Mention South Devon, England to a British adult, and there’s a good chance that you’ll see a nostalgic look appear in their eyes. They’re casting themselves back to childhood summers: fishing in rockpools, cricket on the beach and arguments over ice cream. Even for adults, Devon is “getting away from it all.” So why don’t you head to the southwest and see what all the fuss is about?
If you’re driving, you can either take the M4/M5, or for a more leisurely journey, the A303 past Stonehenge. Alternatively, take the train. The railway skirts the coast between Exeter and Newton Abbot, making for some spectacular views.
Most places are accessible by car, even if it doesn’t look like it! Expect narrow lanes and a bit of mud. The area is criss-crossed with rivers, so it’s frequently quicker to take a ferry than drive the “long” way round: Dartmouth has car ferries; the Salcombe ferries are for foot passengers only. At Bigbury-on-Sea, there’s a sea tractor that goes to Burgh Island at high tide!
If you’re feeling energetic, here are some recreational options:
- Cycling – very popular, but those hills are hard work!
- Walking – the South West Coast Path provides some awesome walking
- Horseback – Pony-trekking on Dartmoor. Saves your legs and you’ll see more.
- Kayaking – Explore the Dart or the Kingsbridge estuary by kayak
Since it received a Royal Charter in 1254, Plymouth has been at the forefront of English maritime history (and spawned a few namesakes). Many famous folk set sail here: Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada, Captain Cook sailed off Down Under and Charles Darwin headed to the Galapagos. Oh, and in 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers headed off across the Atlantic.
The Barbican is the old heart of Plymouth, so head here to find out more. Take a stroll past the Pilgrim Steps, along the Hoe, past Smeaton’s Tower (the lighthouse) and the place where Sir Francis Drake (allegedly) played bowls. You’ll see the full sweep of Plymouth Sound, one of the world’s largest natural harbours.
If it’s warm, go for a dip in Plymouth Lido or treat yourself to an ice cream. If it’s cold, fortify yourself with a warm drink from Capn’ Jaspers. Or head over the footbridge to the National Marine Aquarium. Whatever the weather, take a look at Plymouth’s oldest street. It’s called (ahem) New Street.
If you’ve ever visited the Normandy beaches, then a visit to Slapton Sands may help to complete the story.
In November 1943, villagers near Slapton Sands were evacuated from their homes and the US Army moved in. The beach was to be used for D-Day training exercises. One such exercise, on April 28th 1944, was codenamed Operation Tiger.
A German torpedo boat caught wind of this exercise and sank 8 of the vessels, killing 749 men. Survivors were threatened with court martial if they discussed the incident. The Germans never realised what they had found and D-Day went ahead less than 6 weeks later.
Slapton Sands today is a long strip of pebble beach. At one end is the US memorial, thanking the villagers for leaving their homes. A tank from Operation Tiger, recovered from the sea in the 1980s, is at the other. Both are worth a visit.
Dartmoor National Park is 368 square miles of moors, rivers and rocky outcrops (tors). It’s perfect for family days out, but adrenalin junkies can get a fix from horse-riding, mountain-biking or gorge-walking. Whenever you come, come prepared: weather here changes rapidly, even in high summer.
Climb one of the tors, and you’ll be rewarded with views as far as Plymouth and Okehampton. For a gentler stroll, grab a picnic and head to Dartmeet. You’ll probably see the Dartmoor ponies – and witness their legendary ability to sniff out a picnic!
Moretonhampstead and Buckfastleigh are two of the best-known of Dartmoor’s picturesque villages. For something darker, try Dartmoor Prison at Princetown: opened during the Napoleonic wars, it has a gruesome history that you can learn about by visiting the museum.
South Devon is renowned for its beaches and bucket ‘n’ spade holidays. Here are a few to choose from:
- Blackpool Sands – A crescent-shaped cove, ideal for safe swimming and sunbathing
- Bigbury-on-Sea –Flat sands and rock pools at low tide
- East Prawle – Hike down a narrow path to a rock-strewn cove
- Torbay – The beaches at Torquay and Paignton are conveniently placed
- Dawlish – Wave at the passing trains as you sunbathe
If you’re a fan of Miss Marple or Poirot, you’re in luck. Born in Torquay in 1890, Christie was a South Devon girl who nursed Belgian refugees in the town’s hospital during WWI. She returned to Devon in 1938 to buy Greenway, an estate on the Dart river. She called it “the loveliest place in the world”, and thanks to the National Trust you can see Greenway for yourself.
The house has a homely feel. In the study, sit on a sofa and browse through scrapbooks of Christie memorabilia (including letters addressed to “Agatha Christie, London”). There are also first editions of many of her books. Leave time to explore the grounds: they stretch down to the boathouse on the Dart, where you may see seals playing in the water. At the top end of the grounds, there’s a walled garden, greenhouses and views down the Dart to Kingsbridge.
Driving to Greenway is discouraged, so try to arrive by water: ferries depart from Dittisham or Dartmouth. Or there’s the Agatha Christie vintage 1940s bus tour that leaves from Torquay.
Rupert d’Oyly Carte – Gilbert & Sullivan
Coleton Fishacre was a party house. Built in the 1920s in the Arts & Craft Style, it belonged to Rupert d’Oyly Carte, the owner of the Gilbert & Sullivan opera company and the Savoy Hotel.
Head straight to the drawing room, with its gramophone, grand piano and floor built for dancing. The butler’s quarters still display the train times from London – essential for collecting those weekend guests. Even the bedrooms are stylish – with sea views and designer furniture, this is a country retreat to be proud of.
The formal gardens and lawns close to the house give way to semi-tropical wild gardens further down. Coastal erosion has destroyed the path to the private cove, but the view from the coastal path is spectacular.
And it would be rude not to visit the café. After all, they do serve award-winning cream teas…
Food & Drink
South Devon is building a reputation for locally-sourced, seasonal cooking. Sharpham Vineyardis a prime example – sample local wines and food whilst gazing out at the vineyard.
Local specialities include:
- (Cornish) Pasty – Traditionally made with thick pastry and a meat and potato filling, also available in vegetarian and ‘exotic’ flavours
- Fish and Chips – Served with sides of vinegar, sea breeze and hopeful seagulls
- Cream Teas – A pot of tea with scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream. Not available in diet form.
– Louise Heal