(Image of Holwell Castle, Parracombe; © ENPA 2012)
Medieval Exmoor is dominated by the Royal Forest. Around it sprawled the commons and beyond them lay a dispersed pattern of settlement comprising small hamlets, farmsteads, little villages and towns (e.g. Dulverton), most of which were in place by AD 1300.
Two earthen motte and bailey castles were built at Parracombe and at Dunster. The latter subsequently developed into a major stone castle. There was also a priory at Dunster and one in the remote Exe valley at Barlynch.
The local economy was principally agricultural with a mixed farming economy showing an increasing dependence on sheep during the medieval period. Around the edges of Exmoor today the landscape is distinctively medieval in character with lanes, field systems and settlements being traceable back to this time. There are also a number of deserted medieval settlements (e.g. at Badgworthy Water) and abandoned arable fields on the commons (e.g. at Molland Moor and Winsford Hill). Around Parracombe and Challacombe were extensive open field arable systems, which are visible on air photographs as strip lynchets.
Several industries were also key to the local economy, with small scale iron production in some of the valleys (e.g. Shircombe Slade) and silver/lead being produced at Combe Martin.
Relatively few medieval secular buildings survive on Exmoor, and by far the most important collection of medieval buildings are the parish churches. They vary greatly in scale and character from the plain but evocative Culbone (image to right) and Stoke Pero churches, through to the impressive parish church at Dunster which, before the Reformation, was shared with the priory.