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.

Big skies offer room to breathe

BIG skies aren’t normally a feature we associate too often with the Chilterns landscape, but for those who enjoy plenty of room to breathe on a walk, Pinkneys Green is perfect.

This glorious expanse of open grassland owned and managed by the National Trust is home to a rich variety of grasses, flowers and buzzing insects, thanks to the fact that the open unfenced hay meadows are left to grow tall in the summer, providing a perfect hiding place for a variety of wildflowers.

From delicate yellow cowslips and kidney vetch to bright white oxeye daisies and purple field scabious, specks of colour dance amongst the grasses for as far as the eye can see, allowing walkers to wander a network of paths cut into the hay until it is cut in late summer, encouraging the distribution of seeds for the next year.

Alive with the hum of bees and butterflies in the summer months, this grassland is a popular haunt for species like the marbled white, a medium-sized butterfly with black and white checked wings which is particularly fond of purple flowers like wild marjoram, thistles, and knapweeds.

Here you might listen out for the call of a skylark on a summer’s evening, spot the dunnocks, fieldfares and redwings sheltering in the hedgerows around the field or hear the rustle of a vole, shrew or field mouse in the long grass.

A perfect place for trying your hand at kite-flying, or just enjoying the wind in your hair on a blustery day, it’s one of a number of open spaces owned by the National Trust in the area.

Other nearby spots to explore include Maidenhead Thicket, famed for its associations with Dick Turpin, and the Cookham Commons from Cookham to Cock Marsh and Winter Hill, a landscape which inspired the artist Stanley Spencer and children’s author Kenneth Grahame.

A number of useful National Trust trails provide an opportunity to get to know the commons better, including a four-mile circular trail taking in Cock Marsh and the Thames and a longer trail incorporating Winter Hill, Maidenhead Thicket and Pinkneys Drive.

Alfresco affair of the heart

WHERE better for a picnic and evening of outdoor theatre than the stunning National Trust Cliveden estate near Maidenhead?

Heartbreak Productions set the perfect tone for the occasion last night with their tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Private Lives, Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners about a divorced couple having an unexpected reunion when they honeymoon with their new spouses in the same French hotel.

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And the energetic five-strong cast of this Midlands touring company presented a lively and engaging reinterpretation of the play at the tail end of their marathon summer season.

The company head back home to Leamington Spa after presenting more than 250 performances of a quartet of different shows during a hectic three-month summer season that has incorporated everything from Romeo and Juliet to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny.

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Some 200 theatregoers took their picnics to L’Hotel Crevecoeur to watch Elyot and Amanda struggling with their rollercoaster emotions after their unfortunate meeting in Deauville.

The parts were played by Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1930 production, and later by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a 1983 Broadway production.

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For this outdoor adaptation of the celebrated comedy, nostalgic music and dance helped to create the 1930s ambience as dusk fell on Coward’s delicious one-liners, but there were darker undercurrents too in the barely suppressed violence underpinning the central couple’s stormy relationship.

A fitting season’s end to Cliveden’s open-air theatre productions, as the Heartbreak team packed up and headed home for a final couple of shows and a welcome break.

Hardy echoes down the years

THERE’S such a deep melancholy about so many of Thomas Hardy’s novels that it’s almost a relief to re-read Under The Greenwood Tree, one of his earliest and gentlest works.

And yet there’s still something haunting about this relatively short love story between Dick Dewy and Fancy Day, traced through the course of the four seasons during one Wessex year.

One reason for revisiting the 1872 novel is to take temporary refuge from the travails of modern existence in a simpler earlier age – and who better to capture the English country scene of the early 1800s than a novelist famed for his pastoral depictions of rural life?

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Actually, there’s remarkably little in-depth description of the countryside in this novel, apart from the atmospheric opening pages when we first meet the Mellstock Choir on a lonely country lane through the woods and learn how to wood dwellers, every species of tree has its own “voice”, from the sob of the fir to the whistle of the holly and hiss of the ash.

But Hardy’s second published novel, which takes its name from Shakespeare’s poem in his pastoral comedy As You Like It, is an extraordinary rural idyll which introduces some familiar themes which will recur in his later fiction – not least a fickle heroine struggling to choose between suitors of different social status.

Fancy and the Boys

And if it’s not stand-out descriptions of the scenery which make the novel memorable, Hardy achieves such an extraordinarily intimate depiction of the colourful characters in the choir that they all come instantly to life across the centuries, their banter and mannerisms as real and true as if we had bumped into them in the village pub at lunchtime.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising given Hardy’s familiarity with this world. Both his father and paternal grandfather were members of the local parish choir and this book was written in the cottage next to Thorncombe Woods where Hardy was born in 1840.

Bearing a remarkable resemblance to the tranter’s cottage, Hardy’s home – built of cob and thatch by his great-grandfather and little altered since the family left, is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.

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It’s just one of a number of autobiographical elements in the book, including the author’s love of old rustic musical instruments, which he inherited from his father, a keen violinist.

You can almost imagine Hardy as part of the group as the choir makes its way up the chilly country lanes with their instruments and lanterns for that Christmas tour of the village in the book’s opening pages.

Village musicians reappear in Hardy’s later novels, reflecting his childhood memories of rural music and dance, and there’s already that sorrowful sense that old traditions are being lost or challenged by new ways of doing things.

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It’s the same feeling you get when you visit the Chiltern Open Air Museum and start taking a journey back to a simpler age, where there’s a solidity and authenticity about the buildings and equipment that’s echoed in Hardy’s more colourful characters, like Gabriel Oak.

Already in Under The Greenwood Tree we can see a clash between the old and new order – in this novel reflected in the vicar’s attempt to replace the choir with a new mechanical church organ.

That emphasis on modernisation and the decline of traditional English country life anticipates Hardy’s later novels, particularly The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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Not that Hardy was naive about the gruelling realities of agricultural life in the early part of the 19th century, when working hours were long and poverty was widespread.

But he was vividly aware of how industrialisation was sweeping away the old ways, as labourers moved to the cities and the railways began to transform the rural landscape.

And that was something he reflected on in his 1896 preface to Under The Greenwood Tree, in which he pays personal tribute to the merry band of church musicians of whom he has written, and in a further note from 1912 which appears to lament having treated the choir so “flippantly”.

The book has been filmed on three occasions: in 1918 and 1930, and in 2005 was adapted for television, starring Keeley Hawes as Fancy Day. But if the story is a little slow for modern tastes and Fancy a little too infuriatingly fickle, the novel still provides a wonderful glimpse into a long-lost way of life – to the extent that on a lonely path through the woods on a chill winter’s eve, you might just fancy you can hear a few strains of fiddle music from the Mellstock choir on the chill night air.

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Numerous different editions of the book are available online and in booksellers, with the 2005 series available from BBC Video.

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Sanctuary where Disraeli worshipped

ANYONE following in the footsteps of Disraeli at the National Trust’s Hughenden Manor shouldn’t miss the chance to look in on the historic church where the former prime minister once worshipped.

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Disraeli lived at Hughenden from 1848 to 1881 – and today, visitors are not just intrigued by the Victorian stateman’s county home and colourful personal history, but by the manor’s secret wartime past as a base for mapmakers.

Codenamed ‘Hillside’, Hughenden played such a critical role supporting the pilots of nearby Bomber Command that it was on Hitler’s list of top targets. Around 100 personnel were based here, drawing up the maps used for bombing missions during the war, including the Dam Busters raids and a planned hit on Hitler’s secret bunker at Berchtesgaden.

Skilled cartographers produced maps from aerial photographs delivered by the RAF’s reconnaissance missions – yet the operation was so secret it only came to light 60 years later after a National Trust volunteer overheard a visitor telling his grandson he’d been stationed here during the war.

But away from the cellars, one of the less obvious gems of the estate is the church of St Michael & All Angels – the “church in the park” which provides a glorious oasis of peace amid the rolling parklands so much enjoyed by ramblers and families in the summer months.

The earliest records show a church on this site in the 12th century built by Geoffrey de Clinton, but it was substantially extended and rebuilt in the 1870s. The chancel is the remaining part of the original church, and during the Victorian extension works its floor was redone with beautiful ceramic tiles, the roof altered and the walls painted.

In 1992-94 a major redecoration of the nave and chancel was undertaken and all the Victorian paintings and artwork meticulously restored.

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Disraeli is commemorated in many parts of the church but the principal memorial is on the north side of the chancel, unique in that it is the only known example of a memorial erected by a reigning monarch to one of her subjects.

Various items in the church were paid for by the Hughenden Memorial Fund, in memory of the statesman, including the organ and the murals in the chancel.

A detailed history of the church can be found on the parish website and on summer Sundays and bank holidays guests can also sample a cream tea in the historic nearby church house, which in pre-reformation days was home to six monks and a prior.

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