In the popular imagination, Devon remains the quintessential English rural paradise, a retreat from the modern world, as evidenced by the booming second home and retirement market. Even today, the county lives up to its reputation for natural beauty – soft sand beaches edged by creamy Atlantic breakers stretching for miles, where the most magnificent sunsets perform daily for free; picturesque fishing villages tottering down wild combes to the sea; high cliffs alive with quivering pink thrift, and those famous deep Devon lanes luxuriant with ferns, wild flowers and billowing clouds of cow parsley.
North Devon is wilder and more unpredictable than the more-visited South. Each has their beautiful coastline, but the North feels more elemental, with its fascinating juxtapositions of topography, dramatic tides, jagged ‘Wreckers Coast’ and majestic views up and down the Bristol Channel encompassing Wales and Lundy island.
Lynton and Lynmouth
Within just a few miles are found the wild, mediaeval ‘Lorna Doone country’ around Countisbury, where the air is so pure that lichen grows in veils and webs from trees; lonely gorse and heather carpeted moorland where the trees are sculpted into art by the prevailing winds; dramatic cliffs with dizzying views; the incredible ‘spaghetti western’ landscape of the Valley of the Rocks, the lush green of Woody Bay and the ‘Swiss Alps’ of Lynton. Inland lies a barely visited countryside of small farms, patchwork fields and mysterious ancient woodland darkening deep valleys and combes.
From Countisbury the coast road plunges steeply down to Lynmouth and then sharply up to Lynton on its perch. But the best way to travel between the twin towns is to take the famous funicular, The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway which dates from 1890 and is the highest and steepest water-powered railway in the world. Railways were everything to the development of the west country in the Victorian era. Once a narrow-gauge railway ferried travellers up past Arlington Court and Parracombe with its ancient church famously rescued from destruction by John Ruskin. The Lynton and Barnstaple Railway Trust have re-opened a section of track at nearby Woody Bay station where steam trains ply back and forth in scenic splendour.
Between Lynton and Mortehoe lies beautiful Lee Bay, while Trentishoe and Martinhoe above are lonely hamlets whose tiny ancient churches provide shelter for the cliff path walker from the blustering wind off the sea. Beyond Combe Martin lies Ilfracombe, a major resort in the Victorian era. The poet and perennial explorer of rural England Sir John Betjeman wrote that once the traveller could take a train from Paddington all the way to Ilfracombe. Today one must take the road, but the interesting coastal features remain – the curious ‘tunnels’ hollowed out of the cliffs in Victorian times; vintage tidal swimming pools ringed by rocks. The dramatic natural harbour is now adorned by Damien Hirst’s magnificent 20m tall ‘Verity’ statue.
Those who seek surf culture and a family beach will find some of our most renowned on North Devon’s Atlantic coast. North of the county town of Barnstaple the sands of Saunton, Croyde and Woolacombe, draw thousands of swimmers, surfers and sun worshippers on fine days who must all pass through the hub village of Braunton. Fortunately Braunton boasts several good places to eat, including The Wild Thyme café and legendary Squires fish and chip shop. For the more adventurous, skinny-dipping is very popular at the secret cove of Wild Pears beach.
Nestled in its own verdant valley south of Exmoor lies Marwood Hill Gardens, a magical enclave with an impressive range of trees and shrubs sloping down to graceful ponds. The views from the tearoom are exceptional and the homemade cheese scones first class. Nearby is the charming Broomhill Art Hotel, set in woodland with an extensive sculpture garden and ‘slow food’ restaurant on a terrace flittering with songbirds.
The Tarka Trail
Lost railways are a feature of North Devon. One of the most scenic clung to the edge of the Taw and Torridge estuaries between Barnstaple and Bideford. The track is now a wonderfully maintained cycle path, ‘The Tarka Trail’, whose smooth velvet ribbon carries cyclists and walkers past water meadows glutted with birdsong, under old railways bridges, past signal boxes and through cuttings strewn with wild flowers. Cycle hire is available along the trail, as are refreshments. Exceptional fayre is found in the superb café in the old station house at Fremington Quay.
RHS Rosemoor, lies inland near Torrington. The garden is deservedly popular for its exceptional rose gardens, art and craft events and impressive winter sculpture exhibitions.
The Tarka Trail passes through Instow, a small resort village whose seafront is the ideal place to savour a Hockings ice cream before a coppery sunset, listening to the roar of the breakers at Northam Burrows and Crow Point. Above Instow, Tapeley Park and Gardens is perfectly placed with views across the bay. An informally run stately home focused on sustainability its extensive grounds and gardens conceal interesting follies, lakes, microclimates and a remarkable burgeoning permaculture garden. Opposite Instow lies Appledore; a more gentrified old fishing village. Tiny whitewashed cottages on labyrinthine lanes dotted with tempting eateries and craft shops jostle for space down to the water.
Westward Ho! is a traditional resort with an enviable location offering panoramic views along a huge sweep of coastline, cliffs and countryside. The Pier House restaurant offers a first-class seat for sunset, with the Atlantic rollers crashing on the rocks beneath you. For those seeking something more genteel, Tea on the Green offers tempting cakes and pastries.
Bideford to Hartland
The coastline west from Bideford to Hartland includes the old fishing village of Clovelly which clings to a steep narrow combe. A vehicle-free zone, its cobbled lanes are still served by donkeys, which traditionally hauled sleds up from the harbour. But en route discover tourist free Peppercombe, where the sea is glimpsed between the contorted branches of sessile oak as you descend steep slopes thick with wildflowers or Bucks Mills just beyond, whose houses poise on the cliff edge overlooking a wild shore where rock pools wait to be explored at low tide.
At the furthest western point stands Hartland Quay with its popular pub and hotel framed by hull splitting rocks. To the south is wild Welcombe Mouth and just inland Docton Mill Gardens offer an altogether gentler atmosphere of blossoming fruit trees amidst wild grasses, colourful borders spilling over secretive pathways and silence interrupted only by the cawing of rooks.
North Devon has retained its traditional charm against the odds – it still feels remote in places and the destructive effects of mass tourism have been largely kept in check. Outsiders of all stripes are warmly welcomed to follow its peaceful old branch lines, woodland tracks and wildflower embroidered cliff paths, to recall a little of an older, nobler, more understated England. Just remember to close the gate.
Where to eat
- Wild Thyme Café, Braunton
- Fremington Quay Café, on the Tarka Trail, alongside parking and cycle hire
- Tea on the Green, Westward Ho!
- John’s Café, with shop and Delicatessen, at Instow and Appledore
- Thomas Carr @ The Olive Room, Ilfracombe
- Squires award-winning Fish and Chips, Braunton
- The Instow Arms Pub and restaurant
- The Pier House Restaurant, Westward Ho!
Where to stay
- Broomhill Art Hotel, Muddiford (with a sculpture garden and restaurant open to the public)
- Saunton Sands Hotel, Saunton
- Commodore Hotel, Instow
- National Trust Cottages in North Devon
- Coastguard Cottage at Peppercombe
- Hartland Quay Hotel