England's Devon County has history and charm to spare

Contributing Travel WriterFebruary 15, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    Devon, England

    Where to stay:

    ■ The Arundell Arms. Voted "the UK's best fishing hotel," this is the place to go for salmon and trout fishing. Just a couple of miles from the Cornwall county line, the 24-room inn is a good base for trips to Tintagel, legendary home of King Arthur, and the fishing village of Port Isaac, which doubles as the fictional Portwenn in the TV series Doc Martin. Arundellarms.com.

    ■ Bovey Castle. Just on the edge of Dartmoor, this 64-room property is the definition of a stately English manor. Enjoy a horseback ride on country lanes or get a lesson in falconry before retiring to the drawing room for a cup of tea. Boveycastle.com.

    Learn more: Visitdevon.co.uk, Visitbritain.com

CHAGFORD, Devon, England — The tiny village of Chagford sits amid emerald hills and patchwork fields stretching as far as the eye can see. Its Three Crowns Inn, Old Forge Tea Room, stone church and thatched cottages look to be straight out of a BBC period drama. I half expect a film crew to appear, pack up the entire town and put it in storage until the next time there's a call for a picturesque English village.

England often has been described as "a green and pleasant land" — an estimated 80 percent of it is rural, and much of it is under the stewardship of the Crown or the National Trust, thus providing a safeguard against widespread development.

Devon, in the southwest part of the country and about 21/2 hours from London, is surely one of the greenest and most pleasant of England's counties, rich in diversity and history.

In the former category, the area around Torquay on the south coast, dubbed the English Riviera, has a climate so mild that palm trees and subtropical blooms flourish. On the north coast, Clovelly, with whitewashed cottages draped in scarlet bougainvillea and overlooking a sapphire sea, appears more Greek Islands than British Isles.

In stark contrast, the interior is home to Dartmoor, a fog-shrouded moorland so forbidding that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it as the setting for the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles. Now a National Park, it is the largest open space in southern England.

When it comes to history, the town of Plymouth has it to spare. It was from here in 1588 that Sir Francis Drake set out to meet the superior-in-numbers Spanish Armada. The story goes that Drake was engaged in a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe overlooking the harbor when he saw the huge fleet approaching. The Lord High Admiral, who was playing with him, wanted to put to sea at once, but Drake calmly carried on, allegedly remarking, "There is plenty of time to win the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too."

Tying itself to American history, Plymouth Harbor was the place that in 1620, 102 pilgrims set sail for the New World aboard the Mayflower. Today's visitors may channel their voyage by standing on the Plymouth Stairs near the spot from which the Pilgrims departed.

A boat trip of the colorful harbor and Plymouth Sound is obligatory, especially on a clear day when the coasts of Devon and neighboring Cornwall are visible. You can keep the nautical theme going with a visit to the National Marine Aquarium, the largest in the United Kingdom.

Plymouth's Old Town, known as the Barbican, borders the harbor. You won't find chain stores or franchise restaurants, but you will find cafés serving seafood from the sound, cozy tea rooms, one-of-a-kind shops and the Plymouth Gin Distillery, the oldest working distillery in England.

George III was on the throne in 1793, when it opened, and the original recipe is still used for distilling the gin. Its official name, Black Friars Distillery, refers to the Black Friars Monastery that once stood on the site. It was in this building that the Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night before setting sail for the land that would become America.

The appeal of Exeter

Exeter isn't as well-known to Americans as Plymouth, but its history goes back even further — more than 2,000 years — and is dominated by Celtic tribes and Roman legions (part of the original Roman walls remains).

Explore Exeter at a leisurely pace, especially its magnificent cathedral, dating to the 12th century and one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Britain. The west front is decorated with exquisite statues; particularly noteworthy are those of English kings Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror and Richard II.

Although damaged by Oliver Cromwell's troops during the civil war and heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe during World War II, the cathedral has been elegantly restored and is surrounded by green space and gardens in the city center.

If you're looking for a unique lunch spot in Exeter, try The Magdalen Chapter. Formerly an eye hospital dating from the Victorian era, it's now a boutique design hotel with a restaurant offering locally sourced food.

If traditional English country-house hotels are more to your taste, Combe House is a short distance from Exeter. This Elizabethan manor house has all the requisite features: lush grounds, magnificent great hall, blazing log fire and a reputation for good food.

Even if you don't stay, stop at Combe House for its lauded afternoon cream tea. Devon (and its neighbor county Cornwall) is famous for clotted cream made from unpasteurized cow's milk. The cream is the same; the difference lies in the way it is applied to the scone. In Devon, the cream comes first, followed by jam; in Cornwall, it's jam and then cream. Either way, you'll be licking your lips for a long time.

Tavistock on the River Tavy, sandwiched between Dartmoor and the sea, has been a market town since 1105, when it received a royal charter from Henry I. The current incarnation, the bustling Pannier Market, is Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Tavistock's origins date to 961 with the founding of its namesake abbey, whose ruins dominate the town center. The most romantic is the gatehouse, known as Betsy Grimbal's Tower, named for a local girl allegedly murdered by a jealous monk.

Denizens of Dartmoor

On a sunny day, Dartmoor, a 368-square-mile expanse of heathland, appears benign. Rocky outcrops known as tors punctuate a landscape where shaggy ponies run wild and clumps of yellow gorse and purple heather form a patchwork quilt.

However, when the fog rolls in, masking the sometimes treacherous bogs and quicksand, or a storm descends on the moors, this description from an old guidebook seems more appropriate: "awful, perilous, astounding and pitiless, and woe to the stranger who, on a dark night and without a guide, is forced to encounter it."

It's not just the often physical inhospitableness of the moors. Even discounting Conan Doyle's diabolical hound, Dartmoor is said to have more than its share of otherworldly denizens: pixies, a headless horseman and the spectral "hairy hands" that menace travellers on the isolated Two Bridges road. Even the devil was once reputed to have paid a visit to Dartmoor during a savage thunderstorm.

By all means, chat with locals about Dartmoor's ghostly residents, but it's best to do so in front of a cheery fire, pint in hand, at a moorland pub such as the Plume of Feathers.

On the edge of Dartmoor are two hotels that appeal to distinctly different clientele but have in common a reputation for excellent food and service. The Arundell Arms in the Lifton Valley has been voted the United Kingdom's top hotel for its fishing school by The Field Magazine (quite a feat when you factor in the salmon-rich Scottish waters).

A 300-year-old former coaching inn, the Arundell Arms is owned by Adam Fox-Edwards, a former fighter pilot and onetime aide to Queen Elizabeth II. A charming host, he will put on his Wellies and accompany fly-fishing novices such as me to a stretch along the 20 miles of privately owned waters on the River Tamar and its tributaries in search of salmon and sea trout.

Bovey Castle isn't a castle in the strict sense of the word (having been built in the 20th century), but it's grand enough to suit even the imperial tastes of Downtown Abbey's Crawley family. The hotel's website poses the question: "Where else can you wear your Wellies at 8 a.m., golf spikes at 3 p.m. and Manolo Blahniks at dinner?"

Where indeed? Bovey's manorial pursuits include golf, horseback riding, hiking on the moors, falconry and clay pigeon shooting — and those Manolos definitely would be de rigueur in the glamorous Oak Bar and Edwardian Grill.


IF YOU GO

Devon, England

Where to stay:

■ The Arundell Arms. Voted "the UK's best fishing hotel," this is the place to go for salmon and trout fishing. Just a couple of miles from the Cornwall county line, the 24-room inn is a good base for trips to Tintagel, legendary home of King Arthur, and the fishing village of Port Isaac, which doubles as the fictional Portwenn in the TV series Doc Martin. Arundellarms.com.

■ Bovey Castle. Just on the edge of Dartmoor, this 64-room property is the definition of a stately English manor. Enjoy a horseback ride on country lanes or get a lesson in falconry before retiring to the drawing room for a cup of tea. Boveycastle.com.

Learn more: Visitdevon.co.uk, Visitbritain.com

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service