Pulling back the curtains I can see lush, green fields stretching as far as the eye could see, colliding at the horizon point with a cloudless blue sky.
Along the fenceline stands a drove of bullocks; harrumphing and switching their tails as the thin morning mist curls around their ankles. Just then a blackbird begins to warble – welcoming in the new day with its melodic song.
This is the Devon I adore – simple and stripped back and the complete antidote to my normally hectic life.
OH was born in raised in the south-west; his granddad has a bullock farm deep in the Devonshire countryside, so this has become our ‘home-away-from-home’.
When we first started visiting, I found it a bit too quiet (although I grew up in New Zealand I’ve always been a city girl at heart) but now – 16 years later and with a young family – that’s exactly what I love about it.
Oftentimes, places you read about as a child never quite live up to your expectations in real life. In parts, Devon is just how I saw it in my mind’s eye; rolling green farmland and whitewashed, thatched-roof cottages adorned with climbing roses.
Tiny villages where time seems to have stood still – where butchers in striped aprons prepare cuts of meat as you wait. Bakeries that fill your nostrils with the smell of fresh bread and sausage rolls, making your mouth water uncontrollably. Where you peer into old-fashioned glass cabinets, struggling to decide between a still-warm cinnamon roll, or a doughnut oozing with fresh cream (keep it simple – choose both!).
Where locals cheerily ask ‘‘Ow’s you?‘ in their endearing West Country dialect (which, by the way, originates from the court of King Alfred the Great, and is often more ‘correct’ than the language and pronunciation the rest of the country uses).
To me, this is the essence of this warm and welcoming county, yet it’s still only a glimpse of everything it has to offer. From bustling seaside resorts to the most remote farmland, this is the perfect place family destination.
And if you’re not lucky enough to have your own family bullock farm to stop at, you can find a huge range of family-friendly accommodation in the south-west of England on the Marsden’s Devon Cottages website.
A family business set up in 1973, Marsden’s Devon Cottages is based in the coastal village of Braunton, encircled by areas of natural beauty, and runs under the umbrella of the UK-wide Original Cottages.
There are over carefully vetted 350 properties to choose from, and you can tailor your search for exactly what you need (a cot, highchair, dog-friendly garden, hot tub, a pub nearby). Most of the staff live locally so are able to provide lots of insider information to make your stay as enjoyable as possible. And, because every property has been personally inspected, you can even call them directly for advice on the best property to suit your needs.
Top 20 family-friendly things to do in Devon
1: Devon is famous for its beaches, but you’ve probably never seen anything like Ilfracombe’s historical Tunnels Beaches. In the Victorian times, six tunnels were carved right through the cliffs to allow access to the otherwise inaccessible Crewkhorne Cove. Four tunnels are still in use today and lead you to a man-made tidal pool for swimming, and plenty of rock pools for exploring.
2: Step back in time at Dartmoor National Park, where you can admire archaeological treasures such as Spinster’s Rock – a neolithic burial chamber believed to date back to 3500-2500 BC – and Hound Tor, the remains of a medieval village.
3: Walk, run, mountain bike or horse ride through stunning Devonian valleys and countryside, or go geocaching along the Tamar Trails. This brilliant family activity uses modern GPS devices, such as your smartphone, to turn the outdoors into a giant treasure hunt.
4: Challenge yourself on the Tree Surfers high ropes course, near Tavistock. This adrenaline-pumping experience takes you into the treetops via a system of ladders, rope bridges, zip wires and walkways. The main course is open to anyone over 1.5 metres tall, and there is a junior version for 4-12 years olds (over one-metre tall). You’ll feel on top of the world… just don’t look down!
5: Take a dip in the River Teign-fed Chagford Lido (reopens May 2018). The largest fresh-water outdoor pool in Devon (34 metres) the water is solar heated to a pleasant 24 degrees. A lifeguard is always on duty, and there is a paddling pool for under fives.
6: While away an afternoon carp and pleasure fishing at Digger Lakes. There are two sites to fish from, stocked with hundreds of fish of varying sizes. The lakes have been designed to include a variety of channels, islands and bays, and you can even opt to go night fishing.
7: Search for fossils on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site of Seaton, East Devon. This ancient length of coastline runs from Exmouth to Lyme Regis in Dorset, and reveals 185 million years of geology and evolution. Visit the Seaton Jurassic visitor centre, then take a wander along the beach. Look hard enough and you could find your very own fossil.
8: Indulge in a famous Hocking’s dairy cream ice. This ice cream is made from an original family recipe that’s been handed down the generations, and can only be bought from the distinctive yellow and red Hocking’s vans between March and October at selected spots in North Devon.
9: Enjoy the thrills at Crealy’s family theme park. Located just outside Exeter, the park includes 60 rides and attractions for all ages, including roller coasters, carousels and live character experiences.
10: See nature close up at Living Coasts Zoo and Aquarium in Torquay, where you’ll spot everything from Atlantic mudskippers to South American fur seals. Visit the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth and you can even sleep with the sharks, with their unique overnight stays.
11: Pet the free-roaming animals at The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth. There are 500 donkeys, mules and hinnies who’ve either been given up or rescued from neglect, and they’re waiting to lap up your love and attention. There’s also a maze and outdoor play area to keep children entertained.
12: Explore the windswept and wild Hartland Peninsula. This is a designated ‘Area of Outstanding Beauty with dramatic cliff top walks and waterfalls on the coast, and lavender farms and bluebell woods inland. Take a day trip to Lundy Island – a marine conservation zone – and spot the delightful puffins in their clifftop homes.
13: Take a surf lesson at Westward Ho! (yes, the exclamation point is supposed to be there), a family-friendly blue-flag beach near Bideford. The North Devon Surf School has been teaching all ages to surf since 1988; under eights can have private lessons, while over eights can join group lessons.
14: Visit the vertiginous village of Clovelly. The cobbled main street drops sharply to the harbour. In fact, it’s so steep (a 400-foot descent) it’s impossible to use wheeled vehicles; instead, sledges are used to make deliveries to the listed houses that line each side.
15: Check out the quirky Watermouth Family Theme Park and Castle, a family-friendly park filled with an eclectic range or curious attractions, including Gnome Land, crazy golf and life-sized dioramas replicating scenes from Victorian life.
16: Enjoy a traditional Devonshire cream tea at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay. You can take your pick of venues, but this is one of my favourites; I can’t get enough of the slightly-faded glamour of this Grand Dame of Victorian hotels. Afternoon tea is served in the Palm Court Lounge, overlooking the waters of Torbay, and includes historical treats such as raspberry macaroons, passionfruit tarts and – of course – fruit scones with Devon clotted cream and preserves.
17: Visit the Babbacombe Model Village and Gardens. Set in four acres of award-winning gardens, this teensy town portrays typical English scenes from the past six decades, often with a cheeky twist. Animations help to further bring it to life, and don’t forget to check out their immersive 4D movies. The village is also illuminated on specific evenings, up until October.
18: Relive the olden days with a ride on the South Devon Steam Railway. Running along the scenic valley of the river Dart, this retro journey takes you through seven miles of stunning, unspoilt Devonshire countryside.
19: Devon is known for its once-abundant otter population (namesakes include the River Otter and Ottery St Mary), and the famous book Tarka the Otter, written after studying these endearing aquatic mammals in North Devon. The Dartmoor Otter Sanctuary looks sick and injured otters, and also runs a breeding programme.
20: Go stargazing at Exmoor National Reserve – Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. There are family-friendly astronomical events all through the year, culminating the Dark Skies Festival in October, which includes star-gazing evenings, mobile planetarium sessions, and guided night walks.
These are my Top 20 Family-Friendly Things to do in Devon – what would you add?