Cream Of The Country: Topsham

Sailors' cottages and Dutch gables turn this secluded Devon town into a seaside idyll, says Graham Norwood
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The Independent Online

Travellers off to places such as up-and-coming Exeter or the South Hams in the South West will unwittingly pass within a few miles of Topsham, a small estuary town in east Devon.

Travellers off to places such as up-and-coming Exeter or the South Hams in the South West will unwittingly pass within a few miles of Topsham, a small estuary town in east Devon.

Those leaving the M5 and going from Exeter to Exmouth will see a sign ("Topsham: Ancient Port of Exeter"), but a roundabout steers them away unless they defy it and carry straight on. If they do, they find a largely unspoilt conservation area with a tiny port and a thriving community. Grand 17th-century houses on The Strand overlook the estuary, their Dutch gables, and names like William of Orange, giving away the port's early trading history.

Near The Quay (an area serving as a boatyard during the winter and a car park in summer) there are narrow streets with former sailors' and dockers' houses that were considered distinctly down-at-heel 15 years ago. Now they heave with conservatories, lofts and basement extensions.

Towards the railway station, where services link Topsham with Exeter, Victorian terraces and some modern housing dominate. But its pride and joy is the coast. The Goatwalk on the edge of town skirts the water, looking towards Exmouth and its often-hectic sailing competitions. Near the town centre a ferry takes revellers to a pub across the estuary; and a boatyard sits beneath an elevated churchyard with clear views over water to Exminster.

But much of the charm of Topsham - and why I moved here a few years ago - is its mix of down-to-earth and posh, seen nowhere better than on its shopping street. Doorstop sausage sandwiches and heavy-duty pasties from Shauls bakery rub shoulders with a £22,000 painting in an art shop nearby; you find guinea fowl with red wine jus at the award-winning La Petite Maison restaurant just opposite the second-hand books in the Devon Air Ambulance charity shop.

If facilities are ever considered lacking, residents fill the gap. More than 50 clubs range from wine-tasting at a local vineyard though bridge and Pilates, to two am-dram groups and an arthouse film society.

"There's an instant sense of community," says Roger Bourgein, a retired engineer who came to Topsham early this year from Oxford, with his wife Pom. "Everyone is close to everything. There's no through-route in Topsham so there's a sense of everyone you see being focused on the town.

"We looked at places from Fowey to Sidmouth but discovered Topsham almost by accident. Now I find myself buying sailing magazines and putting myself down for courses," he adds.

Sir Trevor MacDonald used to own a flat here, Bob Hoskins visits, the former BBC royal correspondent Jenny Bond is a regular at the second-hand book stall, and a few of the cast of The Archers stay at The Globe - a 17th-century coaching inn located in the heart of the town - when they do a BBC publicity turn at the Devon County Show each spring.

But Topsham has downsides too. Part of the quayside is silted up and looks a little sad; in summer there are visits by pub-crawlers from Exeter; and parking is a headache.

More fundamental is the lack of cheap housing, so the population is mainly long-standing Topsham inhabitants and better-off incomers. This is unlikely to change, either. Although Barratt Homes is building a large estate a few miles away, near Exeter, there is no significant new-build site within Topsham itself.

"It's one of the 10 most expensive parts of the South-west," a local estate agent claims, although the market since New Year has seen more sellers than buyers, so prices have dipped. Even so, the town recently sold its first £1m property and one agent predicts a £1.25m house will be on the market before the end of summer.

Fact box

Cost of living Two-bed apartment from £140,000; three-bed modern house from £245,000; four-bed period home from £375,000; five bedrooms from £500,000.

Attractions Sailing and ferries; cobbled lanes and period architecture; Good Food Guide restaurants and tea-rooms; local groups; museum; specialist shops and weekly market; sports ground, bowling green and swimming pool.

What to watch out for Very occasional flooding on its edge, nightmare parking throughout the town.

How to get there 10 minutes from M5 junction 30; three and a half hours on the train from Paddington, four hours from Waterloo.

USP A historic sustainable town with no through-road. Whether you want shopping, leisure or culture, you need never leave it.