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With its verdant meadows, winding country lanes and cosy thatched cottages, Devon has long been idealized as a vision of a pre-industrial, “authentic” England. In fact much of the county is now inhabited largely by retired folk and urban refugees, but there is still tranquillity and sugar-free charm to be found here, from moorland villages to quiet coves on the cliff-hung coastline.
Reminders of Devon’s leading role in the country’s maritime history are never far away, particularly in the two cities of Exeter and Plymouth. These days it’s the yachties who take advantage of the numerous creeks and bays, especially on Devon’s southern coast, where ports such as Dartmouth and Salcombe are awash with amateur sailors. Landlubbers flock to the sandy beaches and seaside resorts, of which Torquay, on the south coast, and Ilfracombe, on the north, are the busiest. The most attractive are those which have preserved traces of their nineteenth-century elegance, such as Sidmouth, in east Devon. Inland, the county is characterized by swards of lush pasture and a scattering of sheltered villages, the population dropping to almost zero on Dartmoor, the wildest and bleakest of the West’s moors.
Occupying the main part of the county between Exeter and Plymouth, DARTMOOR is southern England’s greatest expanse of wilderness, some 365 square miles of raw granite, barren bogland, sparse grass and heather-grown moor. It was not always so desolate, as testified by the remnants of scattered Stone Age settlements and the ruined relics of the area’s nineteenth-century tin-mining industry. Today desultory flocks of sheep and groups of ponies are virtually the only living creatures to be seen wandering over the central fastnesses of the National Park, with solitary birds – buzzards, kestrels, pipits, stonechats and wagtails – wheeling and hovering high above.
The core of Dartmoor, characterized by tumbling streams and high tors chiselled by the elements, is Dartmoor Forest, which has belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall since 1307, though there is almost unlimited public access. Networks of signposts or painted stones exist to guide walkers, but map-reading abilities are a prerequisite for any but the shortest walks, and considerable experience is essential for longer distances. Overnight parking is only allowed in authorized places, and no vehicles are permitted beyond fifteen yards from the road; camping should be out of sight of houses and roads, and fires are strictly forbidden. Information on guided walks and riding facilities is available from National Park visitor centres and tourist offices in Dartmoor’s major towns and villages.
EXETER boasts more historical sights than any other town in Devon or Cornwall, legacies of an eventful existence dating from its Celtic foundation and the establishment here of the most westerly Roman outpost. After the Roman withdrawal, Exeter was refounded by Alfred the Great and by the time of the Norman Conquest had become one of the largest towns in England, profiting from its position on the banks of the River Exe. The expansion of the wool trade in the Tudor period sustained the city until the eighteenth century, since when Exeter has maintained its status as Devon’s commercial and cultural hub, despite having much of its ancient centre gutted by World War II bombing.
There are fewer than twenty full-time residents on Lundy, a tiny windswept island twelve miles north of Hartland Point. Now a refuge for thousands of marine birds, Lundy has no cars, just one pub and one shop – indeed little has changed since the Marisco family established itself here in the twelfth century, making use of the shingle beaches and coves to terrorize shipping along the Bristol Channel. The family’s fortunes only fell in 1242 when one of their number, William de Marisco, was found to be plotting against the king, whereupon he was hung, drawn and quartered at Tower Hill in London. The castle erected by Henry III on Lundy’s southern end dates from this time.
Today the island is managed by the Landmark Trust. Unless you’re on a specially arranged diving or climbing expedition, walking along the interweaving tracks and footpaths is really the only thing to do here. The shores – mainly cliffy on the west, softer and undulating on the east – shelter a rich variety of birdlife, including kittiwakes, fulmars, shags and Manx shearwaters, which often nest in rabbit burrows. The most famous birds, though, are the puffins after which Lundy is named – from the Norse Lunde (puffin) and ey (island). They can only be sighted in April and May, when they come ashore to mate. Offshore, grey seals can be seen all the year round.
PLYMOUTH’s predominantly bland and modern face belies its great historic role as a naval base and, in the sixteenth century, the stamping ground of such national heroes as John Hawkins and Francis Drake. It was from here that Drake sailed to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588, and 32 years later the port was the last embarkation point for the Pilgrim Fathers, whose New Plymouth colony became the nucleus for the English settlement of North America. The importance of the city’s Devonport dockyards made the city a target in World War II, when the Luftwaffe reduced most of the old centre to rubble. Subsequent reconstruction has done little to improve the place, though it would be difficult to spoil the glorious vista over Plymouth Sound, the basin of calm water at the mouth of the combined Plym, Tavy and Tamar estuaries, largely unchanged since Drake played his famous game of bowls on the Hoe before joining battle with the Armada.
One of the best local excursions from Plymouth is to Mount Edgcumbe, where woods and meadows provide a welcome antidote to the urban bustle. East of Plymouth, the aristocratic opulence of Saltram House includes fine art and furniture, while to the north you can visit Francis Drake’s old home at Buckland Abbey.
Born around 1540 near Tavistock, Francis Drake worked in the domestic coastal trade from the age of 13, but was soon taking part in the first English slaving expeditions between Africa and the West Indies, led by his Plymouth kinsman John Hawkins. Later, Drake was active in the secret war against Spain, raiding and looting merchant ships in actions unofficially sanctioned by Elizabeth I. In 1572 he became the first Englishman to sight the Pacific, and soon afterwards, on board the Golden Hind, became the first to circumnavigate the world, for which he received a knighthood on his return in 1580. The following year Drake was made mayor of Plymouth, settling in Buckland Abbey, but was back in action before long – in 1587 he “singed the king of Spain’s beard” by entering Cadiz harbour and destroying 33 vessels that were to have formed part of Philip II’s armada. When the replacement invasion fleet appeared in the English Channel in 1588, Drake – along with Raleigh, Hawkins and Frobisher – played a leading role in wrecking it. The following year he set off on an unsuccessful expedition to help the Portuguese against Spain, but otherwise most of the next decade was spent in relative inactivity in Plymouth, Exeter and London. Finally, in 1596 Drake left with Hawkins for a raid on Panama, a venture that cost the lives of both captains.
Devon’s premier surfing sites are on the west-facing coast between Morte Point and the Taw estuary. The two extensive fine-sand beaches of Woolacombe Sands, to the north, and Saunton Sands, south, are long enough to accommodate any number of surfers, but smaller Croyde Bay, sandwiched between them, can get congested in summer. Equipment is available to rent from numerous places in the villages of Woolacombe and Croyde or from stalls on the beach.
North Devon is closely associated with Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (1927), which relates the travels and travails of a young otter, and is one of the finest pieces of nature writing in the English language. With parts of the book set in the Taw valley, it was perhaps inevitable that the Exeter to Barnstaple rail route – which follows the Taw for half of its length – should be dubbed the Tarka Line. Barnstaple itself forms the centre of the figure-of-eight traced by the Tarka Trail, which tracks the otter’s wanderings for a distance of more than 180 miles. To the north, the trail penetrates Exmoor then follows the coast back, passing through Williamson’s home village of Georgeham on its return to Barnstaple. South, the path takes in Bideford, and continues as far as Okehampton.
Twenty-three miles of the trail follow a former rail line that’s ideally suited to bicycles, and there are bike rental shops at Barnstaple and Bideford. You can pick up a Tarka Trail booklet and free leaflets on individual sections of the trail from tourist offices.
Sporting a mini-corniche and promenades landscaped with flowerbeds, TORQUAY comes closest to living up to the self-styled “English Riviera” sobriquet. The much-vaunted palm trees and the coloured lights that festoon the harbour by night contribute to the town’s unique flavour, a blend of the mildly exotic with classic English provincialism. Torquay’s transformation from a fishing village began with its establishment as a fashionable haven for invalids, among them the consumptive Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who spent three years here.
The town centres on the small harbour and marina, separated by limestone cliffs from Torquay’s main beach, Abbey Sands, which takes its name from Torre Abbey, sited in ornamental gardens behind the beachside road.
At the more crowded northern end of Woolacombe Sands, a cluster of hotels, villas and retirement homes makes up the summer resort of WOOLACOMBE. At the quieter southern end lies the choice swimming spot of Putsborough Sands and the promontory of Baggy Point, where gannets, shags, cormorants and shearwaters gather from September to November.
South of here is Croyde Bay, another surfers’ delight, more compact than Woolacombe, with stalls on the sand renting surfboards and wet suits, and Saunton Sands, a magnificent long stretch of coast pummelled by endless ranks of classic breakers.