TRY THIS HISTORY DRIVE: Dunster and the Atlantic Highway
The A39, ‘Atlantic Highway’, is a really sensational driving road whether you love spotting the history along the way or not.
This is one of Britain's best driving roads as it winds across the clifftops with sea views across to Wales on one side and the landscapes of Exmoor rolling away on the other.
Heading east, the road leads across the windswept border into Somerset, then descends the notoriously steep Porlock Hill.
If you have time, turn off to investigate the Culbone Valley just before Porlock - it once inspired one of Britain’s best ever poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ (In Xanadu did Kubla Kham a stately pleasure dome decree…). Walk down through the woods to find Britain’s smallest church hidden away at the end of a muddy path. There used to be a leper colony hidden in these woods. The church has a special window that lepers were allowed to use to peer into a service without contaminating anyone inside.
An easier scenic diversion to take the signed toll-road to the north that winds through a beautiful wood then rejoins the A39 at Porlock.
Porlock has the air of a timeless Alpine retreat, with cute Victorian houses, shops and restaurants right on the narrow main street and wonderful leafy lanes leading off in all directions. The short gorgeous drives to Porlock Weir and Bossington are the best.
A couple of miles on is the National Trust village of Selworthy. This is an unmissabley attractive old estate-owned community in the woods to the north of the main road. It's always worth a wander.
The road leads onto the old resort town of Minehead, and the start of the famous South West Coast Path. This is West Somerset’s biggest seaside resort. There's a lovely Victorian seaside feel to much of the town. The older western end by the harbour is best, east of the main street is dominated by the big Butlins facility beyond.
It’s only a mile to Dunster but it feels like another world. This picturesque village is one of
Hidden in the woods with no road in sight, Culbone Church is hardly big enough for half a dozen worshippers
Somerset’s most beautiful villages. Okay, it's a bit cutesy and museum-ish; amid all the lacy doilies and boxes of fudge, you wonder where residents buy their baked beans but it is redeemed by its prettiness. There’s another large chunk of National Trust real estate here, including a romantic castle lurking in trees.
The main street is one of the westcountry’s most photographed, with its ancient Yarn Market, antique and craft shops, restaurants, teashops and a fine old hotel, The Luttrell Arms. There’s also a Doll Museum, working pottery and the Exmoor Visitor Centre.
The walk right around the church and abbey or down to the Trust’s 18th-century Water Mill are very popular and there is a network of fine paths leading off into the wooded hills all around.
And on the north side of the A39, you’ll find the oddly wide and flat Dunster Beach and a .
station on the West Somerset Steam Railway, the country’s longest historic railway which runs from Minehead through the Quantocks to Bishop’s Lydeard near Taunton.
Contacts For Porlock and around: (porlock.co.uk/01643 863150)
For Dunster itself: (Visitdunster.co.uk/01643 821835)
More about West Somerset Steam Railway: (West-somerset-railway.co.uk/01643 704996)
And Dunster Castle: (Nationaltrust.org.uk/01643 823004)
Where to have lunch
In Dunster, the creaky old coaching inn, The Luttrell Arms (luttrellarms.co.uk/01643 821555) has a fine restaurant or serves snacks in the bar.