Secret hideaways on the South Devon coast

YES, we do love to be beside the seaside. As a maritime nation of explorers and seafarers, it’s perhaps not surprising if we have salt water in our blood.

IN THE SWIM: Bigbury-on-Sea in South Devon

In primitive coracles and majestic Tudor galleons, the British have been going to sea for centuries, our shipbuilding industry springing up in countless small creeks and rivers around the coast from the Severn to the Wash.

From sophisticated modern trawlers and warships to the huge merchant ships of the colonial era, generations of mariners have set sail from these shores.

LIFE OF LEISURE: pleasure craft on the Exe estuary

So it’s entirely predictable how much we Brits love the seaside – and why even here in the landlocked Chilterns we often find ourselves yearning to sink our bare toes in the sand and hear the sound of waves crashing on the shingle.

As we discussed in an earlier column, our closest coasts lie south and east, towards Southampton and Portsmouth, North Kent or Essex, all around 90 minutes’ drive away, depending on your precise starting point.

SMUGGLERS’ TALES: the Pilchard Inn on Burgh Island

But to really feel that you’re on holiday you may need to travel a little further – and where better than a historic inn perched on the South Devon coast almost four hours’ west of the Chilterns by road?

This is Burgh Island, where a cosy wood-beamed hostelry with 700 years of history provides the perfect place to watch the tides ebb and flow while relaxing over a cold pint on a summer’s day.

THIRTIES GLAMOUR: Burgh Island hotel

Accessible only by a golden sandy causeway from Bigbury-on-Sea that disappears under the waves at high tide, this is an inn steeped in tales of pirates, smugglers and pilchard fishing.

Home to a monastery in medieval times, the island today lies on the South West Coast Path, a life-changing long-distance journey chronicled by Raynor Winn in her 2018 bestseller, The Salt Path.

The inn lies beside the luxurious Grade II listed art deco hotel which attracted Agatha Christie and Noel Coward in its heyday, and which has now been meticulously restored to its 1930s glamour.

SEA VIEWS: the beach house where Agatha Christie wrote

Guests can even stay in the beach house first built in the 30s as a writer’s retreat for the prolific author, where she wrote two of her crime novels, though its stunning panoramic sea views don’t come cheap.

But then this really is Agatha Christie country – the writer’s beloved holiday home at Greenway lies a little further along the coast on the River Dart, and is owned by the National Trust and open to the public.

PERIOD FEEL: a steam train at Paignton

To maintain the authentic period theme, you can even travel past Greenway by steam train from Paignton to Kingswear, courtesy of the Dartmouth Steam Railway.

But then this part of the world is a mecca for railway enthusiasts, with an array of picturesque heritage lines offering the chance to meander through some glorious Devon scenery.

NOSTALGIC JOURNEY: Totnes Riverside station

Head north to Totnes, for example, and you can also step back in time on the South Devon Railway, the seven-mile-long former Great Western Railway branch line to Buckfastleigh.

It’s literally a stone’s throw away from the modern mainline express trains, but it’s a world away in time, with the smell of steam and blast of an engine whistle harking back to an era when life moved at a slightly slower pace.

BLAST FROM THE PAST: the South Devon Railway

Like everywhere else in Britain, Devon has its fair share of gruesome holiday parks and garish amusement arcades, but a careful exploration of the “English Riviera” yields plenty of hidden coves, sleepy villages and unspoilt lanes too.

This is the Devon of smugglers’ paths and deserted beaches, rockpools and sandcastles, cream teas and the taste of salt on your lips.

HISTORY LESSON: Exeter quayside

Heading back round the coast towards Exeter, we sidestep the city to enjoy a coffee on the old quayside, where the Custom House Visitor Centre fills in some gaps about the area’s long and intriguing history since Roman times.

From here, a ramble up the side of the Exe estuary takes you towards the gloriously quirky 16-sided National Trust property at A la Ronde, Lympstone, which was built for two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter, on their return from a grand tour of Europe in the late 18th century.

QUIRKY: the Parminters’ home at A la Ronde

The pair were both independent-minded, unmarried and financially secure women with adventurous spirits, and the intimate design of their unique home reflects their interests.

With its orchard, hay meadow and spectacular views over the estuary, their estate could hardly have had a more glorious location, a perfect place for a summer picnic as well as housing all their intriguing personal treasures and souvenirs, including a spectacular shell gallery.

OPEN ASPECT: the view from the Parminters’ estate

There’s even a small chapel, Point In View, built by the cousins beside their home in 1811 and still used for Sunday services and special occasions like weddings.

Today, the Mary Parminter Charity owns and maintains the three-acre meadow in which the chapel is set, along with five modern alms-houses and an early 19th-century manse. Point in View is a member of the Quiet Gardens Network and hosts Quiet Garden afternoons, art workshops, and music and poetry performances throughout the summer.

SMALL WONDER: the tiny chapel at Point In View

The bustling beaches of nearby Exmouth offer a cheerful contrast to the tranquillity of A la Ronde, but for visitors still eager to savour a slightly slower pace of life, the quaint nearby town of Topsham provides the perfect place to savour a hearty meal and spectacular sunset over the estuary.

Wandering past the elegant 17th-century Dutch-style merchant houses on The Strand, you can take a circular walk around town that takes in both the popular Goat Walk and the Bowling Green Marsh Nature Reserve.

EVENING LIGHT: glimpses of the estuary at Topsham

From Topsham Quay, the ramble heads south along the river to Topsham Museum, which houses furnished period rooms alongside displays about local history and memorabilia associated with Vivien Leigh, the Oscar-winning Hollywood actress.

Leigh met her first husband on Dartmoor in 1931 and visited The Strand in the 1940s and 1950s when her sister Dorothy was living there.

CIRCULAR WALK: the road back into Topsham

From the museum, the narrow Goat Walk path runs along the river with fine views across the estuary before you turn into the RSPB Bowling Green Marsh Nature Reserve, which sits at the confluence of the River Exe and the River Clyst.

The reserve features a range of trails to follow, and includes a bird hide on the marshes and a viewing platform, a perfect spot to watch spring and autumn migrating birds, as well as winter flocks of waders, ducks and geese feeding.

ON THE PROWL: a heron at Bowling Green Marsh

Back in town, culinary highlights include an authentic Italian meal in friendly surroundings at Marcello’s before a well-earned rest in a comfortable bedroom at The Globe, a 16th-century inn owned by St Austell Brewery.

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