The Inspiration: Exploring Exmoor with Handmade Matt

One weekend in a campervan, and I have seriously been bitten by the bug (and I don’t mean the ticks – more on that later!). The freedom, the simplicity, the romance are all highly appealing, and I suppose there is an element of needing to escape the past. So how did it start? 

My friend Matt is an experienced camper, having converted several vans and travelled throughout Europe in them. You can find out more about his conversions here. Our birthdays fall one week apart, so we thought what better way to celebrate turning a grand old 70 years old (combined!) than a mini break. Matt suggested Exmoor as neither of us had travelled there much, and it looked wild and rugged. Just what the doctor ordered. Mum had recently bought a campervan (affectionately named Roly Poly), so we dropped Ava off with her, dropped a pin in a map and set off.

The Ancient Mariner Statue

Our first stop was the quaint seaside town of Watchet. Complete with a 600-year-old town jail and active steam railway line, the fishing town feels unchanged for centuries. We wandered the streets and felt as though we were walking back in time. A handsome statue of the ancient mariner on the harbour (which reminded me of my year 8 English lessons) honours local legend Samuel Colderidge, whose best-known works were inspired by the local landscape. 

Watchet is clearly very proud of its heritage, which dates back to the Iron age. A small museum, with free admission, shows off an impressive, collection of local artefacts and curiosities, ranging from a hundred year old life jacket made of cork(!) to iron age tools, fossils, and Viking relics.

Being by the sea we thought it would be rude not to enjoy some traditional fish’n’chips on the harbour, while we planned the next part of our journey and breathed in the fresh, salty air.

After lunch we jumped back into Roly Poly, and dropped a pin in a forest car park to see what we would find. We were not disappointed.

A sign from the car park pointed us to a way-marked trail called the “Tall Trees Trail’, so we grabbed a beer each and our hiking shoes, and before we knew it we were strolling through paradise. Dappled sunlight shone through the leaves and twinkled on a stream rolling gently through the forest. The trail soon led to what was marked as the tallest tree in England! We couldn’t believe our luck to stumble across such a landmark unexpectedly. The forest turned out to be an arboretum, now managed by the forestry commission, criss-crossed with public footpaths. We followed one downhill and crossed a ford to the local village of Dunster, another North Somerset gem. 

The village is dominated by National Trust property Dunster Castle, which we had spied looming on top of a hill as we passed the village earlier in the day. By now it was 5pm and the castle and most of the shops were closed, but we took a nice stroll along the main drag, which is dotted with cute tea rooms and upmarket interior design shops. After buying some souvenir fudge from an enthusiastic confectionary entrepreneur we settled down with a G&T in a pub garden before heading back to the van.

The beauty of the van is that you take your accommodation with you. Like two little snails with our home on our back, we had free range to chose where we slept. The forest car park was quiet, clean and idyllic, so we agreed to stay there for the night.

The morning was glorious. I’ve always found eating breakfast outside incredibly luxurious – there is something about breathing in the cool, dew-washed air that is deeply relaxing and invigorating at the same time. It fills me with optimism for the day ahead. Matt made us some electrifying cowboy-style coffee, and we munched on walnut bread and hummous while gazing at the forest.

After breakfast Matt gave me a lesson in keeping your head down while ‘free camping’ – don’t head outside for a pee with a full toilet roll, and don’t stroll about outside in your pyjamas! The morning’s euphoria had led me to be somewhat glib, but as free camping isn’t technically legal in the UK, it’s advisable to keep a low profile. 

We decided to drive into Dunster to explore the castle and village more deeply, and boy were we in for a treat. Originally a middle-age fortress, Dunster Castle has been a country estate for centuries, in the hands of just two families. The house itself exhibits some exquisite architecture and design, from the iron-bound oak doors, repaired in 1470, to the art deco family bathroom. 

For me, though, the highlight was the terraced garden, with views over pasture to the forest we had walked through the day before. In the July sunshine and with the flowers in full bloom it was just heavenly. We enjoyed an ice-cream on the grass, and then wandered down through the gardens to the water mill, which still produces flour and oats. As well as showcasing the mechanics of the ancient structure, the building houses an impressive collection of traditional farming equipment. Looking at all the beautifully handcrafted tools and machinery, some of it made just 70 years ago, I was struck by how quickly it had become obsolete, and felt a sad tinge of nostalgia for a simpler time. After a chat with the guide, who we discovered used to live in my home town (small world!), I bought a souvenir bag of spelt flour – the wheat flour, I learned, was made with wheat imported from Russia, which spoiled the authenticity somewhat!

‘Lover’s Bridge’ in Dunster Castle grounds

After a day of walking and reading exhibits our minds and bodies were weary and in need of sustenance – a cream tea in the sun-drenched garden of Tessa’s Tea Room at The Olde House B&B hit the spot. They had the biggest scones we’d ever seen, and we slopped them with local jam and clotted cream (in the Cornish jam-first tradition, I might add).

Exmoor ponies!

Refreshed, we hopped back into Roly Poly and headed for our next stop. We found a beauty spot with views over the bay and Exmoor ponies grazing metres from the van, flung open the doors, and spent a lazy few hours reading, napping and soaking up the tranquillity. As the day petered out and the wind picked up we decided to head inland to find a spot to camp. We happened across another forest car park, smaller this time and more remote than the previous night, and were soon joined by some friendly German neighbours, which we were pleased about  – there is strength in numbers. Hearing water rushing in the valley below us we went to investigate, and what was intended as a brief pre-dinner stroll turned into a two-hour hike! The beauty of the forest drew us further and further into her depths, revealing babbling brooks and moss covered glens – a fairytale setting Hans Christian Anderson would have been proud of! 

In the morning we had a speedy turnaround to head back to Mum’s to collect Ava. On the drive back I could feel my anxiety rising – all the peace I’d found in the forest was slipping away, the closer I got to my ‘normal life’. I felt frustrated that I had to leave this expereince so soon, put my healing ‘on hold’ again while I kept a roof over our heads and my career ticking over. And then it occurred to me that the van was a roof over our heads, and that my career was never going kick back into gear while I felt this way. What if I could find a way to keep going on this journey, long term, with Ava in tow? What if I could share this peace, and explore the world with her? What an adventure it would be for us both, and what a precious way to spend the little time we have left before she goes to school. 

So we’re going to make it happen: a road trip around Europe next year, starting with my sister’s wedding in Spain in June. The next stage is to build our little home on wheels with the help of Handmade Matt. Stay tuned!!

What epiphanies and enlightenments have you had in nature? I’d love to hear from anyone else who has ditched the rat race in search of something more meaningful, whether that was short or long-term…

PS – the TICKS!! I found three about my person once I’d had a shower at home – an inevitable consequence of Wild Wees it seems.. Another lesson for camping.

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