Died and gone to Devon – part I

Pete and I have sailed in some seriously beautiful places. We’ve weaved our way among the pine scented islands of the Dalmation coast, from Zadar down to Montenegro and gazed up at the snow-covered peaks that rise from the blue waters of Kotor Bay.

We’ve skirted around Sicily taking in the ominous rumbling giant that is Mount Etna and the historic wonders of Syracuse and Taormina.

We’ve supped on sumptuous tapas in Palma, partied in Ibiza then recovered in the sheltered bays around Formentera.

We’ve sailed across the Mediterranean, up the Portuguese coast, from northern Spain to Brittany.

And yet, in the last week, the coast of Devon has outshone them all.

The lusciously green rolling hills, tapering down to dramatic rocky cliffs and narrow river inlets, their steep sides fringed with gnarled oak trees. The patchwork fields bordered by hedges alive with garish pink dog rose and sugar scented honeysuckle. The secret coves and golden beaches. The pastel houses, waterfront pubs, crab shacks and jaunty beach huts. They all work together to form an intoxicating saltwater cocktail which is impossible to resist.

Admittedly, since arriving in Devon we have been blessed with day after day of the sort of perfect weather usually reserved for the Mediterranean. Every morning we wake up and emerge on deck to clear blue skies, the sun already high and blazing. It has been nothing short of miraculous.

Exmouth

After rounding Portland Bill at about 4am, we flew across Lyme Bay close hauled with a fresh south westerly breeze to reach Exmouth in less than eight hours.

The River Exe approach requires concentration with a narrow channel between sandbanks, submerged at high tide, through which the tide streams in and out. You follow a leading light up the channel, aware that just a few too many feet to starboard and you will scrape the bottom. But once in, you are in lovely sheltered waters behind a large spit of land, The Warren, which juts out across the river mouth from Dawlish Warren. When the tide drops the huge muddy sandbanks that surround you become visible and there are few places to get ashore without some industrial strength welly boots. There is however an efficient harbour taxi, greatly enhanced by its boat dog, a nine-month old poodle cross, aptly named Fender.

Exmouth itself is a fairly ordinary town but the huge sandy beach and the coastline and river walks that surround it are wonderful. It is also one of the most popular spots on the south coast for kitesurfing so Pete set off early the next morning for his first ever kite surfing lesson with Edge Watersports.

I walked six miles east along the final stretch of the Jurassic coast, where the rust red cliffs are crumbing into turquoise waters below, to Budleigh Salterton, a quaint little beachside village of tea rooms and orderly beach huts, where the gently flowing River Otter joins the sea.

Pete returned from his day of kiting, crashing and swallowing sea water aching and grazed but so full of passion for his newly discovered hobby, he immediately disappeared again to purchase himself the necessary equipment. The words, ‘All the gear, no idea,’ were impossible to restrain although his teacher Jamie was very complimentary in his feedback.

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Teignmouth

We left Exmouth the next day, to hop just five miles along the coast to Teignmouth – a place which hadn’t been included in our original plans but of which our cruising guide spoke so highly we felt it must be worth a stop off.

The moment we moored up against the floating pontoon, bobbing just a few yards from the ramshackle pebbly beach which served as dozens of houses’ backyards, we fell in love.

Teignmouth’s river entrance is so well disguised by its seafront beach and promenade, you cannot spot any evidence of it at all until you are virtually upon it and have to put your faith in the channel markers and your charts.

Much of the town is built upon a large pebbly spit which extends across the entrance to the wide shallow river behind it, leaving just a tiny channel to one side through which you pass. More astonishingly, Teignmouth still operates as a small port so commercial vessels have to navigate their way in and out through this tiny band of water – although only at high tide.

Once through the channel you enter a wide river which curves around creating a second waterfront at the back of the town, which is where we moored up. This waterfront sloping down to the shallow sheltered waters of the river, is alive with activity. Dozens of small craft are pulled up onto the pebbly sand, between which washing lines are strung, picnic tables erected, retirees and couples sit on stripy deck chairs or towels and children and dogs run amok. People sit outside their scruffy terraced houses whose French windows open directly onto the beach and where the houses end, greatly cherished two-storey beach huts painted in dashing primary colours take over, eventually tapering down to smaller beach huts then the pebbly spit, past which the tide squeezes in and out of the river.

Where tiny paths and streets snake to the waterfront between the homes and huts, you can find small stalls and shop fronts selling fresh Teignmouth crab sandwiches, scallops and other local shellfish delights.

A walk into the heart of the town itself, confirmed it to be a bustling lived-in place. Largely undiscovered, as yet, by the ‘Devon Riviera’ hordes or rich city dwellers seeking second homes, Teignmouth is delightfully local and all the better for it. It has not been polished and preened into pristine submission by wealthy weekend incomers like Salcombe. It retains its own quirky salty character.

We arrived on a Friday and as the afternoon progressed, the riverfront filled with people sitting on the quay wall in the golden sun, overlooking the beach, enjoying their first, second, third pint from the aptly named Ship Inn.

Our arrival also coincided with the Teignmouth Folk Festival and Border Morris dancers soon filled the quayside leaping around energetically in their feathered top hats and tattered tail coats, clashing their sticks as the musicians struck up a series of lively tunes. I challenge anyone to unearth a more old-worlde English scene.

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Dartmouth

Having met our friend Sarah and purchased a whole fresh lobster and a crab from one of Teignmouth’s many family run fish counters on Saturday morning, we set sail for the treat that is Dartmouth. It was perfect sailing conditions with blue skies and 10 to 15 knots of wind from the south. We tacked up the coast past Tor Bay taking the inshore route between the Ore Stone and Hope’s Nose.

After rounding Berry Head, we reached Dartmouth in the late afternoon.

Dartmouth and the River Dart is south Devon’s crowning glory.

Sailing in past Dartmouth castle on one side and Kingswear castle on the other, before the thick twisted woodland at the river entrance gives way to row upon row of pastel houses climbing up the hillsides from the riverfront, must be one of the prettiest town harbour approaches in the world.

Aside from its picturesque location on the river, Dartmouth is a town of timber framed Tudor buildings, historic fishermen’s cottages, fine Georgian properties, boutique galleries, independent shops and pubs, restaurants, cafes and delis celebrating local produce. All in all, it is a delight.

Once moored up we prepared our fresh lobster and crab and dined like lords before going ashore and washing up outside the Dartmouth Arms, gin and tonic in hand, looking across the water at Kingswear.

Travel up the River Dart two miles further to Dittisham – pronounced Ditsum – and you enter a more tranquil idyll with just a scattering of pretty houses and a waterside pub, the Ferry Boat Inn, at the end of a convenient dinghy quay.

We left N’Tiana on a mooring buoy and took the dinghy up to Totnes to drop Sarah for her return home.

With the sun arcing through an azure sky, there can be few journeys more beautiful than the five-mile passage up the River Dart to Totnes. It is a bucolic paradise of ancient woodland, sweet smelling hayfields, secret river beaches, reeds and rushes. The very few houses that interrupt this rural wonderland are so beautiful – take Sharpham House which sits high on a hill above the river transporting you into a Jane Austen novel – they only add to the green surroundings. There is even a resident seal which we mistook for a very large otter until later corrected by local knowledge.

It is possible to get up to Totnes in a sailing boat like N’Tiana at high tide, but it would require some focused pilotage. On this occasion, the dinghy was a more suitable craft enabling us to gaze wide eyed at our surroundings, all worries left at the shoreline.

To be continued 🙂

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