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Romance and Drama along the East Lyn River

PUBLISHED: 17:09 20 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013

Malmsmead bridge

Malmsmead bridge

The East Lyn Valley is one of Exmoor's treasures - just the place for an adventure to stimulate the senses.

When was the last time you lost yourself in an adventure? It could be something as simple as a day out wandering through bits of landscape that you've not previously explored. Spontaneous or pre-planned, grab the one person you care about most in all the world to hold hands with while you walk, and treat yourself to a day that's all about you.

Now all you need is to decide where to explore, and there are plenty of options in this idyllic corner of North Exmoor.

Try Oare for starters. It's a tiny village close to the Somerset border, about seven miles from Lynton and Lynmouth. It's just a collection of houses tucked down between smooth green fields that curve up and away in every direction. At the centre of the village is St Mary's, a tiny Norman church with square turrets and an old graveyard spread all around it, and famous as the location where the fictional Lorna Doone was shot on her wedding day.

While one gravestone rests tiredly against a supportive tree, another sends icy shivers across your skin. Dated 1685, a face with wide eyes, long eyelashes, and a wide-open mouth has been ominously carved into a gravestone next to the word 'death'.

Despite the creepy antecedence, Oare today is gorgeous, and has that sleepy summertime feel about it, even in the depths of winter. The houses are set back from the road, with dogs too lazy, or too content, to do anything more than give a half-hearted bark behind dark evergreen hedges.

Picture postcard Malmsmead

From Oare the road wanders west, dropping and curving down towards Malmsmead, the prettiest, most photogenic village you could possibly imagine, with a brook bubbling and rushing beneath a stone bridge in the centre of the village. If you're feeling more intrepid, you can cross the river via the ford which is right next to the bridge.

It's hard not to fall in love here, not just with the beauty of this place and all the little unexpected things that make you smile - things like an old-fashioned red telephone box, a little cubby hole in a tumbledown barn selling ice-cream, the excellent cream tea café, and all the people riding through on horseback - but simply to fall in love with romance again.

So if Malmsmead is the romantic element in our adventure, then the drama is about to begin. The river that runs under the bridge here is Badgworthy Water. Its valley leads north into the moor and into the heart of the Doone Valley. Part open moor, part deep secluded valley, the whole place is a mass of contradictions. One minute smooth and green and tame, the next dark and deep and tangled, with a sinister edge liable to give you goosebumps. Yet the feeling you get inside when walking or riding here is so strong it can make your heart skip a beat.

Looking over the lip of the valley with the staggeringly beautiful world spread out for your inspection all around, or slipping over rocks and watching picket fences pushed by the wind, you'll find yourself laughing. It's more than just the beauty, but more to do with just being here, with tasting the hint of seaweed and peat, or feeling the tiny tingles on your skin as the wind strikes your face, and hearing the trilling of skylarks that gives you such a delicious, positive feeling inside.

Just stand quietly and watch

Traditional Exmoor sheep, with their distinctive teddy-bear heads, keep the grass so tightly trimmed you could play bowls on it. Spend a few minutes just standing quietly and watching. Between the sheep, you may well spot wild deer or part of a herd of Exmoor ponies. As you stand looking down between the valley's steeply sloping sides you can almost see the weather gusting and rushing by below you, barging and howling through gorse bushes that bend under the onslaught yet somehow manage to retain their vivid yellow blossom.

A little further down and the valley abruptly ends, the road now flanked on either side by dry-stone walls. Here you might stop and dwell on the mystery of some of the footpaths leading off into the distance that have grown thick and impassable with gorse and bush, and wonder why they were made at all? Out here on open moorland, where did they once lead, and why were they later abandoned?

But let's return to Malmsmead and head west. You'll soon come into Brendon, a village that straggles along the road and has the feel of a community that has aged with dignity. There are no facelifts, false fronts or modern houses pretending to be old. The people who live here are rightly proud of what they have and keep the village beautifully neat, well looked after and loved, and maybe that's why recent and old properties work so well together here. Brendon just feels honest.

A cosy pub, the Staghunter's Inn offers a welcoming atmosphere and home-cooked local food, as well as a warming open fire through many months of the year.

It's a place where the locals still gather on the third Saturday of every month to sing the old traditional Exmoor folk songs.

Follow the river downstream

From Brendon the East Lyn rushes west. You can follow it downstream along the road through Rockford, until this bears away from the river, or cross over in Brendon and take the footpath on the opposite side, along banks worn flat and, for the most part, comfortably passable. Soon you are in oak woodland on part of the long-distance Samaritan's Way. This whole stretch, all the way downriver to Watersmeet, is quite breathtakingly beautiful and rich in wildlife. You may be lucky to spot an otter in one of the river pools, or catch the white flash of a dipper fishing for lunch. Salmon and trout lurk under the banks, and later in summer butterflies flit from clearing to clearing. Occasional little wooden bridges allow you to recross the river, with the water rushing beneath, sometimes smooth and effortless, sometimes white with spray and angry, but always mesmerising.

On a quiet day in spring, this is an idyllic place, but the river, which can seem so gentle, burbling and gushing in its rocky bed, can change its nature dramatically after heavy rain, and develop a power so vast that it can take out an entire community, as it did right here in the 1952 Lynmouth flood disaster.

But soon we reach Watersmeet, where the East Lyn River meets the lush valley of Hoar Oak Water. Here a one-time Edwardian fishing lodge provides an idyllic setting for what is one of the National Trust's longest-established tea rooms, so this is a good spot to complete the adventure and rejoin civilisation.



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