A couple of months ago, I wouldn’t even have been able to place Devon on a map of England (it’s right before Cornwall, if you are wondering). I knew nothing about Devon. However, when I went looking for guidebooks to prepare a roadtrip to Cornwall, they all seemed to cover both Cornwall and Devon as a package deal. It so happens that geographically speaking, Devon is basically stuck between Stonehenge and the Eden Project, which are literally the top two English attractions (questionably… who makes this lists!?). And then there is Cornwall of course, England’s summer paradise of beautiful coastline and white sand beaches. So basically Devon did not stand a chance! Thankfully, I thought that since Cornwall was a long way, it’d be worth making a stop somewhere in Devon to see whether there was anything worth seeing there… and that’s how I discovered what I now believe is one of England’s best kept secrets! Here are ten reasons why:
1. The rolling green hills of Exmoor National Park
Exmoor National Park is basically a vast and endless extension of green. The constant up and downs of the hills are strangely hypnotising, especially on the northern part of the park, where the green meets the blue of the ocean. If you catch a nice clear day it’s hard to pick where to look! The hills also make for some fun roads to explore, usually lined up by tall hedges and trees, which easily make for an attraction in itself. There are also the local habitants which include all sorts of cows, horses and sheep. Actually, I wonder whether there is a single National Park in England not inhabited by sheep? Apparently there are also deer, although we did not see any. In other words, Exmoor National Park ticks all the boxes: cute animals, beautiful valleys, medieval villages and even beaches and cliffs. What else could you possibly want?
2. Fairytale Dunster
Dunster is one of the eldest villages within Exmoor National Park and also one of the prettiest. The main street is lined up with ridiculously cute shops and tea houses and leads up to the castle which stands proud on the hill, watching over the village. There’s also a lonely tower on the opposite side of the village, although no Rapunzel unfortunately. The whole of Dunster does however have a very fairytale feel to it and I could have easily just spent the whole weekend wandering around the village.
DISCLAIMER: For the purpose of this post, I’ve chosen to fit everything that is within Exmoor National Park into Devon, as guidebooks do. However, for the sake of accuracy, half of Exmoor National Park actually belongs to the county of Sommerset. More precisely, the half that contains the village of Dunster. If whatever little I’ve seen of it is anything to go by, I’m willing to bet Sommerset is another heavily overlooked county, but I’ll save that for another trip/post…
3. Lynmouth and Lynton, or English Switzerland
Lynmouth and Lynton are an excellent representation of everything that makes Exmoor National Park such a versatile and wonderful area. It is hard to say where one village starts and the other ends. On the one hand, Lynmouth is built where the river Lyn meets the sea. It has both the coastal charm of most English coastal villages, while also boasting of some beautiful thatched well-kept cottages you would only expect in hidden hamlets in the countryside. Unfortunately, Lynmouth wasn’t always this charming, as a heavy stormed basically destroyed the village in 1952. Thankfully, most of the village was rebuilt and there is no trace of destruction other than scattered memorials.
Lynton on the other hand, looks nothing like an English village. My first thought upon seeing the scattered lodges across the mountain was – ‘this reminds me of Switzerland…’. Turns out I’m not the only one! English poet Robert Southey labelled Lynton as ‘English Switzerland’ back in the 18th century. He wasn’t the only author to draw inspiration from these villages. C.S. Lewis and J.M. Barrie, the authors of the Chronicles of Narnia and Peter Pan respectively, also spent time in Lynmouth and Lynton. This is the kind of place where authors draw inspiration for fairytales, so that should really tell you something!
4. The endless tree tunnel roads
The roads through both Exmoor and Dartmoor National Parks are some of the prettiest roads I’ve ever driven through (though maybe not the easiest…). They just don’t know what a straight road with just flat grass on the sides is. Instead, the roads felt like a work of art, from beautiful hedges, to miles completely covered by trees, to roads with what once were stone walls to the side and now are just piles of endless shiny green moss. It so happened that we were visiting during autumn when the trees were completely dry, and though I’m guessing some parts, especially around Dartmoor, will remain the same throughout the year, but others will definitely flower and must look completely out of this world in spring. Some of these roads definitely have nothing to envy the popular dark hedges (or the King’s road in Games of Thrones) in Northern Ireland.
5. Beautiful Clovelly
Clovelly is said to be the prettiest village in Devon, although it feels more like a museum than a village if I’m being honest. For starters, it costs 7.25£ to visit, and it can only be visited on foot, as it is completely pedestrianised. The village has been privately owned for the last 800 years – the current family that owns the whole village has owned it since mid 18th century (can you imagine inheriting a whole village!?). The great majority of the buildings are protected, some being real work of arts. Everything is very well kept, even the gardens in this time of the year, which is one of the reasons why I didn’t mind paying to visit. What makes Clovelly stand out, is its characteristic cobbled main street, that steeply descends to the harbour, where on a clear day you can enjoy beautiful views over the Bristol channel. I’m still not sure whether I’d give Clovelly the number one spot for prettiest village in Devon, since I believe that is a very well contested spot, but it’s definitely in my top three. A visit is a must!
6. Sheep and ponies, the queens and kings of the road
As I am writing this I am wondering whether there is even a National Park in England that does not have sheep in it? There’s a trivia question right there! In the case of both Exmoor and Dartmoor National Parks the sheep are everywhere. Since the roads are a bit more isolated in Exmoor, given the tree tunnels that I was just telling you about, you don’t find them in the roads as much, whereas we found them a couple of times just chilling in the middle of the road while driving through Dartmoor. The local Dartmoor ponies, though were nearly driven to extinction after world war II, can now be easily spotted happily grazing on the side of the roads. Though sometimes a test of patience, in the case of sheep anyway, both animals are reliable companions you will constantly encounter while exploring Devon.
7. Cottage heaven
If you follow me on Instagram, you may know already that the cottages were one of my favorite parts of Devon. You may be thinking – cottages? Really? Yes, really. They are some of the most fascinating and beautiful cottages I have seen, and that’s coming from someone who has spent time in the Cotswolds. They all seem to even be able to maintain gorgeous gardens in the middle of autumn. Nearly as if taken out of Disneyland, not a single detail seemed to be overlooked. If one day I get to live in a house that is half as beautiful as some of these, I’ll consider myself satisfied. A girl can dream, right?
8. Dartmoor National Park
Dartmoor National Park, much like Exmoor National Park, could also be described as a vast extension of green, except that they couldn’t possibly be any more different. It is much more of a forest, and the green lands are interrupted by the constant appearance of the characteristic granite tors and the grazing Dartmoor ponies. Also, I learnt the hard way, this is one of the wettest parts of the country, and though I never thought I’d say this about anywhere, the moody English weather suits Dartmoor very well. For starters, it allows the extensive layer of moss and lichen that covers walls, trees and everything that dares stand unmoving for a long period of time, to grow and thrive, giving the landscape an eerie and phantasmagorical look. In fact, my first impression was that of a movie set for something out of Lord of the Rings, and turns out I wasn’t far off. I recently learnt through Instagram that Alan Lee, one of the concept artists for Lord of the Rings, lived in Dartmoor and drew most of his inspiration for the movie from the National Park. And although those movies were never actually filmed in Dartmoor, another movie that actually was is War Horse.
“I just thought I could spend a life actually drawing all this… it seems the stuff of legends” – Alan Lee
9. Otterless Otterton
Otterton is proof that South Devon can also compete with the north when it comes to adorable cute villages. It’s definitely not the only beautiful village in the area, as it gets a lot of competition from nearby Branscombe and Beer among others, but I liked the fact that it didn’t even have an entry on my guidebooks. We were only supposed to be driving through but we had to stop the minute we arrived. Can you imagine how beautiful a place like Devon has to be, for a village like this not to even be worth mentioning?
Otterton is mostly a long main street lined up with some of the most beautiful cottages I have ever seen (sorry, I know I’m repeating myself here, but it’s hard not to!), as well as a small stream. There is also a church and a mill with a nice garden centre. The major letdown is the lack of otters. Besides the suggestive name, there is even a signpost with the name of the village accompanied by an otter, so it was rather disappointing to find out that that was as close to an otter as I was going to get. In all fairness, having the lack of otters as my biggest complaint about somewhere, is really not a bad place to be.
10. The Jurassic coast
Finally, I don’t believe I could possibly finish a post on all great things from Devon without including the Jurassic Coast. The Jurassic Coast is actually the first and only natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in England and only the second in the whole of the United Kingdom, with the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland being the other one. If there was such a thing as Disneyland for geologists, I’m sure this would be it, although don’t let that put you off (sorry, obnoxious biologists in me joking… geology rocks!). There are a mind blowing 200 million years of geological history in less than 100 miles of coastline. Especially the stretch between Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton took me completely by surprise. Again, I feel like Durdle door takes all of the attention away, and everything else gets ignored. I’m not saying Durdle door is not worth the attention, and even though I haven’t been, from looking at pictures it looks like a cool hole in a big rock but nothing more. I may change my mind whenever I actually go see it myself, but what I can guarantee is that whenever I was standing at the top of a hill in Budleigh Salterton I was completely taken aback by the sight in front of me. The cliffs where a strange reddish colour I hadn’t really seen before, and certainly not near the coast. Due to the bad weather that day the cliffs seemed to have dyed the sea in a similar reddish colour. The whole place had a very eerie old feel about it that you just don’t get when you are looking at an average grey/white looking cliff. I was half expecting a dinosaur to just come strolling over the hill any moment. That ‘may’ seem like an impossibility right now, but dinosaurs did roam around here back in the day. Actual real dinosaurs. In fact there is now a ‘dinosaur trail’ you can follow from Exmouth. If nothing else I’ve listed in this post has convinced of how great a place Devon is, I’m afraid I don’t think dinosaurs is something you can just beat!
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