Caravanning in the West Country: Delighting in North Devon
Whether you’re after relaxation or adventure, North Devon’s got it all for caravanners.
This month sees Helen heading to the south-west for a bit of sunshine and sea
Written by Helen Werin Photos by Robin Weaver
“We’re going to keep you busy here!” beams the young woman who welcomes us to Easewell Farm Holiday Park near Woolacombe Bay. My youngest daughter Sophie’s eyes light up as she scans the long list of activities available around Easewell and its three ‘sister’ sites; surfing simulator, high ropes course, bungee trampolines, swimming pools and slides, a climbing wall, Aquajets, bowling, cinema...
My visions of walking more of the South West Coast Path, with gorgeous views across the Bristol Channel to Lundy Island and Wales beyond, begin to fade. How are we going to fit it everything? We’re only here for a few days as part of our two-centre trip to North Devon.
A Head for Heights
As things turn out, it's me who’s first in the queue for the bungee trampolines. Instructor Callum harnesses me up and asks how high I want to go.
Confession time: I’ve never done this before, and I’m ten times the age of most of the others waiting in line. But I can’t resist it; it looks such fun. Callum yanks the bungees, and I shoot into the air.
From below he urges: “Do a back flip. It’s easy, and the only thing you'll regret is never doing it”. I’m having too much fun bouncing around (well, that’s my excuse) and leave the front flips and double back flips to Sophie.
Feeling enthused by all this childish fun, I line up for the high ropes course at a ‘sister’ park, Golden Coast. I’m pretty pleased with myself when I finally finish, despite having more than a few wobbles. Considering that I have very dodgy balance and an even worse fear of heights, I don’t do too badly.
Of course, Sophie – who races around the course while I’m still plucking up the courage to overcome most of the obstacles – soon brings me down to earth with; “Pfft…that was easy!” The biggest difficulty among the tightropes and see-sawing planks (both of which I manage well, surprisingly) and the net (which I don’t) is getting back up after I lose my footing. I nearly have to suffer the humiliation of being ‘rescued’ by the instructor but for the kind encouragement of the teenage girl behind me (not Sophie!).
Meanwhile, Sophie has been watching kids rolling around a small pool in the Water Walkerz Within seconds of coming off the bungee trampolines she and her dad Robin are slipping into what look like giant beach balls and are nudged into the pool.
All I can see through the brightly coloured plastic is Robin’s manic grin; whether it’s fright, effort, lack of air or excitement, it’s difficult to tell. His arms flap crazily, and he runs towards me in his big bubble with such speed that I get a soaking before he suddenly stops and falls over again. “That was surprisingly difficult. ‘Not something for an old man”, says Robin, emerging a bit hot and bothered.
Coastal Path Walk
We’ve already walked some short stretches of the South West Coast Path at our first camp site at Newberry Valley in Combe Martin so are keen to explore the coast around Easewell Farm, albeit only 11 miles away. We set off for what’s intended to be a ‘little’ familiarisation stroll before tea via a gate at the back of the site and end up at Bull Point lighthouse. The setting may be beautiful, but it’s tarnished with tragedy. The seabed around here, beneath jagged cliffs of near vertical slate, has been the graveyard of hundreds of vessels, most of them going down with all hands.
We trudge up steep steps and down dusty slopes and along undulating paths skirting through bracken towards secluded Rockham Bay – a fantastic little beach for rock-pooling. A couple of hours later we returned via a neighbouring site at North Morte Farm, thirsty and hungry, but elated and revved up to see more.
Britain's Best Beach
I’m so glad that we’ve come here in early summer; the long evenings give us so much more time. After refuelling, we follow another path from Easewell’s nearest sister site, Twitchen House, signed ‘Beach’. What a delight this is! The track leads through woods of lush ferns, passing tree swings across a brook, before opening out into the lovely, grassy-sloped Combesgate Valley (NT). Just across the road, Combesgate Beach, another great spot for rock-pooling, basks in a vibrant sunset. The best times are the evenings here and at Newberry.
The scorching weather brings out the trippers and Woolacombe Beach – rated Britain’s best beach on TripAdvisor – is, as we’d expected, packed. We head back along what one of Easewell’s ‘regulars’ – and there seem to be many – calls the ‘donkey’ path higher up above Woolacombe Bay. Wherever we wander there are lots of benches to sit on, most of them engraved with plaques in memory of people who want to share their “favourite” places with others.
We’d been told to look out for seals between Morte Point and Bull Point, but they elude us. We’re not overly disappointed as we’ve been getting very close to some other charming creatures at Exmoor Zoo earlier in our trip. The zoo, about nine miles from Newberry Farm, has some unusual animals which we’ve never come across before.
I’d never even heard of a tenrec, a hedgehog-like mammal from Madagascar (actually, it is not related to hedgehogs at all), let alone stroked one. I’d been very softly brushing its quills as part of an ‘encounter’ (included in the admission) which also had us meeting a hyperactive armadillo called Pedro, a shy and very sweet young polecat and some snakes. The cutest sand cats charmed Sophie, while the antics of a ginger-furred, young buff-cheeked gibbon sitting on a bridge across one of the little paths winding around the zoo, dropping her dinner onto unsuspecting visitors amused me.
Into the Valley
Sophie’s curiosity had been sparked by some of the tourist ‘blurb’ for North Devon. “Can you find The White Lady, the Devil's Cheese-ring or Rugged Jack”? it asked. The thought of skipping among the infamous colony of feral goats in the Valley of the Rocks as we searched for these mysterious-sounding landmarks had helped seal our decision to visit this gorgeous spot near Lynmouth. It was late afternoon by the time we’d left the hordes of tourists queuing up for the Victorian cliff railway and flocking around the ice cream parlours and souvenir shops at picturesque Lynmouth.
Surprisingly, there was only a handful of other vehicles parked in this National Trust-owned Valley, and we took the paved footpath high above the coast towards Castle Rock. We could only spot a couple of the goats, which we’ve seen on previous visits, but the spectacular scenery and ambience of this valley overshadow anything else.
“Wow, I like it here”, said Sophie, plonking herself down on a bench overlooking the rock described as the ‘crown jewel of this valley’. Coming from Sophie, this is a massive thumbs up, believe me. Places have to be special to get her approval. Moments later Sophie was running like a little goat herself up the rock and slipping through the hole that is The White Lady (it’s in the shape of a woman) to stand on the edge of this dramatic outcrop.
We’d taken the easy route from Lynmouth, 500ft below its ‘twin’ of Lynton, by riding the water-powered Cliff Railway. On a previous trip my elder daughter, Elena, had torn up the steep hairpin path that links Lynmouth to Lynton in less than a third of the time it would take most people. But what she’d failed to appreciate in her great haste to get to the top was some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in Britain; what the tourist brochures describe as “…a beautiful combination of stunning landscapes – enough to keep you here forever”.
The Victorians, who turned these ‘twin’ towns into popular holiday resorts, called this Little Switzerland. Before they built the railway, I should imagine that those first tourists certainly did feel as if they were climbing a mountain as they struggled up the cliff path, albeit on some tired pack animal.
The perils of this coastline and the weather are shown graphically and poignantly in Lynmouth’s Flood Memorial Hall, with compelling newspaper and personal accounts of the terrible floods in August 1952 which claimed more than 30 lives and destroyed 60 buildings. Water flowed off Exmoor after torrential rain, turning the East and West Lyn rivers into a raging torrent which swept 8,000 tonnes of boulders and 114,000 tonnes of debris through Lynmouth. Shocking photographs of the morning after the night before are shown alongside a model of the village, since rebuilt, before the flood. Much of the place also known as the ‘honeymoon town’ was just rubble.
Amazing North Devon
We’d chosen our camp sites well; peaceful Newberry Park is only a few minutes’ walk from Combe Martin, with its favourite little beach, restaurants and the ubiquitous ice cream parlours. A walk along the coastal path from opposite the site entrance led us through National Trust woodland towards Watermouth Bay. We rested on a bench looking over Broad Strand far below, a real postcard-perfect scene.
Out in the bay a man with water-powered rocket boots – again, something I’d never seen – displayed his balancing skills to a small crowd of walkers who stopped to admire his agility. I don’t like to use too many superlatives in my writing, but our experiences of North Devon never ceased to amaze us.
In truth, we’d been desperate to get to North Devon after a nightmare eight-hour journey, almost half of it in stop-start fashion on the M5. But Combe Martin was determined to keep us suspended in anticipation of our arrival – and a much-need cuppa – for a while longer.
“When are we going to get there?” came the cry from the back seat as we drove down what seemed like an endless village street towards the seafront. I read later that Combe Martin claims to have the longest high street in Britain; it also claims the tallest cliff in mainland Britain in Great Hangman.
We’d got a far better sense of the village's long situation as we climbed Little Hangman the next day. As we’d wound up through narrow, overgrown paths on to the gorsey hillside, we saw alternating glimpses of the Bristol Channel with Wales on the horizon and Combe Martin and the woodlands above our site.
Two young women had approached us as we admired the view of Great Hangman from its smaller namesake. “Have you just been up there?” we’d asked, pointing at the hill that we’d been able to see as we’d driven towards the coast the day before. “Yes, and it is so worth it” they replied.
Even on a blazing hot day, there was never any question of us not going up Great Hangman; show me a hill and I have to climb it! I’d read in one of the tourist brochures that Great Hangman was steep, but I don’t reckon so at all; it’s an easy climb along a well- trodden path. And yes, it is worth it!
Bagpipes? In Devon?
On our last night, we wander down to Rockham Bay again where about 80 steps lead sharply to the little beach. As another vibrant sunset starts to fade and I plod back up the cliff, an incongruous sound reaches my ears over the gentle breeze. I’m puzzled; it can’t be! But there’s no mistaking the sound of bagpipes. Standing stock still above the bay is a lone piper. As we race the sinking sun to the top of the hill towards our campsite, trying to lag out every precious moment of its benevolent glow, the piper’s upbeat reel changes to a far more mournful keen, lamenting the end of another beautiful day in North Devon.
FIND OUT MORE: www.stayindevon.co.uk
Well behaved dogs may travel free on the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway provided that their owners have purchased a ticket and other passengers do not object. Dogs are not allowed on the seats or in First Class.
WHERE TO EAT
The Old Mill
Ossaborough, Woolacombe, Devon EX34 7HJ. 01271 8702371
Welcoming seventeenth-century inn on the edge of Golden Coast Holiday Park and serving home-cooked, traditional dishes and local ales in a relaxed atmosphere. Live music and entertainment in the summer. They cater for children with their menu and a fun adventure playground. With many outside tables and a heated patio, it’s easy to keep an eye on your youngsters as you dine or drink. The Old Mill offers traditional carveries on Sundays and Wednesdays. We especially enjoyed the large portions of slow-cooked pork and chocolate fudge cake with an incredible amount of cream (not all together, though!)
The Fox and Goose Inn
Parracombe, Devon EX31 4PE. 01598 763239
They try and source their ingredients from as local as possible here, offering traditional pub food such as steak, Guinness and mushroom pie and fish stew with Bouillabaisse stock. The menu frequently changes according to seasonality, plus there are delicious pizzas to take away. Particularly enticing desserts include lemon posset with a berry sauce, walnut and caramel tart and a fondue with chocolate orange sauce with a hint of Cointreau and fruit and marshmallows for dipping.
Higher Leigh Manor, Combe Martin, Ilfracombe EX34 0NG. 01271 882486
Among the animal attractions here are lions, baboons, capybara, racoons, reptiles, sea lions, wallabies, timber wolves and the ever-popular meerkats and penguins. But the biggest draw is some of the latest in dinosaur animatronics. Hidden among the trees are a ferocious ‘Spinosaurus’, a ‘T-Rex’, a family of ‘Triceratops’ and a vicious ‘Neovenator’. There is also a dinosaur museum with rare exhibits. This park is also home to Bug World with some fascinating arachnids, beetles and scorpions. There is also an indoor play zone for young children.
Woody Bay Station, Martinhoe Cross, Parracombe, Barnstaple, EX31 4RA. 01598 763487
Woody Bay Station is England’s highest narrow-gauge railway station, almost 1,000 feet up on Exmoor. You board restored original L&B carriages for a two-mile round trip behind a narrow-gauge steam locomotive. Tickets are valid all day so you can ride as many times as you like. The railway operates most days from late March to early November, with Santa Specials and Mince Pie Specials in December. Children under five years travel free.
The Esplanade, Lynmouth, North Devon EX35 6EQ. 01598 753486
It's fun, and there are spectacular views as you glide up and down on a water-powered funicular railway in an area known as England’s Little Switzerland. The funicular transports you in relaxed style from Lynmouth at the foot of the cliffs to its ‘twin’ of Lynton, 500ft above. The funicular, which opened in 1890 covers about 862ft of a steep track. The alternative is an energetic walk up the zig-zagging path! The Cliff Top Café is open daily and markets are held on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the Top Station throughout the summer.
Arlington, near Barnstaple EX31 4LP. 01271 850296
There are many miles of walks through peaceful landscape and woodland and along riverside paths. Children will enjoy the play areas and the fun trails. The house is fascinating, with a particularly remarkable collection of finely-detailed ships in bottles. Room guides impart lots of knowledge to help bring the history of the house alive. The carriage museum has more than 40 vehicles from the 19th century, ranging from a small coffin carrier to the Earl of Craven's very ornate and gilded State Chariot.
Woodlands, Combe Martin, Ilfracombe EX34 0AT. 01271 882334
Open until 29 October 2016 (2017 dates are 17 March-28 October).
This beautiful site is set in a peaceful valley, surrounded by woodland walks and only a few minutes' walk from Combe Martin and the coastal path. The 110 pitches are in terraced fashion among 60 acres in a sheltered setting. The well-kept facilities, with under-floor heating, include large shower rooms with toilets and washbasins, plus a room with coin-operated bath. There is a fenced-off children’s play area and a two-acre coarse fishing lake. The large dish-washing area also has a microwave for guests’ use.
Suitable for: Dog owners. There are dog-friendly pubs and attractions nearby.
Prices (per night including two adults): From £18.
Mortehoe Station Road, Woolacombe EX34 7EH. 01271 871400/01271 872390
Open mid-March-end October
This well-kept and relaxing site has 316 pitches and is the quietest and most traditional camp site among four ’sister’ sites around Woolacombe Bay, reached by a Billy Beachball Bus. You stay at one site and can use the facilities at all of the others (they charge for some activities). The centrally-located facilities block has hot and powerful showers, and there is a bar with pool tables and Wi-Fi and a restaurant/takeaway. The site is in a very picturesque area within easy reach of beaches, lovely villages and many of the region’s most popular attractions. There is also a small shop with groceries, chilled and frozen foods, fresh bread and newspapers.
Suitable for: Golfers. The site is next to Mortehoe and Woolacombe Golf Club.
Prices (per night including two adults): From £28 (check website for special deals).
Marlborough Rd, Ilfracombe, Devon EX34 8PF. 0844 318 3050/ 01271 872 000
Open 18 March-early November.
The park is a large, all-action site won the ‘Britain’s best holiday park' award and is next to Woolacombe, voted ‘Britain's best beach’! The 83 touring pitches, with 16amp electric and space for awnings, are on grass, concrete hard standing or gravel all-weather bases. The big attraction here is the surfing simulator, but there’s loads of other fun and entertainment, including bingo, beach club parties with local musicians, baby ballet, chocolate party, Billy’s Seaside Show and swimming lessons and water confidence sessions for all ages. The park holiday park is parkland with lakes, so there are plenty of places to relax, too. The site is the most fun-packed of the four ‘sister’ sites around Woolacombe Bay.
Suitable for: Full-on fun; it has the widest range of facilities/activities among the four ‘sister’ sites.
Prices (per night including two adults): From £21 (check website for special deals).