Nick Says: Being back in the UK at long-last hasn’t cured us of any sort of wanderlust; in fact it’s just made it more amplified! So of course it wasn’t long after we touched back down and moved back to London that we were zooming off again, but this time to explore the amazing wilds of our own country. Taking the time to explore what we had at home had been something we were both very keen to do after our tropical adventure, and the fact that it was Bee’s birthday (a very special one too) gave us the perfect excuse to hightail it away from the city.
Planning this trip had been a long time in the making. All the way back in South America actually… Bee had asked to go away for her birthday weekend, and had a few requests! It needed to be in the wilderness, have the opportunity to do some star-gazing, and also put on a great cream tea. So I sent off this wish-list to Bee’s mum who kindly offered to do some research, and in the end found the perfect place; Cutthorne House in Exmoor, voted one of the Top 10 Most Remote Hotels in England and Top 20 Wild Places to stay in the UK. It looked to be perfect, and I couldn’t wait to surprise Bee with a trip to somewhere she had no idea where she was going (despite asking a LOT of leading questions).
Bee Says: We set off nice and early, making packed lunches to take in the car. I knew nothing about where we were going other than it was in the UK (no passport required, for once!) and that I had to scrunch my eyes shut when Nick typed in the end destination to the sat nav. Luckily, as I haven’t driven for over 8 years and am a Yorkshire lass, my sense of Southern geography is atrocious. I soon figured out we were heading west… but wasn’t actually sure what was in the west, so it made for a pretty easy surprise. I get so lucky with my birthday every year in terms of weather, and this one was no different. We got great van-man-tans on opposing arms as the glorious English countryside zoomed past, all green and yellow and spring-ing into life. After smooth sailing for a couple of hours, we hit some mega traffic. We sat and sat and sat, inching along with our tummies starting to rumble and our bladders starting to wish we were closer to a service station. And then! We saw what all the fuss was about. It was because we were about to pass this pile of pebbles:
It always amazes me how close Stonehenge is to the motorway, and suddenly idling away in the sticky jam of cars was all worth while. Before long we were back on the magical mystery tour and it was time to take a lunch break. One of the things I always hold dear to my heart as quintessentially British, is our very special brand of service stations. Everything about them fills me with a patriotic pride, even though I know they are a bit grotty and flawed. I LOVE Little Chef, I love the shopping arcade bits with everyone milling around buying magazines and overpriced water and car sweets. I love the feeling that you also get in airport departure lounges; everyone if having some sort of adventure and on some sort of journey. We ramped up the awfully British service station experience by choosing to eat our cheese and chutney sandwiches whilst sat IN the boiling hot car, IN the car park. Why do we do this to ourselves?! But true to form the family sat in the car parked facing us were doing the same, so we all awkwardly avoided eye contact whilst munching away. A quick mooch around the Spa led to my rediscovery of the BEST crisps ever (Cheese & Onion Squares) so I bought myself 3 grab bags that I demolished in one sitting; by now I was embracing a regular theme to the weekend; “it’s my 30th so I can do exactly what I want!” – Poor Nick ey?
Back on the road we passed through Taunton and then suddenly life and civilisation seemed to drop away entirely. One moment we were passing sports centres and banks and schools, the next we were on a seemingly never-ending road that was winding it’s way further through wide open plains, patches of straggly copse and not a soul in sight. It was so dramatic and actually unlike anything I saw on our entire Latin America trip. That familiar creeping feeling of total isolation and wilderness was creeping in. The road continued and it began to be skirted by tall, fairytale-esque bramble bushes and thick gnarled trees that met in the middle of the road creating a dark canopy as we zoomed along. We hadn’t seen another car for miles when suddenly the sat nav showed us the “chequered flag” and apparently we had arrived! Except we hadn’t. We were still in the middle of nowhere. It turns out the postcode hadn’t been specific enough for the sat nav so it had just led us to somewhere in the general direction. A quick check confirmed my suspicions; no phone signal. And then the sat nav announced it had no signal either and promptly gave up the ghost. It was time to revert to more traditional methods aka follow the sign to somewhere that sounds like people live there and ask directions. This worked a treat and after a 30 minute detour, we finally eased the car down the farm path to Cutthorne House.
Nick Says: The place itself was absolutely perfect for what I was after. Dark and quiet, it was the perfect antidote to our already full-on London lives. One of the first things we did was take a walk to explore the property. Not only do you get to stay in an amazing old manor, you also get access to some incredible scenery too. We strolled down to the lake, taking care not to enrage a local goose who appeared to be on guard duty. The sense of peace just radiated from the ground upwards. Exmoor is wild and wonderful, and the type of place you could easily imagine getting lost in for days on end. Which is exactly what we spent the next few days doing. Having access to a car was a must here, as we were able to pick and choose our walks on a tight timetable, but leave plenty of time for lounging around and soaking up the views from the front lawn of Cutthorne House.
Bee Says: Nick had done SO good! An ancient old house dating from 1397 in the heart of Exmoor; a place I had never been before but had always wanted to visit. And the best part? We were the only guests in the whole house. The hotel has three rooms, so it was never going to be heaving, but to have the run of the place made everything extra enchanting and wild. I could barely believe my eyes as I scampered around inspecting the 4-poster bed, the decadent bathroom and the beautiful, quaint details hiding in every corner.
The hotel is run by Pam, Anne and Phil. Something that makes this hotel unlike any other I have experienced; is that the owners encourage you to use it like your own home. We were free to come and go as we pleased; and not just feel confined to our bedroom (although it was a heavenly bedroom!) but to use the lounge, the dining room and the gardens & grounds as much as we wanted. Pam also informed us that whilst there was a key, it was completely un-necessary to lock our doors given that we were the only guests. After 6 months of Latin American hostels and the cloud of fear that constantly surrounded the safety of our belongings; leaving the door open went against all our instincts but really summed up the laid back and family atmosphere of the whole place.
On my 30th birthday I woke up and the first thing I did was tuck into a giant full English. Cutthorne pride themselves on only serving locally sourced, organic produce. And boy could you taste it! Next I was desperate to get out into the beautiful countryside that was winking at us from every direction. A quick natter to Anne and she recommended a local hike to Dunkery Beacon.
Nick Says: Dunkery Beacon is the highest point on Exmoor. Located a convenient 20 minute drive from Cutthorne, we squeezed into a parking spot and began our ascent. While Bee was smugly kitted out in outdoor boots, mine had been donated to a man in Guatemala and instead I was left with my Mexican-mall Vans. Not the best footwear for the trek. We’d also forgotten to bring water with us, proving that we’d taken on-board ZERO lessons from hiking in Latin America. Our return to the UK had made us weak. But still we bounded enthusiastically up the hill, and marvelled at the incredible view of the Bristol Channel at the top. We constantly take it for granted, but we really do live in one good looking country. I just wish we had more time to explore it all!
Bee Says: It felt so good to be out in the moors with wind whipping my hair and a 360 degree view of the luscious British scenery that we had missed so much. After stomping about and having a good ramble around Exmoor, we drove back ‘home’ to Cutthorne. I am not embarrassed to admit that the rest of my special birthday was then mostly spent like this (gotta love a hotel that gives you cocoa-making equipment in your room) I mean c’mon, I had had a pretty adventurous year leading up to this…
(Just realised this book sounds a bit raunchy if you read the text in the photo. I don’t think it was particularly, I just snapped a saucy page!) The sun was shining, so I switched up coseying up on the couch in the front room, with sitting out in the garden. I was sat with my nose in my non-rude book when suddenly lovely Anne appeared from the house holding a gorgeous bunch of flowers and a box of Belgian chocs! Little did I know that Nick had been plotting and planning this surprise behind my back, and amazingly the hotel had helped him pull it off. I was so gobsmacked and it was a really special moment.
The highlight of the day definitely rolled around at night though. Given that the hotel is 2miles from the nearest village, it’s highly recommended to take them on up their daily hotel dinner offering. I remember Nick had fretted about whether to book this, as he wasn’t sure it was special enough. In actual fact, it was one of the best meals of my life! Because we were the only guests, we had the gorgeous dining room to ourselves, and were in the top table all cosied up to a roaring open fire. We were then served an exquisite 4 course meal by Anne, all freshly made on the AGA. The food had that just-picked-today freshness and the portions were wildly generous. The cherry on top was that they even had our favourite Chilean wine, to bring a little bit of our travel memories to the table with us. By the time the cheese platter came out, we were absolutely groaning with that pleasure/pain of being insanely full.
We just had enough energy to roll ourselves out to the back garden to marvel at the stars. Exmoor National Park was designated the first International Dark Sky Reserve in Europe. A dark-sky reserve is an area that is kept free of artificial light pollution; resulting in incredible astronomy opportunities. Being star gazy geeks, we are keen to visit all and any dark-sky spots in Europe and this was a great place to start. It was a little cloudy, so no chance to spot a shooter, but it was still an impressive smattering of sky sparkles.
It felt like the second we’d got settled, it was time to return to the hubub of London. We were so relaxed in fact, that we managed to leave an impressive array of worldly possessions behind; including my kindle, iphone charger and birthday cards. Luckily Nick remembered about 20 minutes into our drive home, so we returned to collect the bits and have one last pet of the adorable hotel dog!
Nick Says: Driving back I had one last surprise for Bee, a quick visit to my brother Joe and his family. It was great to see my new niece again (even if my face scared her and made her cry) and hang out with his wife Mel and my nephew Riley. And the best bit of this added secret Taunton trip was that Joe and Mel were able to lay on a Cream Tea – completing the birthday wish-list from Bee!
Bee Says: I couldn’t have wished for a better birthday break, and it certainly rivalled our Latin American adventures. I’m already looking ahead in the calender to future occasions that I could use as an excuse to return to Cutthorne, as it felt like our own secret little piece of wilderness heaven. My soon-to-be-sister-in-law Mel has grown up in the West Country and was telling me some amazing myths and legends and spine tingly spooks about Exmoor. I’m such a sucker for real life mysteries and most haunted type tales. She told us that the never-ending road we initially got lost on is haunted by the white clad phantom of a George Sydenham, who rides a headless white horse along the road towards Monksilver; the place we eventually got directions (not from a headless horseman thank goodness) and then there is the Valley of The Rocks which is a local beauty spot. According to Everything Exmoor The valley with its unusual turrets of rock is home to a herd of native British goats. The valley, legend says, was the location of the devil’s castle and while he was away his wives took part in a naked drunken orgy with a neighbour. On finding out what had happened on his return he turned the women into the turrets of rock and destroyed the castle. So now you know! I love that so much of this folklore is inspired by the dramatic nature and isolation of Exmoor. If I ever wanted to write a ghost story, I would definitely head straight there for inspiration.