In search of a free-range life
The County Set: Devon is attracting more young families looking for access to nature and room to roam, says Caroline Mcghie
This is the county of dreams. People head west when they tire of London and the South East, when they want to start over, reconnect with the land and feel the extremes of weather. Devon makes many promises. Boat-lovers can hoist their sails, surfers can ride the breakers, foodies can move up from cream teas to celebrity restaurants. Up on Dartmoor, where Bronze Age farmers toiled on the vast shoulders of rock around the high tors, fishing in the tumbling waters of the Dart, the Teign and the Otter, you come as close to wilderness as it’s possible to get. The old granite houses are often bought by people who have sold in London and hope to work from home, to paint or grow vegetables. “An awful lot more young professionals are moving here too,” says Oliver Custance Baker of Strutt & Parker. “You can get to London in just over two hours by train from Exeter.” Andrew and Sarah Bower bought Rock Farm, a three-bedroom Devon longhouse at Chillaton on the west side of the moor, four years ago. “My husband is a doctor and I’m a stenographer,” says Sarah. “We thought it would be lovely to have three acres and grow all our own vegetables, and the children could have a wonderful childhood.” Their son Toby was six then, their daughter Hetty four. “We bought Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, hens, lots of rabbits. The pigs are fantastic, so intelligent and low maintenance, but we had no knowledge of what we were doing so we went on a pigkeeping course and it was fantastic fun.” This year, as usual, she has planted peas, beans, courgettes and onions in the vegetable garden fenced with handwoven willow. “It is such a lovely place to be,” she says. “The moor is incredible. The rivers and flooded quarries mean the children can go wild swimming. The beaches on the north coast are easy to reach, and the children have had some wonderful years. They have spent hours making boats in our stream, and they have had space to throw a cricket ball.” They swap packs of sausages and legs of pork for salmon, and their gluts of veg “make more meaningful gifts than a box of chocolates”. They are sad to leave it behind, but have commitments in Exeter, so are selling at £425,000 through Mansbridge & Balment (01822 612345). Exeter has been one of the great Devon success stories of the past two decades. The Peninsula Medical School, the university and the Meteorological Office pull in experts, and the old Princesshay area now South Molton Barnstaple Okehampton Totnes Dartmouth hums with restaurants and cafés. The ex-Gidleigh Park chef Michael Caines has the fashionable ABode restaurant on the Cathedral Green. He is one of a handful of celebrity chefs in the county. Mitch Tonks is down the coast in Dartmouth. He has also opened in Plymouth, as have Gary Rhodes, Hugh FearnleyWhittingstall and the Tanner brothers. The Tarka line from Exeter runs up the side of Dartmoor, ending at Yeoford, where Vicki and Derek Hammond bought a whitewashed, thatched, Grade II star open-hall cross-passage house more than a decade ago. “We moved from a small suburban house with a square of garden because we had always wanted land and animals and we couldn’t afford that in Surrey,” says Vicki. They restored the house using only natural materials. Keymelford has five acres, so they bought two ewe lambs at their first Devon County show, from which they have created a breeding pedigree flock that wins prizes. There are freerange chickens providing eggs, and a vegetable and fruit garden. They have both now retired and spend their time on the animals, preparing, shearing and planning which rams to put with which ewes. Vicki sells fleeces to hand spinners or sends them to the Natural Fibre Company in Launceston to be processed. “I feel it is very special to live in a house which has been the centre of May: The Devon County Show, Exeter. July: Ways with Words literary festival, Dartington Hall. August: The Dartmouth Regatta. This week: Kingsbridge Show, September 7. Back to nature: clockwise from right, Andrew and Sarah Bower and their children Toby and Hetty gave up city life to live at Rock Farm in Devon; sailing enthusiasts will enjoy the conditions at Salcombe; and day trippers and locals are drawn to the marina in Dartmouth the community for 600 years,” she says. But as their children have left home, they are now downsizing and selling Keymelford, with five bedrooms, a limestone flagged kitchen, paddocks, henhouse, animal pound and barn, at £750,000 through Strutt & Parker (01392 215 631). That same sense of continuity is in the towns around the moors, the smartest probably being Chagford, the most alternative Totnes. “Totnes is bohemian, full of eccentrics, and it has a railway station which connects it to London and Birmingham,” says Marcus Lucock of Marchand Petit. Organic cosmetics, hand-painted shoes, surf gear, handmade cheeses and a Rudolf Steiner school are all here. House prices are creeping up. But it is in the bays and estuaries of the South Hams that you find the highest prices. Swish bespoke flats and houses are being built to cater for large budgets, selling at £1.2million to £2.5million. Salcombe is a microclimate of its own; up to 75 per cent of buyers are second homers and the streets bulge with sailing enthusiasts of all ages at the height of the summer.