The National Trust owns several properties in South Devon and they all have something to commend them, but I think my favourite has to be Coleton Fishacre.
It’s a bit out of the way, but that’s one of the attractions of this estate that includes a magnificent garden that sweeps down to the sea and a house that evokes the bygone jazz age of the 1920s.
The man behind the creation of Coleton Fishacre was Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whose father, Richard, was the producer of Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas. Rupert, who incidentally was also the inspiration for P.G Wodehouse’s Rupert Psmith, inherited the family business including the Savoy Hotel and Claridge’s in London.
It was on a sailing trip between Brixham and Dartmouth with his wife Dorothy, that he saw the potential of the valley above Pudcombe Cove for building a home on the coast. It’s not difficult to see why they chose this spot, and in 1923 he set about building Coleton Fishacre which took three years to finish.
Greenway - Home to a Famous Seafarer and an even more Famous Novelist
There are several ways to reach this delightful National Trust (NT) property on the banks of the River Dart. If you have your own transport, you can drive through the village of Galmpton (which lies between Paignton and Brixham) and down the lane to the property’s car park: Another option is to take the Greenway vintage bus which starts at Torquay, or you can take the Dartmouth Steam Railway to Greenway Halt, but whichever way you do it, come here you must.
Of all Devon’s rivers, the Dart has to be my favourite: From source to sea, it’s the most beguiling of rivers, and for this post I’m going to describe its charms between the lowest bridging point at Totnes to the mouth of the river at Dartmouth.
At Totnes the river is still tidal, and until the area around Totnes Bridge was drained, it was wet, marshy ground; and I suppose it must have been around here where Brutus, the first king of Britain landed – that’s if you believe the story of course – but I’ll be covering more about the history of Totnes in a separate post.
Totnes Bridge was built between 1826-28 and is the latest in a long line of bridges that has spanned the river here over many centuries. Today a modern road bridge just upstream, called Brutus Bridge, has taken the brunt of the traffic, not just away from this bridge, but from the town centre as well.
Totnes has a reputation for being one of the country’s quirkiest towns, and even its foundation has a mythical story attatched to it. According to legend, after being defeated in the Trojan War, the Trojans sailed off to find another home, and one of them, a prince by the name of Brutus, landed at Totnes, where he proclaimed “Here I stand and here I rest, and this town shall be called Totnes”.
Thanks largely to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century account Historia Regum Britanniae, Brutus was regarded as the founder of the Britons and therefore the first King of Britain. If you subscribe to this part of our island’s history, and want to embrace it even more, then there’s a granite slab in Fore Street called the Brutus Stone, which is supposed to be the spot where he came ashore. Seeing that it lies several hundred yards uphill from the river, either the stone or the river has moved since then, but I suppose that wouldn’t bother anyone who has magic mushrooms on toast for breakfast.
On the ‘Welcome to Totnes’ sign that greets people to the town somebody added ‘Twinned with Narnia’ below it. It’s been removed since by those who don’t have a sense of humour, but to me it’s a perfect description of Totnes.
The town has been described as ‘New Age’, ‘Alternative’ and even ‘eccentric’ but however you like to describe it, Totnes is different to any other town in the South Hams, or even Devon for that matter.
The alternative lifestyle that many people in and around Totnes have adopted originally stems from the Dartington Hall Estate, and in particular the ideas of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst who came here in 1925. Dartington is just a couple of miles outside of Totnes and I’ve given it a separate page, but for now I’ll just say that it’s somewhere that specializes in the ‘arts, social justice and sustainability’.
The Harbour is the obvious first port of call for most visitors to Brixham, but if you want to escape the hustle and bustle for a while, it’s worth taking a walk out to Berry Head.
This limestone plateau is the southern protective arm of Torbay (Hope’s Nose is the northern one) and has the sea on three sides, affording wonderful views across Torbay, down the South Devon Coastline towards the mouth of the River Dart, and of course, out to sea.
When arriving in Brixham, the first thing to remember is that it is primarily a working fishing port. The Fishmarket used to lie alongside the inner harbour, but in more recent health & safety conscious times, a modern purpose-built market has been constructed which now separates the general public from the fishing harbour.
If you feel cheated in not being able to wander around and watch all the activity, then there is a viewing platform where you can see most of the harbour and the boats that are in port. For a better idea at what happens on the other side of the gates, I can highly recommend one of the early morning tours of the market, although during this year of Covid, I don’t believe they’ve been running them. You may also like to read my post, Brixham and Fishing for a better understanding of what the industry means to the town.
Fishing has always been the most important part of Brixham life, and even as far back as the Middle Ages it was the largest fishing port in South-West England, but by the 19th century the port was so influential that it became a victim of its own success.
Up until then, deep sea fishing had largely been done by long lining which, as its name suggests was a technique that used hundreds, if not thousands, of baited hooks. Although trawls had already been invented, a much better system was developed by Brixham boat builders and fishermen that allowed trawls to be towed from beams that not only caught more fish but could also do so in all kinds of weather.
These boats with their tall gaff rig had sails which were treated with a local red ochre dye to make them more durable, and a design that made them both fast and strong. Only a small number of these boats have survived, but six of them have been restored and at least two or three can usually be seen alongside the pontoon next to the Prince William pub on the far side of the harbour.
There were in excess of 200 of these boats that sailed from the harbour to places as far away as the North Sea, where demersal fish such as plaice, haddock, and cod were much more plentiful. To begin with they returned to Brixham with their catch but as time went on, they started to put down roots in places like Hull, Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and it wasn’t long before these ports became much bigger than Brixham itself.
When people talk about the Gleneagles Hotel it’s only natural to think they’re talking about the 5* hotel in Scotland which is set in 850 acres and offers distinguished guests everything from luxury accommodation and fine dining to three championship golf courses and country pursuits; but I’m not talking about that Gleneagles, I’m talking about the one in Torquay – you know the one – the one where you expect to see “the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and herds of Wildebeest” from the bedroom window.
There is a connection with the Scottish hotel however, because the first owner of the hotel in Asheldon Road named it after her favourite part of Scotland. Beatrice Sinclair bought it in 1964 when it was a private house and converted it into holiday apartments, and then, along with her husband Donald, gradually converted it into a 41-bedroom hotel.
Anyone who has read my previous blog about Cockington Village will already be aware that there’s more to Cockington than just a few thatched cottages and a pub, and so today I want you to slip your trainers on, and come with me for a walk in the park.
In this context ‘park’ means Country Park, which in the UK refers to a recreational area which I think of as a half-way house between an urban park and the open countryside.
The idea was conceived in the 1960s to encourage people in urban areas to get up off the sofa and out into the fresh air without having to head off into the sticks and trample all over farmers’ fields.
The Country Park at Cockington, like others throughout the country, was initially set up with central government funding through the Countryside Commission, but surprise surprise, the baton has since been passed over to the local council to foot the bill for the upkeep and provide free access to all.
Just a mile or so from Torquay sea front, a country lane leads to a small picturesque village that is a world apart from the hustle and bustle of Torquay Harbour.
The village centre harks back to a bygone era when it was part of the Cockington Manor Estate: It has all the quintessential ingredients of what every visitor’s idea of an old Devon village should look like; a place where thatched cottages with hanging baskets entice people into their gift shop or garden for the obligatory Devon ‘Cream Tea’, but there’s more to Cockington than that, and in a separate article I will be describing the estate that surrounds the village which is now a 420-acre Country Park. In this blog though, I’m going to give a short introduction as to how the ancient manor became what it is today and what the village has to offer.
Babbacombe, although part of Torquay, has a totally independent feel to it. There are similarities such as a prom, harbour, beach and even a theatre, but generally speaking, it’s a much more reserved and low-key location than its larger neighbour.
The focal point is Babbacombe Downs, which at 300 ft. above the sea below, offers commanding views around Lyme Bay towards Dorset.
On a clear day it’s possible to see as far as Portland Bill, so where better to just lounge around and enjoy the view, perhaps with some fish and chips from Hanbury’s in nearby Princes Street. As tempting as that might be, it’s probably better to work up an appetite first, and a short walk around Babbacombe will not only do just that, but will also provide you with quite a few things to see and do along the way.
People who come to Torbay don’t think of it as somewhere with much history, and it’s true in some respects, but search a bit deeper and you’ll find that the area’s history goes back a long way – about 400 million years in fact – give or take a few million.
Explaining the planet’s history is really best left to the experts, but as one of the geological time periods is named after the county of Devon, I think it’s worth knowing how this occurred and how it all fits into the grand scheme of things.
To put it into some sort of perspective, geologists tell us that the earth was formed some 4,600 million years ago, with the oldest rocks in Britain being about 3,000 million years old (and found in North-Western Scotland). From this we can see that Devon’s beginnings don’t go back quite as far back as they might first appear, so why was the Devonian Period so named?
We only need to go back to the 1830s to find the answer. Up until that point, scientists from the early 18th century onwards were trying to map and categorize different geological time periods, and Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick, two eminent members of the Geographical Society in London, had identified two separate eras which they called the Silurian and Carboniferous Periods.
This neat classification was thrown into some disarray when a colleague, Henry De la Beche, who was categorizing rocks himself in Devon, suggested there was also likely to be an intermediate period: The disagreement between the two parties led to the debate becoming known as the ‘Great Devonian Controversy’.
Paradoxically, it was Murchison who made the discoveries to prove that De la Beche was right all along. This intermediate era was determined to be between 359 and 419 million years ago, and was subsequently called the Devonian Period.
In the chart below, the Devonian Period is half-way down the Paleozoic column coloured brown.
Between Meadfoot Beach and Babbacombe is one of Torquay’s most exclusive areas. Centred on Thatcher Avenue, the area is known locally as Millionaire’s Row, but you don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy what is arguably the most interesting part of the Torquay coastline.
This area of Torbay is as good as anywhere to understand why the English Riviera was given status as a UNESCO Global Geopark, one of only seven locations in the UK. Kent’s Cavern is the best place to begin discovering what all this means, and if you want to find out how the area gave its name to the Devonian Period, check out my post, Kent’s Cavern and the English Riviera Geopark.
Even though Torbay is generally thought of as an urban area next to the sea, it doesn’t mean to say that the South-West Coast Path isn’t worth following around the bay. I would agree that it wouldn’t make sense to follow it all the way around, but there are some lovely stretches of coastline between Torquay and Brixham, and I reckon this one from Torquay Harbour to Meadfoot Beach is one of them.
The footpath between Peaked Tor Cove and Daddyhole Plain is about a mile long and known locally as Rock End Walk, but to make it easier to find I’ve decided to start the walk from the Victoria Parade side of the harbour where it meets Beacon Hill.
As you start to walk up the hill, you’ll see a brown tourist sign that leads down to Beacon Cove. Unlike the red sandstone beaches that this part of Devon is well known for, this is a small rocky limestone bay, which until 1903, was a ladies-only beach and a favourite spot for the young Agatha Christie. Next to it is the now empty ‘hairnet’, which before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, was the home of seabirds and other marine life that made up Paignton Zoo’s Living Coasts. There’s no access onto the coast path from Beacon Cove, so you’ll need to walk back up onto the road if you venture down here.
Not surprisingly, the harbour area is the main area of activity in Torquay, and has both an Inner and Outer Harbour.
The Inner Harbour is the main focal point and, just as you might expect, includes a variety of shops, bars and restaurants, as well as boats. Thanks to the pedestrian Millennium Footbridge that connects the Old Fish Quay with the South Pier, it’s possible to complete a circuit of the inner harbour without re-tracing your steps; and underneath the bridge is a cill which allows water to remain inside the harbour regardless of the state of the tide.
During the day, seagulls permitting, wandering around the harbour makes for a pleasant pastime, and there is also the opportunity to catch the ferry over to Brixham if you fancy a different harbour to wander around.
If you’ve brought Aunt Maud with you, it’s probably best to pack her off back to the hotel before the clubbing crowd turn up, especially on weekend nights during the summer. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I would have been joining them, but these days, like Aunt Maud, I find myself going home around the same time as I used to be going out.
Visitors to Torquay have probably come to enjoy the sea air as much as anything, and a short walk from Torre Abbey through Abbey Park will bring you to the seafront and Torre Abbey Sands.
Abbey Park lies in front of the Riviera Centre and has some low-key sporting facilities such as tennis and crazy golf if you like that sort of thing, but the gardens, with their sub-tropical plants and water features are what I like, and in particular, the Italian Garden which is a riot of colour during the summer (see featured image at top of page).
If you’re not in any rush to get the sand between your toes, you might also want to check out the One World Café and Bistro which is the ideal place for doing absolutely nothing for an hour or so.
Torre Abbey is without doubt the most important historical building in Torbay, and although its appearance has changed from what it was originally designed for, it should be on everyone’s list of places to see.
Not only does a visit offer an insight into how Torquay developed from the time Torre Abbey was founded in 1196, you can also impress your friends by telling them it was occupied by the Canons of the Premonstratensian order. These wealthy landlords were responsible for adding the ‘quay’ to Torre, and were here for over 300 years until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.
The UK has the highest per capita consumption of cider in the world and although there are other areas of the UK such as East Anglia that have a tradition of producing fine cider it’s generally regarded that the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire in the West Midlands and the West Country in general are the areas with which it is most associated.
Devon has a long history of cider making, and although there are no large commercial businesses down here these days, there are still a fair number of smaller producers dotted about – including Paignton. Hunts, of Higher Yalberton Farm is a good example, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to have a look around and see how their cider is made.
There are any number of things that will make a great day out in South Devon, but in my opinion, one of the best has to be the ‘RoundRobin’. It comprises different modes of transport linking Paignton, Dartmouth, and Totnes.
The Round Robin includes a steam train from Paignton to Kingswear, a ferry across the River Dart to Dartmouth, a boat trip up the river to Totnes, and an open-top bus back to Paignton. It can be done the other way round and you can start from Paignton, Dartmouth or Totnes.
Part of the attraction is to be able to explore the towns of Dartmouth and Totnes and so you would need to factor in the tide times of the Dart if you intend to do the whole journey in one day.
For expediency, in this post, I’m just going to describe the train journey between Paignton and Kingswear.