Porlock Weir: picturesque harbour, smallest church & lepers

by rachelwebb

Porlock Weir might be picturesque and tiny, but read into its history, explore the unique harbour and England's smallest church and you'll find the picture-box weir has quite a lively past

Porlock Weir is a quaint medieval harbour, rather like an old-fashioned chocolate box picture. It consists of a tiny harbour, three shops, a 16-century thatched inn and two popular hotels.

It's a dead-end narrow road that leads to the pretty little harbour from Porlock village and while there might not be a lot here, the atmosphere is romantic and on wild stormy nights, dramatic. My imagination is on a high, the tide crashes on to the pebble beach and the rocks of Hurlstone headland loom in the distance.

Smugglers and shipwrecks are part of its ragged history and along with Daphne du Maurier novels triggering my imagination my affection is renewed for this important part of my youth. Porlock Weir is on the very edge of the Exmoor National Park, near the Somerset and Devon border. In days long gone tons of oak logs were exported from this tiny, but in its heyday, well-used harbour. A snaking toll road struggles from sea-level behind the few houses here up to the rolling heather-covered moors, which are home to grazing Exmoor ponies and over a thousand wild red deer. The time to spot these powerful deer is at dawn or if you're not an early riser like me, sunset is best. It's thrilling to spot these magnificent beasts strolling freely around the moors.

Porlock Weir lies just outside the village of Porlock with its one-in-four hill that winds up to Exmoor and is home to Culbone, the smallest church in England.

Culbone Church

Behind the shops a steep path winds upwards among age-old trees, and a dampness hangs in the air. Follow the trail to Culbone, England's smallest complete parish church, St. Beuno's. This typical English church is no more than 12 metres long. It has a grassy churchyard, surrounded by a hedge with the obligatory yew tree, as though it was made for pixies. Its beginnings are a little vague but records say that monks used the site since 430 AD and that the first church was probably built on the site around 635 AD.

Only accessible on foot, the church is still beautifully intact with ancient oak pews in the interior and oak roof beams. A new slate roof replaced the original thatch around 1768, when the priest cell was dismantled. Its sheer lack of accessibility is one of its charms and it'd be a rare day to find someone else at this sacred site.
A tiny leper window in the north wall enabled the local, charcoal-making leper colony to watch the service. The resident priest is said to have lived in the church at that time but had nothing to do with the lepers and devoted himself to prayer.

Services are reported to have taken place every Easter, with only the priest in attendance and occasional services are still held here today, though whether the audience is any bigger I don't know. Having a seating capacity of 30 people let's hope it's only a few.

Leper colony

In 1544 Culbone church was chosen as a site for lepers and around 45 people were sent there. The church authorities gave them only seed to take with them, not even tools were provided, but the lepers learned to grow their own food, forage and make charcoal. The colony continued until the last one died in 1622.


The area around Culbone church was uninhabited for over a hundred years until the early 1700s, smugglers discovered and used the leper dwellings as hideouts and safe keeping of their booty until the end of the 1700s when the area became desolate again and smuggling had waned.


Near Culbone church is the place where Coleridge wrote his opium-induced "Kubla Khan", a poem which was interrupted by “a person from Porlock,” and never finished as his inspiration left him. For a tiny end-of-the-road place, Porlock Weir has lots on offer and a more picturesque chocolate box photo would be hard to find.

Getting there

The nearest airports are Bristol or Exeter and its nearest main town with railway station is Exeter or Taunton. Buses run from Taunton to Minehead and Minehead to Porlock.

38 "Shuttle" Mon-Sat; Minehead/ Selworthy/ Allerford/ Bossington/ Porlock/ Porlock Weir; frequent.

300 Minehead/Barnstaple "Exmoor Coastlink" via Porlock, Lynton and Ilfracombe; frequent. Note: starts from Taunton.

600 Fri/Sat only; Minehead/ Selworthy/ Bossington/ Allerford/ Selworthy/ Minehead.

285 Mon-Fri "North Exmoor Circular"; May-October; Porlock/ Minehead/ Dunster/ Wheddon Cross/ Winsford/ Withypool/ Exford/ Porlock/ Minehead.

Where to stay in Porlock Weir

Andrews on the Weir - run by the owner/chef Andrew Dixon this is a great setting, a little back from the seafront and opposite the car park. It has a great reputation for good food and wine and is an intimate this spot with just five rooms, although that can be a little intimidating with few diners.

The Anchor Hotel & Ship Inn - with new owners giving this hotel an overhaul it’s now a comfortable, antique–stuffed delight with 14 bedrooms. It's right in front of the harbour so ask for a sea-view room for a little more noise but who cares when you can watch the boats come in at close hand.   Tel: 01643 862753

The Bottom Ship - charming low thatched pub with three B&B rooms, cheaper and nosier than the two hotels that it sits between.