Mansions for admirals by the pebbly strand,
And cottages for maiden aunts, inland,
That go with tea and strawberries and cream,
Sweet sheltered gardens by the twisting stream,
Cob, thatch and fuchsia bells, a Devon dream.
- John Betjeman1
Situated on a stunning stretch of coast, Sidmouth is an oddly comfortable mix of a typical small Devon town and the most refined and elegant of 19th Century resorts. Remote enough from larger towns such as Exeter to remain a thriving local centre, the town's character has been conserved by a conservative but shrewd attitude to development and the activities of the country's oldest civic society. Visitors today might feel that they have fallen through a timewarp to some Agatha Christie version of the mid-20th Century as it surely never was, so perhaps it's not surprising that the town has long been a retirement haven for the well-heeled.
Sidmouth, one of the 'gateway towns' of the UNESCO-designated Jurassic Coast2 World Heritage Site, lies at the end of a deep valley midway between Exmouth and Lyme Regis. The term 'mouth' doesn't really accurately describe the way the valley suddenly ends; the River Sid merely vanishes into the back of the shingle bank on which the town's Esplanade is built, while the impressive 550-feet-high ridges either side terminate in spectacular red sandstone cliffs.
The Esplanade stretches across the mouth of the valley, boasting fine Regency and Victorian hotels, with the largest and grandest at the western end. Behind this is the town centre, quaint and typical of the county, and even boasting a number of thatched buildings. Sidmouth's most expensive houses and villas are scattered up the lower slopes of the hills either side (including the tributary Bickwell Valley, aptly known by many locals as Millionaires' Row), but above these rise steep fields and the hilltops are crowned with verdant woodland. The town sprawls northward up the valley floor for a couple of miles with the architecture generally becoming progressively less expensive and less interesting.
At the time of the Domesday Book, Sidmouth was a collection of orchards and salt pans belonging the Benedictine Abbey of Mont St Michel in Normandy. By 1322 a chapel had been built on the west bank of what was then a wide estuary, and around it had grown a fishing village. The settlement thrived for a while, particularly when the silting of the nearby Otter estuary diverted trade from the now-landlocked port of Otterton, but eventually the Sid suffered a similar fate as the shingle spit choked the harbour entrance3. With the opportunities for legitimate trade severely reduced, Sidmouth became a notorious centre for smuggling, an activity always popular in the area. In fact, with long stretches of isolated shingle landings accessible by hidden cliff paths and gorges, it became one of the main industries of the East Devon coast in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Locals to this day regard notorious smugglers such as Jack Rattenbury and Amos Mutter as heroes.
The town's fortunes eventually changed in the late 18th Century, largely thanks to the French Revolution. With the Continent in upheaval, wealthy Britons sought agreeable holiday spots closer to home. Boasting the pleasant climate of the south-west but being less far-flung than most of the peninsula, by the late 18th Century Sidmouth had become an extremely fashionable resort, with stylish townhouses beginning to be built on the Esplanade. Many 'invalids' came to take the waters at the Brine Baths, now the Kingswood Hotel. In 1819 the Duke of Kent, brother of the Prince Regent, brought his wife and seven-month-old daughter to the town on the recommendation of her physician, taking Woolbrook Cottage (now the Royal Glen Hotel) for the winter. Unfortunately, the climate didn't do much for the Duke; he caught pneumonia and died in January 1820. Luckily the young girl prospered – she grew up to become Queen Victoria, and forgave the town enough to donate the church's west window.
As well as the nobility, Sidmouth has played host to artists and writers. Jane Austen is believed to have stayed in 1801, and some commentators suggest that the town may have inspired 'Sanditon' in her unfinished novel of 1808. Elizabeth Barrett-Browning stayed for three years, HG Wells set his story The Sea Raiders around Jacobs Ladder, and RF Delderfield4 lived on Peak Hill until his death in 1973.
An impressive stack called Chit Rock once dominated the western end of the seafront, the remains of an island that in medieval times had been large enough for the monks to raise cash from the grazing rights. JMW Turner sketched it in 1811, but the dramatic painting he later made gave it a fancifully phallic appearance; it has been suggested that this was a satirical comment on the scandalous marriage of Viscount Sidmouth at 65 to a much younger woman. The stack, occasionally used by local gunnery volunteers for target practice, was swept away in a vast storm on the night of 22 November, 1824 that also caused considerable damage to the Esplanade.
In 1846 the Sid Vale Association was founded, initially to keep open and maintain the valley's footpaths; it was the first such civic society in the country and would later play a pivotal role in the resort's conservation. The town continued to grow until the late Victorian era, with a branch railway finally arriving in 1874 at a terminus some distance from the town centre, thanks to uncooperative landowners. Sidmouth was soon to lose its crown as the west's most fashionable resort to the new town of Torquay, with its mainline connections, but in many ways this was to be a blessing as the worst of 20th Century seaside development passed it by.
What To Do and See
If your idea of the seaside involves sandcastles and slot machines, or drinking tequila and dancing till dawn, Sidmouth is probably not the place for you. If, however, you enjoy a brisk constitutional along the prom followed by a nice cup of tea then Sidmouth could be your ideal destination.
The town's beach is a high shingle bank. The retreat of the cliffs either side of the town5 had, by the late 1980s, caused the beach to wash away, exposing the sea wall to storm damage. It is now dominated by four substantial rock groynes and two offshore breakwater islands, and has largely been recreated using pebbles imported from the neighbouring Otter Valley. A short walk along the Millennium Walkway around the base of the promontory to the west of the town beach takes you to Jacobs Ladder beach, named after the rickety-looking staircase which was formerly its only means of access. Looming above this beach is the impressive bulk of Peak Hill Cliff and beyond it the distinctive High Peak Cliff. Determined adherents to the bucket and spade can find fine red sand here at low tide.
Climbing the ladder brings you to the Connaught Gardens, a delightful series of colourful walled gardens on top of the cliff. In fact, casual exploration will reveal that Sidmouth has far more pleasant parks and gardens than seems strictly fair!
The town centre boasts comparatively few national chains and a large number of highly individual shops. Pleasingly, unlike in some comparable West Country towns, there has been little proliferation of art galleries, chic boutiques and pretentious eateries. Instead, one may find traditional bakeries and greengrocers, pleasant delicatessens, one of the country's finest butchers and a grocer's shop that seems to belong to a past age. The freshest possible fish and shellfish may be bought from the Fishermen's Store, just yards from where they're landed on the beach at Port Royal. In fact, Sidmouth is an excellent place to buy high quality local food and drink; there is, however, one small supermarket if you're on a budget. Clothes shops in Sidmouth are, without exception, old-fashioned and expensive. You will be able to buy a new trilby or a regimental tie and blazer, but procuring jeans and T-shirts generally involves an expedition to Exmouth or Exeter. Prominent in the town centre is an independent department store that would do justice to a town three times the size; unfortunately, though well-stocked, it is not cheap. There are also plenty of specialist shops of almost every kind.
Possibly the most interesting thing to do in Sidmouth is simply to admire the fine views and the quirky architecture. The building styles range from rustic cob and thatch through Regency Gothic to High Victorian. Lovers of the bizarre are well catered-for; look out for the Old Chancel (built by a local antiquarian from bits of the old church when it was demolished) and the Woodlands Hotel, built as a grotesque cottage orné by Lord Gwydir, chamberlain to the Prince Regent. History-lovers will find that there is a fascinating small museum near the church (though whether they will find it open is another matter entirely). Unusually for Devon, the church, though pleasant, is of little interest being almost entirely a Victorian 'improvement'. Many of the most interesting buildings in the town carry blue plaques describing their history; the SVA also publishes a more detailed guide to these. Anyone visiting the town should make a point of dropping into the Lifeboat Station. The inshore lifeboat based here is a charity completely independent of the RNLI6 and is funded entirely by the generosity of locals and holidaymakers. The vessel itself is of interest, being a type normally built for use by the Special Forces.
Visitors of a sporting bent will have to make do with the excellent modern swimming baths or the immaculate putting green. For settlers, though, there is a golf club, a sailing club, a rugby club, a football club, a bowls club and (most typically Sidmothian) a tennis, hockey, cricket and croquet club.
To describe Sidmouth as a good base for keen walkers is accurate, but it should be stressed that as a base for the less committed stroller it is less than ideal as pretty well every possible walk starts with a daunting climb up the steep valley sides. The exception to this is the extremely pleasant path along The Byes, a two-mile walk following the river through parkland and meadows (mostly owned by the Sid Vale Association and the National Trust); unfortunately the route fizzles out in the back streets of Sidford. It is to be hoped that the path will eventually be extended to Sidbury.
It is also possible in theory to walk several miles to the east along the beach at the base of the cliffs, however anyone attempting to do so must be aware of tide and weather conditions and should stay as far as possible from the cliff-face, which is extremely unstable. Even then, bear in mind that walking on the steep shingle is very hard going and you'll probably feel in need of a hip replacement by the time you reach Salcombe Mouth, about a mile away.
For the more committed, the South West Coast Path can be followed either eastward towards Beer, Seaton and Lyme Regis, or west to Budleigh Salterton and Exmouth. There are also many shorter walks to be enjoyed on the surrounding hills; the area of heathland known as Mutter's Moor and its surrounding woodlands are particularly pleasant.
Sidmouth is also on National Cycle Route 2, but again you would need to be pretty determined to consider a cycling holiday based in the town.
When the weather's wet, there is an old-fashioned single screen cinema. There is also the rare opportunity to watch a professional repertory company perform a summer season of plays at the Manor Pavilion Theatre complete with weekly change of programme. The town offers a number of pubs, restaurants and cafes, mostly offering plain but filling fare. If your tastes are more sophisticated and your pockets deeper, seek out one of the larger hotel restaurants. Young adults may be pleased to discover that Sidmouth also boasts a nightclub; just don't expect too much.
The Problem with Sidmouth
Like Eastbourne, Sidmouth is sometimes described as 'God's waiting room'. It might seem churlish (not to mention politically incorrect) to see this as a problem, but the fact is that if you're a younger person wishing to move around the town at more than an arthritic shuffle, you may as well give up. More seriously, the advanced age of the populace is a serious challenge to local business. There are simply not enough people of working age to fill all the available jobs, and the extremely high house prices make it difficult to attract employees from outside the area.
At the other end of the age scale, the town is home to an International Language School. Older residents and visitors often find the pack behaviour of the teenage students at best loud and ill-mannered and at worst intimidating.
The Sid Valley Villages
Despite some attractive thatched terraces in the centre, Sidford7 is mostly an undistinguished suburban sprawl at the point where the busy main Exeter – Lyme Regis road takes advantage of dips in the hills either side to cross the valley. It has a small number of shops and a couple of reasonably nice pubs. It's very easy to miss the village's most historic feature; the narrow, curved bridge by which the pavement of the A3052 crosses the Sid is in fact a packhorse bridge built circa AD1100.
An extremely attractive village nestling in the upper part of the valley, Sidbury is well worth a short visit. Unfortunately, actually getting there is difficult as there is little parking and no direct footpaths from the lower valley. Once there, you will also be taking your life in your hands every time you wish to cross the busy, twisting main road.
It's worth visiting the working water mill, but be sure to check opening times before making a special trip. The village's finest feature is the Church of St Peter and St Giles. A fascinating church by any means, partly Norman and with some unusual features, its greatest distinction lies below the east end of the building. This is a 7th Century 'crypt' that is in fact the remains of the original Saxon church; when the Normans replaced it they simply knocked the upper part of the building into the partially-sunken lower part and built their church on top. It remained hidden and forgotten until a Victorian vicar decided to lay a new floor. The crypt is a small, cramped but peaceful space; it is significant as an extremely rare surviving Saxon church structure in Devon, built at a time when West Saxons had yet to subdue the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia.
Dominant above Sidbury to the west sits Sidbury Castle (not accessible by the public), one of a number of impressive Iron Age hill forts in East Devon. Beyond and above this is the long straight ridge known, confusingly, as East Hill – it was obviously named by the inhabitants of the neighbouring Otter Valley, over which it affords panoramic views.
Not really in the Sid Valley at all, but at the head of its own steep narrow valley a mile to the east, Salcombe is nevertheless historically and administratively linked with Sidmouth. The 'Regis' was adopted in the 18th Century to distinguish the tiny village, which has barely grown since the Middle Ages, from its much larger South Devon namesake. In fact, the title of village is only barely merited because of the small but pretty church at its centre and there is no shop or pub. From here you may walk down to the beach about half a mile distant; on a good day out of season you may find yourself with a good couple of miles of shingle to yourself.
Just beyond Salcombe may be found the famous Sidmouth Donkey Sanctuary, where abandoned and abused donkeys from all over Europe have found a home since it was founded by Dr Elisabeth D Svendsen, MBE in 1969. It is a popular visitor attraction and surprisingly vast, but frankly you must really like donkeys to enjoy it – there are usually some 500 in residence.
Back towards Sidmouth is the Norman Lockyer Observatory, named after the East Devon scientist who discovered Helium and founded the scientific journal Nature. Once a part of Exeter University, it was once considered as a site for the Royal Observatory, but it is now administered by a charitable trust. As well as providing facilities for amateur astronomers it now houses a planetarium and an exhibition dedicated to another local scientist John Ambrose Fleming, inventor of the thermionic valve. Again it is important to check the extremely limited public opening times before arranging a visit.
Sidmouth Folk Week
Held over the first week of August annually since 19548, the folk festival is by far the biggest event in the town's calendar and for a few days the place changes its character altogether. Musicians and dancers are attracted from all over Britain and even further afield. The town fills with 'folkies'9 drawn by the huge variety of folk music and dance on offer in venues ranging from public bars through beer gardens, marquees and theatre to a large open-air arena, not forgetting the streets and beach. In fact, it is the smaller informal performances around the town that give this festival its particular magic. At least one annual fringe dance actually takes place in the sea, weather-permitting... Even if you don't think accordions, Uncle Tom Cobley and morris dancing are your cup of tea, you may just find Sidmouth Folk Week a worthwhile surprise.
In September, Sidmouth's illuminated carnival is the largest on the East Devon circuit and is an impressive, if noisy, spectacle. If you miss it, there's a repeat at Christmas!
Car drivers should take the A3052 from Exeter and watch out for the Sidmouth turning. You may well speed past the first junction (which is poorly designed and on a fast stretch of road) but don't worry as there are three or four further opportunities to make your right turn. More adventurous drivers may approach by the twisting A375 from Honiton. Unless you're very familiar with Devon roads, however, it is better not to attempt the lane from Otterton, despite the views. When you get to Sidmouth you will find some very expensive car parks, all of which will be full.
As the railway closed in 1967, the best way to travel to and from Sidmouth is by the extensive bus network. As well as a reliable half-hourly Exeter service, there are regular connections to Honiton, Seaton, Ottery St Mary and Exmouth. A warning to visitors, though: do not try to get to Sidmouth by the Jurassic CoastLynx (Exeter - Bournemouth) service, which for some reason bypasses the town, unless you fancy carrying your luggage from Sidford.