When we were on holiday in Somerset this summer, we decided to visit Exmoor Falconry and Animal Farm. This attraction is set within Exmoor National Park, in a village called Allerford near Porlock, west of Minehead. It was reasonably easy to find by following the map on the leaflet that we had found in our accommodation, but this was just as well as there didn't appear to be any signs on the way.
The first thing that we noticed when we pulled into the car park off a small country lane is that the site is in a beautiful location, with views up to the moor covered in pink heather. There was plenty of parking available, on gravel and on a grassed area. We walked into the entrance "shop", where Emma the cockatoo was busy re-arranging items on the centre table, and paid the admission fee of £5.95 for adults and £4.95 for our son. The baby, being under three years old, was free. We were given stickers to wear so that we could leave and re-enter the site if we needed to - which was necessary, because the toilets were located outside the entrance, next to the car park.
The summer opening times (from March to the end of October) are 10.30-5 every day, and in winter (from November to the end of February) the farm is open from 10.30-4 every day. The winter admission price is £4.50 for both adults and children.
There are several different areas to the attraction, and the site definitely feels "working" and "rustic" rather than sanitised and "just-for-the-tourists". The owners, Glenn and Cathy Powell, run a B&B from the main house on the farm, and there are various activity breaks and short courses that you can book if you stay there, including riding and, obviously, falconry.
From the entrance area and shop, we stepped out into a courtyard area containing stables, chicken coups, and two brightly coloured macaw parrots. Throughout the site, there were various breeds of chicken and geese roaming around free, and followed by cute fluffy chicks, which we all thought were adorable. Fortunately, we didn't immediately realise that the chicks were "lunch" for the birds of prey, at least not until the flying display, but more on that later. On the wall of the courtyard was a notice giving the times of the pet handling sessions and flying displays. Unfortunately, we were too late for the animal feeding, which took place in the morning.
We said hello to the horses and then headed round to the front of the house where they sell refreshments, snacks and light lunches. We had a ploughman's lunch (well, you can't go to Somerset and not have cheddar cheese, can you), which was very reasonably priced, and some delicious homemade lemonade. I felt a bit like I had stepped into an Enid Blyton novel. There was a sunny area in front of the house with tables and chairs, but we sat in a walled garden off this where there was shade under the trees. Along one side of the garden sat the birds of prey on their perches, mostly dozing in the heat but with one watchful eye open. We were also joined by three very friendly dogs, which sat and made "mournful eyes" at us, hoping for the last crumb of bread.
There were plenty of other animals to look at after lunch, including meerkats, pigs and goats. The barn next to the entrance area contained every type of pet imaginable, and at set times during the day you can handle the pet of your choice. Unfortunately, my son was not interested in the fluffy bunny or cute hamster, preferring to handle the bearded dragon and then the little yellow snake - I didn't ask exactly what it was!
Finally, it was time for the flying display. This took place in a small, enclosed area off the first courtyard, containing picnic tables and benches, and with benches around the edge so there was plenty of seating for everyone. The handler brought out a succession of birds, including owls, falcons and hawks, and told the audience something about them while they flew. We got to have a really good look at the birds up-close, with many of them even hopping around the tables. The only slight downside was that it seemed to take quite a long time to put each bird away and bring the next bird out, particularly as some of the birds' accommodation was a short walk away. The display took around an hour and a half in total, and to be honest, although it was brilliant, I wouldn't have wanted it to go on any longer as my son started to become a little restless.
The highlight of the display was the opportunity to fly an eagle. The centre supports the work of a bird reserve in Gambia, and for a donation of £2, you could have the eagle fly to your outstretched hand. This bird was huge and magnificent, and apparently it's very rare to be able to train them to this degree. My husband decided to have a go, and he said that it was also quite a weight. He had to walk up to the top of the adjacent field, along with some of the other volunteers, while the remainder stayed in the middle of the seating area, and the bird was flown between them. This is where the afore-mentioned chicks came in, as a dead one with its throat slit was slapped in each volunteer's hand to reward the eagle for each flight.
Overall, we had an excellent day out at this attraction and I would say that it is well worth the admission price. The owners were very friendly and it had a very relaxed atmosphere. However, the site does have gravel paths and lots of gates, which weren't the easiest to navigate with a pushchair. I was glad that we own an all-terrain three-wheeler, but I can imagine that a "rigid-wheel" stroller would be hard to push around, and a wheelchair-user may not be able to access all the areas of the farm.
If you want more information, the centre can be contacted on 01643-862816, or see the website: http://www.exmoorfalconry.co.uk.