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

Countryfile Magazine - - Editor’s Letter -

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


(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.


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


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

Ben Ler­will is a free­lance writer and travel jour­nal­ist based in Ox­ford­shire.

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