Devon's Towns and Countryside
Created | Updated Sep 12, 2007
Devon has a classic 'diamond' shape, which loosely divides its districts into five separate areas, each with its own distinctive character:
East Devon - The rolling eastern countryside, dropping away into the English Channel, is missed on the way to more popular 'tourist' areas. It contains the county town of Exeter, and shares the incredible 'Jurassic Coast' with neighbouring Dorset.
South Devon - In terms of visitor numbers this is the most popular part of the county, but it still retains a Devonian character, particularly away from the main tourist sites on the coast between Exeter and Brixham. The slightly twee reputation of some of the resorts detracts little from the enduring appeal of the area.
West Devon - A thin, ill-defined strip bordering the Cornish border; places of appeal include the historic city of Plymouth and nearby Tavistock.
North Devon - Probably the true heartland of the county, with a coast rivalling that of Cornwall's and a true sense of 'getting away from it all' that is difficult to better, at least in the south of the UK.
Dartmoor - One of the first wave of National Parks in the UK, Dartmoor has long been infamous for its prison, extensive bogs and inclement weather; likewise it is famous for its incredible scenery, legendary tors1 and its ability to have a folk story almost every mile.
Most visitors will enter Devon from the east, slowly shedding the Dorset or Somerset countryside as they head along the M5 or A30. Somehow, it doesn't quite feel like Devon until you can see Dartmoor for the first time, but there are many reasons to linger.
Located at the end of the M5, Exeter is Devon's county capital. The Roman garrison was that civilisation's most south-westerly incursion into Britain, and the city walls dating from 200 AD are a reminder of the city's long history. Indeed, there is much of historical value in the city; the grand cathedral dates from the 14th Century, and it is claimed that the Guildhall, built in 1330, is England's oldest working municipal building. Other notable attractions include The House That Moved, a 15th Century house that was literally winched 150 metres to make way for a new bypass; the Underground Passages, built in the 13th Century to bring water into the city and now a tourist attraction unique in Britain; and the Quayside, with pleasant walks, shops and cafés.
With over 600 shops, two theatres, and a prestigious University, Exeter is at the heart of Devon's cultural life. Yet the city manages to retain a relatively calm air, partly due to the fairly open centre and grassy area of Cathedral Close. Add in a range of excellent restaurants and a vibrant nightlife, and you have a city well worth a visit.
Located in the Otter Valley on the edge of the Blackdown Hills, Honiton is centred on one long, straight, broad main street. This road was one of the main routes into Devon from Roman times until the 1990s when the rebuilt A30 finally bypassed the town centre. Goods from around East Devon were shipped by road from here to the rest of the country, most notably the fine lace for which the town became world famous. Many of the present buildings were built after a succession of fires between 1672 and 1765. Before the London and South Western Railway reached the town in 1860, the road was so busy that the town boasted no fewer than 25 coaching inns!
Still the district's chief shopping centre, Honiton offers little to the visitor in itself but makes a well-connected base from which to explore East Devon.
Just a few miles from Honiton on the A30 are a number of worthwhile attractions - the Devon Online page for Honiton is a great place to start looking. The biggest and arguably most enjoyable for the tourist is Escot; an ever-expanding house and historical garden, with wetlands, aquatic gardens and a maze. It is also home to many major events, including the annual 'Beautiful Days Festival' of arts and music.
The East Devon Coast
The 95 mile stretch of 'Jurassic Coast' stretching from Exmouth in East Devon to Lyme Regis in Dorset was the first natural World Heritage site and one of only 26 Heritage sites in the UK. This was designated by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in 2001 because of its outstanding geology. It is considered the only place that allows visitors to view over 185 million years of geological history. Despite its name it covers the older Triassic period to the more recent Cretaceous periods. The process of learning the importance of the region was begun by Mary Anning, whose discoveries at nearby Lyme Regis in Dorset revolutionised palaeontology.
Sidmouth and Exmouth Area
The classic east Devon coast is a fairly quiet area, with occasional proliferations of holiday chalets and campsites. This should not deter the visitor; the dramatic cliffs drop majestically into the sea, and the South West Coast Path is arguably at its most spectacular here. Towns of any real note are almost absent, but touring travellers with time and an urge to explore will find great pleasure in villages with names like Beer and Otterton. Warm welcomes leave wonderful memories.
At the mouth of the river Exe, Exmouth is a classic, quiet seaside town. Facing the village of Starcross on the Exe estuary, it is a handy place for families and walkers alike; with a marina, annual festival and an excellent range of nature reserves and walks nearby, it's a pleasant enough place to be.
Strictly following the protocol for the naming of such towns, Sidmouth lies at the mouth of the river Sid. Most famous for its folk music festival, the town is beautifully set between more precipitous cliffs and, even at busy times, has a very relaxed air. The long promenade overlooks a fine pebble beach with promises of fossils, and the town has extensive, quiet parks, good pubs and restaurants, and some of the finest fish and chips in the county.
The classic area for tourists, the south of the county probably needs less introduction than other areas. A surprising number of people have glorious childhood memories of holidays in Dawlish Warren or Paignton; sea-farers will recognise the names of Dartmouth and Salcombe; and the river Dart is frequently named as the most beautiful in Britain.
The three towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham make up the largely urban area of Torbay. Also known as the English Riviera, the bay has been a popular tourist area since Victorian times.
Although Torbay is renowned for being a 'classic' English seaside resort, with beaches, saucy postcards, piers and deckchairs and Fawlty Towers, which was set here (but filmed in Brighton, Sussex), there is much more to recommend away from this. Each of the towns has a distinctive character, the local geology is unique enough to be under consideration as a European Geopark, and Torbay's ten miles of coastline are incredibly diverse.
Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust manages 1,800 acres of land in Torbay, including over half the coastline. Six of their sites are classified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and include part of the historic village of Cockington, Berry Head National Nature Reserve and the developing organic farm at Occombe.
Even the locals would be hard-pressed to sell you the virtues of this market town. Not that there's anything wrong with Newton - it's a pleasant enough place - it's just that there seem to be few reasons to linger. For some reason, Newton Abbot seems to be the transport hub for the whole of South Devon and is often packed with traffic, especially during the summer.
The great appeal of Newton Abbot is its markets, and has been so since it became a market town in 1220. There is a livestock market, an indoor market, outdoor markets and large car boot sales and auctions. It is still a great place to buy local produce and browse around small family-owned shops, much more so than most neighbouring towns.
The town centre is watched over by St Leonard's Tower, a landmark since 1350 when it had a church attached to it - this was demolished in 1836. William III, Prince of Orange, made his first speech to the people of England after landing at Brixham in 1688 outside the tower. Newton is also home to the National Trust's Bradley House and a local brewery which visitors can tour called Tucker's Maltings.
Teignmouth and Dawlish
These two towns first came into prominence in the 1840s, when Brunel started working his Atmospheric Railway down the south Devon coast. Being just three miles apart, they are often considered together, but are actually rather different in character.
At the end of the Teign estuary, Teignmouth is a quiet seaside resort, complete with pier, a good beach and amusement arcades. Although the main part of the resort is quiet and has a very traditional air, the docks remain a bustling place. The majority of boat traffic through the port has traditionally been fishing vessels, but the Quay itself is constructed from Dartmoor granite - also an important commodity in the town's development. Interestingly, Teignmouth had to be rebuilt after an invasion by the French in 1690!
Opposite Teignmouth on the estuary to the south is the quiet town of Shaldon, nestling under the great sandstone cliff of the Ness. The coast from here to Torbay used to be a great area for smugglers. Today there is a small wildlife centre on the hill called Shaldon Wildlife Trust2, a small zoo that is a locally important breeding centre for rare species.
Slightly famous for the black swans that populate its main park (known as 'the Lawn'), Dawlish is a much more compact resort. There is very little of great attraction in the town itself apart from a pleasant beach and the Lawn, although it is a nice enough place for a spot of relaxation - at least, when the trains aren't bombing through on the mainline that passes along the seafront. It does, however, have an astonishingly comprehensive history page on the town's website.
Adjoining Dawlish to the north is Dawlish Warren. Although much maligned for its collection of holiday parks, the Warren itself is a National Nature Reserve consisting largely of dune grassland and is home to many rare species. You can find out more about the reserve on the Dawlish Warren NNR homepage. With an estimated 850,000 visitors each year, protecting the reserve is an enormous balancing act between visitor needs and the wildlife.
The deep sheltered anchorage of the Dart Estuary made Dartmouth one of England's most important ports throughout the last millennium; ships gathered here to sail to the Second and Third Crusades, and to the D-Day landings. In the Middle Ages the town was notorious for its pirates including John Hawley, local merchant and mayor, who is believed to be the model for Chaucer's Shipman. In Elizabethan times, local mariners such as Raleigh, Gilbert, and Davis carved their names in history; later the port would control the Newfoundland cod fisheries, export wool, transport slaves and import port and Bordeaux wines. Dartmouth has, since 1863, been the home of Britannia Royal Naval College; the naval equivalent of Sandhurst. Today, the harbour holds many millions of pounds worth of yachts, but warships and cruise liners still call regularly.
The town itself is picturesque, with houses appearing to tumble down perilously steep hillsides from the woods above to the river below. Quite a few of the streets, are steps, though the centre of the town, built entirely on reclaimed land, which is fairly flat. There is a jumble of historic buildings, most notably the Butterwalk, a row of colonnaded 17th Century town houses under which the pannier market was once held. Standing guard at the mouth of the river is Dartmouth Castle and St Petrox church.
Dartmouth today is a popular tourist destination and home – or second home – to the wealthy, and many locals struggle with the high prices. It's also now easier to buy trendy clothing or artworks than everyday shopping. Despite this, it's still a strong community. The town remains quite isolated, accessed chiefly by ferries or by narrow winding roads from Totnes or Kingsbridge. Many visitors arrive by the classic Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway. The highlight of the Dartmothian year is the Royal Regatta in late August, which is not just a waterborne sporting event but a fair and festival on water, on land and in the air. There's also a Music Festival every May.
The South Hams
The South Hams, Devon's southernmost district, covers some 350 square miles between Torbay and Plymouth. The landscape is characterised by exposed hills and deep sheltered valleys running from Dartmoor and developing into estuaries as they near the sea. The best known and largest of these are the Dart and Kingsbridge estuaries. Most of the area's 60 miles of craggy coastline is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; notable features are the Slapton Ley freshwater lagoon, Start Point and Burgh Island.
There are over sixty civil parishes in the South Hams. The council is based in Totnes, which is the area's oldest town but right on its eastern periphery. The other main towns are the port of Dartmouth, the market town of Kingsbridge, Salcombe, Modbury and Ivybridge, which has become in effect a dormitory of Plymouth. The sheer size and geography of this area, as well as any lack of historical basis to its existence, make the South Hams the least cohesive of the county's administrative districts.
A large area of the South Hams, including villages such as Slapton, Strete, Torcross and Blackawton, was evacuated during World War II to allow training for D-day. In an infamous wartime tragedy, German E-boats killed some 750 US servicemen off the coast here during rehearsals for the landings on Utah Beach.
As with much of Devon, traditional industries of fishing and dairy farming, whilst far from extinct, have been usurped by tourism. Dartmouth and Salcombe have become fashionable yachting centres and are now noted for extremely high house prices and a high level of second home ownership.
With the coasts largely claimed for the north or south, west Devon is generally perceived as being the smallest part, extending only along the course of the river Tamar. It does, however, claim for its own one of Britain's most famous maritime cities - Plymouth.
Plymouth is a historic city dating back to Saxon times. One of the most famous and significant elements of its history was in 1588 when Sir Francis Drake famously defeated the Spanish Armada. Popular legend has it that Drake played bowls on Plymouth Hoe and declined to sail to meet the Armada as the tide was against them and he was proved to be correct.
In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from the Mayflower steps to discover America and, more recently, in 1831 Charles Darwin left the UK from Plymouth on his earth-changing visit to the Galapagos islands.
Due to Plymouth's extensive and important naval base and dockyards it was extensively bombed during World War Two. The locally-famous bombed out church at Charles Cross remains a poignant reminder to the Blitz. Much of modern Plymouth remains architecturally plain due to this; however, the historic Barbican has many interesting building dating back to Elizabethan times.
Today Plymouth is the largest city in Devon with a population of nearly 250,000, having absorbed the local towns of Plympton and Plymstock. There is a great h2g2 Entry on one of Plymouth's suburbs, Oreston, a former hamlet outside the old city.
One of Plymouth and therefore Devon's newest and most unusual tourist attractions is the somewhat puzzling Giant Metal Prawn.
Tavistock is situated on the river Tavy, from where its name derives. The town was formed around its Benedictine Abbey which was founded by the Earl of Devonshire in 974 AD.
Tavistock has traditionally been a market town and an important commerce centre in Devon. It had a pannier market by Royal decree as early as 1105 AD. The current market building dates from the mid-19th Century.
The main claim to fame of Tavistock is that it is the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake, the national hero who defeated the Spanish Armada. Drake led the English fleet to victory after famously finishing a game of bowls on nearby Plymouth Hoe.
Today Tavistock is a thriving town with a population of around 11,000. Two important and prestigious regional schools 'Tavistock College' and 'Kelly College' are both situated in the town.
Even most Devonians know little of the area between Okehampton and the Bristol Channel. Although they will have heard of Winkleigh, they are unlikely to be able to confirm which county it is in, let alone how to get there. But here the countryside is pure escapism, the pubs and villages friendly, the coastline wild and the dawn - frequently misty.
North Devon Coast
Starting at the top - quite literally - is Exmoor. Devon's border with Somerset runs through the middle of Exmoor. Pick the right bit of road to drive along and you will find yourself in Devon one minute, Somerset the next, then back in Devon before you know it. Exmoor has everything you could want from an area of National Park: hills and valleys, open moorland and forest, babbling brooks and rushing water falls. All this, plus quaint villages where duck racing is about as fast-paced as life ever gets. Although Exmoor falls behind its big brother Dartmoor in both size and sheer wildness, it has one thing that Dartmoor lacks: coastline. Rocky, rugged, craggy coastline.
Along that northern section of Devon's coastline are the seaside towns of Lynton and Lynmouth, Combe Martin and Ilfracombe. These typically Victorian English seaside resorts all have their fair share of chip shops, amusement arcades and kiss-me-quick hat vendors.
Heading around the corner and southwards, much of the coastline is owned by the National Trust. The bits in between - the beaches - are a surfer's paradise. Woolacombe, Croyde and Saunton are populated for most of the year by board carrying, rubber wearing, VW van driving, beautifully bronzed people who look like they would taste of salt.
The expanse of beach at Saunton runs down towards Barnstaple or Bideford Bay3. This is where the rivers Taw and Torridge meet and open out into sea. Just across from Bideford, is Westward Ho! Famous for two things: being the only place in the world to have an exclamation mark as part of its name, and being named after the fictional place in Charles Kingsley's book Westward Ho!
Continuing southwest is the quintessential Devon village of Clovelly. There are four things you must do in Clovelly: walk down the steep main street, buy some postcards, drink some scrumpy, and pay for the Land Rover ride back up.
The coastline from Clovelly out to Hartland Point and down to the Cornish border at stunning Marsland Mouth becomes quite similar to that of the northernmost part of Devon's coast. It has that rugged feel again. The cliffs seem steep. The footpaths seem perilous. The wind always whistles. The waves always crash. Oh, the North Devon coast, how we love it!
Barnstaple and Bideford
Barnstaple and Bideford were both famously visited by Tarka the Otter in the 1927 novel by Henry Williamson.
However, Tarka the Otter visited in an age when he wouldn't get caught in a traffic jam on the Sticklepath road into Barnstaple. The town has become so busy in recent years that even the bypass needs a bypass ('Completion in 2007'4). There is a good reason for the traffic though: Barnstaple is the foremost shopping centre in North Devon. Its indoor pannier market is one of the top twelve in the country and is open six days a week. Barnstaple is also proud of its floral heritage. Since 1990 the town has been prolific in its entry into various town in bloom competitions, winning everything from the regional St Bridget Cup - Best Town in South West, to the Entente Floral - Best Town in Europe and the Nations in Bloom - Best Town in the World. Indeed, Barnstaple even has a Floral Walk - a stroll around the town taking in sights of the various and varied floral displays. In addition to this, the town also has a Heritage Trail - another walk around the town taking in sights of various buildings of historic significance, ending at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon, by the edge of the river Taw.
Bideford is a town that Tarka the otter would still recognise. The quayside in particular is still evocative of the 'little white town' of which author Charles Kingsley wrote5; indeed, it was here that Sir Walter Raleigh landed the first shipment of tobacco from the Americas. The quay has been improved in recent years (the town council infamously sneaking out one night to cut down the mature trees along the riverside - much to the horror of the locals). To the north of the town the Art Gallery is situated adjacent to Victoria Park which in turn backs onto the river. Up the steep narrow streets to the west lies the pannier market surrounded by many varied shops, pubs and restaurants. On the opposite side of the river, to the east, is the part of town known - in true Devon style - as East The Water. Bideford has a fresh feel to it. Maybe it is the new equally spaced young trees lining the quay. Maybe it is the fact that the main street is bordered on one side by the river Torridge. Maybe it is the width of the river, or the classic lines of the 24-arch stone bridge, or the gentle curve of the Torridge as it winds into the town then out into the Atlantic. Whatever it is, Bideford continues to be the little white town.
The Devonshire Dales and Tarka Country
The 'Devonshire Dales' is a loosely defined area, also known in some circles as 'Ruby Country'. It lies between Okehampton and the north Devon coast, and between Cornwall and Exmoor; with green hills and rolling scenery, here one is never far from a great view of one of the moors or neighbouring Cornwall.
South from Bideford, following the river Torridge towards its Dartmoor source, is Great Torrington. The town is known as The Cavalier Town as it is most famous for the 1646 Battle of Torrington. Voted North Devon's 'Most Welcoming Community', the residents will use any excuse (such as carnival week) to bring out the banners proclaiming 'Us be plaised to zee ’ee'.
Just down the road from Torrington is the village of Langtree, of significance here in that it is fairly typical of many Devonshire Dales villages.
Across to the east on the other side of the Devonshire Dales is South Molton. This town on the river Mole (hence the name) has been a market town since the 14th Century, primarily trading in wool. Many of the buildings on and around the central 'square' date back centuries, giving the town a historic feel. South Molton is North Devon's gateway into Exmoor, which straddles the Devon-Somerset border: leave the town on the A361, cross that roundabout onto the A399 and you practically fall onto the 'other' moor.
Many Devonians are largely unaware that Lundy is part of their county, as it is out in the Bristol Channel a good two hours' boat ride from Bideford. Only three miles long and half a mile wide, there is no need for cars or roads on peaceful Lundy, which is owned by the National Trust.
It is said that:
If you can't see Lundy from the mainland, it's raining.
If you can, it's about to rain.
There is an excellent guide entry on Lundy Island that goes into far greater detail on the outpost.
Dartmoor and Its Fringes
In 1961, Dartmoor became a National Park after being identified as an area requiring special protection in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949. Its open moorland is supplemented with some wonderful woodland, quiet rivers and the ubiquitous Tors that seem to watch over the landscape from every hilltop.
Dartmoor's 368 square miles6 are sparsely inhabited, and its central point, near Fur Tor, is as far away from a road as it is possible to be in England. A land steeped in folklore, its main villages are Princetown, famous for its brooding prison; Widecombe-In-The-Moor, even more famous for its annual Fayre; and Postbridge, an important Bronze age settlement - once home to around 5,000 residents - and now known for its photogenic medieval bridge.
A cause of much controversy over the years has been the army's use of much of the northern moor for training, including live firing. While the army undoubtedly contributes to the local economy, though almost exclusively in Okehampton on the fringe, it is also clear that they have caused untold damage to the wilderness. Most controversial of all was the renewal of a license to use a small area around Cramber Tor for dry training; seen by 1,700 locals as empire building by the Ministry of Defence. BBC News archives on the subject of the military on Dartmoor include:
- Bomb fears for wild campers, 25 January 2001.
- Critics blast Dartmoor firing, 21 August 2001.
- Army fires Dartmoor economy, 05 October 2001.
- Ramblers declare war on the Army, 25 March 2002.
- Protest over Army's moors training plan, 21 September 2002.
- Army go-ahead for Dartmoor training, 3 January 2003.
You can also visit the Dartmoor National Park Authority's website.
'The town with moor'7. The market town of Okehampton sits right in the middle of Devon, at the top edge of Dartmoor. Years back Okehampton (or Oke as the locals call it - pronounced Oak-ee) was known as the bottleneck - the place where the summer holiday trip down to the South West turned into a traffic jam. Nowadays the A30 goes straight past, so Oke is quite often ignored by visitors to north and south Devon or is bypassed by tourists on their way to Cornwall. So, unlike some other tourist hotspots, Oke doesn't get too overrun by visitors during the summer.
Places of note in Okehampton include:
- The Market Hall - hosting the auction, the pannier market (four days a week), and the farmers market (once a month).
- The Museum of Dartmoor Life - a disused granary converted into an award winning museum.
- Okehampton Castle - built during the Norman conquest, now an English Heritage site.
- Simmons Park - including gardens (of course), bowling green, tennis courts, pavilion and putting green.
Most noteworthy though is this: Okehampton lies right on the edge of Dartmoor. The moor is visible on the way into Oke, from any direction. The moor lurks behind buildings then emerges just like the sun breaks from behind the clouds. The moor feels so close you can almost reach out and touch it. The moor brings the visitors. The moor brings the rain. The moor brings the sense of space. There is an un-signposted road out of the back of Oke that leads onto Dartmoor. Find it and follow it. Then you'll understand why Okehampton truly is the town with moor.
The A38 Towns
The traveller speeding along the A38 from Exeter to Plymouth will pass by a whole series of towns of regional importance. The route of the modern A38 was delineated from 1755 onwards, when the Turnpike Trust began building a road from east to west from Chudleigh to South Brent. The modern road, skirting the southern edge of Dartmoor, follows almost exactly the same course.
Travelling from east to west, the first major settlement after passing Exeter is Chudleigh. Like many of these towns, it grew in significance when Plymouth became an important port around the 13th and 14th Centuries. It became an important market town and, despite being almost destroyed by fire in 1807, grew to its peak in the mid-19th Century. Today it, and its neighbour Chudleigh Knighton, are pleasant enough for an afternoon's visit, and Chudleigh Rocks are probably the most popular Rock Climbing8 place in the county. Nearby Chudleigh Knighton Heath is the only place in England9 where the rare narrow headed ant, formica exsecta, can be found.
Just down the road is the town of Bovey Tracey, traditionally an important market town for many nearby villages. Known locally simply as Bovey, it is an important gateway town for Dartmoor and is a lovely place to while a day or two at a Bed and Breakfast while exploring rural Devon. There is a small but excellent selection of pubs and tearooms, the cream10 of which is held to be the rather expensive Brookside tearooms, with a menu of almost exclusively locally-bought produce. Bovey Heathfield is a local nature reserve on the outskirts, currently recovering from years of abuse.
The first Stannary town on the road is Ashburton. Some local towns were known as Stannary towns as they grew with the tin industry, stannum being the Latin for tin. There was even a Stannary parliament, which met quarterly on a Dartmoor tor! Although still a pleasant enough place, most visitors drive straight past on their way to the moor, which is a shame. Ashburton retains the air of a traditional small town, with many small family businesses and a raucous selection of pubs. The town is also well-known for the River Dart Country Park, a pleasant local attraction featuring country walks, 'daredevil' activities and a lovely place to camp.
Buckfastleigh and the adjacent village of Buckfast are classic Devon habitations, complete with tourist attractions, quiet high streets and odd festivals. Lying at the point where the river Dart leaves Dartmoor and enters the South Hams, they are both rather sleepy places. The social highlights are the festivals of Lamb Pie Day in July and Pear Pie Day in the autumn, when Buckfastleigh's town centre takes on a very English carnival atmosphere. Buckfast is home to Buckfast Abbey, most famous for its production of an alcoholic tonic wine11, and nearby are the award winning Pennywell Farm, where children can get face-to-face with all manner of farm animals, a working steam railway which has run to Totnes since 1872, as well as many other smaller attractions.