In Categories, Holidays, Travel & Adventure

The very mention of Devon holidays by the sea sets my heart beating for my heritage and my roots. Specifically North Devon where I’ve spent many happy summer holidays as a child. I revisit Devon most years to see my family, and this year I went on a literary trail, on a quest to follow in the writerly footsteps of authors who lived or worked in Devon.

Novelists and Devon holidays by the sea.

“Before 1925 there wasn’t a road here, just a trail,” says 90 year old Maurice Cawthorne in the broad burr of Devon’s dialect that’s as thick and sweet as its clotted cream.

Devon Holidays by the sea

We are driving in his vintage Morgan with the top down, along a thin strip of coastal road between Saunton and Croyde.

“You could get motorbikes and horse carts along here, but not cars,” he says as we survey breathtaking views across Saunton Sands to Westward Ho!.

Devon Holidays by the sea

Getting out of the car we brace ourselves against a keen wind to stop and stare at North Devon’s uncomplicated scenery.

It’s no wonder that Devon has inspired writers through the ages.

Novelists including Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Williamson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rudyard Kipling and Michael Morpurgo have lived, or had associations with Devon at some stage in their careers, writing tales which have added intriguing points of interest to the county’s literary map as well as swelling the tourism wave.

Devon Holidays by the sea Devon Holidays by the sea Devon Holidays by the sea Devon Holidays by the sea

Apart from its literary connections, North Devon’s history is inextricably interwoven with tales of smuggling and pirates, while the coastal path that stretches 170kms along vertiginous cliffs, green pastures, tiny coves and surf-washed beaches  offers up some of the most remote and rugged scenery that the county has to offer.

Devon Holidays by the sea

The track is easily accessible with car parks at various points along the way, and as I head to Clovelly to walk the Hobby Drive section, the fields to either side of me in every imaginable shade of green look like a patchwork quilt stitched by nature.

Devon Holidays by the sea

Clovelly

At a small roundabout on the A39, 10 miles west of Bideford you’ll find Clovelly Cross Service station. Blink and you might miss it. It only has two pumps and is the last service station in North Devon before you reach Cornwall.

And at the bottom of a winding hill you’ll find a fishing village once famous for herring and mackerel, with a history of smuggling and shipwrecks.  From the quayside Clovelly seems to cling to the wooded 400 foot cliff face which means that the street is far too precipitous for vehicles and donkeys have for centuries been the main mode of transport.

Devon Holidays by the sea

These days all goods, from groceries to furniture, are transported down through the steep cobbled streets by hand drawn sledges, an enigma in the fast paced world of today.

Walking Down-Along or Up-Along depending on which way you’re going is the best way to view the village and absorb the beguiling 19th century detail, although there is a Land Rover which will take you down a back route to the Red Lion, an 18th century hotel situated at the tiny harbor on the rocky shore.

Devon Holidays by the sea Devon Holidays by the sea

Novelist, Charles Kingsley lived in Clovelly as a child when his father was the rector, and later he returned to Clovelly to write The Water Babies and Westward Ho! staying in a whitewashed house now marked as Kingsley Cottage.  Down-a-long you’ll find the low beamed Kingsley Museum, and among other attractions a fisherman’s cottage decked out with 1930’s memorabilia.

Another famous resident of Clovelly is Joss Ackland CBE, a leading stage and screen actor who has written a moving memoir of life and love, entitled “My Better Half and Me”, based on the diaries of his late wife Rosemary.

Westward Ho!

Standing at Kipling Terrace and looking down across the famous pebble ridge which separates the beach from Northam Burrows and the 253 hectares of grassy coastal plain, salt marsh and sand dunes – not to mention the oldest golf course in the country founded in 1864 – I realize that I am on hallowed writerly ground. Rudyard Kipling wrote Stalky and Co based on his schooldays from 1878-1882, at the former United Services College, now a terrace of flats which looms above me,  but Westward Ho! is named after Charles Kingsley’s swashbuckling novel of the same name written in 1855 – about the time that the resort was gaining popularity due to the Victorian boom in seaside holidays.

Devon Holidays by the sea

Westward Ho! on a  sunny summer’s morning when the world is still new with mist rising off the long stretch of sand, feels as close to utopia as I can imagine. Surfers are beginning to appear over the grey pebble ridge carrying bright surfboards.

They’re dressed in dark wet suits ready to brave the cool Atlantic ocean and two dog walkers are throwing balls for their canine companions. But the expansive beach is to all purposes practically empty, and I am alone with my thoughts as I walk briskly, stamping fresh footprints, looking back to the promenade and a number of wooden beach huts painted in idiosyncratic colours, knowing that apart from Lundy Island just visible in the far distance, the next stop across the briny ocean is America.

Devon Holidays by the sea

Devon Holidays by the sea Devon Holidays by the sea Devon Holidays by the sea Devon Holidays by the sea

Appledore

You can walk from Westward Ho! to Appledore across a muddy section of the Northam Burrows and past the old ship yard until you reach the colourful cottages of Irsha Street. Further along the narrow streets and tiny fishermen’s cottages in the heart of the village jostle for space in diminutive alleyways that run down to the quay which overlooks the Taw/Torridge Estuary.

Devon Holidays by the sea

On the literary front, Daniel Farson famous for his books, his probing TV interviews, and memoirs of his colourful Soho life,  lived in Irsha Street for a number of years, and the village hosts a book festival from each year around the end of September.

Devon Holidays by the sea

Bideford

Nearby, Bideford is an ancient port and market town that interestingly claims a reputation as one of the best places in the country (possibly second only to Trafalgar Square) to celebrate the new year, when the quay is crammed with thousands of people in fancy dress waiting for the town hall clock to strike midnight and the fireworks to begin.

Devon Holidays by the sea

Devon Holidays by the sea

Devon Holidays by the sea

But today I’m going east of the water to cycle the Tarka trail, a mostly flat 51 km track that follows the old railway line from Petrockstowe to Braunton.

Devon Holidays by the sea

Hiring a bike I head north from Bideford along the Torridge Estuary coming to the village of Instow at the confluence of the rivers Taw and Torridge.  The trail south follows the valley of the River Torridge zig-zagging across the river through woods and a railway tunnel until it reaches old Torrington Station. Henry Williamson, who lived in North Devon most of his life based his book Tarka the Otter around the Taw-Torridge rivers and Tarka’s journey started and ended on Canal Bridge on the River Torridge near Weare Giffard.

Devon Holidays by the sea

The Hartland Peninsula

Stark and geologically fascinating Hartland Peninsula faces west and here the cliffs of contorted beds of sandstone and shale jut out into the wild ocean below where the rocks are frequented by Atlantic seals. A  1.25km walk leads along the coast path to Devon’s largest waterfall at Speke’s Mill Mouth while nearby Hartland Abbey, the family home of the Stucley’s which was founded by Augustinian monks in 1157 is open to the public. Situated in a sylvan valley that wanders through gardens and parkland down to a private beach the estate has been used as a film location for Jane Austen’s novel ‘Sense and Sensibility, and Rosamunde Pilcher’s ‘The Shell Seekers’ and was also the venue for Prince William’s stag party weekend.

Devon Holidays by the sea

“It was a closely guarded secret. We were told that the manor was booked for the weekend by an octogenarian holding a birthday party, and that they wanted some peace and quiet” explains a member of the household staff. “Little did we expect an energetic Royal entourage to turn up instead.”

I smile and wonder if perhaps this and the other stories of derring-do with which he regales us will one day reach the pages of another Devonshire novel. In my heart, I rather hope so. And looking across at Maurice, dapper in his plus fours, standing in front of his vintage Morgan, I snap an image of its potential hero 🙂

Oh, and remind you that he already has his heroine –  my Mum!

Devon Holidays by the sea

Devon Holidays by the sea

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Showing 25 comments
  • Laura Lynch
    Reply

    After going there myself last year, it really is no surprise that that area inspires writers. It’s such a beautiful area, and so peaceful. I would really like to go back and spend more time.

  • Tami
    Reply

    This is everything I have imagined the English countryside to look like. I’m pinning this post because I’d love to re-trace your footsteps. Your photo of a small fishing village is my favorite! But the cobblestone roads, the sloping-roofed homes, and all the beautiful flowers are just stunning. I thought maybe scenes like this are only scene in movies, but you’ve proven otherwise.

  • Reply

    We were in the UK in April and May and wish we had known about this charming area. Between the literary history (which my other half would love) the quaint and unique Clovelly, the storied Hartland Abbey and the history of pirates, there is certainly a lot that would interest us – not to mention the sea scape! North Devon is now on our bucket list. Thank you. I am going to pin for future reference.

  • Rhonda Albom
    Reply

    We visited the UK in 2012 and made an anti-clockwise circle around the country starting from London. Unfortunately, we kept increasing stays in places that we really enjoyed so by the time we got to southern England we were all out of time. I would love to visit Devon one day it looks beautiful.

  • Lillie
    Reply

    This is utterly fascinating for me to read because, despite having never been to Devon, my son is named for this spot! (Long story, but he is, and it sure makes me want to visit.) These photos look magical, and I’m intrigued by your detail that “North Devon’s history is inextricably interwoven with tales of smuggling and pirates…” Yeep!

  • Punita Malhotra
    Reply

    Devon and the magical seaside destinations are a recipe for a simple and peaceful life away from the big-starry-city life. I can’t get over that cute picture with the car and the sea showing behind it. Reminds me of Cary Grant.

  • Nisha
    Reply

    I just loved reading this article 🙂 I have not been to UK still 🙁 so not sure when that will happen and not sure if Devon will even figure in my first itinerary. However , I have a read few novels which has Devon as the backdrop and I had painted my own imagery of the place. Your photos most certainly confirmed those pictures.

  • Alice Teacake
    Reply

    I just love Devon for its fresh air, amazing colours, quaint villages, riveting trails and all those pirate and smuggling stories! I can completely understand why you keep returning. I used to go a lot here when I was younger but its been a while! Time for me to get back me thinks 🙂

    • Johanna
      Reply

      Hi Alice, yes Devon is such an intriguing and scenic county. Yes, time for a re-visit for sure 🙂

  • Meagan
    Reply

    Your photos are stunning, but I LOVE your writing style! So evocative and relatable. Thank you so much for sharing! Now I desperately want to visit 🙂

    • Johanna
      Reply

      Thanks Meagan. It’s so lovely when somebody loves my writing style – I really appreciate (and blush) loved your comment.

  • Reply

    Haha, Westward HO! is the BEST place name EVER!! Tragically, we missed Clovelly on a recent trip, along with much of the coast – but that’s what ‘next time’ is for, right? I had no idea so many authors had lived in and been inspired by this region – looking forward to seeing hero Maurice again!! Looks AND longevity – looks like you’re in luck, girlfriend!

    • Johanna
      Reply

      Hello Red! Yes, it’s an unusual and fantastic name isn’t it? And the ! is as much part of it as the Ho! I’m sad you missed Clovelly as you and your camera would have had a field day with all that quaintness to photograph – yep, next time 😉 Hahaha, looks – longevity – oh I hope so 🙂

  • Reply

    Wow Jo, what an informative post about the beautiful Devon. We are planning a trip to Europe in 2019 and will be visiting the UK. We’d like to explore the areas west of London and go down as far as Devon and Cornwall, so I’ll be bookmarking your post for future reference. I’ve heard about Clovelly and it’s already on our list 🙂 #TeamLovinLife

    • Johanna
      Reply

      Thanks Lyndall 🙂 Yes, you definitely must get down to Devon – it’s like another country!

  • Kathy Marris
    Reply

    Sooo picturesque, as you would expect the English countryside to be. I haven’t seen much of England apart from London and a small bit of Yorkshire, but I think I will need to return after seeing this. Absolutely stunning and your mum and dad are so cute. #TeamLovinLife

    • Johanna
      Reply

      Thanks Kathy 🙂 Yes, I think you’d love Devon )

  • Deborah
    Reply

    I mentioned in a comment on my post today that the only place I want to go to is Italy. But I’d actually also love to visit a fishing village / small village in England / the UK. I remember watching the TV show Ballykissangel (which I think was Irish!) and loving the notion of the cobbly seaside village. And I watch Escape to the Country and love the little towns and villages I see there.

    So perhaps if I ever get to Italy I’ll have a stopover in the UK and spend a week hanging at an old pub in a little seaside town!

  • Leanne @ Deep Fried Fruit
    Reply

    Amazing photos. I love how all those boats re just “hanging” there. Now that’s art!

  • Life Images by Jill
    Reply

    oh this looks so peaceful and idyllic Jo away from the maddening crowd..though maybe not so much in summer. I am pleased to say I have been to Clovelly, allbeit briefly while we were on a bus tour. I loved its steep cobbled streets – great for leg muscles I am sure! and the boats sitting on the sand when the tide went out. Thanks Jo for another fabulous post.

    • Johanna
      Reply

      Hi Jill, yes Clovelly is good both for the spirit and the legs isn’t it! I try and go each time I go back to Devon. Thanks for commenting today 🙂

  • Jo Tracey
    Reply

    We spent some time in Devon & Dorset when we were in the UK back at the end of 2015 & as a writer I found that inspirational. This, however, is just beautiful. I want to be there now. #TeamLovinLife

    • Johanna
      Reply

      Hello namesake Jo! Thank you. Yes it is gorgeous in Devon and Dorset is soooo pretty too 🙂

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