Devon

Starlit evenings, Exmoor and pure escapism at Elysium

Friday afternoon saw us heading down the A30 towards Devon – although I know Dartmoor and the south well, this weekend was all about Exmoor, right on the border with Somerset – somewhere completely new to me. And I was looking forward to exploring this hidden corner of the county.

Due to work commitments, we arrived around six, carefully navigating the winding roads towards our destination, the golden light of the evening sun making the trees, fields and hedgerows glow a beautiful emerald green. Finally, we spotted the spire of the hamlet’s church, knowing that our home for the weekend, Elysium, was set just in front. We found the gate, drove up the gravel driveway and parked up, eagerly stepping outside.

What we encountered was simply breath-taking – nestled in a small valley with fields and woodland rising in front of the house, Elysium is set in three quarters of an acre of beautifully maintained gardens, where rhododendrons, peonies, irises, and countless other flowers trail in huge swathes, all the way to the bottom of the garden. Elysium itself, a 16th century cottage and former church meeting house, bathed in the glorious golden light, its frontage bedecked in lilac-toned wisteria. We stood in awe, hearing nothing except the playful screeches of the swallows wheeling in the sky above, in awe of the peace that had descended on us.

We made our way inside Elysium and excitedly explored each floor, the kitchen with its cosy Aga, amazingly well-provided for kitchen and a lovely welcome of local goodies. The dining room bedecked in gorgeous pomegranate wallpaper, huge dining table and massive wood burner – the perfect setting for dinner parties. Finally, the grand yet welcoming sitting room, complete with brown velvet sofas and wood burner.

Hurrying upstairs we feel in love with the master bedroom, home to a bed knobs and broomsticks wrought iron bed, gorgeous wooden floors, two windows with views over the gardens and a wonderful en suite with a deep bath – a good soak was on the agenda!

We discovered two further bedrooms down the stunning hallway with Grade II listed, original 16th century cruck beams - each stunningly decorated, and a large family bathroom with a second bath and huge walk-in shower.

We quickly unpacked and trotted back downstairs. We were hungry so I whipped up a quick supper – the kitchen a dream to work in, with lots of workspace and plentiful equipment. Although I’m used to working with an Aga, I opted for the conduction hob and oven for speed (the Aga is lit between October and May). I popped the Bluetooth speaker on, and we ate dinner in the dining room, marvelling at our surroundings. Once we’d eaten, we took hot drinks outside and meandered through the garden in the twilight, the gentle scents of the flowers greeting us whilst stars appeared above.

Opting for an oh-so-relaxing bath before slipping between the luxurious sheets, I feel asleep to the distant hooting of owls, and dreamed deeply.

Next morning dawned bright and beautiful; I pulled up the blinds in the bedroom to reveal the garden below. We ate breakfast in the garden, the sounds of the bees busy at work accompanying us as we made our plans for the day.

First stop – the Tarr Steps. Set deep in Exmoor, Tarr Steps is a 17-span clapper bridge (‘clapper’ deriving from the Latin for a pile of stones) which we reached perhaps the harder way, passing along very winding roads then fording the river by car. Better to take the main route if you have a large vehicle! Constructed entirely by huge stone slabs and boulders, it’s the longest of its kind still in existence, dating back to at least the Tudor times. With folklore attesting that the bridge was built by the devil, it is nevertheless a beautiful spot, well worth a visit to walk over the slabs and watch the river dance over the rocks below. There’s a carpark an easy five-minute walk away.

Next, we went on to explore Dulverton. This compact market town, said to be the ‘Southern Gateway’ to Exmoor, lies in Somerset on the banks of the River Barle. We parked up and explored its pretty streets, home to a good selection of independent shops, restaurants (including the award-winning Woods Bar & Restaurant) and charming tea rooms, one of which we popped in for lunch in their lovely garden.

Feeling revived, we drove on to the charming village of Dunster and its majestic castle. Managed by the National Trust, this gorgeous castle is open to visitors who can wonder from room to room, admiring portraiture, exquisite furniture, and the most amazing library I’ve ever seen.

Outside, the gardens are equally fascinating, complete with its own gravity-defying underground reservoir, an incredible feat of Victorian engineering. After exploring the castle, we popped into the oh-so-pretty village with a host of shops and eateries. We stopped for refreshments in a courtyard café, taking shade under a tree away from the heat of the afternoon.

Armed with some local goodies, we made our way back to Elysium, keen to make the most of our evening. We poured drinks and headed to the bottom of the garden, where we could look up at the house and the tiered flower beds; a beautiful view as afternoon turned to evening, as we sat watching the moorhen and her chicks on the small pond, fed with water from the little stream.

That night, I made dinner using steak from housekeeper Charlotte’s own farm, just a short walk away. Available to pre-order ahead of your stay, Charlotte’s farm produces lamb and beef, and it was fantastic to know that our dinner couldn’t have originated any closer. And it was very tasty!

Next morning after a much-needed lie-in, we had a late breakfast before heading to Holnicote Estate and Selworthy, set in the centre of Exmoor and a vast estate of over 12,000 acres including moorland, woodland, shingle beaches and thatched cottages.

First stop was Horner Wood, a National Nature Reserve and home to ancient oak trees and some of England’s rarest lichens, mosses, and bats. There’s a spacious car park so it’s easy to find, then there are plenty of walks to be had through this ancient woodland, one of which is over 500 years old.

We followed the main path in which ran alongside a river, gazing in awe at the huge trees that engulfed the sky above us. After an hour or so, we headed back to the entrance and stopped off at Horner Tea Gardens for a cold drink – a fab spot for lunch or afternoon tea, also selling local ice cream.

We then headed on to Selworthy, nestled in the vale of the Holnicote estate with glorious views across to Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor’s highest point. We parked up and enjoyed the picturesque walk to Selworthy green, a collection of stunning thatched cottages which includes Periwinkle tea rooms, where we stopped for a fantastic cream tea, mine with lemon scone with lemon curd, and my companion enjoyed their chorizo savoury scone with cheese and chutney.

Tummies full, we made our way back to the car and on to the base of Dunkery Beacon. From here, it’s a gradual one-mile(ish) climb up to the beacon itself, where being the highest point in Exmoor, affords the most beautiful views over the moorland and out to sea.

We had the place to ourselves, being a late Sunday afternoon, with only an Exmoor pony keeping us company. We sat for a while, gazing at the view and enjoying the astonishing silence, before slowly descending and heading back to Elysium.

Before settling in for the evening, we took the side entrance out of the cottage and went to look around St Petrock, the ancient church just behind us. Dating mainly from the 14th and 15th centuries, it’s stunning and well worth a potter around. It’s good to note that it doesn’t ring its bells on the hour!

The rest of the evening was spent relaxing in the sitting room as it had started to softly rain. We lit the wood burner and sank back in the sumptuous, velvet sofa and read in quiet contemplation, before climbing the stairs for a deep sleep.

The next morning came all too soon, as we sadly packed our bags and said a fond farewell to Elysium, our hidden away country bolthole for the weekend.

Elysium is a gorgeous countryside escape for up to six lucky people – and it’s dog friendly too (a dog basket and towels are left for your lucky pooch, a lovely touch). Elysium is also perfect for couples and offers a ‘just for two’ discount of 20% outside of peak season. Perfect for those who adore the countryside and want somewhere that’s away from the crowds, Elysium offers a true peaceful escape away from the hustle and bustle, where you’ll only hear the neighbouring sheep and birdlife – just bliss!

Feeling inspired? Take a look at Elysium here.

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