The Muddy Insider Guide to Devon
With 200 miles of SW Coast Path, two vibrant cities, a national park, gorgeous beaches and lush cream teas, why go anywhere else?
Hello Devon! Home to awesome coastlines, stunning moors and waist-expanding cream teas. For some, Devon is the county you travel through to get to Cornwall, but that would be missing out on more than 200 miles of South West Coast Path, two vibrant cities and some pretty amazing beaches. Like all seaside counties we also have our fair share of souvenir shops and yep, it was a Torquay hotel (though thankfully long-gone) which inspired Fawlty Towers. But never fear, Muddy’s here to steer you to the best bits and Devon has bucket-loads. Shall we?
It’s a big county, the UK’s fourth largest, so we’d recommend you set your compass for one of five areas: the South Hams for golden sandy beaches and the upmarket harbour towns of Salcombe and Dartmouth (above); the wilder and less busy North Devon coast – a mecca for surfers which stretches from dramatic Hartland Quay to charming Lynton and Lynmouth; the cathedral city of Exeter and finally, Dartmoor, a National Park the size of London for dark star-filled skies, wild ponies and romps up its famous granite tors.
If you’re a city gal, hotfoot it to Exeter’s only boutique indie Southernhay House (they’re taking bookings from 6 Aug) – it’s a five-minute trot to the cathedral green and shopping hub, and it’s recently opened a self-catering apartment for those wanting to keep themselves to themselves.
For a zhuzhy gastro stay just nine miles out in the countryside, Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines’ Lympstone Manor (pictured above) sits overlooking the Exe Estuary, the food is amazing and they have stunning new shepherd’s huts with outdoor bath tubs.
Want to wake up to sea views? Book into a luxe beach hut at award-winning Cary Arms & Spa at Babbacombe or the uber-cool yet family and dog-friendly Gara Rock (above) on the cliffs near Salcombe. If it’s windswept beaches and surfer waves you crave, go North to Saunton Sands Hotel & Spa (and there’s two hours free child care a day, just saying).
Over in Torquay, aka the English Riviera, don’t you know, Lincombe Hall Hotel & Spa has had a glow-up during lockdown and now boasts a £2m spa, with hydrotherapy pools, salt room, saunas and a heavenly treatment called Champagne & Truffles for anyone needing a treat. Highly recommended.
Take your pick of self-catering beauties across the county with Toad Hall Cottages, or book in a family beach stay for up to 8 at Beam Ends at Beesands (it has a great pub and takeaway fish and chips a two-minute walk down the sand-strewn road). Want the best of both worlds? The Pig at Combe has three self-catering cottages with kitchenettes and the option of tucking into the hotel’s home-grown fayre.
Fancy living the Devon dream? Check out Adam’s Orchard, a thatched cottage for four in the uber-charming village of Stoke Gabriel – where Muddy wants to live and not just because it has two pubs (honest).
Get off grid
Keeping yourself to yourself? You can’t get more remote than a tiny stone bolthole in your own private cove, one of six holiday cottages off the beaten track near Plymouth at Carswell Farm.
Cool clamping more your style? The Orchard Retreat at Cheriton Fitzpaine has three family-friendly furnished yurts surrounded by idyllic meadows and a fabulous pub just down the road when you get tired of the self catering.
So many to choose from! You have to visit Dartmoor – it’s breathtaking, steeped in folklore and legend, a green playground dotted with wild ponies and its iconic granite tors, each with its own evocative name and unique shape. Muddy loves Haytor near Bovey Tracey for the views from the top and Hound Tor, for its spooky Baskerville associations and deserted Medieval village which dates back to the Domesday Book. But there are more than 160 others to see – check out four of the best right here or book in with Jon at Peaks & Trails who can give you a guided tour.
Go to Bigbury on Sea if only to check out Burgh Island and its Art Deco hotel which gets cut off by the sea at high tide. Even better, book a stay in one of its 25 luxe suites, all uniquely decorated in period style. Residents get to hitch a ride on the sea tractor which is the only way from mainland to the island when the tide is in. Get it on your birthday bucket list, pronto.
Plymouth’s not called the Ocean City for nothing so how about an amble round the waterfront from the Hoe to the Barbican with its bars and indie shops, past stripy Smeaton’s Tower which once saved sailors from the treacherous Eddystone Reef.
Muddy was one of the first through the doors of the city’s new £46m cultural hub, The Box, a brilliant family-friendly mix of museum, gallery and archive celebrating the city’s cultural heritage, and a life-size replica of the wooly mammoth. (They used to roam Plymouth Sound, you see.) It also has an insta-worthy cafe The Box Kitchen, with mastheads hanging over head.
Touristy (so go out of season if you can) the still-working and inhabited 16th century fishing village of Clovelly clings to a cliffside of North Devon. It used to be donkeys but now inhabitants use sledges to tote their shopping up and down the steep cobbled streets.
Head away from Exeter’s chain-filled high street for the Gothic Cathedral and its green, and Gandy Street (pictured above – reputedly the inspiration for JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley) with its indie gift shops and bars. It’s just a 15 minute walk downhill to the city’s buzzing quayside where you can hire a bike or kayak from Saddles and Paddles or grab a flat white and ready-made picnic box from Mangos.
Psssst, Exeter has just got itself a brand-new shiny Ivy restaurant which I can report is totally divine, with a fresh seasonal menu and far too many tempting cocktails to mention.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Devon’ers are big foodies and food producers, so we promise you won’t go hungry.
Restaurants, cafes and farm shops
For a totally unique foodie experience, take a water taxi from Exmouth Marina and eat on the water at The River Exe Cafe (pictured above). It gets booked up for the short summer season its open so get in there quick or phone on the day just in case they have a cancellation (it worked for me!)
If all that sea air gives you an appetite only fish and chips on a sea wall can sate, get down to Britannia at the Beach (above) better known to Beesands’ locals as The Shack, open every afternoon/evening except Tuesday, or award-winning Krispies in Exmouth (pre-book only), or go click and collect from Hanburys in Babbacombe.
Steering kids away from the dreaded McD’s? They do a quality takeaway burger bap and veggie options at Darts Farm Shack. Hungry for a West Country slap-up breakfast to go (as well as local gin and amazing cakes)? Head to award-winning John’s Deli in Appledore and Instow (they won a Muddy award in 2019).
Got a sweet tooth? For the best savoury takeaway galettes (and yummy chocolate and strawberry crepes), it’s got to be The Boathouse Topsham, or legendary home-made doughnuts The Curious Kitchen in Brixham – a real kiddy crowd pleaser of a cafe. And if you’re checking out indie stores and galleries on The Barbican in Plymouth Jacka’s Bakery is the oldest, cutest bakery in the UK and baker of amaaaazing cinnamon whirls.
Muddy is a sucker for anything chilled in a beer garden and all of these hit the spot: The Anchor at Beer, The Turf on the River Exe (only accessible by bike or a 15 minute walk), The Royal George at Appledore (it’s a deck overlooking the estuary and boy, will it do), The Ferry Boat Inn (aka FBI) at Ditisham where a pint is normally accompanied by a swan or two and Salcombe’s Ferry Inn (fab estuary views even on a dull day, pictured above).
Check out my guide to over 40 al fresco pubs and eateries if you want more, more more!
It’s our middle name! Try home-grown wine, fizz and amazing soft and semi-hard cheeses from Sharpham (open for vineyard tours from £15pp) near Totnes, or how about a Salcombe Gin – they have a gin school where you can enjoy some live distilling from home with an expert. And it would be rude not to have a Devon pasty while you’re here so get your chops round anything from Winner of Britain’s Best Pasty Chunk of Devon (available by post).
If you’re in Salcombe, don’t miss (okay, it’s bright pink so you can’t), Devon’s oldest sweet shop Cranch’s for the best retro candies and amazing fudge.
Cream teas and ice-cream
You have to have a cream tea, it’s the rule! For takeaway, head to the Horsebox at Otterton Mill near Budleigh Salterton or get a Cream Tea Picnic Hamper delivered from Devon Heaven, all made with the best local goodies. And when hotels open back up, go pinky-posh with an afternoon cream tea at Boringdon Hall, in their stunning Great Hall or take tea overlooking the awesome Humphry Repton landscape in the library at Hotel Endsleigh.
Muddy loves any ice-cream from Dartmouth Ice Cream and they do takeaway cream teas which you can scoff with your legs hanging over the harbour wall in Dartmouth. In-the-know North Devoners swear by family-run Hockings and their old-fashioned vans, which you can usually find on the front at Appledore Quay, Westward Ho!, Bideford Quay and Torrington.
Get on the water
Want to catch a wave? Head to Croyde and Surf South West who run easy-peasy packages to suit you and the family, from age 8 upwards and for complete beginners. Adrenaline seekers might like to know they also offer coasteering, kayaking and surf and yoga weekends for when you want to get away from the family.
Make like a local and buy a bucket and line (most newsagents in coastal towns sell them) and go crabbing off the pontoon at Dittisham (Dartmouth and Kingsbridge are good spots too). And don’t forget to put the little fellas back when you finish.
Hot in the city? Exeter-based Exe Adventures will pick you up in the minibus and take you to the canal for the afternoon for a hassle-free kayak and a paddle board down the canal. Or over at Shaldon, Mocoast offer paddle-boarding, breathing, yoga and wellbeing sessions where you can top up your Zen, while if you’re in Torquay, the cool locals place for coffee, cocktail and a spot of SUP paddleboard hire is WeSup right on the marina.
If you’re toddling round with littlies and desperate to stretch your legs there are over 150 miles of National Cycle Network running through the county and you can hire bikes for the day along the trailer-friendly and mostly traffic-free 11 miles of the Granite Way, which links Okehampton and Lydford on the edge of Dartmoor. Just a short detour off the Way at Sourton Lake Muddy-approved Bearslake Inn have a huge beer garden with space for the kids to roam.
Pack the wetsuits for a day at River Dart Country Park, a 90-acre natural playground with zip wires and a beautiful shallow lake with little beaches and shady areas, and an exciting pirate ship for the kids to dive off. For rainy days, there’s Quay Climbing’s Clip ‘n Climb on Exeter’s Quayside – you have to help clip them on but you get a scramble up the walls too.
The 80-acre zoo at Paignton is the biggest while Dartmoor Zoo at Sparkeswell is the one that featured in the Hollywood movie We Made a Zoo. Muddy’s local, the bijou Shaldon Zoo is small and quirky and after you’ve ogled their noisy lemurs, you can grab a bite from award-winning eco caff Ode and head down the spooky Smugglers Tunnel to Ness Cove. It’s a secluded local’s beach (no loos but you can find them up next to The Ness at the entrance to the tunnel). We also love Donkey Sanctuary (above) for cute rescue donks (free to visit but donations welcome), saved from around the globe – they’re so friendly you can stroke their furry noses over the fence.
For little horse lovers (3-10), The Miniature Pony Centre is a good introduction, or you can trot straight out of the stables and onto Dartmoor for a one or two-hour hack with family-run Cholwell Riding Stables though due to the current restrictions it’s more experienced riders in groups of up to six only for now.
Want to see dolphins, porpoise and seals on a fast rib ride? It’s not guaranteed, but Rob of Teignmouth’s Devon Sea Safari is getting kudos for his wildlife-finding prowess – cue lots of happy locals.
Every day’s a school day at Morwhellam Quay. This 200 year-old working mine and once the busiest port in Britain is where BBC’s Edwardian Farm was filmed, where you can take an underground train to the copper mine and dress up (and bake) like a Victorian. The Muddy kids rate the prehistoric caves at Kents Cavern (above) near Torquay – the best bit is when they turn out the lights so you can see what ‘being in the dark’ really means and new for 2021 are their evening tours to help beat the crowds.
In North Devon’s surfer paradise, you’re spoilt for choice: the dune-backed beaches at Croyde, or Woolacombe or the gentler Saunton Sands (above) – all large sandy beaches with good waves and rock pools. Off the beaten track, locals love Putsborough between Croyde and Woolacombe, and if you don’t mind a bit of walk and climb down the beach, the secluded Bucks Mill, Combe Martin or Lee Bay.
If you like a hike with your beach, check out our guide to secret North Devon beaches.
Among South Devon’s 50 beaches, family-friendly faves include the golden sands of Bantham (good for surfers) which has all the facilities you need but big enough to spread a socially-distanced towel and you can take a SUP or surf lesson here too. Beautiful Blackpool Sands has the added bonus of the fab Venus Café, and Muddy loves a swim at gentle Hope Cove (above) – no steps to climb and three good eateries to warm up in afterwards.
Beer (the South Devon village not the bevy, above) on the Jurassic Coast could easily be in our Unmissables section, for its working fishing boats seen in many an insta-feed. Some great galleries for a mooch too.
Moors and woodlands
Not only do we have Dartmoor’s granite tors, and the highest point in England and Wales, High Willhays, if you’re feeling energetic, the jagged cliffs at Hartland in North Devon are fascinating thanks to a prehistoric underground surge which pushed the strata on its end. To the north east is moonscape of the Valley of Rocks, with its feral goats and occasional open air theatre. And don’t forget, one-third of Exmoor is in Devon (the rest is Somerset) where unlike Dartmoor, you have the bonus of a stonking coastline, as well as roaming deer and birdlife so twitchers, pack your binoculars.
We’re spoilt for choice with over 200 miles of South West Coast Path. Muddy’s *not-very* scientific straw poll of friends gave the top spot to the National Trust circular walk at Bolt Head near Salcombe- rugged and dramatic with top-notch sea views. For wildflowers you can’t beat the Heddon Valley – Muddy loves the nearby Swiss chalet-style Hunters Inn for a snifter or if you need it toddler-friendly, the short trails at Wembury have 12 rubbings plaques and loos to keep the little ‘uns happy.
You can’t get more woodsy and atmospheric than Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor filled with ancient stunted oak trees and moss-covered boulders – but please don’t sit/walk/jump on them even for a pic – the moss takes aeons to grow and sadly it’s taken a beasting from visitors lately.
Top spot goes to Ottery St Mary’s November 5th Tar Barrels where brave locals run though the town carrying fiery barrels while onlookers cheer them on. (We laugh in the face of danger, hoohaha!)
Fancy making like Robinson Crusoe with a boat trip to an uninhabited island? Book a short ride from Mountbatten in Plymouth to Drake’s Island (above), a sea fortress since Tudor times, more recently a kids adventure playground and now a good place for a heritage tour with creepy underground tunnels, tales of smuggling and amazing views over Plymouth Sound.
Devon also does a good line (‘scuse the pun) in cliff railways – the one that connects the villages of Lynton and Lynmouth (above) is powered by water from the river Lyn which weighs one carriage down the cliff then splashes out to let it back up again, or if you’re in South Devon, hop on Babbacombe’s cliffside rail to get to lovely Oddicombe Beach.
For folklore, head to Dartmoor and Kitty Jay’s grave, the 19th century burial site of a young woman who committed suicide after being betrayed by her lover – whenever you go there are always fresh flowers there. And while you’re on the moors, how about a guided llama walk? They’re great walking companions and, bonus – they can carry your cream tea while you hear about the history and landscape of the moors from your tour guide.
Want a giant, naked and pregnant woman brandishing a sword? You got it! Head to the pier at Ilfracombe for Damian Hirst’s Verity, a 20m tall stainless steel and bronze sculpture. She’s Marmite to the locals but love her or hate her, she’s a sight worth seeing.
Totnes is offbeat in all the right ways – eco-friendly, and so independent up until recently it had its own currency. It’s chocka with indie boutiques and brilliant homewares shops, and a great Saturday market where you can scoff excellent street food (hello World Food!) and shop new and vintage clothes, amazing art, vintage bits, a fair bit of tie-dye and more. Go!
Words: Lisa Buckland, Editor, Muddy Stilettos Devon