Heart of Devon
In search of the quintessential English countryside? Follow a spider's-thread lane into a realm of rolling farmland, timeless villages, and fogswept moorsinto the very heart of Devon.
My bedroom window framed a surprisingly familiar scene: an English garden thick with trees and bushes and beds of bright flowers, and beyond, gentle hills parceled into neat green plots by darker green hedgerows, with distant flocks of sheep scattered like grains of rice on an emerald cloth. The view was from Whitechapel Manor, a gracious Elizabethan country hotel near the town of South Molton, amid the unhurried peace of North Devon. That the scene was familiareven though I'd never been in England beforewas thanks to a long line of Britons who've planted images of this felicitous domain in my head: landscape painters such as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, writers such as Thomas Hardy and A.E. Housman.
I'll admit, before I arrived in England I wondered if the countryside I'd always envisioned really existedthose manicured fields filled with well-groomed cattle and sheep, the hamlets of thatch-roofed cottages with their mantles of climbing roses. As I roamed about Devon, however, I discovered that the picture-perfect image I held actually failed to do the landscape justice.
"Devon is the most authentic, unspoiled slice of the English countryside," a British acquaintance had told me before my trip. With only two real cities, Plymouth and Exeter, Devon is largely farmland, woods, and moor, with stretches of serpentine coast in the north and south.
Bordered by Cornwall on the west and Somerset and Dorset on the east, England's third largest county has long served the British as an antidote to city life. The south-coast resorts of Torquay, Paignton, and Brixham draw summer vacationers to the seaside around Torbay, the so-called English Riviera. Steer past that souvenir-shop-and-game-arcade stronghold (lampooned in TV's Fawlty Towers), past Plymouth and Exeter (although the latter's exquisite Gothic and Norman cathedral merits a visit), and you stand the best chance of reaching the heart of Devonat the end of a winding country lane.
"How on earth can you be sure we're on the right road?" I posed the question to slender, short-haired Alison Fenwick, my guide to southern and central Devon, as we followed a lane so narrow that the rented Rover's outside mirrors were brushing the ten-foot-tall hedgerows on either side. The only indications of our route were the minimalist white signs at the infrequent intersections in the leafy maze we were negotiating.
"Back home," I expounded, "the paved roads are usually posted every few miles."
"Oh, you mean with little reassuring signs?" asked Alison with her precise British diction.
Little reassuring signsthat's what I'd lacked the previous day, when I'd ambitiously attempted to drive Devon's spiderweb of anonymous lanes. It hadn't taken me long to realize I was in danger of becoming terminally lost, a motorized Flying Dutchman wandering forever between villages with names like Sticklepath and Doddiscombsleigh. But after hiring Alison, a registered guide and B&B owner from the town of Totnes, I was soon on the right path.
My plan was to sample the highlights in three areas: South Devon and the coast washed by the English Channel, the lands in and around 368-square-mile Dartmoor National Park in the south-central part of the county, and North Devon and the coast along the Bristol Channel, which takes in part of a second national park, Exmoor. I would find similarities wherever I wentthe vest-pocket villages and undulating green countrysideas well as differences: Devon's north coast, for example, is wilder than the south, with fearsome rocky cliffs.
The gentler coast of South Devon is notched with sheltered harbors, from the deepwater ports of Dartmouth and Plymouth (from which the Pilgrims set forth aboard the Mayflower in 1620) to coastal villages such as Thurlestone and East Prawle. My favorite town was Salcombe, about 20 miles southeast of Plymouth near the southern tip of Devon. Salcombe seems the embodiment of the adage that smaller is better. The town's plain-front pastel buildings cling to a shady hillside above a boat-flecked harbor on the Kingsbridge estuary, a wide "flooded valley" zigzagging miles inland from the sea.
"Salcombe is one of the most popular yachting centers in Britain," Alison informed me as she searched for a parking spot. "A lot of retirees come down here to spend their time messing about in boats."
Every generation seems to enjoy messing about here. Along the harbor, pram-pushing families and young couples licking ice cream cones paraded down narrow, blocks-long Fore Street, wending past tea parlors, sweetshops, and the beckoning dim interiors of pubs. The harbor's salty-fishy smell mingled with the aroma of steaming crabs. At Whitestrand Quaywhere a ferry shuttles passengers across the estuary to the sandy beaches below the even smaller hamlet of East Portlemoutha group of seniors relaxed on a bench, eyes closed and faces to the sun like a line of contented gray cats.
Just outside of Salcombe you can sample a lovely stretch of England's famed South West Coast Path, the 613-mile hiking trail that edges the coast between Somerset and Dorset, running all the way around Devon and Cornwall. Following trails originally used by coastguards searching for smugglers, the path affords sweeping if sometimes precipitous views.
Alison and I hiked out to a headland south of Salcombe called Bolt Head, a 45-minute walk. The trail hugged rocky hillsides greened with patches of gorse and bracken, accented by the drooping purple blossoms of foxglove. High atop Bolt Head, we looked out at sailboats tacking across the broad bay at the mouth of the estuary. Closer to shore, fishermen bobbed about in small open boats. Directly below us, gulls chattered and fluttered over Mew Stone, a large rock encircled by a lace collar of frothing waves. In the distance, the deep blue English Channel stretched south toward France, and the vivid green fields of Devon rolled away to the north.
I was staying a few miles inland, in Alison's hometown of Totnes. An artsy-craftsy place"rather like your Santa Fe," a local described itTotnes perches on a hill above the River Dart. To acquaint myself with the town, I had only to follow narrow Fore and High Streets up from the river. By the time I reached the circular Norman castle at the top of the hill, I'd taken in the sights: ranks of meticulously preserved town houses built by 16th- and 17th-century wool and tin merchants, most now home to boutiques or restaurants; the small, red sandstone Church of St. Mary, a 15th-century gem; the stalwart 16th-century Guildhall, containing a table at which Oliver Cromwell sat in 1646; the old merchants' arcades known as the Butterwalk and Poultry Walk.
On the quay by the River Dart I boarded a boat for a cruise on the "English Rhine," through the verdant valley that meanders down to the coastal town of Dartmouth, home of England's Britannia Royal Naval College and an important port since the Norman Conquest (Crusaders departed from there, and the town's gray stone castle has guarded the mouth of the Dart estuary since 1481). During our hour-and-a-quarter boat ride we passed steep wooded slopes and tattersall fields stippled with sheep or brown South Devon cows. Ducks, swans, and herons patrolled bankside marshes. Quiet salmon-fishing villageseach a timeless set piececame and went. Our guide pointed out the former estates of Sir Walter Raleigh, 16th-century explorer John Davis, and writer Agatha Christie. He also told us that in World War II some 22,000 American troops had awaited D day here along the Dart, part of the invasion force cached all over the southern coast.
At Dartmouth, we landed next to a boat basin enclosed on two sides by spick-and-span Elizabethan facades. Flower-splashed Royal Avenue Gardens spread out to the right. Along the streets in the opposite direction, buildings sagged against one another with the dignified demeanor of great age. Stepping inside Agincourt House, a circa 1380 half-timber structure, I indulged in one of Devon's culinary treatsa cream tea. Seated beneath a low white ceiling with dark, time-worn beams, I polished off two large scones piled high with delicately sweet clotted creamlike the lightest whipped buttertopped by dollops of strawberry jam and washed down with cups of strong, steaming tea. The gray-haired matron serving me smiled at my empty plate as she cleared things away.
"Above all, avoid the moor, where the powers of evil are exalted."
I recall Sherlock Holmes offering that unsettling bit of advice to his faithful Dr. Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles. I own a video of the Granada Television production of that classic tale, and I've watched it many times, as much for the brooding scenery of where the film was seton Devon's rainy, fogswept Dartmooras for the story of the hound from hell that stalked the Baskerville clan.
Preserved as Britain's southernmost national park, Dartmoor physically consists of a great dome of granite, rising to 2,000 feet in places. A layer of peat covers much of the high moor, acting like a sponge to soak up some of the 60 to 100 inches of yearly precipitationtwice the amount that falls on the coast at Torbay. Cut by numerous rivers and streams, the moor is covered largely in scrubby vegetationheather, bracken, gorse, and tough grasses, food for the hardy Dartmoor ponies, Galloway cattle, and Scottish Blackface sheep that roam its expanses. Piles of granite, or tors, stand in lonely relief like tumbledown castles.
Over the centuries the moor has been mined for tin, lead, iron, and copper. Granite quarries provided stone for Nelson's Column in London. That same granite was used for building as far back as the Bronze Age, when prehistoric settlers constructed hut circles and religious sites whose ruins can still be seen.
At times the moor does seem the melancholy place that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described. As I stood inside the great stone circle enclosing the ruins of the Bronze Age settlement at Grimspoundthe wind flapping my trousers and gray mists hanging low over the treeless terrainI wondered who could possibly want to live here. I understood why Dartmoor was selected as the site for the high security prison at Princetown. Who'd want to escape into this?
On the other hand, nothing could have been cheerier than my ride on the South Devon Railway, which connects Totnes with the town of Buckfastleigh on the southeast edge of the moor. The little Thomas the Tank Engine-style steam train follows the upper reaches of the River Dart, passing fields where placid cows manufacture the raw material for cream teas. Buckfastleigh was all sunshine and butterflies (literallyit's home to a butterfly farm displaying exotic species). The nearby Benedictine abbey, one of Britain's handful of working monasteries, lends an air of repose, but even Buckfastleigh has its dark undertones: The village churchyard contains the tomb of one Richard Caveral, a 17th-century landowner said to have been in league with the devil. Legend holds that fire-breathing black dogs were seen howling around his gravethe inspiration for Conan Doyle's tale.
Alison ferried me to a few of the moor's other villages, some of them winsome enough to grace the lids of cookie tinsplaces such as Buckland-in-the-Moor, with its cluster of Hansel-and-Gretel cottages couched in the woods beside a rushing stream, and Widecombe-in-the-Moor, a hamlet at the bottom of a peaceful vale with a 14th-century church and a collection of listing, weathered tombstones.
As we poked about, Alison explained that Dartmoor National Park is a patchwork of towns and public and private lands, roughly a third of it owned by Prince Charles, part of the holdings of the Duchy of Cornwall. "Some of this land was once a royal hunting preserve," she said. Today, most of the moor's hunters are searching for the serenity of wild places. Two popular ways to experience Dartmoor's natural side are hiking and pony trekking. I decided to walk the three miles from Hound Tor to Haytor, one of the more readily accessible walks.
Alison described the route as we stood amid the foundation stones of a ruined medieval village at Hound Tor. She pointed to some rocks on a nearby ridgeline across a small valley. All I had to do was hike down to the woods at the bottom of the valley, cross a stream, then follow a path through bracken and gorse up to the rocks on top of the ridge. Haytor would then be a leisurely ramble across open ground. Alison would meet me at the other end with the car.
The going was easy at first. The layer of peat underfoot had the spongy feel of a waterbed, which, in a way, it is. Gurgling rivulets made a pleasant counterpoint to the ominous croakings of rooks and jackdaws. The trouble came after I crossed the stream, when the path I was following suddenly became two paths, then four, then a dozen. I'd become enmeshed in a network of crisscrossing livestock trails. When I tried to retrace my steps, I found that all of the blasted paths looked the same. Suddenly I realized...I was...lost on the moor.
Well not really. But I'd definitely lost the right path. The only thing left to do was to bushwhack straight up the hill to the top of the ridge, jumping rivulets and boot-sucking bogs. When I finally staggered out on top, gasping with the effort, a solitary Blackface sheep sheltering among the rocks stared at me in disbelief, its puffball body and spindly black legs looking remarkably like a fully inflated set of bagpipes.
"Is it too early for a cream tea?"
The young attendant looked down at me as I lounged in my lawn chair like some indolent trust-funder. "You can have a cream tea anytime, sir," she answered pleasantly.
At the imposing gray stone Whitechapel Manor, my 400-year-old country hotel in North Devon, I discovered I could have most anything I wanted at any time. I had, you see, fallen deep into a very ample lap of luxury.
I'd driven up from South Devon that morning, and now I was indulging in the lethargy of an entire Sunday afternoon in a sunny English garden, a drowsy state of suspended animation perfumed by roses and new-mown grass. Perhaps I'd get up soon and step over to the fishpond to watch the koi, or go down to the croquet lawn to check on those befuddled sheep bleating so insistently in the surrounding pastures. Or maybe I'd just continue sitting here.
Those are the sorts of decisions one faces at islands of gentility like Whitechapel Manorthose and the more difficult choices of what to order for dinner. A highlight of my Devon dining had come earlier at Gidleigh Park, a posh country manor near Chagford with a restaurant rated among England's ten best. I understood why after sampling artful preparations of lobster, caviar, and salmon. At Whitechapel Manor, the fare was grand as well. The roast wood pigeon I dined on one evening was "lovely," as the English say, and the cheeseboard was laden with regional delicacies whose flavors were as sumptuous as their names: Devon Oke, Shropshire Blue, Tornegous, Ticklemore Goat.
Whitechapel Manor was my base for exploring North Devon. My driver, Richard Medland, a fit, intense ex-policeman who's lived in North Devon for all his 40-some years, took me first to Clovelly, where miniscule cottages tumble down a cliff to the tiny harbor from which fisherman have ventured into huge Bideford Bay for centuries. At nearby Appledore's North Devon Maritime Museum, I learned that the rocky cliffs of Devon's "cruel coast" have been the doom of many a ship, and that locals once made a living by salvaging wrecks or smuggling. "It would have been easy enough to smuggle here," Richard observed, "with all the little hidden coves and only one coastguard for miles of shore."
Farther east, past the north's only major resort, Victorian Ilfracombe, I got an eagle's view from a section of the South West Coast Path. Hiking to the top of Highveer Point, I saw a coast as beautiful as it is cruel. Big Sur-like headlands plunged straight to the sea, 700 feet or more in places. "On a clear day," Richard told me, "you can see Wales across the Bristol Channel."
On east, we visited Lynton and Lynmouth, a pair of cliffside villagesLynton at the top, Lynmouth at the bottomlinked by a tram that's been tootling up and down the slope since 1890. From Lynmouth you can walk inland for two miles through a deep, wooded combe, or valley, to Watersmeet, where the East Lyn River and Hoar Oak Water join. An old stone fishing lodge offers tea beneath a majestic Monterey pine, looking precisely like the sort of place where one of J.R.R. Tolkien's hobbits might have conspired with the wizard Gandalf.
Watersmeet lies within Exmoor National Park, North Devon's counterpart to Dartmoor, although, said Richard, "Exmoor is less bleak, less wild, more under the plow." While most of Exmoor extends into neighboring Somerset, the Devon portion preserves dramatic coastal headlands, woody combes, and open moorland, with herds of Britain's largest wild animal, the red deer. Richard and I hiked up to Exmoor's highest point in Devon, Chapman Barrows, a group of Bronze Age burial mounds in an area known as The Chains, part of a vast, open plateau. From that grassy viewpoint we could see all the way back to the coast, miles away. In the opposite direction, low hills extended to the horizon.
Standing on that sunny, nearly treeless plateau felt a lot like being on the Kansas prairie, with nothing but the wind, the sheep, and the birds to disturb the silence. Peace rolled across the land like a balm. As if to underscore the glory of the setting, a skylark burst from the heather and carried its song straight toward heaven.
"This is the real Devon," Richard said at last.
By now, I knew that he was right.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.