England’s true character and heritage lies not only in its iconic cities, but in its pastoral landscapes, and nowhere is this typified more than in Devon, in the southwest of the country. Dramatic coastlines, pristine sandy beaches and fairytale villages – not to mention generous helpings of Devon cream, fudge, locally brewed ales and fresh seafood – make this corner of Britain too good to miss.
Getting there is part of the thrill, and the two-and-a-half-hour rail journey from Paddington Station on a First Class coach is a blissfully stress-free experience that went all too quickly, but it did enable my husband and I to relax while witnessing the gorgeous scenery along the way.
The city of Exeter is a good starting point from which to explore the region, and renting a 4x4 meant we could access remote villages and navigate the narrow lanes that wind, dip and rise through the rolling countryside. We were blessed on this visit with mild weather and a mix of sunshine, showers and mist, creating a mystical tableau.
Devon’s geodiversity is highlighted by government nominated ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ including a UNESCO biosphere, the Jurassic Coast (a World Heritage Site), and two national parks, Exmoor and Dartmoor. The whole county is a fine jewel in England’s crown.
North Devon is home to long stretches of beach-side towns such as Saunton Sands, as well as Woolacombe, where surfing competitions are held each year, and pretty fishing villages like Clovelly, which stands on a cliff 400 feet above a quay that dates back to the 14th century, are replete with tales of pirates and smugglers.
Down in South Devon, the coastline has a different appeal. Nicknamed the ‘English Riviera’ for its palm trees and microclimate, this 35-kilometre stretch of coast is home to the quaint towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham, where remnants of Victorian heritage are most evident in the architecture and steam trains chugging through the countryside. One of the many highlights for visitors is Greenway, the holiday home of world-renowned crime and mystery writer Agatha Christie.
With so much to see and do in Devon, it’s hard to choose a favourite spot, but for me it would have to be Dartmoor National Park. One moment you’re driving through lush undulating hills, then suddenly you are in the midst of ancient moorlands, wild and bleak. Its haunting beauty can be attributed to the heathland covered in moss, bilberry, heather and purple moor grass. Here, wild ponies reign supreme, toughened by winter’s harsh temperatures. They roam freely, sharing the land with grazing cows and sheep. There is an eerie silence to the place, disturbed only by the howling wind.
Dartmoor is believed to have the largest number of archaeological remains in Europe thanks to its collection of stone circles, menhirs (standing stones), stone crosses and ancient villages, and many visitors will recognise the familiar images of its ancient granite outcrops, known as tors.
A short drive from the town of Two Bridges, in the heart of the moorlands, we caught sight of Combestone Tor’s twin peaks. Against mighty gusts of wind and hovering rain clouds, we traipsed over boulders and rocks to reach the summit for an overwhelming panorama of the valley and peaks as far as the eye could see.
Each tor has its own distinct shape, some associated with tales of ghostly sightings and legends. Myth has it that Hound Tor was a pack of dogs that some angry witches turned into stone. The tor is also said to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. More recently, Dartmoor was the idyllic setting for War Horse, Spielberg’s poignant film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel. Situated in the very heart of Devon, Dartmoor has its own unique character, a place you could never tire of exploring.
DEVON’S FINEST RETREATS
After an invigorating walk around the moors, coming home to the comfort and luxury of Bovey Castle is the best way to experience Devon in style. This splendid country manor is tucked within a 111-hectare estate to the north-east of Dartmoor National Park. Its oak-panelled corridors lead to a striking Jacobean-style staircase and the minstrel’s gallery, overlooking the magnificent Cathedral Room.
At The Edwardian Grill, head chef Marc Hardiman’s Beef Menu focuses on a nose-to-tail dining concept and features locally-sourced ingredients including Dartmoor beef and artisan cheeses. After a satisfying dinner, retire to the Cathedral Room for tea or after-dinner drinks. Lit only by candlelight and the flickering flames of an open fire, the atmosphere becomes magical and, when the full moon shines through tall windows, mysterious.
The best views are from the elegant, spacious suites overlooking the 18-hole championship golf course and the moors beyond. From the hotel’s grounds, take the wooded footpath running alongside a stream to the tiny village of North Bovey, with its ancient church and graveyard, an iconic red phone box in the village green, and the rustic Ring of Bells pub.
On the eastern edge of Devon lies Combe House, a Grade I Elizabethan building set within a 1,416-hectare estate in Gittisham, a village dating back to the Bronze Age. Driving through a lane leading to the manor, the first thing visitors encounter is the sight of Arabian horses cantering on the grounds. The building’s mullioned windows, ivy-clad stone walls and gables are just the icing on the cake. Inside, the eyes are drawn to the Great Hall’s commanding fireplace and wood-panelled gallery showcasing ancestral portraits.
With only 15 individually styled en suite bedrooms, this place feels like a private retreat. The signature suite, Tommy Wax, was named after a local candle maker – the last person to be hung for poaching on the eponymous hill, which can be seen from the windows. The Linen Suite is a converted Victorian laundry, where the large copper wash tub was specially made in India. Another romantic option is the secluded Combe Thatch Cottage, with its own private garden located next to a babbling brook.
Locals come here to enjoy British cuisine with a modern twist, made from ingredients that have been hand-picked from the kitchen garden. Combe House cure their own meats and smoke their own salmon and sea trout on the premises, too. Service is impeccable, and each staff member brings their own personal touches, making guests feel truly at home.
The whole of Devon is breathtaking to look at. But when you feel the whipping winds of its bleak moors, run across its vast deserted beaches and meander through its poetic, undulating landscapes, that’s when you really understand
its ethereal beauty. Each visit is a revelation, one that leaves you feeling even more peaceful than the last.
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