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Exmoor: England's spectacular heathery moorland

By Susan WintschSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 1982

Exmoor, England

Within the space of a few square miles on a high, boggy plateau called the Chains in southwest England, emerge four rivers. The Exe and the Barle trickle slowly down to the southeast, dissecting the heather moors of Somerset. Their roughly parallel, open valleys become steep and heavily wooded before merging south of Dulverton. Just over the crest from the Barle's headwaters surface the trickles that will coalesce into the West Lyn River. Its short, torrential journey to the Bristol Channel parallels that of Hoar Oak Water, a stream built from three other Chains feeder streams.

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An introduction to Exmoor, England's second-smallest national park in Somerset and Devon Counties, might well begin with this remote, quaggy watershed. Brooding in profound silence over the variegated landscapes carved by its rivers, The Chains plateau is the western end of Exmoor's major topographic feature - an undulating moorland platform that plunges steeply toward a rocky northern coast, more gently to the south, where it is creased by the Barle and Exe valleys.

To a hiker on a wet day, the high-flung acres of grass and deer sedge in this area can seem endless. Here one can lose sight of how dramatically landscapes change over relatively short distances within the park's 265 square miles - from moor to wooded valley, valley to rugged coast, even from one moor to another. A few miles south of the Chains, across the Barle, arise hills of vastly different character, slopes blanketed in springy purple heather, which dries quickly after a rain, and bright yellow gorse.

Because of its close-contained diversity, Exmoor is becoming one of British tourism's primary stomping grounds. About a quarter of the park is open moorland , upon which farmers have grazed their stock for centuries. The liaisons between man and moor have their origins in an even remoter past, for literally thousands of barrows, stone monuments, and other Bronze Age archaeological relics dot these uplands. Another 10 percent of the park is natural woodland, concentrated primarily in the river and stream valleys. The rest of Exmoor, including the recently conifered Brendon Hills in the east, is comprised of a human and cultural landscape at least as striking as the river and upland geography that give the area its name.

As is typical of Britain's National Parks, Exmoor is, for the most part, privately owned agricultural land. Many of its hill farms, tucked below the moors in protected valleys, are centuries old, dating perhaps from the Saxon era. Others were more recently carved from the one-time royal hunting preserve of ''Exmoor Forest'' - not a forest at all, but the park's central grasslands encircling and including the Chains. The story of the 19th-century reclamations undertaken by the Knight family, who purchased the land from the Crown, figures prominently in Exmoor's past.

Today Exmoor's hill farms offer some of the park's finest bed-and-breakfast accommodations, in settings at once historically evocative and vibrant with daily activity. They contribute one of the most distinctive features of the park's landscape in the miles of beech hedge that fences and protects livestock. These high botanical weather breakers have irked motorists craning for vistas of Exmoor's heather-clad hills; but they contain their own diverse ecosystems, worthy of close observation.

But to attribute Exmoor's unique flavor to the juxtaposition of natural wilderness and intricately hedgerowed fields is unfair to its villages. These towns and hamlets, with their lovely Celtic or Saxon names, are as unpredictable as the Exmoor countryside. Secluded little Selworthy in the park's northeast corner, with its cob and thatch cottages, is but a few miles from Dunster, whose magnificent castle and deer park afford a bold vista to the sea. The sister villages of Lynton and Lynmouth, 20 miles westward on Exmoor's panoramic coastal road have developed yet a different character, sharing a niche along the craggy coastal cliffs just below Watersmeet, where the East and West Lyn Rivers converge in a rush.