Exmoor’s Great Cliffs

Route: From Porlock to Combe Martin; 28 miles


We had originally planned to attempt a circular route around the Exmoor National Park. However, after David Gurnett, a very knowledgeable and highly respected Education Officer, phoned me to discuss our challenge and plans, we eagerly took his advice to run along the stunning Exmoor Coastal path. Having worked in the Exmoor National Park for over 30 years, David was very enthusiastic about what this route had to offer and we were looking forward to having the opportunity to meet him in person during our run at the National Park Visitors Centre in Lynmouth. Our change in route had resulted in some complex logistics which was going to require some extra support in terms of car shuttling. Our wishes were granted when Tom Bennett, an old university friend and fellow Geophysicist offered to help us out and join us on the run. I had not seen Tom for over 18 years and it was like no time had passed as Pam, Tom and I caught up on old times in the pub the night before. Unfortunately, our catch up had to be cut short as with a 28 mile route planned, over 2400 metres of climbing and a car shuttle to factor in, we were in for an early start.

By 6:45am the following morning, we were off and were treated to a beautiful sunrise as we drove to Combe Martin to drop of one vehicle and then on to Porlock where we would start our run. It was also a great opportunity to marvel at the coastline that makes this National Park so unique. Exmoor has the highest coastline in England and Wales with the coastline hills raising to 433m at Culbone Hill. This is due to the topography of the site which is particularly dramatic and has had a big impact on the people who have settled here. Due to the collision of tectonic plates, the bedding planes have been lifted and tilted, resulting in steep cliffs dropping down in to the Bristol Channel, but far gentler slopes stretching out into the moorlands to the South. This has been the cause of major floods in the area; particularly that of August 1952 where the equivalent of three months’ discharge from the River Thames flowed into the Lyn rivers bringing 50 000 tonnes of boulders with it. The Exmoor National Park website has lots more interesting information on this.

In addition to the physical process at work, our Science focus for the day was to be background radioactivity as we wanted to compare the values we got here to those we had got in Dartmoor. David had informed us that we should see a difference due to the underlying Geology and felt that this would be good to investigate. You can read more about the data we collected and the conclusions we drew in Pam’s blog.


Reading Background Radiation Levels


Vehicles in place and bags packed, we started our route along a short stretch of road, before turning right and dropping down towards the pebbly shoreline. Reaching the beach and then taking the first of many background radioactivity readings that day, it felt like the clock had been turned back 20 years and we were all on a field trip again. We all reflected on what an impact those field trips had had on us and how it has driven us all to pursue careers that allow us to spend time outdoors, interacting with nature.


Running Along the Beach


As the pebbles at the end of the beach came to an end, we joined a typically English woodland path, enjoying the shaded canopy of these established trees. This is a special feature of the Exmoor coastline, again caused by the topography of the land. As it is steep and hence remarkably sheltered, coastal woods have been able to develop. We weaved in and out of the trees, occasionally getting a glimpse of the sea and steep sided cliffs that lay beneath the coastline path ahead of us. With the humid air causing us to sweat, the insects took a distinct liking to us. I felt that we were in the Amazon rainforest or a scene out of Jurassic Park as we fended them off.


Running in the Coastal Woodland


Within a few hours, we started the steep descent down into Lynmouth, for our prearranged meeting with David. We had arrived a little earlier than planned so wandered onto the idyllic Eastern Beach to take another reading and pose for some photos. Happy not to rush, we slowly wandered through a pretty park, then onto the bridge across the mouth of the River Lyn. We stopped and stared at large boulders in its course which were remaining evidence of the floods of August 1952.


Mouth of the River Lyn


With the visitor centre in sight, we decided to go in and explore before David joined us. The centre had a wide range of impressive interactive displays, keenly shown to us by the hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. They were all clearly passionate about what they did and this shone through as soon as we started talking to them. Within minutes we heard a familiar voice and knew that David had arrived. Armed with cups of teas kindly produced to us by the centre, we headed upstairs to the meeting room to discuss our findings from our background radioactivity investigation. David also shared some his extensive knowledge on the topography of the region and how it had effected the region. He also told us about all the excellent work the National Park does for schools in terms of getting pupils out of the classroom as well as about the great effort that they have done in taking the work of the National Parks to them e.g. via audio links.  With time pressing on, we said our goodbyes and made our way to the nearest café. We needed to stock up on reserves before we tackled the remaining 1700m of climbing and 15 miles that we planned to cover that day.


Posing for a Shot on the Coastal Path


Fuelled up, we continued our journey West along the coastal path. We stared in awe as the Valley of the Rocks came into view. Hugh towers of rock rose up above us in all directions, images of which are now crystallised in my mind. There were more stunning seascape views in store for us as we continued on to Heddon’s Mouth, Holdstone Down and Great Hangman Cairn before starting our descent down into Combe Martin. Exhausted, relieved and a little dehydrated, we focused on eating, drinking and a quick change before letting ourselves reflect on the day. Some days you know you will never forget. With stunning views, great company and perfect weather we all knew this was one of them. A massive thank you must go to David Gurnett for recommending this outstanding route and his invaluable advice and guidance.


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