Travel: Trains, boats and lanes

Bob Jenkins heads out to the south-west and finds Norman castles, alternative therapy and people who actually like public transport
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The Independent Travel
PUBLIC transport is one of the most unromantic terms in the English language, conjuring up traumatic memories of train delays caused by leaves, frozen points or signal failure. And, oh yes, the horror of cowering under a buckled umbrella at a rainswept bus stop praying for the arrival of the 46B.

No wonder we jump into a car every chance we get, even though lots of us are environmentally aware, worry about the ozone layer and make regular visits to the bottle bank.

But, in fact, there is a Utopia down in the south-west of England where public transport not only works, but is a bit of a joy. You can take an InterCity train to deepest Devon safe in the knowledge that, once there, you won't be blighted by the absence of wheels. Welcome to the Dart Valley, land of steam trains and pleasure boats.

The main line journey beyond Exeter whets the appetite. The train offers fine views of the Exe estuary, then runs beside the sea past resorts with evocative Devonshire names such as Dawlish and Teignmouth.

Alighting at Totnes, the ordinary looking station doesn't prepare you for the town. It's unique, an odd mix of the historic, the healthy and the hip. Devon yokels? Not a bit, this is a natural health capital. If you want osteopathy, spinal touch or soul retrieval, it's heaven.

At the heart of things is the Arcturus Centre in Fore Street. It's the place to browse through books on self- development and complementary medicine, invest in a healing crystal or take to the first-floor floatroom for ultimate relaxation in waters saturated with Epsom salts. Even for regular tourists more used to drinking the stuff than having a bath in it, Totnes has much to offer. The steep, narrow main street is a real tonic; with picturesque old buildings such as the black-and-white timbered Totnes Museum, once an Elizabethan merchant's house.

Straddling the street is East Gate Arch, ravaged by fire in 1990, but happily now restored. Uphill past quaint slate-hung houses is the Butterwalk, a fine Tudor shopping arcade below topsy-turvy overhanging buildings.

But my favourite spot is the Norman castle, a motte and bailey on a man-made mound. The keep gives fine views but it's the walled garden below that inspires. Shaded by an old holm oak, it's supremely tranquil. Who needs stress counselling when you can have castle therapy?

There's plenty of wholesome food in Totnes to refresh the body. Toko Satay (Indonesian) and the Willow (vegetarian) are tempting. Also a host of bakeries and "delis" make a picnic as easy as pie. Grab a slice of home-made Devon Rustic from the splendid Ticklemore cheese shop near the Plains and tuck in at Vire Island's mid-river park.

But no falling asleep afterwards, it's time to ride public transport. This is the Primrose Line steam train that departs from Totnes Littlehempston station just along the river. The destination is Buckfastleigh and it is a seven- mile ride on the old Great Western branch line meandering beside the River Dart through leafy countryside.

Close to Buckfastleigh station is a butterfly farm and otter sanctuary. Or it's an easy walk to Buckfast Abbey, the country's only medieval monastery to have been completely restored in modern times. The Benedictine monks are famous for making tonic wine and honey and heavenly souvenirs can be bought in the Abbey gift shop.

After a couple of nights in Totnes, I took the scenic river boat to Dartmouth. A Round Robin ticket made life easy. It has four parts: boat, Dartmouth- Kingswear ferry, steam train between Kingswear and Paignton and bus back to Totnes. It can be done in any direction, at any speed.

The wildlife that can be spotted during the leisurely Dart cruise is startling A jolly crewman's commentary pinpointed herons, cormorants, Canada geese and salmon, but it was the bobbing heads of grey seals that had everyone rushing to the side of the boat. There are sights to behold amid the rolling Devon landscape too: vineyards, lovely wooded banks, pretty riverside villages such as Dittisham and a creek leading to Tuckenhay, site of Keith Floyd's old pub-restaurant. "I dunno how it went bust," said the Tannoy voice, "it was pricey enough."

And so to Dartmouth. It's nautical but nice - a forest of masts, a broad estuary and wooded slopes. Every craft is in view: yachts, pleasure cruisers, Navy vessels, rowing boats, old sailing ships.The town is attractive with narrow streets, stepways and pretty gardens. Yet it's the panoramas of the river that make it truly special. For the finest views, take the one-mile walk to the 500-year-old cliff castle, dramatically set at the very mouth of the river. Then make a grand return to town on the inexpensive little castle ferry.

It takes the scenic route past Bayards Cove the cobbled quay where the Pilgrim Fathers called on their way to New England in 1620.

A much-photographed spot nearby is the 14th- century Cherub Inn, all timber and colourful hanging baskets. The fish here is very good.

Royal Castle Hotel at the heart of Dartmouth on the Boat Float is a popular spot for bar meals. It also scores for its emphasis on green tourism, as one of the passions of owner, Nigel Way, is that guests should be encouraged to use local transport. Bedrooms each have their own Green File including a section emphatically headed, "38 things to do without your car".

One of them is the steam railway to Paignton from Kingswear, reached by a quick ferry hop across the river. And so aboard my second steam train of the trip, pulled by Goliath, an old Great Western loco. After chuffing through beautiful woods high above the Dart, we set out across country, soon reaching the Torbay seaside. Young and old on the beach turned to wave joyfully at us, as if we were long-lost relatives. How civilised life becomes without cars.

dart valley fact file

Tourist Information: Totnes (0l8O3 863168); Dartmouth (01803 834224). Free South Hams holiday guide from Information Centre, Leonards Road, Ivybridge, Devon PL21 OSL (01752 897035), e-mail: holidays south-hams-

Royal Castle Hotel, Dartmouth (01803 833033).

Great Western and Virgin trains run to Totnes from London, the Midlands, North and Scotland (0345 484950).

Dart cruises every day from March (01803 834488); South Devon Railway's Primrose Line (01364 642338) and Paignton & Dartmouth

Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway (01803 555872) restart for Easter. Round Robin pounds 9.90.