England's rugged coast a favorite of the British

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Special to The Times

Exmoor is one of England's smallest national parks, but it packs a grand variety of natural attractions within its borders: magnificent coastal bluffs, lush woodland, tumbling streams.

Despite all this wonderful countryside, don't expect to meet many Americans on the trails. Although Exmoor has long been a favorite of British ramblers, the region has largely escaped the attention of Americans, most of whom head for the Lake District, the Cotswold hills or the Cornwall coast.

That's too bad, because Exmoor's paths — more than 600 miles in all — are kept in good shape and well marked. I've hiked through Exmoor's ancient oak forests and a lovely "cleave," a steep-sided valley sculpted by a river. My route led past water forget-me-nots and watercress, plus waterfowl such as the dipper, the heron and the kingfisher.

Rare Exmoor ponies, those wily survivors of the last Ice Age, roam the moors. The agile, shaggy creatures are often spotted near red deer, descendants of animals that browsed these slopes thousands of years ago. The red deer can be seen on Exmoor's beaches too — an odd sight.

As if the natural wonders weren't enough, you'll also find what just may be England's finest historical town, Dunster. To paint a mental picture of the place, start with an octagon-shaped yarn market, a reminder that Dunster was an important medieval textile center, then add a Norman castle, a nunnery and a working windmill.

Equally charming is the beautiful Victorian resort of Lynton, perched on towering coastal bluffs above its sister resort, Lynmouth. Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge favored Lynmouth, which surrounds a lovely harbor.

You can learn more about Exmoor's literary heritage by reading "Lorna Doone," R.D. Blackmore's historical novel about the exploits of 17th century outlaws who roamed a part of Exmoor known today as Doone Country. Devotees can hike by such "Lorna Doone" landmarks as Pinkery Pond, Robbers Bridge and Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor's highest point at 1,703 feet.

Birds of wood and shore Coastline and countryside are equally intriguing. The landscape is a mosaic of beech-hedged pasture. Moors extend from the hilltops to the sea and are carpeted with bell heather, bracken, gorse and flying bent, a purple grass.

About 30 miles of shore beckon with tide pools, secluded coves and the highest coastal bluffs in England. Bird-watching is fantastic. The cliffs are habitat for cormorant, kittiwake, razorbill and rave. The stunted, wind-sculpted oaks host an unusual mix of shorebirds and woodland birds, including fulmars, jays, woodpeckers and oystercatchers.

Diverse walking routes include bluff-top paths tracing the edge of the North Devon and Somerset coastlines. The Somerset and North Devon Coast Path (a segment of the South West Coast Path National Trail) meanders atop high bluffs and hogback rises. The path keeps a safe distance from the edge of the cliffs, some of which tower 800 feet above the water, but it still delivers stunning views.

One of my favorite paths leads through the Valley of Rocks and across oddly shaped peaks populated by wild goats. You can get other ideas by visiting the park's five visitor centers, which have interpretive exhibits and information about trails, public transport and lodging. The park sells pamphlets with maps of loop trails (what the British call circular walks).

Staff and highly trained volunteers lead a variety of walks with intriguing names, such as "In the Footsteps of Coleridge," "Seaside Safari," "Evening Deer Spotting," "Moorland Highs and Lows" and "Butterflies at Ashton Cleave." The cost is about $5 to $8 for each adult; children younger than 16 and full-time students walk free.

John McKinney offers other tips at http://www.thetrailmaster.com .

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