While South Devon rolls out her riviera, North is her more secretive sister, an altogether wilder character of cliffs, caves and coves, gifting not only a restorative sense of remoteness but a whole host of refreshingly authentic experiences that continue to uplift long after you’ve left. From the scoop of Bideford Bay, up the surf-poised and sandy Saunton, Croyde and Woolacombe, and around the bend into the enchanting playground of woods, streams and velvety moss that is Exmoor – North Devon’s landscapes and lifestyle template reward the slow explorer…
Old trumping new is North Devon’s recurring vibe and you’ll get it stepping over the threshold of Bideford’s Old Bridge Antiques, four floors of curios getting a second innings at life. There’s another time-travelling element at the region’s ‘Pannier Markets’ – not a fleeting retail trend but a regular means of shopping in Devon for nigh on 150 years. While Bideford’s and Barnstaple’s have converted their old Butchers’ Rows into artisan studios and independent trader units, their foodie halls share an atmosphere with grand and bustling Victorian train stations. In between, there’s the pretty waterside village of Appledore. Check out the pastel-hued fishermen’s cottages and make a beeline for Appledore Crafts Company where our hankering is for Lucy Turner’s willow basketry.
Eat at: The Glorious Oyster in Instow, a tucked-away seafood shack, oyster bar and beach café with occasional tunes in the dunes. Alternatively, head to Woolfardisworthy (pronounced ‘Woolsery’) to dine at popular gastro pub, The Farmers Arms.
Stay at: Loveland Farm about 20 minutes west of Bideford. It’s an eco-retreat with easy-on-the-eye dome pods giving the place all the feels of a fresh-air hotel. South of Barnstaple, Vintage Vardos delivers gypsy glamping alongside a bubbling stream.
There’s Devon treasure at: Bideford’s Burton Art Gallery, a dynamic cultural space showcasing the works of makers such as Helyne Jennings
Braunton to Mortehoe
Don’t resist the urge to break into Kate Bush’s ‘The Sensual World’ as you enter Braunton Burrows – the labyrinthine vastness, cascading sand, and wildflower spectrum of the UK’s largest natural dune system will all compel you to do so. There’s similar headiness on tap at surfy Croyde, courtesy of waves battering you to a welcome state of invigoration before you retreat to the thatchy-yet-not-twee village. In the Famous-Five-vibes village of Mortehoe, an old-world micro-museum is jam-packed with maritime echoes such as vintage cameras, sea-smooth bottles, and monochrome photos – all shining a light on a coast of wreckers and smugglers.
Eat at: Barricane Beach at Woolacombe – a cove of exotic shells, rock pools and a beach hut for a curry and sunset combo.
Stay at: Swell Yoga offering Devon heaven retreats combining surf lessons, Vinyasa yoga, glamping and fresh meals served by a vegan chef.
There’s Devon treasure at: Saunton Sands Hotel’s Source Spa thanks to a marine thermal suite, sun deck, dune view pool and ice fountain.
Ilfracombe to Combe Martin
Ilfracombe, metropolitan by contrast, is famous for its curious and cool Victorian seabathing ‘Tunnels’ complex, as well as Verity – Damien Hirst’s divisive quayside sculpture (we’re with Damien, for the record). If your retail maxim is that it’s better to mine a small number of boutiques properly rather than gloss over too many, all roads lead to an increasingly artisanal smattering in Fore Street, including Juul-at- Home for gifts and lifestyle, and FortyThree, a co-op of locally inspired art, textiles, ceramics, glass, and paper. Heading east, the craggy coast throws up some great secluded swim spots: nudie ones at the evocatively named Wild Pear Beach or less cheeky ones at Broadsands.
Eat at: Head to Stacc if you’re after cocktails and patisserie to (dare we say it) put the Devonshire cream tea in the shade.
Stay at: The Earlsdale B&B in Ilfracombe or The Old Apple Store in Lee (part of the Boutique Retreats collection).
There’s Devon treasure at: Hand:Plant in Ilfracombe – a gallery, café, workshop space and plantery – all under one roof and all with a sustainable focus. We love Justine Hartley’s locally made blankets: Devon hygge, if you like.
On to Exmoor…
With dramatic sights like the South West Coast Path’s Valley of Rocks and Lynton’s extraordinary cliff railway, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that the coast steals the limelight from the moorland. But poking around just a little inland is so worth the detour. Exmoor National Park, for starters, was Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve, and on Barton Farm’s stargazing soirées it’s something as accessible to night sky newbies as it is to niche enthusiasts. Come equipped with binoculars and a hungry tum (the evening also involves pizza making) and keep your fingers crossed for the Rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s stripes and the Orion Nebula. For anyone with literary leanings, there’s Wild About Exmoor’s guided walks in Lorna Doone country, taking in the church where (spoiler alert) the author imagined the infamous altar shooting.
Eat at: The gorgeous Coach House at Kentisbury Grange Hotel. The French might call this eatery ‘bistronomique’, meaning gastro food with a laid-back ambiance.
Stay at: Rockton Mews in Lynton, part of the Boutique Retreats collection. It’s the last house before the dramatically beautiful Valley of Rocks.
There’s Devon treasure at: Indicknowle Farm where you can buy cider at source, the methods unchanged and in the same family since the 1870s. You might have to holler or someone; it’s not so much a shop as a working farm
Lead photo Hele Bay near Ilfracombe by Martin Fowler (Shutterstock). Also The Farmers Arms by Paul Massey. Croyde Beach by Ian Woolcock (Shutterstock), Rockton Mews by Matthew J Heritage.