For the best chance of seeing deer, follow this route early in the morning (around 7am) or at dusk.
Start at Ashcombe car park in Simonsbath. From the upper car park, follow the public footpath uphill though deciduous woodland. As you exit above the trees, the path bends in a hairpin to the left. Follow the steps down into a shady combe, carpeted with ferns. Cross a stream, bearing right and through a gate. Follow the path steeply uphill to open grassland, bearing right towards yellow markers that signpost the footpath. Look out for buzzards and moorland birds. Still following yellow markers, go through a gate; follow the path along a ridge, then to the left across a stream. Turn right and continue over the brow of the hill through a boggy area (wellies will come in handy here). Go through the gate. Turn left and follow the fence until you reach a road.
Walk right along the road, following signs to Exe Head. Pause at the lay-by and look out over a breathtaking panorama of Prayway Meads. Use binoculars to scan the moors for rutting red deer and hind harems. Go through the gate in the lay-by and follow the track for 60 metres before passing through a large gate on the right. Turn left and follow the boundary to the next gate. Go through, then downhill for a few metres to another gate. Now is your chance to go on an optional off-road exploration of Exmoor Forest (not actually a forest, but high moorland and an old royal hunting ground). Explore Dure Down (public access land) as far as the source of the river Exe for a good chance of spotting more deer. Listen out for the stag bellowing, a roaring challenge to other males that can be heard for miles. For your best chance of a closer encounter, approach from downwind – red deer have a phenomenal sense of smell and will know you are there well before you spot them. Don’t disturb the deer and keep a safe distance from rutting males. Loop back to the gate to continue along the circular route.
Go through the gate and follow the field boundary downhill. At the next gate, bear right diagonally across the field towards a solitary tree and through a gate. Follow the path as it continues down the hill. Shortly you will have a chance to follow the blue bridle path through an attractive woodland avenue. Out of the woods, turn left down the track, then turn right as the path splits, until you reach a road.
Walk left along the road for 10m, then turn down the path. After the gate, take a sharp hairpin bend to the left. Follow the yellow markers along the banks of the River Barle until you get to Simonsbath Sawmill. Keep an eye out for Exmoor ponies that sometimes graze nearby.
Originally owned by iron master John Knight, the restored mill is now used by Exmoor National Park Authority staff to sustainably manage the woodlands, converting wood from conservation projects into the distinctive signs, gates and bridges you see along the footpaths on Exmoor. Turn left at the road, then right at the T-junction, before following the road back to the car park.
Shaded woodland paths and dramatic open moorland (bring wellies and warm, waterproof clothing).
Getting to exmoor
By car: Simonsbath is east of Barnstaple via the A39 (A399) and B3358.
The Forest Inn Simonsbath, Somerset TA24 7SH % 01643 831341
Boeveys Tea Rooms Simonsbath, Somerset
TA24 7SH % 01643 831622
At Ashcombe car park, Simonsbath.
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL9. Grid ref: 775 395
Simonsbath Sawmill, guided tours take place once a month, 1.5hrs/£3. % 01398 322211
The Exmoor Forest Inn Exmoor National Park, Simonsbath, Somerset TA24 7SH. % 01643 831341 www.exmoorforestinn.co.uk En-suite double room with bed and breakfast from £80 per room per night.
For information on ranger-led walks, pick up a copy of Exmoor Visitor, available at tourist information centres and all across the Exmoor National Park.