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“It looks like Australia,” said my partner, Alex, wonderingly as we gazed out across Hope Cove. This tiny seaside village has a viewpoint across a section of the Devon coastline that’s filled with a sea colour gradient that shifts from dark navy to light teal, all underpinned by streaks of rock that create alien shapes under the water. The green-topped cliffs meeting this scene are the only hint that we’re in England – and even then, it’s difficult to believe.
It was snowing when we left London at 7am on April 12, something we took in our stride as we drove past trees frosted white and onwards towards the South Devon Area of Outstanding National Beauty. “Who cares if the weather’s mad?” I trilled, “We’re travelling! We’re staying somewhere that isn’t our flat!” After three gruelling months in a third lockdown, even sleet in July wouldn’t have stopped me taking advantage of the easing of restrictions in England.
As our expected four-hour drive turned into five, however, my high enthusiasm started to waver. That is until the car filled with sunlight. Suddenly we had to pull over so jumpers could be pulled off, and the windows were rolled down. Wide roads became twisting country lanes shielded by high hedgerows, sometimes giving way to panoramic vistas of gold and green countryside.
As I checked social media to see other travellers bundled up against the chill, I started to wonder if we hadn’t slipped into another dimension. Were we still in the same England?
This feeling only increased as we parked at our lunch stop for the day, Valley View Cafe (aunevalleymeat.co.uk/valley-view-cafe). Our first experience of ‘eating out’ in 2021, this lovely café is made spectacular by its position overlooking the Avon Valley in South Devon. Classic dishes are similarly elevated by a focus on prime ingredients, with meat coming from the butchers next door, seafood sourced from Plymouth and veg homegrown on the cafe’s own farm.
A marquee was set up outside, to accommodate for more diners (and the British weather) and two women were manning the café tills, separated from paying customers by plastic screens. “This morning’s been great,” confided Kelly, one of the cafe’s workers. “We’ve got the sunshine, the marquee’s looking pretty, and it’s so nice to be back. I’ll be going out tonight.”
From there it was a short drive to our accommodation for the next two nights: Batman’s Summerhouse (canopyandstars.co.uk). This charming, newly-renovated cabin was built in the 1930s and is hidden along a stretch of private river. We’d pre-ordered wild (newly in season) sea bass, local monkfish, scallops and oysters from nearby Catch of the Day (facebook.com), a brilliant fishmongers in Kingsbridge, and had expected to have to cook them indoors.
Instead, we were able to start up the huge outdoor grill next to the cabin’s private terrace, and drink gin and tonics in the fading sun. As dusk chilled down into night, we retreated indoors with bottles of sparkling wine, to watch the fire flicker in our woodburner, surrounded by the warm wood tones of the historic interiors.
The next morning, we rose early to get to Bigbury-on-Sea beach, where visitors to Burgh Island (burghisland.com), a private tidal island, are collected via hydraulic sea tractor. The only of its kind in the world, this impressive contraption was designed in 1969 by Robert Jackson CBE (who pioneered the nuclear power station programme in the '50s) in exchange for a case of champagne.
It ploughs through the water at high tide, usually ferrying guests across staying at the Burgh Island Hotel, a beautiful art deco property. We shared our ride, however, with just two island workers – guests won’t be able to stay at the hotel until May 17, and a renovation is going on in the interim. The island was silent as we walked around, taking in the views.
The good weather held as the day went on. Despite the relaxation of rules, nearly everything indoors is still off-limits to visitors, meaning any touristing has to be done outdoors, come rain or shine. The latter applied to us, and we walked around gorse-covered Prawle Point and over to the lighthouse at Start Point in blazing sunshine, passing a steady trickle of dog-walkers, excited families and couples relaxing as we went.
We ended up at the fishing village of Beesands, feasting on The Cricket Inn’s (thecricketinn.com) famed seafood pancake, in their newly erected marquee, now humming with both diners and those just out for a pint. As the sun set, the fairy lights in the marquee came on, as did the heaters. “It doesn’t feel strange, coming back to a restaurant after so long,” I commented over our rhubarb baked alaska. “It’s like meeting an old friend, where no matter how long passes, the feeling is still the same.”
Keen to make the most of our trip, we spent our final morning with Dittisham Boat Hire (dittishamboats.co.uk), a company that rents out self-drive vessels that glides at six knots an hour down the River Dart. Lee, the owner, explained how to get to the town of Dartmouth and back, then we were away, sunglasses on, cameras in hand to get shots of Dartmouth Castle – an English Heritage site currently closed but still glorious to see from the water.
We were meant to be off before lunch, but delayed to get one last taste of Devon before we left. The Cott Inn (cottinn.co.uk) is the UK’s second oldest inn, and has been welcoming guests since 1320. Again, a huge, light and heater-strewn marquee has been put up to accommodate hungry guests, who were queuing to get in as we arrived – perhaps one unexpected benefit of this accursed pandemic is the UK finally becoming properly equipped for outdoor dining?
Baked camembert was a crunchy, oozy treat, as was the sweet saltiness of a bruleed chicken parfait. Fresh seafood featured heavily, with yet more local sea bass making an appearance. We skipped dessert for a cheese course at Sharpham Vineyard (sharpham.com), located on the estate of Sharpham House, who have thrown open their wooden terrace for wine tastings and platters of their own Breton-inspired Cremet and sharp Ticklemore Goat.
Glasses of their newly launched Summer Sparkling tasted of strawberries and peach yoghurt, and filled me with both bubbles and anticipation, as I was finally able to relegate the cold weather and bleak lockdown of winter to the past.
The Batman’s Summerhouse costs from £150 a night and sleeps four (canopyandstars.co.uk).
Overnight stays are now allowed in England, as long as it is in self-contained accommodation.
For ideas on where to stay once hotels reopen, see our complete guide to the best hotels in Devon.