The journalist, TV presenter and author talks about the challenge and charisma of Exmoor
Exmoor is my favourite place in the world, but it can be demanding and remote – which is what makes it perfect for an escape.
My grandparents bought our 500-acre family farm after the Second World War, and the Johnsons have been there ever since. It’s at the end of a two-mile, bone-shaking, rough track. Visitors often turn back in panic, thinking they’ve gone the wrong way.
When you go to the highest point of the farm, you can see out over the moor for miles,
across the Bristol Channel in one direction and all the way to Dartmoor in the other. After Dunkery Beacon, our farm is the second highest point on Exmoor – about 450 metres above sea level. You can hardly see another house – it’s fantastically sparse. I’d like to make a documentary about the area one day, as it’s where I feel most rooted.
There were so few children at my primary school that I was in the same class as my older and younger brothers [Boris and Leo].
We used to walk down to the end of our drive with my mum, through miles of mud, and we’d be picked up by a local driver in a Land Rover and taken to school. There were only eight pupils in total, which I loved.
Should rural life really be a fashion statement?
I spend a lot of time in Scotland – my husband’s family own Kelburn Castle, just south of Glasgow.
When we’re there, we’re mostly outdoors doing everything from croquet to shooting, as well as hiking up the glen and swimming in the burn. Scotland has a grandeur like nowhere else.
Almost all of us have that yearning to be in the countryside, even if we live in a city.
Exmoor certainly satisfies that need for me. It has the first International Dark Sky Reserve in Europe. When you go outside at night, it’s pitch black and completely quiet except for the occasional sound of barn owls and the rushing water of the nearby River Exe. By day you see more people on horseback than you do in cars.
Whenever I’m home on Exmoor, I like to go walking, and eat and drink a lot.
There’s a wonderful shop in nearby Dulverton where Christine Nelder makes a selection of sweet and savoury pies – we eat a large number of those! My children, who are grown up now, can often be persuaded to come on country walks with me once they know there’s the chance of a pub lunch at the end. Doone Valley is a wonderful place to walk, and there’s a deep river where you can go swimming – if you’re brave enough.
I’m not sure anyone got the pun in the title of my second novel,
Shire Hell. I think that there’s a lot of fact in fiction and fiction in fact. I saw the countryside becoming like Harvey Nichols, with the same trendy people, food and clothes as London, and wanted to satirise that. I’m not sure how I feel about it – should rural life really be a fashion statement? That’s what I was spoofing.
March is always a lovely month in Somerset – the hills are covered in daffodils and primroses, and lambing season is in full swing.
It’s a busy time for farmers and I love helping out in the lambing sheds. When I’ve delivered one, I want to go back and see how it’s doing. You feel connected – it’s really quite moving.
I have always said that I was against Brexit and that ‘we’re better
together’. I feel it’s possibly a disaster for the countryside but, with so much uncertainty, we will have to see…
Rachel Johnson appears in Sky News’ s weekly discussion show, The Pledge, on Thursdays at 8pm.
When not outdoors exploring the woodland and commons of Exmoor, Rachel enjoys similar activities at Kelburn Castle in North Ayrshire