Exmoor White Horse Inn
Fancy a walk on the wild side? Muddy exits Devon for Exmoor and a defrazzling countryside stay (and some Beast-spotting) at The White Horse Inn.
Welcome to Exmoor – all wild ponies and wilder walks, some of the steepest in the UK – in fact if you’re in training for the Inca Trail here’s your place. Confusion still reigns as to where Exmoor National Park is, so to clear things up, one-third is in North Devon and the other two-thirds in Somerset. You’ll find the Exmoor White Horse Inn slap-bang in the middle in the village of Exford in… Somerset. Yes, even we got confused.
Here it’s proper remote: Exford has two hotels, one shop with tack cleaner and stirrups in the window, and a recently closed village stores which the locals are willing to re-open. It feels a bit frontier: like you’re on the edge of something BIG and wild (will you spot the fabled Beast?). And you are – 267 square miles of field, woods and moor, and the highest sea cliffs in the UK.
This is working countryside with game-keepers and wagging hounds trundling by in all-terrain vehicles, and horse riders clip-clopping the lanes. Forget the fraught daily commute: it’s blissfully traffic-free. You can go for miles without seeing another car, just leafy greenery, fields and bracken bristling with pink spires of rosebay willow herb.
The White Horse is a comfortable, home-from-home family-run hotel dating back to the 16th century, all smothered in Boston Ivy with the River Exe to the front and a carpet of emerald village green behind. Owners Peter and Linda Hendrie have been here 30 years and are lovely, with long-serving friendly staff who know the place inside and out who don’t mind stopping to chat and field grockle questions. Sir Raululph Fiennes has been known to stay here for the hill climbing, and Stanley Johnson lives nearby so, yes, you might see new PM Boris with a pint in hand, though, like the Beast, he’s not been spotted in a while.
Exmoor was once a royal hunting forest so the hotel feels very hunting, shooting and fishing, with antlers and black and white pictures of historic huntsmen about the place. Surprisingly, neither Peter or Linda hunt themselves. Peter prefers shooting the landscape with his camera and you can see the impressive results on the walls. Though the blood-red paintwork and a lot of the hunting paraphernalia has been removed, it’s in the hotel’s fabric. According to Linda, if you respect its history you have to respect its past and current association with deer hunting: expunging it would be like taking Shakespeare out of Stratford.
There’s lots of options for sitting and quaffing: a friendly bar with bench seating, with corners for canoodling and a counter for perching, and plenty of whisky in the jar’o alright – over 200 in fact. Here’s a sight to make any whisky-lovers heart soar.
There’s a small lounge with leather seats and a more formal dining room with linen table cloths and posh cruets, with views through the bay windows to the bridge and riverside seating.
You don’t have to fight for a picnic bench, even on a sultry summer night, and you can watch the River Exe burbling by. It’s still just a baby here, as it rises nearby at Exe Head near Simonsbath.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Had we arrived earlier we’d have tucked into a cream tea but for Mr Muddy and I, it was straight into a Northmoor Gin, distilled on Exmoor and brimming with spicy citrus and angelica root. You can choose from the evening-only a la carte, or the bar menu which is available from noon to 9.30. As this was during the heatwave, we opted to sit outside by the river, rather than the be-linened dining room and that was no problem.
I started with a crispy rosti, served on a bed of salad and smoked salmon, and topped with a poached egg – dripping with hollandaise sauce and runny yolk just right to coat the crunchy leaves.
My dinner date went for the carrot fritter, with salad and deep fried halloumi. I thought it was a nice touch they brought out the bread and served it on the a la carte serving plates just as if we’d been indoors.
From a generous choice of 10 mains, including venison, lamb, fish, pork and two veggie options, Mr M went for rosemary and garlic duck breast which I promptly forgot when I ordered at the bar so he got oat-crusted trout instead. Blame it on the refreshing gin, or maybe it was the auto-suggestion of the trout leaping about in the river. Still, he forgave me thanks to its crispy, forest mushroom flavour.
I also ordered the wrong thing for me – chicken stuffed with spinach and cheese on a bed of cranberry and red cabbage – just a bit too much like a taste of Christmas in the heat of July. It would have been perfect in winter though.
The chicken wasn’t the only thing to be stuffed, so dessert was raspberry creme brûlée to share with two spoons and a totally greedy scoop of vanilla ice-cream – clotted cream and pouring cream were also on the menu. Heavenly, though two would have been even better.
Peter and Linda extended the hotel when they first took in on from 8 rooms to 28, including riverside rooms in an adjacent lodge with their own garden. In the main hotel, the rooms vary a lot in size and either look out onto the green or the river.
We stayed in Room 12 which got a big tick for its giant size – with a big comfy bed and a pull-out for littlies – and pastoral views over the village green, and I could just about see the stables next door and a chestnut pony with its head over the stable door.
The bathroom and shower was also huge, with plenty of room for two to spread out and not bicker over where to put your unguents. I worried for a moment when the shower didn’t go hot but as it says in the 20-page guest info book it’s just because the hotel is old and the layout. And no, they’re aren’t two baths, that’s just the trickery of the mirror on the door.
It was all very quiet and comfortable, a big TV to watch hidden in an armour, local Miles coffee and Clipper tea on hand, nice toiletries and so peaceful to wake up in the middle of the moor, with all that nature on your doorstep.
It feels very safe here, with a playground on the dog-free village green behind and a wall separating kids from the river. I’d say this is an excellent place to take the kids for a week as an alternative to a beach holiday. For one thing there’s no internet (you can get 4G with EE but not once you’re up on the moors) and for the competitive, you can stomp 9 miles uphill to Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor.
You can also take a guided hack, pet and ride ponies at Exmoor Pony Centre, or go wildlife spotting, including rare fritillary, kingfisher and last summer a family of otter took up residence under the bridge. Wimbleball Lake is just 10 miles away if you fancy a day of zip wires, kayaking, sailing and fly-fishing, or Quince Honey Farm and its new South Molton location.
For those with very young kids, children’s high tea is served from 6 till 6.30pm, there are high chairs, family rooms available and, YAY, the best invention ever – baby listening devices available at reception.
OUT AND ABOUT
When you’re bored of marvelling at how quaint the village looks, the hotel reception has maps of 9 circular walks locally, short and long, though it comes with a warning about Exmoor miles, which feel longer due their vertiginous steepness. You can order a packed lunch and flask top-up or book a guided Exmoor Wildlife Safari, and head out off-road in a Landrover – don’t you try it though, it’s illegal to go offload unless you have a special licence.
By car, there are five roads out of the village: head to Dunster for the castle and tea rooms; Lynton and Lymouth for the funicular railway; Porlock Weir for pebbly beaches; or go towny with Dulverton or Minehead.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
I didn’t see any big cats but I did come back defrazzled, with a plan to spend a week up there in walking boots.
Good for: hols with the parents and families; walkers and riders; explorers; painters and photographers; nature lovers and night sky watchers, (no light pollution); doggy stays; Beast and Boris botherers.
Not for: anyone anti-hunting; non drivers – there’s only one bus a day; modernists – it’s stuck in the last century, in a charming way.
The damage: a classic double B&B room costs £199; with small supplements for superior rooms, children and dogs.
Exmoor White Horse Inn, Exford TA24 7PY Tel: 01643 831229