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Did You Know…?
- The Mayflower Pilgrims (1620) and Roanoke’s ill-fated settlers (1586) departed England at Plymouth.
- The total height climbed if walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path is 114,931 feet (Everest is 29,028).
- Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540) and Agatha Christie (1890) were born and lived in Devon.
- Devon is the site of more thatched cottages than any other part of Great Britain.
- Charles Darwin departed Plymouth (1831) on the voyage that would inspire his theory of evolution.
Of beaches, fossils and heather
An English county known for cream teas and thatched cottages, Devon sits on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic. The peninsula ends at the country’s westernmost point. Cornwall is at that western tip of England, and Devon is the adjoining county to the east.
Because the peninsula is so narrow, measured north to south, Devon’s visitors can base themselves on either coast, or inland near or in Dartmoor National Park, while making day trips throughout the county.
The north coast, which faces Bristol Channel and Wales, is the rugged one and the place with the livelier waters (surfers, take note), and its fishing villages are attractive to visitors. Sea fishing is a touristic option, too, but on both coasts.
Exmoor National Park abuts the northern coast with high cliffs plunging into the water while Dartmoor National Park is within a few miles of the southern coast. The parks, providing examples of English heather-clad moorlands, are well supplied with marked walking paths and, between them, offer options for a range of outdoor activities like camping and cycling. Visitors also can savor the bustle of living villages in either park while, at Dartmoor, they can look for relics of Bronze Age peoples.
The south coast has the county’s cities — Exeter and Plymouth; some of the beach resorts on a shoreline called England’s Riviera, and the Jurassic Coast, notable for fossils that chart 185 million years of Earth’s history.
Exeter, 10 miles up the Exe River, is worth a visit for the remnants of its medieval center, meaning the parts that survived World War II — including the city’s stunning cathedral. Plymouth, right on the coast, was the departure point for numerous history-making voyages, including emigrants to the New World, convicts being transported to Australia and several explorers. Numerous plaques dot the Plymouth landscape memorializing this background. The cities offer modern diversions, too, including local foods (think seafood and clotted cream), nightclubs, rugby, theater and other cultural activities including foodfests and literary celebrations.
Meanwhile, the resorts make good on their promises of mild weather, beaches for sunning and swimming, water-based sports and nightspots to cap a vacationer’s day.
Things to do for Venturers
- Cycle the Exe Estuary Trail, a 26-mile mainly flat route. It takes riders around the entire Exe Estuary linking Exeter, Exmouth and Dawlish. Or, more ambitiously, cycle across the peninsula between Ilfracombe in the north and Plymouth in the south. The 99-mile route includes some off-road patches.
- Plan for your nights out in Exeter, Plymouth or Torquay. Look for the several popular venues that offer live music. Consider timing the visit for Exeter’s Vibraphonic Festival in March, which attracts hundreds of well-known and up-and-coming artists.
- Follow the 630-mile South West Coast Path, which takes walkers around the entire coastline of Devon and Cornwall, with end points in Somerset on the north coast (facing Wales) and Dorset on England’s south coast. Choose bits of this trail, or this could take a couple of months. Get more information from the South West Coast Path Association.
- Participate in a unique form of orienteering and treasure hunting, called letterboxing, in Dartmoor National Park. There are whole books devoted to this.
Geocaching is another option in the park.
- Walk the Lydford Gorge in the Dartmoor National Park or the Valley of Rocks in the Exmoor National Park. Each walk takes about an hour and a half.
- Go surfing on the north coast at Croyde, Lynmouth or Saunton Sands, then go sailing on the south coast. At Exmouth, take kite surfing lessons.
Things to do for Centrics
- Hunt for fossils at the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which tells of Earth’s history dating back 185 million years.
- Check the calorie counter at the door. Have a cream tea. Also, try lardy cake, a gooey raisin-topped confection, for which England’s West Country is known.
- Keep an eye out for, or go in search of, relics left on Dartmoor by Bronze Age settlers. These include Scorhill Stone Circle, 23 upright stones; Spinsters’ Rock, a Neolithic tomb, and Grimspound, a walled enclosure with 24 discernible hut sites.
- Join a guided tour of Exeter’s medieval underground water system. Take the free, guided Exeter walking tour, too.
- Ride horseback in Dartmoor National Park. Picnic in the park, as well.
- Seek out sites associated with Devon native Sir Francis Drake, such as Buckland Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery where Drake lived for a time, and a plaque in Plymouth that commemorates Drake’s round-the-world trip that started and ended there. Numerous Plymouth plaques note the famous and infamous voyages that started there.
Things to do for Authentics
- Be lured to Clovelly, a famously pretty fishing village with old cottages and a picturesque quay. Or, make that Lynmouth, another pretty one, in Exmoor National Park.
Alternatively, or in addition, make a circuit of the old tin-mining towns in Dartmoor National Park.
- Come prepared to eat — at the Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink, a springtime event emphasizing local produce. Or, choose the Plymouth Pirate Weekend, also in the spring.
- In summer, sample the notion of beach resorts in Britain by staying in Torquay, Agatha Christie’s hometown. The resort is one of several on the English Riviera; others include Babbacombe, Brixham and Paignton. When at Torquay, retrace the steps of the world’s best-selling crime writer, on the Agatha Christie Mile. If a fan, attend the International Agatha Christie Festival, held in autumn.
- Travel on the Dartmouth Steam Railway between Paignton and Kingswear.
- Board historic ships at Exeter’s Maritime Museum. The museum houses more than 100 such vessels brought to the site from across the globe. Spend time inside the Exeter Cathedral, too.
- Overnight in a country-house style hotel in or near Dartmoor National Park. Consider arriving in October for the Tavistock Goose Fair, which dates from the 12th century. Tavistock, Sir Francis Drake’s birthplace, is just outside the park.
For more information, consult VisitBritain at www.visitbritain.com