Discover: Secret Devon

Devon beyond the brochure...
Plan a peaceful trip to a land of golden coves, charming villages and hidden delights.

Words: Simon Heptinstall

Boats docked at Dartmouth Harbor, Devon, England

One sunny summer’s day I fell asleep on a sandy patch of Budleigh Salterton beach. Nothing remarkable about that… except that I was the only person on the whole seafront. Another time I took my two children to a remote Devon ‘pub’ run by an elderly lady in her farmhouse. We were the only customers, which was just as well: we took up all the seats. And once, my wife and I stayed at a Dartmoor holiday cottage that was so isolated, we were given its map reference in case we had to call emergency services. We went walking every day, saw wild ponies galore, but never another human.

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So when people say Devon is overcrowded, I know they haven’t strayed far from the tourist trail. Yes, Devon is one of the UK’s biggest and most popular holiday regions. Thankfully, however, it has more than enough seaside and countryside to accommodate us all.

It’s England’s third largest county, and the only one with two separate coastlines. These span more than 200 miles of coves, inlets and beaches. And there are two National Parks, two World Heritage sites, and thousands of villages and beaches to explore.

Local Knowledge
The secret, of course, is to avoid tourist honey-pots and ask locals for the best places. As someone who was bought up in Devon and has written about it for 20 years, I hope I qualify, too. But I’ll start by contradicting myself. Some of the big tourist sights like, say, Clovelly, Exeter Cathedral Close and Plymouth Waterfront, are unmissable. Okay, they can be busy – but not as busy as the main seaside resorts on a sunny day in August. All you have to do is time visits carefully to miss the crowds.

As for the seaside, yes, it’s the main attraction for most visitors. But you don’t have to queue for expensive car parks at overcrowded beaches. It is easy to escape throngs and thongs. Some of Devon’s best beaches are almost empty… if you know where they are. In the north, try Lee Bay (near Ilfracombe), Woody Bay (near Lynmouth), Watermouth Bay (near Combe Martin), Putsborough (near Woolacombe) and Peppercombe (near Clovelly). On the south coast, find crowd-free spots at Branscombe (near Sidmouth), Ness Beach (near Teignmouth), Maidencombe (near Torquay) and Soar Mill Cove (near Salcombe). My favourite is Rockham, which is hidden round a headland from Woolacombe. It’s a perfect golden beach framed by rock pools and surrounded by National Trust land, so there are no buildings. There’s not even a road… just a path from the hamlet of Mortehoe half a mile away.

And don’t neglect the less-well-known Devon stretch of Britain’s Jurassic Coast. This south-eastern corner of Devon is a big chunk of unspoiltness. It includes the classic up-and-down pastures of the Blackdown Hills; and market towns such as Ottery St Mary and Honiton with family-owned shops selling antiques, prime Devon beef and wellington boots in equal quantities.

At one end is the Exe Estuary. As a migratory stop-over, it’s a birdwatchers’ dream, and often looks as tranquil as a water-colour painting. From Exmouth’s two-mile sandy beach, the ancient Jurassic rocks lead all the way to Seaton, where a quirky little electric tram trundles down the riverbank to the sea. This south-east Devon coast is a rollercoaster of swooping cliffs, genteel resorts and little-used beaches; such as those at Orcombe (near Exmouth), Jacob’s Ladder (descend Sidmouth’s red sandstone cliffs by an old white wooden staircase) and Branscombe, which has a cracking beach café and mountainous coast paths.

Up in the Blackdown Hills you may find locals such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall harvesting his cabbages and Kirstie Allsopp scouring craft shops… or stumble upon the Luppitt Inn. It’s a pub that epitomizes Devonshire charm. Don’t expect music or a gourmet menu. The ‘pub’ is just 92-year-old Mary Wright’s tiny sitting room. The venerable landlady is renowned for handing out puzzles and pens to test new customers. Beer pours from a barrel supplied by Otter Brewery, just up the muddy lane.

Ilfracombe, North Devon, England, UK

Quirky Country Pubs
Not all Devon pubs are like this, of course, but The Bridge (www.cheffers.co.uk/bridge.html) at Topsham with its seating area behind the bar, the simple flag-stoned room at the Drewe Arms (www.thedrewearmsinn.co.uk) at Drewsteignton, and the Cider Bar (http://tinyurl.com/ciderbar) in Newton Abbott that only serves cider, come close. 

From Appledore to Zeal, Devon really seems to have more quirkily interesting pubs than elsewhere and they often provide the best-value food and accommodation. Indeed, the highlight of your holiday might be watching wildlife from the window while enjoying the signature pork roulade at the Michelin-starred Mason’s Arms (www.masonsarmsdevon.co.uk) in the tiny thatched hamlet of Knowstone north of Tiverton or the crab dishes at the creekside Millbrook Inn (www.millbrookinnsouthpool.co.uk) at Southpool near Kingsbridge. The local organic pork chops at the Culm Valley Inn (www.culmvalleyinn.co.uk) near Culmstock are renowned, too. And you may even see pop singer and local girl Joss Stone popping in for a drink here.

Tranquil Coastline
Devon’s other great unspoilt corner is the north west. Most visitors race past on the A39 heading for Cornwall’s much-hyped coast. They by-pass the Hartland Peninsula’s rocky shores and bleak farmland. This creates the perfect place for quietly browsing galleries of the artist community drawn to Hartland village’s white-washed cottages. Lanes to the west stop dead at Hartland Quay, where the grey Atlantic batters against jaws of black rock. Cliffs march to the horizon either side. The quay was demolished by monstrous waves 100 years ago. There’s a wide beach but I’ve never seen anyone dare swim. Walk north to a lighthouse or south to see cliff waterfalls. Perched on the rocks, the Hartland Quay Hotel (www.hartlandquayhotel.com) has an atmospheric bar and shipwreck museum. Best of all, it sells local ale, hot pasties and ice cream from a nearby farm.

Empty Hills, Sleepy Valleys
There’s even more empty countryside among the bleak rock-topped hills of Dartmoor. Try walks from the moorland village of Belstone where sheep and ponies wander the streets, or warm yourself at an open fire that has been burning for more than 150 years at the isolated Warren House Inn (www.warrenhouseinn.co.uk). 

Climb hills on Dartmoor’s softer, smaller neighbour Exmoor for panoramas across the Bristol Channel to Wales, or hunt down the idyllic Culbone Valley, romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s fabled ‘Xanadu’.

For even more remoteness, sail from Ilfracombe or Bideford to Lundy Island, which is like a slice of moorland adrift in the Channel carrying a cargo of noisy seabirds. There are cottages to rent, and castles and lighthouses to explore. And of course, even out here – this being part of Devon, you see – there’s an eccentric pub. The granite-walled Marisco Tavern serves roast Lundy lamb, a huge selection of rums and home-brewed beer.

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Former Devonshire cider-maker Simon Heptinstall has worked for Top Gear, the Times and the Travel Channel. He wrote the guidebook Devon (Crimson Publishing, 2008) and is now writing a new book called 1001 Restaurants.