Plan a summer idling along the Devon coast,
Go south for a golden summer of classic seaside pleasures – from cliff-top walks to golden beaches via charming villages with working fishing boats and lazy yachts, say Ben Lerwell
Walking the coast path in South Devon, there are times when you lose yourself. Not literally, of course – those undulant sea cliffs beckoning east and west provide all the bearing you need – but figuratively. You stand on a high headland and scan the scenery, looking out across a great sunny sphere of land, sea and sky. A salty breeze whips in, stirring the clifftop grasses and bucking airborne gulls, but you keep gazing. As you linger, it occurs to you that right here, right now, the view holds almost nothing to signify that the 20th century ever arrived, let alone the 21st. Here are miles upon miles of the West Country as it was. Or indeed, the West Country as it is.
This part of Devon has always been a world of timeless seaside pleasures. The South Hams still evade many of the tawdry trappings of modern tourism. Even when you steer away from the all-enfolding loveliness of the landscapes, the region is one of steam trains and I-Spy books, ice creams and rockpools, bobbing yachts and country houses.
Those vintage transport posters that continue to be prevalent here – all nostalgic fonts and golden-summer colours – aren’t just clever marketing. They say something more meaningful about what the area still offers.
I’ve felt its pull for as long as I can remember. My grandparents lived in Devon, and some of my earliest memories are bound up in the place: wide-eyed trips to Babbacombe Model Village, overambitious sandcastles on the beaches, cake-filled visits to aunts in Paignton. What I didn’t appreciate until later was just how much more there was to see, to do and to fall for. From Torbay in the east to the Yealm Estuary in the west, those woozy, greenbaize cliffs fringe a whole labyrinth of classic coastal diversions.
The South Hams are somewhere to be enjoyed slowly, so loosen your shoulders, rejoice in the fact that phone reception comes and goes like the tide, and unbuckle your belt in expectation of a cream tea or two (jam last, always jam last). start. The bay’s mild climate and sandy beaches helped its three towns – Torquay,
Paignton and Brixham – to become fashionable centuries ago, and there are still good reasons to visit. In Torquay, don’t miss the 12th-century Torre Abbey and its (rather more modern) garden dedicated to poisonous plants featured in Agatha Christie books. The Queen of Crime was born in the town.
In and around Brixham, visit the quayside fish market, tour the replica of Drake’s
Golden Hind galleon or take a walk around the Berry Head National Nature Reserve, with its restored Napoleonic-era fortifications and dizzying cliff-top views. Keep your eyes peeled for the Spitfirestraight aerial wanderings of fulmars.
Paignton, meanwhile, is the eastern terminus of the Dartmouth Steam Railway, a vapour-puffing half-hour journey through green, bosomy hills into the South Hams proper, culminating on the banks of the River Dart. You’ll disembark in pretty Kingswear, which sits across the water from Dartmouth itself, a town of higgledy-piggledy hills, colourful history
KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED FOR THE SPITFIRE-STRAIGHT WANDERINGS OF FULMARS”
(The Mayflower moored here) and children lowering crab-lines at the dock.
A cruise further up the estuary is highly recommended. The Dart is one of the most handsome rivers in England – its high wooded slopes once doubled as the Amazon in 1970s TV series The Onedin Line – and sailing upstream you might spot guillemots, egrets and even grey seals. Agatha Christie’s Georgian mansion Greenway, wonderful not just for its characterful interiors but for its rolling grounds, can be reached in this way, as can, further upstream, Totnes. Totnes is a place apart. Proudly alternative and independent-minded, it makes for an enjoyable inland stop-off. Visit
Totnes Castle, a sturdy motte-and-bailey stronghold with great views, then call in at the brilliant Timehouse Muzeum: part record shop, part cultural Tardis and part art installation. It’s very Totnes.
A little further inland? To the north you’ll find Ashburton, a sweet, edge-of-Dartmoor town permanently in bunting mode. It’s become well known for its vintage shops – the most authentic is Tom Wood Antiques
& Coins, where the small rooms literally overflow with an ordered chaos of picture frames and jewellery. BEACH GLORIES But back to the coast. There are surely few beaches as picturesque as the misleadingly named Blackpool Sands (it’s fine shingle rather than sand – and it’s not in Blackpool), thanks to its sheltered golden cove, pine tree backdrop and clear blue waters. You will find semi-tropical gardens, a kids’ sandpit, kayaks for hire and Salcombe Dairy ice creams.
Heavenly as it is, however, it doesn’t catch the breath quite so much as your first sight of nearby Slapton Sands. A soft arc of pebbles stretching for some two miles, it’s a genuinely beautiful spectacle and well suited to paddling, body-boarding and stone-skimming. The little village of
Torcross caters to holidaymakers at the southern end of the beach.
The beach has a sobering past, having been used to disastrous effect as a practice zone for the D-Day landings. Hundreds of American servicemen perished here, and a Sherman tank still stands close to the beach. It’s a reminder that the area is no
stranger to historical drama – but with the coastline furling off towards rugged Start
Point and its icing-white lighthouse, the same can be said of its scenic drama, too.
Moving a short distance west, the market town of Kingsbridge sits at the head of its namesake estuary. Its smart, oblong quay is a tree-lined vision of swaying masts and calm waters, with a miniature railway running its length and a top-notch farmers’ market two Saturdays a month. Local produce lives up to the hype: think ales, cheeses, fruit and clotted cream.
The old-fashioned allure continues in nearby Salcombe, reachable by ferry (or road) from Kingsbridge. Slung sweetly across a bend in the estuary, Salcombe has a thick maritime heritage and makes an excellent option for boat-hire – messing about on the water in the sunshine doesn’t come much more pleasurable. On the edge of town, meanwhile, North Sands and
South Sands are both first-rate family beaches, primed for long, lazy days.
ESTUARIES AND ISLANDS
Continuing westwards, this stretch of shoreline offers some of the best coastal walking in the region (although frankly it’s all special – this is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for good reason). Take in the jagged heights of Sharp Tor and the hidden folds of Hope Cove, before striding on over sea-facing hills to Bantham. Alternatively, hop in the car and make the same journey via the wriggling, hedge-hugged lanes that the West Country makes its own. Meeting a tractor can get interesting.
The whole coastline is interspersed with winding, mellow estuaries, but Bantham sits on one of the best. The Avon Valley is a real heart-tugger. The river itself (not to be confused with other Avons) rises in Dartmoor, and by the time it reaches Aveton Gifford, five miles inland, it’s already become a wide, tranquil watercourse ideal for bird-spotting and summer walks on the banks – although watch the tides. By Bantham it’s mightier, meeting the sea in a bay now widely renowned for its surfing.
On the other side of the estuary, Burgh Island is one of the icons of the South Hams coast. From Bigbury-on-Sea, catch the sea tractor or cross by foot at low tide. Make the climb up to the windswept island summit, from where – looking seawards and with mainland cliffs rampaging off to the horizon on either side – you can feel as though you’re standing on the edge of eternity, then descend to the almost 700-year-old
Pilchard Inn for the earthlier business of a pint and a crab baguette.
I couldn’t possibly tell you my own favourite spot in the region, as the secret would be out – but it’s not far away and it rhymes with Mothecombe Beach. Go at low tide for a walk round to the Erme Estuary. Looking west from Burgh Island, meanwhile,
Stoke Point sits some six miles away, and is every bit as inviting close up as from a distance. It’s also just minutes from the perennially lovely village of Noss Mayo, which sits on sparkling Newton Creek – go crabbing, stroll out to the cliffs or just sit on the quay and watch the boats drift by. Because if you can’t bide your time in the South Hams, where can you? CF
“YOU CAN FEEL AS THOUGH YOU’RE STANDING ON THE EDGE OF ETERNITY”
Sitting at the mouth of the protective Kingsbridge Estuary, Salcombe is a charming haven for sailors and landlubbers alike and home to yachting regattas in the summer
TOP Brixham is a thriving fishing port at the south end of Tor Bay. Home to pirate festivals and fresh fish markets, it is famed for its delightful harbour-front cottages ABOVE A replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind at Brixham RIGHT The vintage railway posters of the early 20th century still reflect South Devon today
TOP The River Dart rises in Dartmoor and winds beautifully through the town of Totnes on its way to the sea at Dartmouth ABOVE LEFT Ribbon-like Torcross on Slapton Sands where a military disaster in 1944 saw the deaths of over 700 American servicemen. Behind is the freshwater lake called Slapton Ley ABOVE RIGHT The East Gate in thriving Totnes – an inland town of independent shops, artists and local food
TOP Start Point lighthouse. ‘Start’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘steort’ meaning a ‘tail’ and refers to the headland here BELOW LEFT Bantham’s pink boathouse BELOW RIGHT Catch the sea tractor to Burgh Island