Caravanning in the West Country: Delectable South Devon
Devon has so much to offer. It seems like there’s just as much to see and do. Caravan readers often ask for more ideas for caravan holidays in the West Country.
Written by David Chapman
Pro photographer, David, and his wife Sarah they like nothing more than getting away in their van. Here's what they did caravanning in Devon.
For us, it’s just a two-and-a-half-hour tow from home to Brixham. We arrived well before lunch and stopped off to have a look around Paignton Zoo. I love all things wildlife and I have heard good things about Paignton Zoo, particularly regarding education and conservation work, so I thought we should give it a try.
The overall environment of the zoo is very pleasant, set in attractive grounds with plenty of space for thousands of people to wander happily. The zoo keeps a broad range of animals, from the expected, such as elephant, giraffe, tiger and lion to the less usual, such as Barbary sheep and fruit bats.
I must admit to finding the larger animals a little sad, some showing signs of boredom in quite small enclosures, but I enjoyed the walk-through exhibits particularly those themed around desert, nocturnal, tropical and crocodile. My favourite was the desert ‘biome’ where the birds fly free, and there is a feeling of being transported into their environment.
Whatever your opinion about zoos there is plenty to interest and educate here and it would be easy to spend a full day milling around, especially if you have children.
The Hillhead Caravan Club Site is perfect for exploring Brixham, Torquay and Dartmouth.
Tor Bay BirdLife
The following day, we visited Brixham and walked to Berry Head which is at the southern end of the beautiful Tor Bay.
Nesting on the cliffs of Berry Head is the biggest colony of guillemots on the Channel coast. From the hide, near the cafe and visitor centre, it is possible to see, hear and, if the wind is in the right direction, smell them. There is no better way to start a day!
Fortifications on the headland date back to the Napoleonic wars, it is said that these are the best preserved of their kind in England. The bluff is made of limestone and plays host to many wildflowers, most notably the bee orchid in June, and butterflies including the small blue.
After a stretch of the legs, we caught a ferry from Brixham to Torquay. There we had lunch and visited the Living Coasts attraction. The attraction is a giant aviary in which there are many free-flying birds and a range of other wildlife associated with the marine environment from all around the world.
I have been here once before, but we still found it fascinating and refreshingly different. Many of the birds including macaroni penguins come close, the unusual mix of species also includes Steller’s eider, Inca tern, tufted puffin, bank cormorant, black-winged stilt, guillemot, redshank and more.
There are also underwater tanks to see various fish and octopus etc. and exhibits with sea lions and otters. Visits here are necessarily more controlled than at Paignton Zoo, it occupies a much smaller area and attracts a lot of visitors, so there is a one-way system throughout. Having said that we visited at quite a busy time and never felt the need to move along quickly.
Back to Brixham. And before heading home to the site, we had time to look at the life-size replica of Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind. The ship is an excellent piece of craft oozing with character. I was struck by how small this ship is and amazed that 70 crew lived aboard her for almost three years.
Coastal Walk from Kingswear
The next day, we wanted to avoid the crowds and stretch our legs. We caught a bus into Kingswear and walked back to the site along the coast path calling in at the National Trust property of Coleton Fishacre.
This walk is about ten miles long, and Coleton Fishacre is roughly in the middle, so this provides a perfect place to pause, relax, eat and enjoy a look at this beautiful property. Its history began in the 1920’s when Rupert D’Oyly Carte built a home with his wife, Dorothy. Rupert was the son of Richard who made his fortune as the impresario behind the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Rupert continued his father’s businesses running the Savoy Hotel and Claridges in London.
Above: Coleton Fishacre
This house is an eclectic mix of styles with an Arts and Crafts exterior and a fair amount of Art Deco inside. The property is integrated into the garden, and both lie in a beautiful valley setting with enticing glimpses of the sea. It’s a gorgeous house and well worth a visit.
Also along the route, we discovered the remains of Second World War defences at Brownstone Battery with two gun positions and a miniature railway, used to carry the 90lb shells down to the lower area. The guns were from a First World War battleship, but, despite their age, they had a range of over 14 miles so defended the nearby Dart Estuary and Slapton Sands.
The whole coastline here is breathtaking, our visit coincided with spring, and the grassy slopes were bedecked with primroses and violets while blackthorn and gorse blossom smothered the rocky headlands. Adding to the wildlife interest, we found a pair of peregrines in residence on the cliffs near Scabbacombe Sands.
We took a one-way steam train journey from Kingswear to Greenway, a National Trust property that once belonged to the family of Agatha Christie.
Above: Agatha Christie's House
There is no more atmospheric way to arrive at Greenway than by steam. It took several minutes for the steam to clear from the mouth of the tunnel at Greenway Halt by which time I’m sure several of our fellow travellers had been murdered!
A short walk from the small station and we were in the garden of Greenway. This house was built in 1790, long before Agatha was around but she used it as a holiday home and took inspiration for some of her novels here. In my opinion, the exterior of this house isn’t as attractive as Coleton Fishacre, but inside there are a wealth of interesting memorabilia and outside the gardens are extremely well-stocked and stunning with great views of the river.
Being as we bought a one-way ticket, after looking around the house, we walked back to Kingswear, a lovely walk of about 4 miles and the opportunity to work off some of the calories from that National Trust cake!
Day Out in Dartmouth
On the opposite side of the River Dart is the lovely little town of Dartmouth, which has lots to offer the visitor. The variety of boat trips on offer is astonishing; it’s possible to catch a ferry to Totnes, Torquay or Salcombe, you can take a wildlife cruise, a sight-seeing cruise or even take a trip on a coal-powered paddle steamer. Since there is also a steam railway in Kingswear, immediately opposite Dartmouth, it is possible to combine many modes of transport in one day out.
Wildlife in Slapton
After three nights at Hillhead we packed up to move to the Caravan Club site at Start Bay and for the next three nights home was to be a short walk from Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve. I remember first hearing of Slapton Ley as a child growing up above a shop in Blackpool. Our postman was a keen bird watcher who had a caravan, each year he had at least one holiday at Slapton. He would come back and tell me stories about what he’d seen, and over the years I developed a fascination for a place that I had never visited.
I first visited Slapton about 20 years ago and wasn’t disappointed. It is a beautiful nature reserve supporting a broad range of species. It had been a while since my last visit so on our first day I felt the urge to reacquaint myself. I dusted off my binoculars for the first time this trip, and we set about exploring the reserve.
Slapton Ley is a freshwater lake formed as a result of sea level rise after the last Ice Age. The rising sea levels forced shingle up against the coast and blocked off some small rivers, which then formed a lake. Over time the lake has become vegetated with rushes and reeds to take on a very lush appearance, which is attractive to nature. Incidentally, the tidal inlet at Dartmouth was also formed by rising sea levels.
The mouth of the River Dart isn’t an estuary but a ‘ria’, or flooded valley. A river formed the valley which was subsequently flooded by the sea hence the inlet is steep-sided and profound with trees growing right down to the shoreline.
Around Slapton Ley, there are three main access points. Between the site and Torcross, there is a short path to a hide overlooking the south-west corner of the lake. The lake is a good place to look for marsh harriers, but we were a little early in the year for these majestic birds of prey. Near Torcross there is another hide overlooking the lake and further north, there is a bridge over the Ley where some nature trails lead to the village of Slapton.
Highlights of our walk were the first swallow of the year; two sandwich terns; several newly arrived warblers including willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap all of which were singing their hearts out to establish new territories; lots of Cetti’s warblers including some which afforded excellent views and several pairs of courting great crested grebes.
It wouldn’t be possible to visit Slapton without mentioning the Second World War. The Sherman tank at Torcross reminds us of the historical events which happened here as U.S. troops prepared for D-Day landings. Records estimate that 749 Americans died in a single, probably-avoidable, disaster during a training exercise code-named ‘Exercise Tiger’ when German E-boats hit three U.S. ‘Landing Ship Tanks’ (an LST is a flat-bottomed, 500-ton assault ship which carried hundreds of men as well as lorries and tanks). Investigators later found that typographical errors in the communications between the LSTs and the support vessel meant that the two were accidentally using different radio frequencies.
Walk into Salcombe
For our last day, we walked from Prawle Point to Salcombe (about 8 miles return) and later visited both Start Point Lighthouse and the deserted village of Hallsands.
The fishing village of Hallsands was built at the foot of the cliffs near Start Point, but a storm shattered it in 1917. Experts think that dredging to provide aggregate for the construction of Devonport in Plymouth caused the loss of the beach which protected the village. The residents were lucky to escape with their lives. Although it isn’t possible to get down to the village today, there is a viewing platform with information.
The rugged coastline around Prawle is fascinating with raised beaches and relic cliff lines evidence that at one time the sea level was much higher, relative to the land than it is today.
Salcombe is a beautiful village with an unusual, personal connection. I remember my dad telling me that when he and my mum retired from professional ice-skating, a few years before I was a twinkle in the eye, they debated buying a hardware shop in Salcombe or Blackpool.
It seems a strange dilemma since the two could hardly be more different, but in the end, Blackpool won because that’s where his parents lived. During my visit to Salcombe, my thoughts ranged from the meaningful to the mundane including how different my life could have been and whether the postman in Salcombe is a keen bird watcher. Isn’t it strange how things work out!
WHERE TO STAY
Hillhead Caravan Club Site
Hillhead, Brixham, TQ5 0HH
T 01803 853204
Open: Easter to end of year
Prices (per night including two adults and electric hook-up) From £18.00 per night
This site has 239 pitches in 22 acres and sits on top of the hill with distant views to the sea and Torquay. There is a full range of facilities on site including a swimming pool as well as a shop; it is a short drive to the many tourist locations in the Torquay area as well as being close to the lovely town of Dartmouth.
Start Bay Caravan Club Site
Stokenham, Kingsbridge, TQ7 2SE
T 01548 580430
Open: March to November
Prices (per night including two adults and electric hook-up). From £16 per night
A site with 94 pitches set in six acres. The site is just a short walk from Torcross and Slapton Ley nature reserve.
Goodrington Road, Paignton, Devon TQ4 7JE
T 01803 661961
Open All year round
Prices (per night including two adults and electric hook-up). From £XX per night
Award-winning Beverley Park has been providing park holidays for nearly 60 years.
If you like to be at the heart of the action, Beverley Park is the perfect choice for you. There's something for the whole family to enjoy day or night from show-stopping entertainment to tropical pools.
OTHER PLACES TO VISIT
Kent’s Cavern; Babbacombe Model Village; Cockington Court Country Park; Dartmouth Castle; Woodlands Theme Park; Cookworthy Museum of Rural Life in Kingsbridge.