Guest post by Davide Stroppa
In January I moved to London for a new job, in April Sara and the kids joined me. To us, "holiday" has often meant, "journey", so we thought, "why don’t we take the chance of being here already and visit some place outside London?"
The final choice narrowed down to Devon and Cornwall, for a couple of reasons. First, they are easily accessible from London by car (with two children aged two and four, the amount of baggage is still quite relevant, and travelling by train can easily become a bit too complicated). Second, the region offers the possibility to combine outdoor activities (beaches, walks, bicycle rides) with interesting places to visit and things to do that could provide an easy backup in case of bad weather.
When we leave, the first thing that really hits us is the amount of green outside London: the woods along the motorway are so wide and deep that we feel like travelling through a forest. It is a lovely sensation, which will intensify in the following days, along the narrow streets, among pasture sand farms, where the tall hedges grown to prevent the cattle to exit the meadows are joining in the middle of the road, so to create green, natural galleries.
We first stop in Exeter, the Devon’s capital, where the magnificent gothic cathedral from the XII century stands out. It is a beautiful sunny afternoon, and the cafes around the cathedral are full of people looking for a quick meal in a break from their Saturday shopping, while those with more time to spend can relax on the wide green lawn just in front of the cathedral.
In little more than one hour we then arrive in the Exmoor region, in North Devon. Here one of the most suggestive trekking path in England starts: it is the “Two Moor path”, that unravels among the hills of Exmoor in the North and of the Dartmoor in the South, roughly 140km that are usually covered in one week/ten days. We walk for a short piece (the GPS says 5km, having two small kids with us, we decide that it is enough),and we get through green ferns, yellow brooms and purple heathers. We then indulge in one of the local gastronomic icons (so iconic that its origin is still disputed between Devon and Cornwall): the cream tea, a cup of tea accompanied by two warm scones, strawberry or raspberry jam and clotted cream.
However, North Devon is not only pastures, meadows and countryside, but it is definitely coastline. Among the villages peacefully laid down on the coast, you may visit Ilfracombe. During the Victorian age, it had become one of the first holiday estates for the English élites, mainly thanks to the passageways hacked out of solid rock by Welsh miners, to get access to some nice little beaches and a natural tidal pool.
Another amazing choice is Dunster, one of the best-preserved medieval villages in England: the Castle and the gardens (thanks to the National Trust) are little gems sitting on a top of a wooded hill, and if you are lucky with the weather, you can easily spend there an entire day. Porlock is a pretty village from where you can reach the picturesque and cosy quay at Porlock Weir, a small harbour backed by pubs and cafes than opens directly on the sea. Take the walk that passes across the green lawns from the little marina to the cobble beach on the ocean: the sight in front of you is definitely worth the wind that tosses you along the path.
From Porlock Weir we take the narrow toll road that begins behind the harbour: you pay by leaving a donation (2£) in a small box and then take a road that goes across the wood sand then pops out on the top of the hill, from where you can enjoy a breath-taking view on the bay underneath. Finally, Clovelly is the last outpost of Devon before getting into Cornwall: it is worth paying the 6£ fee for the parking that also gives you access to the fishermen village, characterised by a steep cobble street towards the harbour, where no cars are allowed to circulate (only donkeys).
The first crossroad that you will find coming from the parking is the starting point for two paths that offer spectacular views on the cliffs. Almost everywhere on the coast you can find another pride of the local cuisine: the crab, which we have tasted in sandwiches with salted butter and lemon zest.
We then move towards Cornwall and we finish the first week on the Atlantic road that unravels in front of huge beaches, home of surfers and Volkswagen T2 vans. Along the coast, thanks to the strong winds coming from northwest, every small town has its own beach and a surf school: given the water temperature around 18°C, a proper wetsuit is definitely indispensable. We alternate afternoons on the beach with some nice walks: first in Boscastle, where it is worth reaching Pentragon peak, a promontory from where you can enjoy a fascinating view on the coast, from east to west. And then to Tintangel, where we climb the steep paths, wooden bridges and cliff steps among the archaeological remains of a castle that local speculation says to have been the birthplace of the legendary King Arthur.
In the second week we head towards West: unfortunately, a series of weather disturbances will bring rain and showers for few days, so we cannot continue enjoying the wide beaches laid in front of us. Therefore, we decide to take the chance for some indoor activities, which we had in mind to do anyway. Two of them are worth the mention: the Eden Project and the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth. Eden Project is a place where nature, science, past and future meet together: on an old clay pit, they have built enormous ball-shaped greenhouses, where the main Earth microclimates are reproduced, from Mediterranean to Tropical and the many vegetal species which are characteristic of each region lusciously proliferate. The National Maritime Museum is a deep dive into the English maritime heritage, thanks to the abundance of old and modern boats, ships, canoes together with installations that explain the history of Arctic expeditions of the earlier XX century or more recent solitary navigation adventures.
In the second part of the week the weather luckily turns on the bright side, and we can visit some of the most fascinating places of the coast. Three are surely worth mentioning here:
1) St. Ives is one of the most charming villages, surrounded by some of the most beautiful beaches of the area. We stayed on Porthminster: warm sun, cool air and chilled water helped us spend a very entertaining and amusing day. In St. Ives it's also worth to visit the local Tate Gallery, which hosts several fine pieces of modern art.
2) Padstow is a sea village built around the harbour, from where several boat excursions along the coast start. We recommend walking along the path that starts from the WWI monument at the end of the town and goes across the fields along the coast, between the green meadows and the blue bay. Recently, Padstow has become the region's gastronomic capital, mainly thanks to the presence of Rick Stein, a Michelin starred chef that turned himself into a proper brand and somehow helped make the most out of local products and inspired the birth of several little fine restaurants. Speaking of local cuisine, we cannot forget another local pride: the Cornish pasty, a pie filled with steak (the original one) or vegetables and cheese. The ones we tried and liked very much are the ones by Phillps.
3) St. Michael's Mount: like the French homonym, it is an island separated from the mainland only by a cobbled path that only becomes practicable at times of low tide. In the XII century, St. Michael had originally been an abbey (like its French twin), but over the following decades and centuries it transformed itself into an outpost against potential enemy attacks from the sea and eventually in a fortified castle. Our tip is to go and visit early in the morning, so to walk the path when the water still gently touches your ankles and to enjoy the castle when it is less crowded (it is quite small, so it gets crammed with people quite fast)
In North Devon, we stayed at Twitchen Farm, a farm in Challachombe village, which also provides several types of accommodation. Helen and Jaye are kind and thoughtful, and offer a very good country breakfast. Not too far from there, there is the Black Venus Inn, a pub where we had dinner for three evenings in a row: excellent raw products, genuine cuisine different from the standard “pub food” and a very friendly and relaxed atmosphere always made it a very pleasant choice.
On the Atlantic Road we stayed at Elements, a small and gracious boutique hotel (but reasonably priced though) on the Bude coastline, just in front of Widemouth Bay; we also tried – and liked – the restaurant, very nice indeed.
Finally, on the western coast, we opted for one of the many holiday parks/camping on the coast between Hayle and St.Ives where, along with tents and caravan, there are really comfortable and well equipped cottages: it was a good compromise for those who enjoy an open air holiday but also some more comfort (with the small ones and the capricious weather, at the end it was the right choice). Close by we enjoyed a gigantic dinner at Trevaskis Farm, where you can pick your own (PYO) fruit and vegetables (of course you can buy them also in punnets and cases, already picked up for you). Here, it is possible to have lunch/dinner in their own restaurant, which offer a succulent and generous country cuisine, thanks to the local meat, cheese and vegetables.