Lynton is situated in a coastal cliff-top cleft some 150 metres above its neighbour, Lynmouth. The steep-sided valley of the River West Lyn to the east and the wooded backdrop of Hollerday Hill (244 metres) to the north-west with the sweep of Lynmouth Bay to Foreland Point and Countisbury Hill between provides a dramatic setting. The renowned Valley of the Rocks lies just west of the town. A 1907 guide-book describes the locality as “eminently picturesque”.
Lynton is approached by road via the B3234 from Lynmouth or Barbrook, which links with the A39. The exceptional gradients of Porlock and Countisbury Hills on the A 39 and on the B3234 from Lynmouth tend to emphasis e a sense of seclusion. The only relatively easy access is to the A 39 at Barbrook in the direction of Barnstaple.
The parish population, which also includes Lynmouth, was 1,658 in 1998. Lynton is considerably the larger of the two, and unlike other Exmoor settlements, is mainly the result of a period of rapid development in the late 19th - early 20th century, although its origins are much earlier. The parish Church of St. Mary, though much rebuilt, dates from the 13th century. The name is thought to derive from the Celtic lynn “lake, or pool” and Old English tun originally meaning “an enclosed piece of land”, but later referring to “a village or an estate”
It is worthy of note that the population of Lynton and Countisbury, compiled from Domesday was 425 in 1086, and in 1801 had increased to just 601. The district was favourable for sheep farming on account of its large open commons and oats and rye were grown mainly for local consumption. There were fisheries based at Lynmouth with cellars and curing houses, mainly for herrings and oysters.
During and for some years after the French Revolution, the middle classes in Britain turned their attention to the picturesque at home, and Lynton was discovered and started to attract visitors. Early arrivals at the beginning of the 19th century were the Marchioness of Bute and the Coutts banking family. They are believed to have had some influence in the foundation of some of the first hotels. Poets and writers also visited the area. Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed in Lynmouth shortly after his first marriage. He was followed by William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Reputedly, the natural beauty almost persuaded them to settle, and Coleridge was writing poetry and planning “The Ancient Mariner” to help pay for the holiday expenses. Robert Southey and Thomas Gainsborough were also visitors to the locality.
The population of Lynton which was recorded as 481 in 1801 had increased to 1,641 by 1901. Much of this occurred in two main phases. By 1841 the population had jumped to 1,027, but then increased by little more than 200 up to 1891 when it stood at 1,235. There was a further leap of 400 during the next decade, probably largely due to the arrival of the railway. In 1790, the only hostelry “The Crown” was described as “small and insufficient”. Early in the 19th century, the son of a schoolmaster, William Litson, saw the potential for visitors and opened in 1807 what was the beginning of the Valley of the Rocks Hotel on the site of the present Globe Hotel. The Castle Hotel was built by a Mr. Colley, a maltster from Barnstaple, and opened c.1810. The steep local topography made the locality notoriously inaccessible with ponies and donkeys used for local transport, but once the hotels had become established, there were up to three coaches daily each way between Lynton and Barnstaple. The Old Parsonage, for many years the residence of the Parish Clerk, was demolished to make way for the National School, opened in 1844.
The greatest improvements to Lynton resulted from the formation of a Local Board in 1866 under the Local Government Act of 1858. Water supplies were greatly improved in 1869 and transferred to the Local Board in 1893. The Hospital, originally built on open farmland, opened in 1874, and the Cricket Club was founded in 1876. In 1894 the Urban District Council was formed.
However, one man more than any other had a major influence on Lynton. This was George Newnes, the publisher, a pioneer of popular journalism who established the Strand Magazine which first published, in instalments, many of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. During a visit to the town in 1887, it is said that he disliked seeing horses pulling heavy loads up from Lynmouth and almost immediately provided finance for the Cliff Railway, designed by George Marks and opened in 1890. He was also influential in the development of the Lynton to Barnstaple narrow gauge railway. The Bill for construction was passed in 1895 and the line opened on 11th May 1898. George Newnes had a large house built above Lynton on Hollerday Hill in 1893. He was responsible for financing several public buildings, for example, the Congregational Church and theTown Hall, the latter opened in August 1900. He died somewhat prematurely in 1910, having given away much of his fortune, and is buried at Lynton. Hollerday House was mysteriously destroyed by fire in 1913 and the grounds subsequently presented by J.W.Holman for public use.
Lynton and Lynmouth, having never had a gas supply were among the first places in Britain to be supplied with hydro-electric power. The innovative plant was opened in 1890 at Glen Lyn on the East Lyn river by local entrepreneur Charles Green. The flood of 1952 did considerable damage and the plant did not reopen until 1962. Following a complete renovation and updating in 1985, the plant operates as a visitor attraction and continues to provide a local source of electricity.