Over Hill, Overfinch
In darkest Exmoor, the writer finds a pimped, £210,000 SUV to be the perfect ice-breaker with a publican yet to embrace electricity
By Adam Hay-Nicholls
April 26 2019
Straddling Devon and Somerset, the rolling hills of Exmoor are precisely where you’d expect a muddy Range Rover to look at home. But it was in its most scandalous derivative that I recently headed to the sticks. I may have been wearing my tweeds, but the customized Overfinch Range Rover I’d borrowed was less Hunt Ball and more Mayfair roubles laundrette. With an aggressive grille, carbon accents and spoiler, heavily-tinted windows and Lunar-grey paint, it had a whale like quality. Inside, it had seats made from ostrich. It was a supremely comfortable place to sit and, one might imagine, deal drugs.
So I was a little self-conscious crossing the badlands in the baddest 4x4 around (asking price, £210,000). After all, it was round here that metropolitan-arriviste Damien Hirst angered the locals by acquiring a trio of shops in Ilfracombe and keeping them closed. You can’t imagine much sympathy towards anyone whose car suggests they’d happily splurge millions on formaldehyde-soaked taxidermy or dot paintings.
However, I wasn’t looking for art – I was looking for pubs. While the rural landscape on Exmoor has barely changed since the Triassic period, the pub scene has, and not for the better. There are very few inns on the headland, and those off to the sides are largely derivative.
The Lorna Doone Inn at Malmsmead has become a bloody tea shop. The 13th century Blue Ball coaching house on Countisbury Hill isn’t bad, but it’s full of tourists tucking into their venison pies. Where do the farmers go? That was my mission.
I have discovered two gems. The first is The Royal Oak in the tiny village of Withypool. There are many Royal Oaks on Exmoor because since Saxon times the forests had been the hunting grounds of the king. Withypool’s 300-year-old boozer is by far the best; the kind of place you might find a poacher with an eel stuffed down his strides. It was also once owned by a Maxwell Knight, the spymaster who inspired the 007 character ‘M’. General Eisenhower also popped in for a pint while the Allies practised manoeuvres on the moor.
Churchill’s preference, though, was The Poltimore Arms. This place is off-the-grid. There is no phone, and certainly no website. It has no address, you need GPS coordinates. It’s in an area called Yardedown, between Simonsbath and Brayford off an unnamed road, and caters for a mix of farmers, gamekeepers, landowners and, at lunchtime on the weekends, hunting types.
Prince Harry once visited after a shoot. Some have actually entered the main bar on horseback. They were already drunk.
This is probably Britain’s most eco-friendly pub. There’s no mains electricity, only candlelight. A tiny generator powers the essentials for a few hours a day. The décor hasn’t changed in a century. There’s a ‘dead wall’ of pictures of past punters and, in the saloon, a brace of Victorian pianolas. But the star piece of furniture is the landlord, Steve, who is registered blind, switches between insulting customers and giving them free ales, and runs all of his business decisions past his cat. The cat is called Fred Hitler, and the cat is always wrong. Thanks to Steve, the entire community and I were shortly like old friends.
Following an evening of generous refreshment, I returned the next day to take Steve for a spin in the Overfinch. A couple of last night’s characters were asleep by the fire and Fred Hitler had left them a present of a dead rat. Steve claimed not to have left his pub in five years. At first, he wasn’t too sure about the Overfinch’s body kit, saying it was a car “for rich twats”, which I wasn’t going to argue. However, on hearing the engine’s guttural bark – think Brian Blessed gargling lighter fluid – and feeling the thrust of its acceleration he changed his tune. “This is faaantastic!” he beamed.
Despite it being a four-hour drive from London, I have started to treat the Poltimore Arms as my local. The only issue is that each time I return I must bring an even more extravagant motor to impress the publican.