to follow and as we had not got lost once, we had an hour to waste in nearby South Molton. It is one of those sweet little places where everywhere is closed on a Sunday. Except the Corn Dolly, which is where we headed.
Fern Tor We found a space in the lovely two room tea shop, with well spaced pine tables and chairs and art on the walls that only a madman would buy, or perhaps one of the artists' relatives. We perused the menu. It being officially a holiday and with no witnesses, we ordered the sticky toffee pudding and chocolate gateau, both served with clotted cream and a cholesterol testing kit. They have not heard of cuisine minceur down here; the portions were enormous. With our leaf tea served in a proper pot with extra hot water and a separate strainer, we were very impressed. In case you have a strong desire to buy a card and wrapping paper, there is a large selection in an adjoining room. It's a friendly, spotlessly clean place too.
We checked into Fern Tor and were very pleased with our room: a very large bed, nice view over the garden, fluffy white towels in the ensuite and a small adjoining lounge with TV. I liked the hot drink we were offered on arrival and the fact that the radiators in our room had thermostats. The room was very cosy. I wondered whether we were too close to the road, but since only one car every four hours seemed to use it, it was not an issue.
Jane, the owner had recommended a pub in nearby Withersage for our supper. It had an open log fire and the landlord was welcoming and friendly. Instead of youngsters getting bladdered, it actually had normal people in it, just chatting and enjoying a quiet drink. How novel! Our meals were a bit disappointing but not bad enough to moan about. Anyway, we had our breakfast to look forward to.
After a good sleep and a hot bath, we were both ready for a tasty breakfast. Jane has seven cooked options for breakfast - eggs from her rescued hens and six other vegan choices. You may have all seven if you wish. Remembering my indulgence the previous day, I stuck to four items but my daughter went for five. With home made bread, I had had enough but you may also opt for porridge or granola and a variety of other cereals and fruit.
Lynmouth We decided to visit Lynton and Lynmouth on the north coast. Lynton had a pub with accommodation I intended to check out named The Crown. Walkers and dog owners seem to like this place, so the bare wooden floors are probably for practical reasons rather than fashionable ones. It's also a tiny bit scruffy, but when the regulars are welcoming and say "good morning" to you and go off to find the bar maid, such things seem a bit picky. The evening meal choices looked excellent; for lunch time we had to stick with jacket potato and a cheese ploughmans. I checked the cheese was veggie and asked for no coleslaw, as I doubted the mayonnaise would be suitable. What could have been just another excuse for a veggie meal was actually quite good. Generous helpings of cheese, nice granary bread, proper pickled onions and some tasty salad leaves with a home made chutney. The jacket potato was hot, which is more than the service station managed on the M5 the previous day, and was also served with salad leaves. Afterwards, I had a very good coffee. They seemed very accommodating and if you phoned ahead, they may be able to offer more choice at lunchtime. (I have checked with the establishment since and you need to ask about the specials board, which always has veggie choices on it.)
River Lyn We did some mooching around the town, which is pleasant enough, bought a couple of second-hand books (as if I haven't enough) and made our way to Lynmouth. You can get there by a scary looking train - which seems to travel almost vertically - but I preferred to drive down the hairpin bends myself to reach the coast. Lynmouth is fairly touristy, but in a nice sort of way. It had a selection of interesting shops and in one I succumbed to a purchase that I think was brought on by sea air and magic. A climb along the rocky beach was good fun. My son would have been skimming stones across the sea but my daughter arranged herself dramatically on a rock and demanded a picture was taken.
At this point, serious high street shop withdrawal was starting to have its effect, so we drove to Barnstaple. After an hour or so in Jane Norman and Bay Trading my daughter returned to normal and we drove back to Fern Tor.
Dinner was wonderful. We had steaming bowls of fresh pea soup served with home made bread, followed by a gorgeous roast vegetable concoction with marinated tofu, accompanied by a large bowl of mashed potato, a separate dish of cauliflower and red wine and onion gravy. There was ample for two large portions with more to spare. Pudding was a superb fresh raspberry brulee. A hot drink to follow is included in the price of the meal.
Near Simonsbath The next morning, a good sleep and a large Fern Tor breakfast had us wanting to do something mildly energetic. After a short visit to look at the rescued rabbits behind the house and a steep climb to the top field to feed the goats and sheep, we made our way to Simonsbath on Exmoor. Jane had suggested we went and loaned us a map. We parked near the village pub, put our £2 in the honesty box (yes, really), crossed the road and found ourselves walking along the river. After a while, the muddy track climbed and we walked along a stony path, still following the meandering water. We eventually took off our coats as the late October sun began to warm us and stopped to have a short rest. There was no-one to be seen. If we listened, all we could hear was the running water and the occasional chirp from a bird. We walked on for about an hour, mesmerised by the simple beauty of the place. At one point, we stopped and drank from a small stream appearing from a rock. Back at the car, my daughter suggested we returned to the Corn Dolly for a light lunch. I had sandwiches and another pot of their delicious Earl Grey tea and she had the sticky toffee pudding she had been thinking about since the previous day.
Chulmleigh is a village lost in time. It seemed to have everything one would need for day to day life and at its centre is a beautiful church with pretty churchyard.
Churchyard at Chulmleigh We had a look inside and sat for a few moments in the churchyard, admiring the view. French's is a cosy place worth investigating. Run by chef/patron Diane, all the food is home made and she makes a special effort to accommodate vegetarians. You do need to phone ahead though.
On to Crediton which has a pleasant town square and a lovely wholefood shop, The Green House with organic vegetables and fair trade products, among other things. Parking is relatively easy and free.
We enjoyed another evening meal at Fern Tor. Crudites to start with olive pate and lentil pate followed by asparagus stuffed pancakes served with boiled potatoes and leeks. As well as this feast, Jane made us a mixed leaf salad served with home made vinaigrette. To finish was their Fernbocker Glory.
The next morning, we checked out of Fern Tor and decided on a short trip to Bath to break our journey. This was a good move. We packed a great deal into our four hours, including a bus tour (half price for National Trust members) which I recommend. Demuths was full, of course, so we opted for our usual fall back for lunch - Pret a Manger.
There is a great deal to see and do in the area and much of the time we had the place to ourselves. Exmoor is quite beautiful and underrated. We just went on impulse, but with some careful planning, a wonderful weekend or a longer stay could be easily organised. Fern Tor is somewhere I would stay again, but you need to book early as they only have three rooms.