Walking with the Exmoor Society: Exploring Porlock Bay

The Exmoor Society is an independent charity that protects and promotes Exmoor for the benefit of all and is the only membership organisation that is dedicated to the National Park status. Exmoor is a unique, diverse landscape of moorland, coast, woodland, and farmland shaped by both nature and people over thousands of years. Established in 1958, the Society acts as a champion and watchdog for conservation and the enjoyment of natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage, values very much shared by Rohan. It searches for solutions to today’s challenges, such as loss of heather moorland, by gathering evidence to influence rural decision-makers both locally and nationally.

Today we have our partner The Exmoor society, share with us one of their favourite places to explore, Porlock Bay. So, if you are planning a trip to Exmoor, why not give it a try and let us know how you get on?

Exmoor National Park offers walkers a variety of different landscapes and wildlife to explore and discover. One of our aims as the Exmoor Society is to provide opportunities to help people enjoy the park and learn more about this special corner of the southwest. One way the Exmoor Society do this is by organising guided walks where volunteers share their knowledge and expertise during walks of different length, terrain, and theme.

Today we are exploring Porlock Bay and the wildlife and geomorphological events that have shaped this area of dynamic coastline. Our guide for the day is Nigel Hester, who has a great wealth of knowledge of the area having worked for the National Trust as Countryside Manager for the Holnicote Estate for over 30 years (40 years with the NT). 

We begin the walk at Bossington car park where a footpath leads you out of the village towards a steep stone track ascending to Hurlstone Point. During the climb, we are serenaded by Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs and Wheatears, the latter of who choose to nest on the scree slopes of Bossington Hill. The climb takes roughly 20 minutes and on our arrival at Hurlstone Point we turn back and take in the stunning view. You can really appreciate the rugged beauty of the Exmoor coastline from this viewpoint. The cliffs running from Porlock Bay to Foreland Point are highly unstable and have been eroding since the end of the last Ice Age over 9000 years ago.

Looking north across the Bristol Channel you can clearly see the southern coastline of Wales. Those with patience and a drop of luck can be rewarded with sighting of porpoises, seals, gannets and peregrine falcons. 

The views looking south-west are equally as spectacular and exhibit the diverse landscapes of Exmoor. On the horizon are the rolling hills of moorland surrounding Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor. Travelling down the combes and into the Vale, the landscape slowly changes from thick woodland to farmland, the picturesque village of Porlock and finally to the saltmarsh and iconic shingle beach of Porlock Bay.

This part of the coastline has not always been this way. Previously a shingle ridge backing immediately onto farmland, this site required constant maintenance to prevent coastal erosion. A decision was made in the 1990s to allow natural processes to manage the landscape as the coastal defence policy was proving to be unsustainable and damaging to the surrounding landscape and wildlife. During a storm in 1996, huge waves pummelled the beach triggering a dramatic failure of the ridge causing huge volumes of saltwater to inundate the farmland behind the beach.

Although a devastating occurrence, this event led to the creation of one of the finest examples of saltmarshes in the Bristol Channel and is far more resilient to coastal change and sea-level rise than the landscape before it.

To further inspect this saltmarsh, we retrace our steps down a section of Bossington Hill and make a steep descent onto the shingle beach at the base of Hurlstone Point. We then walk along the ridge before ducking down onto the saltmarsh – a welcome escape from the whipping wind!

On our entry, we are immediately greeted with the melody of a skylark hovering nearby.  Wheatears criss-cross our path and a heron glides overhead from further inland. The abundance of wildlife here means it is easy to forget how inhospitable this environment is. Saline conditions caused by tidal inundation, coastal gales and trampling through a high footfall makes this a tough environment to thrive in. And yet there is an abundance of plant life here that have happily accepted the challenge. The floor is covered with Sea purslane, Annual sea-blite, Sea aster, Glasswort, Sea arrow-grass and Sea beet. Even rare species such as Babbington’s leek can be found in the ruins of a 1920’s golf clubhouse that sits on the fringe of the saltmarsh.

After circling the saltmarsh, we return east back towards Bossington. This village is so quintessentially English with a charming collection of cottages and a tearoom – a welcome sight after our walk!

On return to the car park, we all say our farewell to each other. This guided walk has been a mixture of great company, stunning views, privileged encounters with wildlife and a fascinating time listening to the knowledge and expertise of our guide. This I am told is a typical experience when walking with the Exmoor Society. I can’t wait for the next one!

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