The National Parks of the West Country

The West Country is dominated by two Large National Parks Exmoor and Dartmoor. To the east of the region is the New Forest but the majority of its area is too far east to count as being part of the South West region. Many people see Exmoor and Dartmoor as being similar yet there are huge differences between the two. They do share the fact that they are both wilderness areas that are subject to wild weather conditions that can change very suddenly but this aside they are quite unique in how they were formed and how they appear today.

Trees and steep cliffs on Exmoor’s coast

Exmoor was given National Park status in 1954 and it covers an area of 268 square miles which lie in the counties of Somerset and Devon. The area is dominated by large open moorland which is underlain by sedimentary rocks. These rocks were formed when sand was laid at the bottom of a sea millions of years ago. These was then compressed and then uplifted to form this upland region.

The highest point of the park is Dunkery Beacon at 1,703 feet which is also the highest point in Somerset. The soils of the park are generally thin and infertile. This has resulted in sheep farming being the most popular agricultural activity in the park.

The park has deer roaming its area and the region is home to some of the rarest moorland ecosystems. The natural beauty of the area is enhanced by the broad leaf and conifer trees that are grouped into many forests. There are particularly evident on the Bristol Channel coastline where they form the longest distribution of forested coastline in the country. The areas are made even more spectacular with the highland reaching the sea which produce high steep cliffs. The region is drained by a variety of rivers with River Exe flowing southwards through the heart of Devon to drain into the English Channel. Other rivers, such as the East Lynn and the West Lynn flowing northwards before emptying in the Bristol Channel at Lynton and Lynmouth.

This village was the scene for the catastrophic flood that took place on the 16th August 1952 that killed 34 people. The area was subject to 8.9 inches of rainfall in 24 hours and debris in the river caused a dam of water being built up on the river Lynn. When the dam broke a huge wall of water crashed down on the village causing extensive damage and loss of life.

Great Staple Tor on Dartmoor

Dartmoor also consists of moorland but the rocks underneath the park are not sedimentary they are granites. The region contains the largest area of granite in the country. It was formed millions of years ago beneath the surface as a Batholith was formed. This was a huge reservoir of molten lava that solidified under the overlying sedimentary rocks. Over time these rocks were firstly uplifted by plate tectonics and the sedimentary rocks have been eroded and weathered away. The scenery that has been left behind is quite unique with moorland surviving on the Peat type soils and there are outcrops of tors left on the high areas.

The tors are large boulders of granite that has been left behind as the other smaller granite has been weathered away. Despite granite being a hard rock it is susceptible to chemical weathering and on Dartmoor where the rock has dense joints and fractures, the chemicals break down the rocks easily.  If the boulders do not have many joints, then they are stronger and survive.

The landscape is often tough and bleak and has proved to be an excellent location for the British Army to train with the Ministry of Defence owning 14% of the Park. Dartmoor is drained by numerous rivers as the climate is extremely wet. These rivers have cut valleys into the granite and have provided the best scenery on the moor. Dartmoor every year hosts the Ten Tors Challenge for 14-19-year olds which is a series of different walks between the ten tours attracting around 2400 entrants. The moor is a popular destination for visitors seeking a wilderness experience.