Devon is one of England’s most rural counties. It’s unique in having two coastlines, one north and one south. There are also areas of moorland, making up two National Parks, and rolling verdant countryside. No wonder this part of south west England has such beautiful villages. “Proper job” is a Devon expression of delight for things done well. And I’d have to agree that Devon’s villages deserve this praise. This is where I grew up – living in two Devon villages – and I am still a regular visitor to this most beautiful part of England. If you love big open spaces and stunning coasts, Devon should absolutely be on your list of places to visit. Here are some of the most spectacular villages in Devon to see on your trip.
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- 1 Villages In Devon: North Coast
- 2 Villages In Devon: Dartmoor
- 3 Villages In Devon: Exmoor
- 4 Villages In Devon: South Coast
- 5 Villages In Devon: Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site
- 6 Villages In Devon: How To Make The Most Of Your Trip
Villages In Devon: North Coast
Appledore: Literary Festival And Maritime Heritage
Legend has it that Appledore was the site of a Viking raid in 878. The village was a port from Elizabethan times, and once sailed ships to the New World. You can read the names of these vessels – many of them local places – outside the Maritime Museum. Appledore offers an incredible amount to do that belies its small size and population of around 3,000. Wander the small lanes of brightly coloured cottages with arty doorknockers and signs and you’ll be charmed. Add in opportunities for sailing, good restaurants, independent shops and galleries and an annual international book festival with world class speakers and Appledore is a must-visit destination.
Read More: Things to do in Appledore
Instow: Sailing And Strolling
On the other side of the estuary from Appledore, you can reach Instow by the tiny ferry from Appledore or by crossing the estuary bridge for some fine views. Once you arrive in the village, there’s immediately an atmospheric vibe. Check out the railway signal box and then the yachts moored nearby, all with their lines clinking in the breeze. Instow’s soft sands are a fine place for a great walk. Arm yourselves with provisions from the deli John’s (one here, another in Appledore) and set off for a long meander. You’ll pass boats beached on the sands and catch yourself memorising the name of your favourite watercraft. You might find yachts running races on the estuary: all sharp tacking and the swoosh of the boom. If you, like me, are subject to house envy, I already have dibs on one of the two with ornate iron balconies.
Hartland And Hartland Quay: Of Shipwrecks And Sailors
The Hartland Peninsula is Devon’s wild coast at its finest. Here you’ll find tales of wrecks and smugglers, small villages reached down leafy lanes studded with wildflowers and even a lighthouse. Hartland itself is a jewel of a village surrounding a small square. Stop off at its cafe, and your smallest travelers get a table where their dining companions will be bears.
A little further brings you to Hartland Quay. Approached by a lane that resembles the infinitely more famous Lombard Street in San Francisco, you’ll find your breath taken away both by the steep drive and the magnificent views. Look to your right to see Lundy Island, the rocky cove ready for exploration and the tiny Maritime Museum full of cautionary seafaring tales.
Lundy: The Island Village
Owned by the National Trust and managed by the Landmark Trust, Lundy is probably one of the most remote villages in England. Regular sailings from Ilfracombe or Bideford (dependent on tides) will take you to this small island. You can be a day tripper or book a cottage. Walks are epic, with the potential for wildlife sightings galore. At night, the lights only stay on in the Marisco Tavern. The stars will seem really close here.
Fremington: On The Trail Of Tarka The Otter
“Since childhood she had walked the Devon rivers with her father looking for flowers and the nests of birds, passing some rocks and trees as old friends, seeing a Spirit everywhere, gentle in thought to all her eyes beheld.” Henry Williamson
Between Barnstaple and Instow, Fremington has spread itself out along the main road. Famed for the local Fishley Pottery and Brannam Pottery, Fremington also has medieval St Peter’s Church. But my main reason for suggesting you visit is to take the narrow winding lane – complete with passing places – alongside the river estuary to Fremington Quay. Here you can join the Tarka Trail, 32 magnificent miles of cycle path and walkway. You’ll find cycle hire at the Quay, or stretch your legs along the quayside before taking the tree-tunneled path onwards.
I’d be remiss not to send you to Fremington Quay Cafe for refreshments. Located in the old station building from when the Quay was an active port, here you’ll find generous portions of locally produced food including seafood and Devon cheeses. Save space for the epic offerings of the cake counter.
Clovelly: Architectural Splendor
A privately-owned village of less than 500 residents, Clovelly has been welcoming visitors for centuries. With views over the Bristol Channel, Clovelly is mainly famed for its steep cobbled main street. Every building here is architecturally listed, which gives you some idea of the village’s magnificence. Deliveries to the main street are made by sledge as vehicles cannot pass. The author Charles Kingsley lived here as a child and his father was rector. If you want an unforgettable walk, the section of the South West Coast Path running from here to Hartland Quay will take your breath away.
“… surely a more extraordinary thing in the way of a street does not exist in the known world. The little village is built on the sides of a crack in a tremendous cliff; the “street” is merely the bottom of the crack, into which the ingenuity of man has fitted a few stones, set slant-wise, with intersecting ridges on which the foot can catch as it goes slipping hopelessly down.” Susan Coolidge – In The High Valley
Saunton: Dunes And Waves
Small and perfectly formed Saunton is on the coast road between Braunton and surf hot spot Croyde. The coast here is incredible. Firstly you have Braunton Burrows, part of North Devon’s Biosphere Reserve. The Burrows are sand dunes, forming the largest dune system in England. Smell something gorgeous? That will be the carpet of lichens, grasses and herbs. The coast here was used to practice for the D-Day landings. As for Saunton Sands? Let’s just say it’s a beach where I’ve run the full length of the water’s edge at the bay for the simple joy of being there. Bag yourself a beach hut and spend the day celebrating the coast. If you have time, take the toll road to solar-powered Crow Point Lighthouse. It’s an atmospheric drive through the marshes to great coastal views.
Read More: Enjoying England’s Beaches: Sea Fever
Braunton: England’s Largest Village
Bustling Braunton is just five miles from Barnstaple. It’s said to be the largest village in England, and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Marking the turn-off point to the coast at Saunton Sands and Croyde Bay, there’s plenty to stop for in Braunton. Firstly there’s the food. Braunton is a great place to pick up your fish and chips at Squires (don’t be afraid to queue – it’s worth it), choose a warm Cornish pasty for the beach or enjoy feelgood food at Wild Thyme. In fact feelgood sums up the Braunton vibe perfectly. Braunton hosts the Museum of British Surfing, and plenty of independent shops to support your coastal living dreams.
Villages In Devon: Dartmoor
“The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of prehistoric people. ”
Widecombe-In-The-Moor: Picturesque Valley Village
No visit to Dartmoor would be complete without a stop at Widecombe (pronounced Widdycomb). The grand and beautiful church, able to be spotted for miles around, is known as the Cathedral of the Moors. It’s way bigger than you would expect of a village this size. The term chocolate box prettiness was clearly designed for Widecombe, complete with its many eating places. Don’t forget to try the Artefact Hunt to see some strange and wonderful pieces of Widecombe history. And don’t forget to investigate the tale – a haunting traditional song – of Tom Pearce’s grey mare, fated to carry her ghostly crew home from Widecombe Fair.
Villages In Devon: Exmoor
“Exmoor and Dartmoor are sacred, magical places. You find a truer side of yourself there.” Dave Davies
Combe Martin: England’s Longest Street?
Combe Martin brings you the best of both Exmoor and the coast. On arriving in the village, you’d think it much bigger than its population of around 4000 would indicate. But Combe Martin is unusual in that its 2 mile street is the village. Rumours persist that this is the longest village street in England. Even though that’s not quite true, it can seem to be the case when you have walked all the way down to the cove and back again. Which I’d recommend you do, as there’s plenty to see on the way. And you might even become the story, as tales spread and shift along the main street. As the local saying states: “At the George and Dragon [pub] they talk about my sprained thumb, at the Dolphin they talk about my broken leg.”
Don’t forget to check out the Pack O’Cards, a Grade II listed pub built in about 1690. The local squire George Ley celebrated his luck at card games by creating the building to represent a house of cards. It measures 52 x 53 feet (an extra foot for the joker), has 4 floors for the 4 suits, 13 doors and fireplaces on each floor for the number of cards per suit and 52 stairs. It’s an eyecatching curiosity on the High Street.
Read More: Places You Must Visit In Devon
Villages In Devon: South Coast
Topsham: Where The Dutch Came To Devon
Topsham sits on the Exe estuary, and was the Roman port serving Exeter, Devon’s largest city. Look upwards in The Strand, and you’ll see that the gables are surprisingly Dutch. This dates back to when Topsham – “top-sum” – was an important port for cotton trading. Many of the houses use Dutch bricks brought over as ballast in trading ships. Topsham has always been a bit ahead of the curve. I ate my first piece of Brie there in the 1970s, and the village has now become one of Devon’s prime residential areas. It retains plenty of charm, from the chiming of the rigging in the harbour to the late night sounds of migrating and wading birds on the estuary, surely one of the most beautiful choruses I have ever heard.
Shaldon: Georgian Bathing Beaches
Situated across the Teign estuary from the seaside town of Teignmouth, Shaldon will always be in my mind as the place where adventures happen. Crossing the estuary via the long bridge, small me would be revving myself up to a high pitch of excitement for adventure on the “island”. With the Teign Estuary on one side and the English Channel on the other, you can forgive my confusion.
Full of Georgian architecture, Shaldon has been a bathing venue for the longest time. The village hosts a 9-day regatta in August. This is one of the oldest regattas in England and perfect for anyone who loves messing around in boats. Homeyards Botanical Gardens sit on the hill above the village, where you’ll find the English folly known as Shaldon Castle.
It’s not often that you find boats moored up other than at the coast or estuary. But Stoke Gabriel is on a creek leading from the River Dart, and is famous for its crab fishing or crabbing. There’s a millpond here, and a weir. The churchyard contains a yew tree believed to be 1000 years old. It’s said that if you circle it backwards seven times, you’ll be granted a wish. The Church House pub was built to accommodate the masons who built the church. It once served as the village courthouse, and you’ll find the old stocks outside.
The fishing port of Brixham is built on a very hilly site. Originally it was made up of two communities. Cowtown at the top was a farming community, leading down a marshy lane to Fishtown by the sea, hosting (you guessed it) fishermen and seamen. The harbour is still home to fishing trawlers. Brightly coloured Brixham attracts visitors to the replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. This privateer’s first cargo included six tons of cloves from the Spice Islands, then worth as much as gold. You may not know that the replica is actually a replica of the replica. The first replica sank in heavy seas while being towed to Dartmouth for repairs.
Bigbury-on-Sea and Burgh Island: Tiny And Perfectly Formed
Burgh Island is situated just off the South Devon coast at Bigbury-on-Sea. Bigbury itself has a big sandy beach, well loved by watersports enthusiasts. The island has a small collection of buildings, including the well-known Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel.
Once the setting for Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the hotel has a history including a role as a convalescent home for wounded RAF personnel during the war. It is also reputed to have hosted Edward and Mrs Simpson. Access to the island is on foot at low tide, and by a rather magnificent and tall sea tractor during high tide.
Beesands, Start Bay and Start Point
Beesands is a small fishing village focused on catching crab and lobster in Start Bay. It’s a fine place to enjoy the coast, including visiting Start Point Lighthouse, which sits at the end of almost a mile of peninsula near Dartmouth. This part of the South West Coast Path can be enjoyed on its own or as part of a longer walk. Keep your eyes open to see seals and dolphins nearby. This is a place full of atmosphere and adventure. You’ll be in good company in enjoying Beesands and the surrounding area. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger gave their first public performance at the Cricket Inn in the village.
Villages In Devon: Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site
“When Adam and Eve were dispossessed Of the garden hard by Heaven, They planted another one down in the west, ‘Twas Devon, glorious Devon!” Sir Harold Edwin Boulton
Beer: Thatched Cottages, Sea Caves and A Bit Of Westminster Abbey
Beer is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It takes its name not from the beverage, but from the Old English word for grove, being surrounded by trees. Situated on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, the picturesque cliffs here such as Beer Head form part of the South West Coast Path.
The village grew up around a smugglers’ cove and caves where contraband was stored. Fishing boats used to be hauled up the steep pebbled beach by hand, although tractors are used now. Stone from a complex of quarry caves here was used to build 24 English cathedrals including Exeter, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s. You can see the use of the stone in the village at Starre House, its oldest house.
Seaton: Otters, Dormice and Kingfishers
Not far from Beer on the Jurassic Coast, Seaton has a shingle beach facing Lyme Bay and a small harbour. For many centuries it served as an important port, sending ships to wars against Scotland and France. Heavy storms caused landslips in the 14th century, largely blocking the harbour. You can find out more at the Jurassic Visitor Centre. Or take the Seaton Tramway to explore the area further and get panoramic views of the nature reserves.
This is a fascinating place for anyone interested in wildlife and nature. Here you’ll find ancient woodlands, bursting with bluebells in spring. The River Axe hosts otters, some having been spotted on Seaton Marshes. Increasingly rare dormice habitats are scattered across the area. And kingfishers can be seen at Seaton Wetlands.
Villages In Devon: How To Make The Most Of Your Trip
Devon is one of the most rural counties in England. It is absolutely possible to visit many of these villages in Devon by public transport, with many of the coastal villages in particular being linked by good bus services. If you are heading to south Devon, don’t hesitate to take the train line from Exeter to Newton Abbot. The track runs alongside the coast from Starcross to Teignmouth on surely one of the most beautiful but lesser known railway journeys. Do check if the service is running on stormy days. My childhood treat of seeing waves crashing over my train is – perhaps wisely – no more.
If you take or hire a car, don’t forget to add extra time for your journeys. It’s not uncommon to find yourself behind a tractor, letting the cows pass on their way to milking or encountering a few random sheep interested in what you are doing. Expect lanes to be narrow, especially when hedgerow growth in the summer brings beautiful flowers and even less visibility.
There are many more facilities off the beaten track than when I grew up in Devon. While buses that run twice a day on Wednesdays and Saturdays are a thing of the past, be sure to check up on your travel arrangements. And don’t always expect to find fuel quickly on the remotest parts of Dartmoor.
Finally, check your weather if venturing off the beaten track. It can and does snow in Devon in winter, particularly on the moors. Stay aware, and enjoy the best of this beautifully wild part of the south west.
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