With two coasts and an interior laced with pretty English country gardens contrasted with wild moorland, Devon makes for a beguiling getaway, writes Chantal Borciani
One of England’s largest counties, Devon’s centuries-old harbours, secluded smugglers’ coves and picture-perfect beaches have sparked the imaginations of some of our most revered writers. From Kipling to Christie, this rural southwestern corner of England is a literary treasure trove and the perfect coastal destination for a summer holiday.
Founded by the Romans in AD55, large parts of the defensive wall still remain in Devon’s ancient city of Exeter. At the heart of the city lies the magnificent Gothic cathedral, which dates largely from the 12th and 13th centuries and is home to the longest stretch of Gothic stone vaulting in the world.
Exeter was put on the map after the boom in the wool trade, and prosperity grew throughout the Tudor and Georgian eras with merchants erecting elegant houses along the city’s thriving quayside. Today, the merchant houses remain, while the quay has been renovated and is home to antique shops, craft stalls, cafés and pubs.
One of Exeter’s most famous alumni is JK Rowling – it’s widely believed that some city haunts inspired her best-selling Harry Potter novels including Exeter’s narrow Gandy Street which some say was the model for Diagon Alley.
Fursdon house, about 10 miles from Exeter, is one of Devon’s oldest family homes and contains medieval, Jacobean, Georgian and Regency features. The house, gardens and tearoom are open to the public, while two private apartments in the manor house and a cute cottage (complete with inglenook replace and reside wingback chair) in the grounds are available for overnight stays.
When the house is open to the public, guests can roam the extensive grounds (wellies are recommended), which include The Meadow Garden, originally planted 200 years ago, which now forms part of a woodland walk. On your amble you can enjoy views over the River Exe towards Dartmoor.
The Imperial hotel
Literary threads continue along the English Riviera in South Devon, with Torquay the birthplace of crime novelist, Agatha Christie. The recent reprisal of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, has reignited interest in Christie and Devon landmarks are dotted throughout her writing.
Both Peril at End House and Sleeping Murder feature the Imperial hotel, which still stands in Torquay today. The Victorian hotel commands a clifftop position overlooking Torbay and the South Devon coast. Rooms are classically styled and comfortable, and even if yours doesn’t have a sea view, you can take in the vistas from the outdoor pool or the hotel’s restaurant.
The best way to see the Riviera’s pretty clutch of towns and beaches is from the Dartmouth Steam Railway, a charming coast-hugging chuffer that pootles around the sweeping bays and through Devonshire’s luscious pastures. Leave from Kingswear and hop off at Goodrington Sands, Paignton and Torquay.
Orestone Manor Hotel & Restaurant
Not far from Torquay is Orestone Manor Hotel & Restaurant – a Georgian manor house once a favoured spot for civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s family gatherings.
With views over Lyme Bay, it’s a comfortable spot to watch the boats go by. Book a room with a sea view – the Garden Suite even comes with a four-poster bed and a Jacuzzi on its private terrace.
Orestone is revered for the food in its 2AA Rosette restaurant, which uses local ingredients such as wild game and Brixham shellfish in its modern European menu. Guests can go seal watching on Maidencombe Beach, enjoy cream teas by roaring open res or on the terrace in summer, and follow great walking trails from the front door.
The South West Coast Path, which winds 630 miles from Somerset’s Minehead to Dorset’s Poole, hits its zenith in Devon. Passing through rolling pastures and rising above golden sandy shorelines and sapphire water, whether you embark on long hikes or a short jaunt, a coastal yomp should be high on your list.
For jaw-dropping vistas, take the path from Hope Cove to Salcombe – look out for kestrels and peregrine falcons around Bolt Tail and spot the dramatic rock formations around Soar Mill Cove.
Well-heeled Salcombe is a magnet for yacht enthusiasts during the summer when the town is abuzz with boats, shing, regattas and families. The Ferry Inn is one of the town’s most popular pubs, where you can watch the catch of the day hauled up the slips. Stop at one of the many bakeries for a pasty or fresh crab sandwich on the quay.
Buckland Tout-Saints Hotel
When it comes to bedding down for the night, Buckland Tout-Saints Hotel, a short drive away, just outside the town of Kingsbridge, is a great choice if you want to escape the madding crowds.
Set in a smart 17th-century building, along a country lane, the manor house brims with traditional charm. Tea can be taken in the wood-panelled drawing room, while framed portraits peer over you in the refined dining room. You can gaze over the gardens from one of the window seats in your bedroom.
On Devon’s north coast, quiet coves and harbour towns are replaced with the broad brush of marigold beaches. Teashops, ice-cream parlours and places for fish and chips are in plentiful supply, but finer dining venues are also in abundance including the elegant Watersmeet Hotel in Woolacombe with its 2AA Rosette restaurant. All but three of the hotel’s 28 luxuriously furnished rooms enjoy fabulous sea views and the décor balances traditional with coastal cues.
Set at the quieter end of Woolacombe Bay, the hotel has both indoor and outdoor pools, as well as private steps leading down to the small cove at Combesgate Beach.
Literary links do not escape the northern shores. While you’ll also find a heritage blue plaque in Torquay commemorating his residence at Rock House, it is the area near Bideford Bay where Rudyard Kipling found his inspiration for his novel Stalky & Co. The book is based on his school days in Devon (Kipling went to the United Services College at Westward Ho!) and a memorial plaque is erected in Westward Ho! near Bideford.
As much as the pretty inlets and golden beaches cement Devon’s character, its wild moorlands are perhaps even more defining. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, used the mist-wreathed moorlands of Dartmoor as the backdrop for one of his most famous tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The author stayed in Princetown while researching his novel and most theories point to Fox Tor Mire as the setting for the fictional Grimpen Mire, while Baskerville Hall is thought to be either Hayford Hall located near Buckfastleigh or Fowlescombe, not far from Ugborough.
Semi-wild herds of Dartmoor ponies roam the moor and today, activities abound in the national parks. One hotel offering Dartmoor activities is the splendid Bovey Castle, which boasts its own 275-acre estate.
Great Western Railway opened Bovey Castle, housed in a neo-Elizabethan house with beautiful mullioned windows, as a hotel and golf resort in 1930. The luxury property offers
60 rooms and 22 self-catering country lodges, a spa and an 18-hole championship golf course, designed by J F Abercromby.
Other on-site activities include falconry, archery, off-road driving, and cider and sloe gin making. The hotel also has a new deer park with fallow deer. Guests can take a guided tour of the deer enclosure and join the daily feeding.
If you’d rather relax than chase adventure, then you’re in the right place – a treatment in the Elan spa will help you unwind and afterwards you can sample the scones, sandwiches and homemade cakes on offer to see if this really is the best afternoon tea in Devon.