There are no villages beginning with the letter W in Somerset, so we are moving on to W in the alphabetical tour.
In the far west of the lies the quiet village of Withypool. With a history dating back to the Bronze Age, the name derives quite literally – a withy is a willow branch and the pool related to the River Barle, which flows through the village.
Withypool occupied a truly beautiful part of Exmoor, and, on a less damp and dismal day, it would have been a pleasure to explore its lanes and walks more readily. It is situated in the quiet countryside, around halfway between Minehead to the north east and Barnstaple to the west, and has a population of around 200 people. It does have, however, the required constituents that make up a village; a church and a meeting point.
Withypool’s houses are typical, stone-built cottages. They wind down the valley, from one side of the valley, across the river and up the other side. These are workers cottages, and give the village a real sense of community, even in the pouring rain.
At the heart of Withypool is a well-used post office and store. Outside stands an old-fashioned petrol pump, and on the other side of the road, next to a small café, is what was another petrol station; Exmoor is a place for tourists, and, situated at the heart of the rolling countryside, Withypool would have been the ideal spot to refuel.
The main focal point for the villagers themselves, however, would have been the local pub. This particular pub, The Royal Oak Inn, had a lot of its own stories to tell, though.
Author R. D. Blackmore wrote part of Lorna Doone in the bar, while artist Sir Alfred Munnings, celebrated for his portraits of horses, had a studio in the loft.
In the 1930s, the inn was owned by Gwladys and Maxwell Knight, a spy-ring leader and radio broadcaster upon whom Ian Fleming based the character of James Bond’s boss, M.
During the Second World War, Woolacombe beach, situated a short drive tot he east, was used to simulate the invasion of Normandy, and General Dwight Eisenhower planned some of the operation from The Royal Oak.
The spiritual centre of the Withypool lies not far from the Royal Oak. The Church of St Andrew is of medieval origin, although the main tower has been restored and rebuilt a couple of times since then, most recently at the start of the twentieth century.
The approach to the church is up a steep path; while a relatively small building, its location has been designed to dominate and spread awe. The hill is stands on ensures it can be seen from most of the village, ready to call everyone to services and make them difficult to avoid.
Having said that, the views themselves are stunning, underlining how beautiful a setting the village is in.
Withypool is definitely a place to stop off and explore, if you are ever in the Exmoor area. The ting to remember is that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing, so make sure you’re prepared for whatever the Moor decides to throw at you.