More to Mid Devon than you think!

By | Category: Travel destinations

the rolling Devon countryside

Devon is a county of outstanding beauty but often Mid Devon – promoted as the ‘Heart of Devon’ – is overlooked. Visitors tend to plump for the coast known as the English Riviera or the rugged walking areas of Exmoor and Dartmoor. All too often, it’s easy to bypass the hills and valleys that make up the quintessentially English countryside around Mid Devon.

With hills dotted with sheep and cows, and its temperate weather this is also an area for wine growing. At Yearlstone, Devon’s oldest vineyard covers seven acres of south-facing slopes. Here they grow a variety of grapes and produce several different wines including a sparkling dry white and a rosé. It’s a hike to get up there but the views are gorgeous. We were allowed to wander around the vineyards, with the help of an explanatory map. Sadly we missed out on the wine tasting included with the entry fee of £3 but were able to buy a few bottles to take home to try. Their café, well positioned with views over the Exe Valley, serves food from the local delicatessen in the Pannier Market in nearby Tiverton.

aboard the Tivertonian

Tiverton is one of those towns that people also tend to bypass on the way to somewhere else but it has several attractions worth stopping for. The Grand Western Canal flows through the town, and from March to the end of October, visitors can experience one of the last remaining horse-drawn canal barge trips. An area on either side of the canal has been preserved as a nature reserve. I was concerned that the horse was being ill- treated, having to pull a heavy barge filled with people, but my doubts were dispelled when I was shown that in reality the load was very light. Taffy, the Welsh Cob was actually a very pampered horse. On board, the lady serving the drinks also sold Polos to the passengers to feed to him. The pace is very slow with people walking faster along the towpath.

Hidden by the side of the bus station, Tiverton Museum of Mid Devon Life has objects relating to every aspect of life in the region dating from prehistoric times to the present day. The museum is much more interesting than I thought it would be with displays on a whole host of subjects. These include an explanation about the local sheep and how wool is produced and an archaeological section describing what it would be like in prehistoric times which should appeal to both adults and children. Although the information homes in on Mid Devon, a lot of it is also relevant to other parts of the country.

Knightshayes

The background of the industrialist Heathcoat-Amory family, the original owners of Knightshayes, a nearby National Trust property, is explained here. The Victorian Gothic mansion was built by the architects Burges and Crass in the second half of the eighteen hundreds. The Trust has refurbished it as much as possible to its original state. Particularly enchanting are the several baby grand pianos that visitors are encouraged to play. As I entered the vaulted hall, a pianist was playing classical music. The library was impressive too with 2,300 books, all leather bound and real ie not with false backs. The house isn’t very big but is surrounded by beautiful gardens described as ‘a jewel in the Knightshayes’ crown’. I loved the animal topiary leading to a manicured garden with a lily pond at its centre. Produce from the kitchen garden is sold to visitors.

At the junction of the rivers Exe and Dart at Bickleigh the Fishermans Cot pub, with its riverside terrace, is worth a visit if just for the view. It is also an opportunity to taste the local cider, for which the area is renowned.

Within walking distance the Devon Railway Centre and Model World is a godsend if travelling with children, but also an attraction for train enthusiasts. Family run by owners Matt and Maria, they have tried to make visits as stimulating as possible so that little ones don’t get bored. There are several trains to have rides on including one with a steam engine. Having paid the entrance fee, kids can go on the trains as often as they want, and are allowed to wave flags. Carriages of a now disused train have been set up with interactive displays and visitors are encouraged to participate. Other attractions include a model village Exe Vale showing life in Edwardian times; a magic wood filled with gnomes; a ball pool; and crazy golf. In December there will also be a magical Christmas grotto.

Exeter Cathedral with Richard Hooker in the foreground

The Jewel in the Crown of the area has to be Exeter Cathedral. Dating back to 1112, the current building – the third cathedral on the site – is the finest example of a decorative Gothic Cathedral in the UK. Guided tours at £6 are available and they will delight in telling you that the cathedral is the only church with a hooker in its grounds!

The cathedral’s café, Serlo serves a proper Devon tea. This includes traditional English sandwiches without crusts; freshly baked scones; thick clotted cream that Devon is renowned for, and strawberry jam.

To really appreciate the city, the free Exeter’s Red Coat Guided Tours lasting around 90 minutes are a must. A lot of Exeter was destroyed during the Second World War, and has now been rebuilt so knowing where to look for the historical points of interest is important. The tours meet outside the Clarence Hotel that borders the Cathedral Yard. The hotel established in 1769 is renowned in its own right as, we are told, the first boarding house given the name ‘hotel’ in the country.

A unique experience was our visit to the underground passages, built in the 14th and 15th centuries that once housed the pipes for the city’s supply of fresh drinking water. Although the pipes have long since gone, some of the passages are still accessible. A short film outlined the history before we donned hard hats to follow our guide through narrow passages under the City. His concern that he had not lost us in the tunnels was followed by a tale of how a guide, in previous years, had inadvertently left his party locked in overnight.

Having come to Devon, my friends and I decided to benefit from the excellent train service to explore further afield. We headed off to Totnes, which seems to be one of the only towns left in the country where you are unlikely to find a chain store. In fact the shops are incredibly quirky. In one teashop customers are invited to stroke the various cats that seemed to live there, while another sells harps, and a third old teddy bears. The main street is on a hill, which leads down to the river.

the Dart Marina

From here we took a boat to Dartmouth where we had the choice of the regular ferry service for £3.75 or a more up-market offering. The boat is basic but is great fun as everyone chats to each other while the posher one was over three times the price. The route on the River Dart is very pretty passing the quaint village of Dittisham, Greenway Quay on Agatha Christie’s estate of Greenway, and the Britannia Royal Naval College.

Bordering on the estuary, Kingswear at Dartmouth is a lovely place to wander with its own castle ruins a half an hour’s walk from the town. Although I didn’t personally go, apparently the walk there is worthwhile if only to enjoy the coastline. I opted for wandering around the back streets and looking in the numerous shops, and trying out the local eateries, of which there are plenty.

A great treat and a major reason for our day out was that from Dartmouth we were able to travel back in time and ride, for part of the journey, by steam train. No one can say that there isn’t a lot to do and see in Devon, and we only explored a small part of the county!

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