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23 June 2015

Weekend Escapes: Devon

The proud people of Devon say that their green and pleasant county has more country lanes than any other in Britain, and that if you joined them all together they’d circle the globe. Even a short drive opens up a wide variety of landscapes, from the wildernesses of Dartmoor to the pretty inlets of the south coast, and from rolling agricultural land to the buzzing seaside town of Torquay. With fine food, smart hotels and exhilarating walks along the way, a weekend on four wheels is the best way to open up some of south-west England’s loveliest landscapes.

Into South Hams

Something happens when you turn left on to the A384. Suddenly, after the throb and chase of the M5 and the Devon Expressway, you are plunged into the South Hams. This ancient region has its roots in the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia and is now an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB); but what you feel as you drive into it is the roll and tilt of the landscape, as if the lime green hills are wrapping themselves around you. The sight is calming, stirring, inspiring.

Travellers have been coming to this corner of Devon since the Great Western Railway opened it up in the 1850s. The English Riviera was the main draw, most notably the sandy sweep of Torbay and the picturesque, penetrating inlets of Dartmouth and Salcombe. But the coast is only ever half an hour from Dartmoor. A weekend of four-wheeled wandering opens up this dramatically contrasting wilderness and a range of active options to burn off all the fish and chips.

Lancashire born Chris Moss is an expert in Argentina and has visited every South American country at least once. Having spent over a decade in the Argentine capital, he returned to the UK and now writes online for The Guardian, The Telegraph, Wanderlust and Condé Nast Traveller magazines.

Banner Image Credit: Visit Devon/Chris Moss 

South-Hams

Image Credit: iStock.com/AndyRoland

Torquay and Torbay

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth, so I start my exploration at Torquay – where the queen of crime was born. I park up and, after a good coffee at the Visto Lounge in the new Abbey Sands building on the seafront, walk out on to Princess Pier.

Torquay is somewhat faded since its Victorian and Edwardian heyday but it retains a charming, genteel air. From the pier I can see the Grand and Imperial hotels –  young Agatha went to tea dances at the former and put the latter into her novels. A short walk gets me to the Torquay Museum, which has an exhibition of Christie memorabilia and a replica of part of the set used in television adaptations.

Torquay

Image Credit: iStock.com/Fotomicar

Around Torbay

The coast road south is popular with holiday traffic, which makes for a slow but steady drive. The pace gives me time to take in good views of the bay and of Paignton, the most traditional of Torbay’s beach resorts. The pier is old school, pulling in the punters with slot machines.

Brixham, south of the bay, is a thriving fishing port but – thanks to the pastel-painted terraces on the streets around the harbour – the most picturesque of the coast towns. I grab lunch at Rockfish – a small chain launched in 2010 by celebrity chef Mitch Tonks which is legendary around South Devon; Brixham’s is the latest branch to open. I have Devon crab to start followed by a main of turbot. The menu has no less than 21 locally sourced fish, all snapped up at first light at nearby Brixham market.

I follow undulating roads parallel to the South Wales Coast Path to Kingswear, where I hop on the car-barge to Dartmouth. Once an important deep-water port for seagoing vessels, it’s now a lively, likeable resort town with a fine 14th century castle, some cosy old pubs and, at Pasty Presto, a great pasty shop.

Torbay

Image Credit: iStock.com/acceleratorhams

The Southern Beaches

South of Dartmouth is some of the loveliest coast driving hereabouts. Blackpool Sands is a small, well-sheltered spot ideal for picnics and families. Slapton Sands is a the opposite: a long open stretch of exposed beach – with the road running along a narrow sandbar – backed by low dunes and the Slapton Ley nature reserve. The glittering freshwater lagoon – the largest natural lake in south-west England – attracts seasonal swallows and is home to Cetti’s warbler and cirl bunting. With all the reeds and tall grasses – with poppies adding flashes of colour – it’s hard to spot them, but I spy a great crested grebe diving for minutes at a time. When I cross to the beach I see gannets diving at speed into the rolling waves.

blackpool sands

Image Credit: Visit Devon/Chris Moss

Salcombe

I spend the night at Salcombe, the region’s smartest coastal enclave. Incomers have pushed prices up here, and there’s a slightly expat feel about the place. Few Devon accents are within earshot and my bed for the night – at the Salcombe Harbour Hotel and Spa – is decidedly upmarket. But none of this takes anything away from the raw, elemental beauty of the Kingsbridge estuary.

salcombe

Image Credit: Visit Devon/Chris Moss

Up to Dartmoor

In the morning, it’s time to head inland. There are fast routes up to Dartmoor but I’m in no hurry so use the B-roads via Princetown, site of the famous jail. I make good progress until I divert on to country lanes – Devon has thousands of miles of these one-car-wide roads walled in by ancient hedgerows. I go slowly, keeping an eye open for passing places and am lucky enough not to meet any tractors.

Dartmoor has inspired plenty of mist-shrouded myths but on a bright, breezy day like this, it’s anything but forbidding. England’s highest land mass south of the Lake District, the great muscle of rock, peat and heather sits serenely under a huge dome of blue sky broken only by a few fairweather clouds.

dartmoor chris

Image Credit: Visit Devon/Chris Moss

Widecombe

The Rugglestone Inn at Widecombe in the Moor might be Devon’s most idyllic pub – I have a hearty ploughman’s lunch on a bench in the garden, with back to the beautiful stone property that houses the pub, and the moor beyond. I can see reddish sheep grazing alongside dairy cows, and the high line where the bottle and emerald greens of woodland suddenly give up and the softer colours of moorland take over.

Famous for its September fair – or at least for the song about the fair – Widecombe is a sprawling parish with a huddle of pretty cottages and an imposing church at its heart. It’s a base for hikers and bikers passing through and in need of refreshment and rest.

Widecombe

Image Credit: iStock.com/David Woolfenden

Hike to Hounds Tor

It’s a steep, carb-burning walk out of the village up the hill past a hamlet called Bonehill, after which there’s a stretch of grassland edged by dense bracken.

I cross manicured Holwell Lawn and a Pony Club to arrive at Greator Rocks, a striking outcrop of fern-swathed granite not unlike a stegaoaurus’s back. Another few minutes first of descent – to the ruins of Saxon village called Hundatora  – and then a final climb find me standing in the shadow of Hounds Tor, an even more impressive cluster of boulders, stacks and riven rock formations spread over a wide area at the top of the hill. It’s believed that Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by the somewhat doggy shape of this outcrop to write his most famous story, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

From up here I can see right across the South Hams, a glorious rolling patchwork of agricultural land, forests, stone-built villages and lonely farmhouses. Little patches of blue sea sneak through the hillsides, and a maze of dry-stone walls competes with the labyrinth of lanes linking up the scattered settlements of the eastern moor.

A little later, I’m at a car park, where I spot a snack van called Hound of the Basketmeals. I have a cup of tea and then choose the easy walk back down the road to my own car.

Hounds-Tor

Image Credit: iStock.com/Bahadir Yeniceri

Wonderland and Home

The final leg takes me past Haytor, a dramatically jagged rocky peak and down to South Brent, where I camp at the coolly decorated Glazebrook House hotel to rest and feed – the rooms are Alice in Wonderland themed and I sleep beneath a doll’s house that looks down at me. After a full breakfast, I begin my drive home on the Devon Expressway – first exiting the moor, and then the scenic wonderland of South Hams.

whitehouse

Image Credit: Visit Devon/Chris Moss

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