Emma Sola explores the beaches and countryside of the gloriously unspoilt South Hams area of South Devon, losing her heart to its beauty, food and people
Country lanes lined with high hedgerows meander down to a magical stretch of South Devon coastline. Once you leave the main road, you are in another world. Start Bay, from Start Point to Stoke Fleming, is a beautiful place to holiday at any time of year.
Head to the working fishing village of Beesands, called ‘Bay Sands’ when it was first settled in the 18th century (once the threat of pirates had diminished – previous inhabitants of the area preferred to hide inland, away from marauders and potential pillage). Descendants of those intrepid families, tentatively moving to the coast for easier access to the sea, still fish for a living here. Now the epitome of tranquillity, it’s enchanting to gaze at the water and wonder what this stretch of coast was like 200 years ago, with the lighthouse at Start Point adding to the air of long ago danger and drama. The mile-long, Blue Flag, fine-shingle beach is now famous for its more welcome crab and lobster, rather than violent swashbucklers. Behind this, fertile fields and a freshwater lake, Widdicombe Ley, mean wildlife and greenery surrounds you. Popular with walkers, anglers and swimmers, the beach is full of activity and life. Yet it’s uncrowded: a spot to unfurl that tense body and feel your cares evaporate on the breeze. Beesands is the ideal base from which to explore the area’s multiple charms, hard to pack into just one weekend.
Having driven from busy Brighton on a hot Friday, we arrive at The Lobster Pot at 1am – an easy drive thanks to the sat nav, but still a tiring one. Frazzled as we are, our accommodation provokes unanimous cries of ‘Wow!’ and we have enough energy to inspect every luxurious bedroom, before selecting our quarters for the night. We know there is a view – we can hear the sea rolling over the shingle. But we have no idea WHAT a view.
I wake at dawn and gaze on what feels like our own private beach. The Lobster Pot is luxury itself, with almost every room making the most of that view. A more detailed inspection reveals a huge balcony with comfortable chairs, including a swinging egg chair that my son cannot be prised out of, a big front garden perfect for al fresco meals, and a dog shower (which we use later to hose off our wetsuits!). A breakfast of fruit from nearby organic farm Riverford (riverford.co.uk) then a dip in the clear sea and we’re all in total holiday mode.
We drive across the A379 between Slapton Ley Nature Reserve and Slapton Sands, past the tank rescued from the sea (complete, we hear, with eels living inside it!) after ill-fated 1944 D-Day landing practices on the Sands, into the flora and fauna of this uniquely beautiful area. Friends come to meet us and the children hurtle off, imagining themselves in Swallows and Amazons. We follow a 45-minute trail round the largest natural freshwater lake in Southwest England, resplendent with life on this spring day. We keep our eyes peeled for otters, dormice, strapwort (the only place in the UK where it can be found) and great crested grebes; ears open for the cry of Cetti’s warbler. We all agree we want to see an otter, but vivid butterflies, grebes, ferns unfurling and a family of ducklings straight out of central casting more than make up for their shyness today (01548 580685, slnnr.org.uk).
When in Devon, to have a cream tea is essential, and where better than under the airy wooden vaulted ceiling and lush planting of Stokeley Farm Shop? We sit inside and devour one (£3.95) before heading into the shop to ogle the local produce. My husband treats himself to a South Hams Brewery ale, suitably named Devon Pride, brewed on site, while my son amuses himself outside playing ping pong and climbing on a tractor (01548 581605, stokeleyfarmshop.co.uk).
The Millbrook Inn is a quintessentially gorgeous English country pub, in view of South Pool creek – at the right time tidally, you can get a boat here. On this holiday night, happy throngs are outside enjoying the barbecue. But inside, our table feels intimate. The service is thoughtful and warm; we are already feeling that special glow of being attentively cared for before we’ve got anywhere near the food. We select pig’s head croquette, fennel and apple salad with gribiche (£3.50), carrot and coriander soup with hedgerow-foraged wild garlic pesto and carrot crisps (£6) for the grown-ups and polenta fries with Cajun mayo (£2.50) for my son. He wants fish and chips from the children’s menu (£8.50) but my husband and I go all out with the 16oz rib-eye sharing steak, hung for 21 days then further aged in-house (£60 and worth every penny). Puddings just about finish us off – mud pie, crème anglaise and chocolate crumb (£6.50) and ice cream. It’s easy to see why booking is a must (01548 531581, millbrookinnsouthpool.co.uk).
After a few hours’ sea-gazing, we visit Forest & Beach at Beeson. Peter and Andrea run residential and day woodland-based adventures for under-12s (and with their award-winning Dadfest, sometimes for the over-12s too!). We walk into an idyllic dappled bluebell wood. Here, youngsters (under expert supervision) are free to determine their activities – fire-making being number one on my boy’s list! Safely instructed how to do so, he manages a fair blaze all by himself and after a spot of archery where even I manage to hit the target, we reluctantly leave, my son full of pride and the ‘best sausage wrap he has ever eaten’. It’s a great place for kids to go, parent free, for one or two days in a family holiday. Summer Forest Days with Archery, ages 5-13, 9.30-3.30, £30 (01548 580744, forestandbeach.co.uk).
LUNCH 'N' ROLL
Just a few minutes’ walk from The Lobster Pot, the Cricket Inn is part of rock legend, being the first place to host a live performance from then-unknown teenage holidaymakers Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. A Salcombe Gin and tonic is about as raucous as we are willing to get, because the food is the headline act. We opt for salt and pepper king prawns (£8.50) as well as crispy devilled whitebait (£7) to start, then my husband chooses local roast lamb (£14). Locally caught hake grilled over charcoal with asparagus for me (£20), the by now mandatory fish and chips for my son (£7) and the most decadent dessert I’ve ever eaten – a concoction of brandy snap basket, popcorn and salted caramel ice cream (£7.50). We roll ourselves back to base across the beach. Satisfaction (01548 580215, thecricketinn.com/restaurant).
SEA & TEA
A sea swim, then a family snooze on the bed in the top room, looking out over the sea like we are in some sort of luxurious ocean liner. We forgo supper and have a cream tea in our own ‘home’ instead, supplied from Aune Valley. Bliss (aunevalleymeat.co.uk).
BREAKFAST ON THE BEACH
We refuse to succumb to last-day blues and head to Blackpool Sands for breakfast at the Venus Café. With watersports, a shop and the café, you have everything you need for a whole day of serious pleasure. The Venus is postcard-perfect on the outside, but its real beauty is inside with the welcome, the food and its ecological credentials – its mission is to be ‘the greenest beach café and shop operator’. A genuinely well-constructed veggie breakfast is a rare beast but here it is, in its natural habitat (£8.50). Meat all the way for my husband with a Venus Full English (£8.95), which he says is delicious (01803 770934, lovingthebeach.co.uk/blackpool-sands).
With a few hours before we have to leave, we visit Grade II-listed Start Point lighthouse. We drive, but you can walk along the coast in about an hour from Beesands. It’s a 15-minute walk around the coast to the lighthouse itself, which is open to visitors from May onwards. We could hear the foghorn before we could see the Gothic crenelated tower itself, as a sea mist had descended around this treacherous bit of coast. We talk of shipwrecks and pirates and climb up the rocky paths amid abundant wildflowers. Tours (which last 45 minutes) are open subject to the weather conditions and operational requirements. Adults, £5, children £3 (01803 771802, trinityhouse.co.uk).
We depart Devon, leaving a bit of our hearts in the South Hams and talking of all the things we are going to do… next time.
NEED TO KNOW
coast stayed at The Lobster Pot, Beesands.
This luxurious self-catering house is spacious, dog-friendly and has parking for 2-3 cars. And the sea view! Sleeping up to eight, prices from £1,164 for 7 nights, £898 for three (01548 802171, coastandcountry.co.uk)
HOW TO GET THERE…
By car: From London or the Midlands, follow the M5 to Exeter, then the A38 to Plymouth. There are various routes to Beesands from there – a sat nav is advisable!
By train: Mainline stations for services to London Paddington take just under 3 hours to Totnes (20 miles), 3 hours 15 minutes to Plymouth (25 miles). See nationalrail.co.uk or call 03457 484950.