Although essentially it’s always magnificent, there are many good reasons why Autumn is the best time to visit Exmoor; the heather is out on the moorland, the light is low and dreamy and the sight of the national park’s famous herds of red deer (at their most frisky during this period) is one of the most spectacular in all England. If like me, you desire to revel in the sublimity of the landscape without having to share it with dozens of hikers or families then you’ll cherish the quietude that follows the end of the summer holidays when you and your trusty companion can walk for miles without seeing a single soul.
But while the early half of October is a typically quiet period for Exmoor, our base for the weekend, Cross Lane House in Allerford (famed for its medieval packhorse bridge) near Minehead was boasting full occupancy; not surprising considering the exclusivity of this award-winning 15th century retreat, located on the National Trust’s beautiful 12,000 acre Holnicote Estate (pronounced “Hunnicutt”) and featuring just four well appointed rooms. Cross Lane feels cosy rather than crowded, however, due to the fact that most guests are out all day exploring, and the hotel’s intimacy naturally encourages one to greet fellow residents courteously come the evening, perhaps comparing adventures and giving it a relaxed house-party vibe that makes a refreshing change from larger, more anonymous establishments.
Completely renovated and redesigned in 2012, the stylish and contemporary look and feel of the restaurant, lounge and the spacious Pluck Master Bedroom which was to be our home for the next two nights shouted luxury furnishing brands such as Nina Campbell, Colefax & Fowler and Osborne and Little, while the owners have been careful to compliment the building’s history and individuality by retaining a sense of the traditional.
Aside from providing guests with a complimentary mini bar, trendy in-room Nespresso machines, Cowshed products and Soho House bathrobes, Cross Lane House is best remembered for its character; ancient cobbles leading to the front door, original beams, creaky cupboards now used as wardrobes, and an impressive hearth in the main lounge/bar to warm up guests after a long country walk – yet these charms would be nothing were it not for owners Max and Andrew’s exceptionally friendly hospitality. I can’t even bring myself to write ‘service’ due it never feeling forced and horribly efficient and only akin to staying with a very close friend who delights in making you comfortable.
Cross Lane’s attentions started from the point of booking when I received a questionnaire asking my pillow preference, whether I liked a newspaper in the morning and what time I was planning to arrive, so that (as I later discovered) someone would be around to greet me and prepare tea and cake in the lounge which would ‘keep me going until dinner’, so Andrew charmingly invited whilst apologising needlessly for the blazing heat emanating from the wood burning stove – the first time he’d lit it that autumn, lucky me. It was certainly a cheering sight after the journey (a surprisingly effortless two and a quarter hours from Bath) and gave us a chance to plan our itinerary for the next few days – taking advantage of the hotel’s collection of local walking routes which guests are encouraged to borrow.
And you don’t have to venture far in order to fall in love with this part of the world; from the fertile patchwork of fields, voluptuous rolling hills and tall hedgerows, to miles of sandy beaches and a sweeping coastline, perhaps best seen from the high moorland plains of Dunkery Beacon, where we took in panoramic views of the Bristol Channel and Wales and were grateful to Andrew for having suggested it. When your muscles call for a sit down and a cream tea, there are plenty of sleepy, unspoilt villages roundabout such as Porlock, Dunster with its striking castle and gardens, or Dulverton which was the film location for Land Girls and where I discovered the charming and surprisingly affordable antiquarian bookshop Rothwell and Dunworth, only to leave an hour later with a considerably better stocked library than when I entered.
Come cocktail hour on Saturday evening, it transpired that all Cross Lane’s residents had chosen to dine in the hotel’s restaurant, justifiably regarded as one of the finest dining experiences in the area and proving that reserving a table at the time of booking your accommodation is something to remember for the future. The menu prides itself on highlighting the best local produce, from seafood to game, while the skilful cookery and elegant presentation succeed in elevating it to something well beyond your average hotel food; my tian of dressed Devonshire crab was expertly prepared and extremely generous; my main course featured a beautifully rendered and pink duck breast finished with a glossy jus; and a pear and frangipane tart to finish was a delicious celebration of the humble autumn fruit from the estate.
It was rather late by the time we’d partaken of coffee and home-made petit fours in the lounge, yet there was something so lovely about only having to make a short hop upstairs to our chamber which had been visited by fairies in our absence, as evident by the ‘sweet dreams’ sign on the bed, an atomiser of lavender pillow mist to ensure a good night and a Thermos flask filled with ambrosial hot chocolate. My hot water bottle had even been magically replenished and tucked into the bed in order to warm it. Indeed, I slept so soundly that I was sorely grieved to be awoken by my alarm clock reminding me that I needed to go downstairs for breakfast by 9.15am – I know walkers are renowned for being early risers but can’t we have an extension on weekends please?
That aside, my freshly prepared waffle with fresh fruit and maple syrup, not to mention the locally produced apple juice and home-made marmalade accompanying my crust-less toast, restored my smile, as did the ‘Exmoor breakfast’ my husband’s, and we were soon eager to go on another trek, this time to the neighbouring village of Selworthy which boasts an ancient church and idyllic 15th-century, cream-washed and thatched cottages redesigned in the 19th century by Holnicote estate owner Sir Thomas Acland in order to provide comfortable accommodation for his retired members of staff. Note the bulges in the walls of the cottages which were once working bread ovens. Aptly enough one of the buildings is now the famous Periwinkle Tea Room, yet before succumbing to their tempting selection of cakes we took a scenic stroll through the woodland planted by Acland between 1815 and 1834 to mark the birth of each of his eight children, including oak, ash, beech, silver birch, holly, holm oak, sweet chestnut, sycamore, Douglas fir and Scots pine, and after a steep climb we arrived at Bury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort, well worth the effort when taking in the commanding views across the Selworthy Beacon.
We didn’t get a chance to take the epic coastal walk we’d planned or experience the West Somerset Railway, yet we were only too happy to have plenty to entice us back. Thoughtful from beginning to end, on the day of our departure Andrew presented us with bottles of water and sweets for the journey home and we returned to our car to find a note on the window saying that a member of staff had taken the liberty of cleaning our windscreen, a rather novel farewell but one which illustrates Cross Lane’s dedication to providing guests with an experience that easily outshines many five star hotels I’ve stayed at. I defy you to book anywhere but here when making a return visit to glorious West Somerset – I certainly will be.
Cross Lane House, Allerford, Minehead, Somerset TA24 8HW. B&B from £155, DBB from £213 per room per night. For more information and to book please visit the website or call 01643 863276.