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Devon

They are like chalk and cheese. London,the big city, versus Devon, the big county. Urban streets against the wide-open spaces of England’s pastoral ‘West Country’.

Words and Photography by Mark Parren Taylor

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Devon – the fourth largest of England counties, and one of the 10 least-densely populated may seem a million miles (well, 200 miles to be a little more accurate) from the capital, but Devon flavours are easily enjoyed on a visit to London.

Savour an afternoon ‘high tea’, for example, with Devonshire clotted cream at sundry cafés and hotels; or shop for Devon fresh produce – everything from cheese to apples to jams – at a farm shop, or even Fortnum & Mason; or head to Borough Market to find fresh-cooked street food using ingredients from our favourite county. But Devon’s more than just delicious fare, and with a rail journey from London lasting as little as two hours, there’s no excuse not to explore this generous county for a day or two.

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Long-lost treasure
Devon is a place of thatched cottages and market towns, of fishing villages and hamlets snuggled in leafy valleys. It has its cities, certainly…but even urbanites live life at a country pace here, and they do it with gentle humour. They use funny words too – like phizog for ‘face’ or grockle for ‘out-of-towner’ – and can sound a little like Hollywood pirates: not surprising, perhaps, because Devon’s coastline is riddled with hidden coves and cliff-walled bays, the kinds of places to discover long-lost buried treasure.

Away from the sea, country lanes snake through rolling farmland – where low hills are crosshatched with drystone walls that separate fields of swaying wheat from grazing dairy cattle.

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But not all animals are walled in here. Vast swathes of Devon are sprawling, rugged moorland. Exmoor in the north is an expanse of heather-carpeted upland, the home of sheep and big-horned highland cattle. Dartmoor, close to maritime hub Plymouth on the south coast, is one of the United Kingdom’s most inspiring, if at times challenging, landscapes. It’s a 950km2 expanse of windswept moorland and rocky outcrops (known as tors). Quaint, stone-cottaged villages hunker down in valleys, but teams of wild ponies are a common sight here and, unlike humans, they brave the elements all year round.

It’s a mystical, mysterious corner of England that has inspired tales of ghosts and demons for centuries. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes’s great adventure written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1901, was played out against this landscape – a wilderness that can be bleak and unrelenting in the depths of winter.

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Despite its seasonal inhospitality, Dartmoor has been home to hardy folk for millennia. The terrain is punctuated by Bronze Age standing stones and the remains of ‘hut circles’. There are medieval echoes too – the footings of Hundatora village near Hound Tor, for example, or a stone ‘clapper bridge’ at Postbridge that dates from the 13th century. It was built for packhorses hauling tin, an industry that was established on the moors long before Roman times.

Nonetheless, when the sun shines on these moors – and on their lovely villages – this is a place that glows with exceptional charm.

A string of pearls
In the north, the seaside village Westward Ho! has the only place name in Britain with an exclamation mark! A little selfish, perhaps, because there is a string of places along this coast that are equally worthy of such rare punctuation. This is a region of stunning scenery – and quite rightly has been designated as an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ since 1959.

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Just five kilometres along, for example, Appledore is a proud village-port of tea rooms and galleries. A little further on, around the Taw estuary, Saunton Sands is popular with surfers. And a few beaches north, Woolacombe’s
is often voted one of the best in Europe. From there it’s a squiggly road to Ilfracombe, the epitome of Devon’s 21st-century reinvention where Victorian charm and a historical fishing settlement fizz with a budding artsy sophistication. ‘Britart’ high flyer Damien Hirst (reckoned to be one of the world’s richest living artists) owns several quayside shophouses (including a gallery and restaurant)…although his most noteworthy contribution to the town is an impressive 20m-tall statue of ‘Verity’, a sword-wielding woman who stands at the entrance to the harbour like a modern-day Colossus of Rhodes.

But it’s at Lynmouth, 32km further, that the real treasure awaits. This one-time fishing village – shoe-horned into a harbourside gorge – is linked by a funicular railway with Lynton, a town perched 200m above. It’s the kind of old-worldy, higgledy-piggledy backdrop that a Hollywood set designer would dream up…for a pirate movie, perhaps.


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From Colours March 2016

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5 Senses – Sight
ART IN NATURE

Another of Devon’s hidden treasures, tucked away in a lush valley, Broomhill Sculpture Gardens are an inspiring meeting of forest trail and al fresco contemporary art gallery. These beautiful grounds were once the private domain of the adjacent Victorian manor house, which is now home to a comfortable ‘art hotel’ and award-winning restaurant (where you can enjoy an afternoon ‘Devon cream tea’!).

www.broomhillart.co.uk