Exmoor - Minehead & Porlock
Minehead is one of the oldest towns in Somerset, easily its biggest and liveliest seaside resort and is the northern gateway to Exmoor. The town's name is derived from the Celtic word mynydd meaning mountain - appropriately, for the old town is built on the steep wooded slope of a massive rock adjoining the Brendon Hills.
In 1265 much damaged was done in the town by a marauding band of Welshmen before their defeat by troops stationed in nearby Dunster Castle. In the following centuries Minehead grew as a port, particularly in trade with Ireland from whom it imported wool and livestock utilised by local clothmakers and farmers. Considered to be one of the safest harbours on the north coast, Daniel Defoe wrote in 1716 that Minehead was " the best port and safest harbour on this side of all these counties". This view had been reinforced some years earlier when it did indeed remain secure during the violent hurricane of 1703, which wreaked havoc elsewhere. The flourishing years of the 17 th century had proved to be the port's heyday, for in the two centuries that followed, the town and its port gradually fell upon hard times. As with many coastal locations the coming of the railway in the Victorian period proved a godsend, opening it up as a seaside resort. When British Rail, in their wisdom, decided to close the line in 1971 and the future again looked bleak for the town, the privately run West Somerset Railway took over; terminating at Minehead it is the largest privately owned railway in England. Apart from its coastal attractions Minehead offers access to the magnificent scenery of Exmoor, which lies on its doorstep.
The church on North Hill is dedicated to St Michael, is 15 th century in origin and its tower served for many years as a beacon for ships approaching its harbour. Below the church clock a carving represents God holding a crucifix, while on the eastside St Michael weighs souls and Mary tips the balance against the weight of the devil. Inside there is an intricately carved screen, a medieval illuminated missal and an early 17 th century pulpit.
Within walking distance of Minehead is the picturesque village of Selworthy with its tree-lined avenue leading to a village green flanked by pretty, whitewashed thatched cottages - the epitome of an enchanting West Country village scene. The pale and pristine Church of All Souls has a 16 th century pulpit and three lavishly carved wooden barrel roofs, the finest in Somerset; viewed in its entirety the church was constructed on an impressively grand scale.
From Selworthy Church there is a fine view of Dunkery Beacon, the outstanding and most visited natural attraction in inland Exmoor. The 1704ft high summit of Dunkery Hill makes it Exmoor's highest point, affording breathtaking views over 16 counties. In the 16 th century a beacon placed by the summit cairn provided part of a nation-wide chain of warning beacons lit in time of national danger, most especially to alert against the threat from Spain. Dunkery Hill itself is a sprawling, wild, treeless eruption in the landscape, some 4 miles long from east to west.
West of Selworthy is Porlock, with its infamous hill so dreaded by early motorists and still a challenge for those on foot. Porlock's history is documented to an earlier period than that of Minehead. In AD918 it sustained an attack by Danish pirates, who were eventually repelled. In AD1052 the last Saxon king, Harold, landed at Porlock from Ireland, where he had languished in exile, and burnt the town before marching on London. Harold took the crown in January 1066 only to lose it again, together with his eye, in October the same year thus heralding the Norman invasion.
An old mellowed village set in a natural bowl, Porlock is flanked by wooded hills offering memorable bucolic views. Its narrow winding streets and thatched cottages are complemented by the splendid 13 th century church, wherein is the ornate tomb of Sir John Harrington, who died in 1418. The quaint harbour of Porlock Weir is a popular centre for tourists, where small hotels and cottages cling to the slither of coastline offered between shingle and hillside. Not far out to sea lies the watery grave of a submerged forest, which many centuries ago linked Ireland with Britain.