Ah, the long-awaited lighthouse trip. Organised for Jess’s 30th birthday last year, postponed over and over. But in June 2022, we finally made it to Foreland Point in Exmoor national park, on the north coast of Devon, for a weekend of good food, good company, and amazing sunsets.
The Lighthouse Keepers’ Cottage, Foreland Point
Foreland Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage is a dramatic cliff-edge cottage behind a working lighthouse, owned by the National Trust and available to rent as holiday accommodation. It used to be the home of the crew operating the lighthouse, and you can even still see their daily cleaning rota on the wall in the utility room.
The lighthouse still operates from sunset to sunrise, with 5 consecutive flashes in between breaks. Guests will be pleased to know that the side of the light is blocked from shining directly into the cottage, and that the fog horn doesn’t work anymore.
The lighthouse cottage is one of the least accessible places I’ve ever stayed. Not only is it down three steep flights of steps from its car park, it’s also a mile drive from the A39 along hair-pin bends down a steep hill.
Inside the lighthouse
We weren’t sure what to expect inside this old cottage and we were very pleasantly surprised. The lighthouse has two double bedrooms, two twins and two singles, all very nicely furnished and super comfy. The bedrooms that look out over the sea have wooden shutters to keep out the light from the lighthouse, and the bedrooms on the other side have curtains. There are two toilets, three showers and a bath, as well as a kitchen with a massive dining table, a separate dining room, a TV room with a big wraparound sofa, and a common room with ping table and darts.
There were 8 of us in the lighthouse on the weekend in question, and it was the perfect size, with plenty of seating and only slight coordination needed for showers.
Views from the lighthouse
There are three balconies either side and in front of the cottage, one with a picnic table and bench that makes it the perfect spot for staring at the sea, bird watching, or enjoying a drink as the sun sets.
All the north-facing rooms have incredible views out to sea and towards the coast of Wales, where on a clear day you can see the peaks of the Brecon Beacons.
As is frequently the case with coastal areas, our specific valley of Exmoor appeared to have its own microclimate. After managing to get the car up the almost vertical hills of Porlock, we were plunged from a sunny 30-degree summers day into the heart of a dense grey cloud. This made the final stretch pretty hairy, especially as we were descending the steep track from the A39 to the lighthouse car park and navigating its hairpin bends.
As you can see, the view was still stunning despite the mist and the wind. We managed to get all our luggage down the many stairs before the rest of our group arrived, and we excitedly explored inside our temporary home.
The fridges were soon filled with food, and more booze than we could ever hope to consume. After an absolute banquet for dinner, prepared by our own chef Christian Moore, we set up camp on the terrace, beers and prosecco in hand. This was the first in the series of spectacular sunsets we were treated to this weekend.
It was also the first in a series of intense and anarchic ping pong tournaments.
Saturday: Coastal Path to Lynmouth
We love the South West Coast Path. This National Trail is England’s longest waymarked long-distance footpath, stretching for 630 miles from Minehead in Somerset, along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, to Poole Harbour in Dorset. As anyone who has walked it knows very well, it rises and falls with every river mouth. In fact, the total height climbed is almost four times the height of Mount Everest at a whopping 114,931 ft.
The route from the lighthouse to Lynmouth doesn’t look far, but it’s pretty steep and ended up taking us about an hour and a half (check it out on the map).
As you can see we had to do a detour for the first stage of the walk, as the path at the Foreland is currently unpassable.
Despite the dense cloud still hanging around and the mizzle in the air, it was actually a very nice temperature for a walk like this. The first stage of the route was a steep uphill, as we climbed from the lighthouse to the top of Foreland Point, but after that it was mainly downhill towards Lynmouth.
Unfortunately the weather really closed in on us and we couldn’t appreciate any of the beautiful views as we got closer to the little coastal village.
The village of Lynmouth straddles the river Lyn, in a gorge directly below Lynton. The two villages are hugely popular with hikers, sitting as it does on the South West Coast Path, Tarka Trail, Two Moors Way, the Samaritans Way South West, and the Coleridge Way. It’s hosted many famous people in its lifetime, such as the author Percy Shelley and painter Thomas Gainsborough, who spent his Honeymoon here.
The geography of Lynmouth and Lynton really is striking. Lynmouth is only a handful of houses, shops and pubs along the mouth of the river Lyn. Behind the buildings the wooded cliff rockets up 700ft to Lynton, a more established town with actual amenities.
On arrival we immediately sought out cream tea. Christian had laid on a full cooked English for breakfast a few hours before so we didn’t need a substantial lunch. The Coffee Mill tearoom was ready to provide, and we settled into the sheltered outdoor seating area just in time for the heavens to open, enjoying our scones to the sound of rain hitting the roof.
The main historical event of Lynmouth appears to be the flooding of August 1952, when a storm of tropical intensity broke over Exmoor, depositing 9 inches of rain within 24 hours. Debris-laden floodwaters cascaded down upon the village. A dam was formed by fallen trees and other debris in the upper West Lyn valley, which eventually gave way, sending a huge wave of water and debris down the river Lyn and through the town. Overnight, over 100 buildings and 28 bridges were destroyed, and 38 cars were washed out to sea. In total, 420 people were made homeless and 34 people lost their lives.
After the 1952 disaster, the village was rebuilt, including diverting the river around the village. A memorial hall dedicated to the disaster is on the front toward the harbour; it contains photographs, newspaper reports and a scale model of the village, showing how it looked before the flood.
Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway
The villages are connected by the Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway, in use since it opened in 1890. This is no average railway – it’s the highests and steepest water-operated railway in the world. The parallel 3ft 8in gauge tracks rise 500ft and are 862ft long, giving the line a gradient of 58%!
So how does a water-operated railways work? There are two cars, each carrying up to 40 passengers. They are attached to cables running up and down from each car and passing round pulleys at each end of the incline, a bottom towrope used to balance the weight of the cables. There’s absolutely no power needed to operate it, as each car has a 700 gallon tank mounted between its wheels.
Once passengers are loaded at each station, the brakes are released and water is let out from the bottom car until the top car is heavier and starts to descend, pulling the lower car up as it goes. Sometimes, the weight of passengers on the top car is enough without releasing any water from the bottom car. When the car arrives at the top station, the tank is refilled ready for the next descent. During the descent, the speed is controlled by a driver in each car; they synchronise using hand signals to communicate.
After we’d arrived at the top of the railway, having greatly enjoyed the process, we set about exploring Lynton. The village is very familiar to me, as I spent every summer as a teen camping at Lee Abbey, which is just on the other side of the Valley of Rocks. I haven’t been here in ten years, but it turns out Lynton hasn’t changed one bit. All the charity shops and gift boutiques on Queen St are still there, as well as the Art & Craft Centre and the Community Bookshop.
The weather took a turn for the worse with crazy winds and driving rain, so Matt and I opted for a bus back up to Countisbury. The Exmoor Coaster cost us a hefty £10.40 for two singles up the hill, but this was a price worth paying in our books, and we thoroughly enjoyed the much flatter walk from Countisbury across to the lighthouse.
That evening the sunset really decided to show us what it could do. After an insanely delicious paella from chef Christian, we huddled outside with our wine, braving the drizzle for a spectacular light show which included a double rainbow!
Sunday: Countisbury and Watersmeet
After a relaxed morning at the lighthouse, we were recovered and ready for another day of walking – in the sun this time. We had lunch booked at a pub in Countisbury, a short 40 minutes walk up from the Foreland, with a plan to venture down to Watersmeet afterwards for a paddle in the East Lyn river. Check out the route on the map.
What a relief to be out of the mist! We could finally see up the coast to Bossington Beach, although we were even happy to just see 10ft in front of us.
As we turned the corner after the first mile, we couldn’t believe how well we could see compared to the day before – Lynmouth and Lynton were clearly visible across the bay, and you could even see Crock Point in the distance. What a difference a day makes.
The Blue Ball Inn, Countisbury Hill
Counticbury is quite a funny village, if you can even call it that. It appears to be made up of a pub, a church and four National Trust bunkhouses.
We had our table booked at the Blue Ball, a traditional coaching inn dating back in parts to the 13th century, with low ceilings, blackened beams, stone fireplaces and “a timeless atmosphere of unspoilt old world charm”.
The pub is extremely popular, especially on Sundays when it serves up traditional roast dinners (pork, beef or vegetarian). I have extremely high roast standards and I’m pleased to say this was smashing – good ratio of veg, properly roasted carrots and parsnips, excellent gravy (with extra on request) and perfect roast potatoes. And you can’t take that for granted as pub roast potatoes are often very hit-and-miss. Among the rest of our table the fish and chips and burger also got very good reviews.
Trail to Watersmeet
We were absolutely stuffed from our hearty lunch, so it’s a good thing the trail to Watersmeet is all downhill.
One look on a map will show you there are dozens of walking routes around Watersmeet. Ours took us over fields and down into ancient oak woodland, where the path zigzagged to compensate for the steep drop to the river.
Watersmeet has been settled since as long ago as 2,300. Two fortified farmsteads know as Myrtleberry North and South camp, made up of thatched round houses, were lived in by Iron Age people and their animals. This was surrounded by ramparts and steep sided hills. Not much evidence remains, but you can hunt for four preserved Iron Age hill forts amongst the trees.
The National Trust does a lot to maintain the whole area around Watersmeet. They keep rhododendron under control to allow the natural ground plants to flourish, create glades so the rare white beam tree can flourish, and manage the woodland floor to encourage other rare species such as Irish spurge. They maintain over 70 miles of footpaths, survey the geologically-important rocks, and preserve the Iron Age hill forts. And of course, they serve tea.
Our stomachs still full from lunch, we crossed the bridge over the East Lyn river and made our way up stream to find a paddling spot. Caution: The rocks around the river are slick with waterlogged moss, so watch your step.
Cream tea at Watersmeet House
Built originally as a fishing lodge and romantic retreat, with connections to the romantic poets, Watersmeet House has been a tea-room since 1901.
The tearoom sits in the valley of Watersmeet, right on the East Lyn riverside, with the ancient woodland rising all around it. There’s plenty of wildlife to watch while you’re enjoying your cream tea, and we spotted buzzards, blue tits, robins and nut hatchers.
Wary of climbing back up the steep route we had come, we opted to continue along the river a short way in the direction of Lynmouth, before making our way up and reentering Countisbury from the west. This ended up being slightly less of a dramatic climb, definitely recommended.
Another Lighthouse Sunset
Is there anything better than a sunset over the sea? Our last night in the lighthouse seemed determined to show us that no, there is not. This time there was zero rain, although the wind made up for it, and we zipped up our fleeces ready for another evening of colour.
Monday: Valley of Rocks
Monday morning was slightly earlier than we had gotten used to, ready as we needed to be for our 10am check out. We divided up all the remaining booze and lugged our bags back up the steps to the cars – including our rubbish and recycling from the weekend which we had to take to Countisbury.
Having reached 4G, we set our satnavs to the next adventure – valley of rocks.
The Valley of Rocks is a dry valley that runs parallel to the coast just over half a mile west of Lynton. It’s popular with tourists for its striking landscape and its feral goats. It has some of the oldest Devonshire rock in North Devon – here there be fossils – and it’s inspired many artists over the years including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, poets Robert Southey and Letitia Elizabeth Landon, author R. D. Blackmore, and composer Miriam Hyde.
Mother Meldrum’s Tea Gardens
Right in the middle of the valley, between the cricket ground and the car park, you’ll find Mother Meldrum’s. This quaint tea garden is the perfect spot to refuel before or after your rocky explorations, with hot drinks and fresh baked goods a-plenty. Fair warning – there’s no bathroom, you’ll have to use the public toilet by the upper valley car park.
South West Coast Path
After our weekend of hiking, we were ready for a leisurely stroll. This easy walk of less than a mile which you can see here, was ideal for stretching our legs and admiring the scenery before a day of driving.
This walk really is for everyone. The path is even paved, with zero steps or rocks to be navigated. The only thing to watch out for is if you’re afraid of heights, as the land drops very sharply to the sea below.
As with anywhere else in this region, there’s tonnes of wildlife to be spotted. We kept our eyes pealed on our way round for gannets, cormorants, and above all – dolphins. And as luck would have it, we were treated to the sight of a pod of wild dolphins, swimming parallel to the coast in the direction of Bristol, identifiable by the sun glinting off their wet backs as they rhythmically broke the surface. Weekend made!
As I mentioned before, the summer camp of my youth is just on the other side of the valley in Lee Bay, so this area is an old haunt for me and feels very familiar even after all these years.
As we rejoined Lee Road that runs through the centre of the valley, we saw a small group of hikers crouched behind rocks, taking photos of – goats! A heard of the famous feral goats was grazing right there in front of us.
Our holiday coming to a close, we all hugged goodbye and some people headed on for a sunshine swim in Woody Bay.
What a fantastic place to stay – I really couldn’t recommend the Lighthouse Keepers Cottage more for any group that wants to thoroughly escape to the sea.