The Complete Guide To: Coastal Devon

Anthony Lambert goes west to discover bucket-and-spade beaches, fine dining and superb walking


Why Devon?

Whatever you're after, Devon's two very distinctive coasts can probably provide it. Along the 450 miles of glorious beaches, you can surf or build sandcastles; go on some of the best coastal walks in Britain; enjoy attractive villages with characterful pubs serving great seafood; take boat trips from many of the harbours – plus, there are plenty of diversions just inland to occupy days when there's a cool onshore wind.

It's a measure of the quality of the Devon shorelines that the National Trust (0844 800 1895; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) looks after one-third of the total length.

North or South?

The northern shoreline has few estuaries, greater expanses of sand and taller cliffs, with impressive views along the straighter coastline. The southern coast is more indented, with coves and estuaries. The north has nothing to compare with the cluster of major resorts around Tor Bay, which is the county's principal holiday destination – and is marketed as the single word, Torbay (01803 211 211; www.englishriviera.co.uk).

The north coast has Unesco's first UK World Biosphere Reserve: around the Taw and Torridge estuaries is the country's largest sand-dune system at Braunton Burrows, which covers 2,000 acres and is home to over 400 plant species.

The eastern part of the south coast, between the border with Dorset and Exmouth, forms part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site (www.jurassiccoast.com) – so designated because the beautiful coastline represents a walk through time, spanning 185 million years of geological history. It includes such impressive sights as the Hooken Cliffs landslip near Branscombe, where 15 million tons of greensand and chalk cliff subsided during the middle of a March night in 1790.

Acres of golden sand?

The largest beaches are in the north. Braunton Burrows is fronted by the three-mile stretch of Saunton Sands, an expanse that is perfect for sand-yachting. Swimmers should avoid the strong currents round Bideford Bar at the southern end. If you're on the beach at nearby Woolacombe on 6 July, you can watch dozens of teams vying for victory in the National Sandcastle Building Competition ( www.woolacombetourism.co.uk).

Surfers head to Croyde Bay, near Braunton, for its low-tide "barrels", where the Atlantic swell combines with the sandbanks on the steepest part of the beach to produce exceptional waves. A two-hour taster session at the Surfing Croyde Bay school (01271 891 200; www.surfingcroydebay.co.uk) costs £35.

On Devon's south coast, the most popular beaches are around the Torbay resorts, with a succession of mostly sandy strands along Babbacombe Bay and broad Tor Bay. Blackpool Sands, to the south of Dartmouth, belies its name; it's a classic "Famous Five" Devon cove with a backdrop of wooded hills, and the beach café even serves organic and Fair Trade food. It's cleaned every day, reflected in its Blue Flag status.

Further south, Slapton Sands overlooks Start Bay. This long, thin stretch of sand almost reaches Start Point. It has a poignant recent history. During the Second World War 3,000 residents were evacuated so that the beaches could be used to practice for the Normandy landings. But on the night of 28 April 1944 German E-boats attacked the rehearsals, killing more than 600 American servicemen. They are commemorated by a Sherman tank, recovered from the seabed, on a plinth beside the sands.

Any boat trips?

Lots of Devon harbours offer trips along the coast or up estuaries. From Easter to October, Stuart Line boats (01395 222 144; www.stuartlinecruises.co.uk) operate cruises from Exmouth, Topsham and Sidmouth along the Jurassic Coast, allowing car-free visits to Seaton and along the Exe estuary past the wooded grounds of Powderham Castle. Cruises from £5. Jazz, "murder mystery" or circular cruises taking the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway one way can be combined with the glorious Dart estuary on RiverLink boats between Totnes and Dartmouth (01803 834 488; www.riverlink.co.uk).

I want a good walk

The 630-mile South West Coast Path between Minehead in Somerset and Poole in Dorset ( www.nationaltrail.co.uk/southwestcoastpath) stretches the length of both Devon shores, offering some of the finest coastal walks in Britain. The north coast, u o in particular, can be tough-going, with calorie-crunching ups and downs, but it's immensely rewarding. Along both shores there are long stretches without any source of sustenance or water, so walkers should come well-prepared. It's almost invidious to select the best sections, but Bolt Head to Bolt Tail on the south coast and Ilfracombe to Lynton on the north are outstanding. There are also magnificent walks up the wooded valleys of the north coast, such as the Heddon and East Lyn rivers.

The North Devon and Exmoor Walking Festival takes place this year on the first nine days of May, with a programme of 66 guided and graded walks, ensuring that all levels of ability can discover the region's beautiful and diverse scenery on foot.

Two "welcome walks" on 1 May and some on 3 and 4 May are free, but the majority of outings are priced at £5 or £6 for adults and £4 or £5 for children. Places should be reserved (01271 863 001; www.walkingnorthdevon.co.uk).

Can I ride my bike?

The best-known route is the almost entirely traffic-free, 26-mile section of the Tarka Trail ( www.devon.gov.uk) between Barnstaple and Meeth. It has been created along a closed railway line and follows for much of the way the River Taw, which was the setting for Henry Williamson's 1927 classic Tarka the Otter. Bikes can be hired at Barnstaple station from Tarka Trail Cycle Hire (01271 324 202; www.tarkatrail.co.uk), with prices per day ranging from £7 to £12.

The railway between Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton has been converted into a cycleway and forms part of National Cycle Network Route 2 along the south coast. Route 27 from Plymouth takes you through the historic Barbican area of the city and along the Plym Estuary, to reach Okehampton on a largely traffic-free course that includes the spectacular crossing of Meldon Viaduct. The Battery Cycle Works (01752 665 553; www.batterycycleworks.co.uk) will even deliver bikes to your Plymouth city hotel for £12 per day, which includes the hire of a helmet.

The most dramatic landscapes?

A mercifully small proportion of either coastline has been blighted beyond redemption, and National Trust policy has been to acquire hinterland, too. Much of the farmland behind the Dart estuary is under its protection, allowing the removal of eyesores, reinstatement of hedges and tree planting, making this area a jewel of the South-west. The sections of path leading to Start Point and its lighthouse are some of the most dramatic and wild, while the sandstone cliffs that flank the Georgian and Regency resort of Sidmouth dwarf the beach walker. The highest point on the south Devon shore is to the west of Weston Mouth, east of Sidmouth, where the cliffs soar to nearly 500ft with spectacular views over 40 miles to Portland and inland to Dartmoor; they are also peppered with caves once used by smugglers. Another of the south coast's great views is westwards from Prawle Point to Bolt Head, the most southerly tip of Devon.

On the north coast, the cliffs to the east of Ilfracombe are some of the highest in England, with magnificent views up the Bristol Channel. Many of the heather- and hawthorn-covered cliffs have evocative names like the Mare and Colt and Great Hangman, which reaches nearly 1,000ft above the waves.

Something for a rainy day?

The National Marine Aquarium (01752 600 301; www.national-aquarium.co.uk), on the Rope Walk in Plymouth, is one of Britain's largest aquariums. More than 4,000 creatures are displayed in three massive tanks, which recreate habitats from local shorelines to coral reefs, and there are numerous interactive exhibits and a 3-D theatre. Open 10am-6pm daily; admission £9.50.

Another option is to snake up the Axe River valley from Seaton aboard two-thirds-sized trams made from the components of old tramcars. The Seaton Tramway (01297 20375; www.tram.co.uk) operates daily to the end of October; £8.35 return.

Just to the west, you can explore the labyrinth of caves created by the excavation of stone used in Exeter Cathedral and Westminster Abbey at Beer Quarry (01297 680 282; www.beerquarrycaves.fsnet.co.uk). Open 10am-5pm daily until the end of September; admission £5.75.

A narrow-gauge train takes you into the old copper mine at Morwellham Quay on the River Tamar near Gunnislake, with miners' cottages, Victorian farm and village set in a 200-acre wildlife reserve (01822 833 808; www.morwellham-quay.co.uk). Open 10am-5.30pm (latest entry 3.30pm) daily; admission £8.90.

Near the north coast, the ancestral home of the Chichester family at Arlington Court (01271 850 296; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) has strong nautical associations through Sir Francis Chichester, who was the first person to sail single-handed around the world by the clipper route. Besides a model of his boat, Gypsy Moth IV, there are sailor-made models and paintings of vessels. The house and carriage collection are open 11am-5pm daily except some Saturdays until the end of October; admission £7.80.

Literary associations?

Plenty. Seascapes have been chosen by many writers as a source of inspiration. Agatha Christie used a wooden hut on Burgh Island to write. Both And Then There Were None, and the Hercule Poirot mystery Evil Under the Sun were set on the island, which was used for the 2002 TV adaptation of the latter. Burgh Island (01548 810 514; www.burghisland.com) is one of the most idiosyncratic places on the south coast. It is an Art Deco classic of Lloyd Loom chairs and vitriolite panels where Noël Coward partied and dinner jackets are still preferred at dinner. Even the journey to the 21-acre island at high tide can be an experience, on an elevated, covered platform atop a sea tractor. Doubles from £355, including dinner and breakfast.

Greenway, Agatha Christie's house on the River Dart at Galmpton, is in the care of the National Trust and the gardens are open from 10.30am-5pm Wednesday to Sunday until 26 October; admission £6 with discount for access by river boats from Dartmouth and Totnes. Slightly inland from Bigbury-on-Sea is the village of Ringmore, where RC Sherriff wrote Journey's End, commemorated in a pub of the same name.

Flora Thompson's husband worked in the post office in Dartmouth, and it was here that she wrote the first two books in the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy, in 1937-41. Keats completed "Endymion" in Teignmouth, in 1818.

On the north coast, Charles Kingsley incorporated his childhood experiences at Clovelly in Westward Ho!, where Kipling's boarding school was situated. Stalkey & Co. was based on his unhappy time there. It was during walks around Lynmouth that Wordsworth and Coleridge planned the ballad that became "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".

Where can I stay in style?

The house where John Callcott Horsley painted the portrait of Brunel now in the National Portrait Gallery, and designed the first Christmas card, is now a peaceful retreat overlooking Tor Bay. Orestone Manor (01803 328 098; www.orestonemanor.com) has 12 individually designed bedrooms and a colonial air to the public spaces. The hotel's organic vegetable garden supplies the exceptionally good restaurant. Doubles from £135 including breakfast. Assertively modern hotel rooms and rental town houses surround two dining-rooms at the Dart Marina (01803 832 580; www.dartmarina.com) with lovely views over Dartmouth harbour. Doubles from £145, including breakfast.

Along the north shore, the best place to stay in one of Devon's prettiest villages, Clovelly, is the Red Lion Hotel (01237 431 237; www.clovelly.co.uk) where the Georgian building is right on the quay and the bedrooms have been given a nautical character. Doubles from £117, including breakfast.

Interconnected harbour-front houses form Lynmouth's Rising Sun Hotel (01598 753 223; www.risingsunlynmouth.co.uk) where RD Blackmore wrote some of Lorna Doone. Doubles from £120, including breakfast.

I'd prefer a place of my own

Several companies specialise in rentals in Devon. At the top end of the market is Blue Chip Vacations (01803 855 282; www.bluechipvacations.com), which has some fine coastal properties, including a delightful converted Pottery in Dartmouth and apartments in Torquay's elegant Neo-classical Hesketh Crescent. Marsdens Cottage Holidays (01271 813 777; www.marsdens.co.uk) specialises in the north coast, and the National Trust (0844 800 2070; www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk) has 34 properties with accommodation for up to 12 people. For a pampering break, five cottages converted from Victorian farm buildings are attached to the Downe Health Spa on the Hartland Peninsula (01237 441 881; www.downespa.com) in north Devon, one of only two areas in all England that the Council for the Protection of Rural England recognises as having no light or noise pollution. The spa offers a wide variety of holistic therapies and beauty treatments.

How do I get there and around?

The best approach is by rail; trains along the main line through south Devon to Plymouth run right along the shore for part of the journey. They are operated by First Great Western (08457 000 125; www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk) and CrossCountry (0844 811 0124; www.crosscountrytrains.co.uk).

Lord Beeching axed most of the lovely railways to the north coast, leaving just the scenic line from Exeter to Barnstaple.

In terms of airports, the main gateway is Exeter, with flights from many UK airports on Flybe. Plymouth, served by Air Southwest, is another option.

Some of the county's bus services (0871 200 2233; www.traveline.info) are designed largely for tourists, such as the Coast Hopper 899 along the Jurassic Coast. To get inland from the head of the Exe Estuary at Exeter, trains run on summer weekends to Okehampton and Meldon (01837 55637; www.dartmoorrailway.co.uk).

Where can I find out more?

Devon County Council: 0870 608 5531; www.discoverdevon.com.

BEER AND CHEER FOR THIRSTY TRAVELLERS

One of the oldest pubs is the Pilchard Inn (01548 810 514) on Burgh Island, which dates from 1336. It has a selection of Devon beers on tap and food is served at lunchtime and evenings (by reservation) from Thursday to Saturday.

Many pubs have a reputation for their seafood. The Anchor at Cockwood (01626 890 203) overlooks the harbour and serves mussels in 30 different ways; the Kings Arms (01803 770 377) at Strete (pictured left) uses catches from Start Bay and Brixham to produce such dishes as black bream fillet and bass with chorizo mash; and the fish at the Start Bay (01548 580 553) at Torcross comes from the beach in front of the pub.

Perfectly located for cyclists and walkers (no car access) beside the Exeter Canal, the Turf Inn (01392 833 128) serves beer-battered hake as well as myriad local beers.

The county's most isolated pub is the Marisco Tavern on Lundy, but it's full most nights and is an unforgettable experience, being replete with relics from shipwrecks on the treacherous rocks that ring the island. England's only traditional working malthouse open to the public can be found at the head of the Teign estuary; Tuckers Maltings in Newton Abbot (01626 334 734; www.tuckersmaltings.com) sells more than 200 bottled beers.

LUNDY ISLAND

A voyage of just under two hours from Bideford or Ilfracombe in North Devon aboard MS Oldenburg (01271 863 636; www.lundyisland.co.uk) takes you to Lundy, administratively part of Devon. This island, three miles long and half-a-mile wide, is owned by the National Trust and run by the Landmark Trust. Among the many rare birds that visit or live on the island, along with 20 human residents, is a large colony of puffins.

All profit from visitors is reinvested into the upkeep of the island. A day visit to Lundy is plenty of time in which to take a walk around the coast to watch the seabirds, and there's a castle, church, three lighthouses (two operational), a farm, tavern and small shop.

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