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South-West England - Somerset, Devon and Cornwall

David Cross (DavidX) from England

I was born in Plymouth and went to school there. I now live in Yorkshire and only ever feel a desire to go back there to live for a brief time each year when it is Spring there and still winter here. I can say, however, that it was an excellent place to grow up - a fair sized city with easy access to beautiful coast, to Dartmoor and to fine wooded river valleys. This and other areas of the South-West make ideal locations for a break which would give a complete change from London or other areas.

Natives of any part of this area think of themselves as coming from the South-West or the West which are something completely different - and we obviously think superior to - the South of England.

I do not feel able to write about Dorset so this is restricted to (west) Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. I hope to get to the Scilly Isles one day but that is another area on which I am ignorant.

When and Where?

These are my favorite times and places:

  • Exmoor in the Autumn
  • South Devon at primrose time
  • South Cornish gardens at rhododendron time
  • Cornwall in winter
  • Anywhere in June or September

If it has to be July or August, avoid the main resorts; Torbay, St Ives, Padstow and Salcombe come particularly to mind. Avoid north Devon and north Cornwall in windy weather. The areas covered in more detail below are obviously based on my personal preferences and some of the other areas are not selected mainly because they are so popular.

Maps of the Area

The area covered here is large and it is assumed that you will choose a part of it so that you will not need all the maps mentioned.

Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure 1:25,000 series:

  • 28 covers and is highly recommended for Dartmoor
  • 20 is called South Devon and covers an area given little mention here, but is a very popular tourist area

Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50,000 series:

  • 203, 200 and 190 for North Cornwall
  • 203, 204 and 201 for South Cornwall (201 for Plymouth)
  • 180 and 181 for North Devon and Somerset (including Exmoor)
  • 191, 192 and 202 for South Devon

Plymouth and District

The whole centre of Plymouth was bombed to pieces in the second world war. It was ahead of many areas in its plans for reconstruction and for a time was regarded as a showpiece. Other areas then learned from Plymouth's mistakes and it became less popular. Now it is a historical point of reference for town planning in the late 40s and early 50s as well as being a vibrant city.

There are some particular points of interest in the city, which no visitor should miss.

  • The Elizabethan House
  • The Brunel Bridge across the Tamar into Cornwall
  • Stonehouse Quay, which used to have (and may still) a passenger ferry to Cremyl, very scenic
  • The Barbican (the old fishing area) and The Mayflower Steps from which the Pilgrim Fathers left for America
  • Plymouth Hoe where Drake played his famous game of bowls
  • The Aquarium and the Citadel, of Charles the Second period, with more guns pointing to the city than to the sea (no prizes for guessing which side Plymouth was on in the Civil War)
  • The dockyard on Navy Days

If staying in or near Plymouth there enough places accessible on short trips to keep you going for ages. The ones below are a fairly random selection:

  • Cornwall: Mount Edgecombe Park, Cawsand and Kingsand, Rame Head, Cotehele House
  • Devon Coast: Bovisand, Newton Ferrers and Noss Mayo (particularly recommended)
  • Devon valleys: This is a less proclaimed aspect of the area but you will not be disappointed - Shaugh Bridge (Plym), Double Waters (Tavy and Walkham), Harford Bridge (Erme) and Cornwood (Yealm)
  • Dartmoor and fringes: Buckland Abbey (owned at different times by Drake and Grenville), Burrator Reservoir, Meavy (very ancient oak and fine pub), Sheepstor, Morwellham (historic quay by Tamar), Princetown, Brentor, Lydford

South Devon Coast (other than Plymouth area)

All the way from the last area to the Dorset border each area attracts a number of holiday makers. This is therefore absurdly selective but I have just picked places that I particularly like. Since the appeal of all of them lies in their scenery they are listed without comment:

  • Salcombe, Bolt Head and Bolt Tail
  • Slapton to Kingswear including Dartmouth
  • Brixham (and boat trip right across Torbay)
  • Branscombe


Google Map

The appeal of the moor lies mainly (but not exclusively) in three things: Tors; Water features; Prehistoric remains - mainly Bronze Age. I have not spent long on these attractions partly because it is so long ago that I really knew Dartmoor very well but mainly because not a lot beyond a good map is needed. Areas of prehistoric remains are clearly marked as well as the water features and the tors and I never picked a walk from the map which disappointed me.

See David's Slow Travel Google Map for Dartmoor.


This means an outcrop of granite at the top of a hill or a hill with an outcrop of granite on the top - usually the latter. Some of them are very picturesque and several/many/one can be reached in a walk depending on how much exertion you want.

It is worth remembering that bad mists can come in and hide viewpoints quite quickly; walking far without a map and compass can lead to trouble. I have heard a lot about dangerous bogs but I have never felt in real danger though obviously you move back quickly if you feel as though you may sink in! Having said that, I will say that I have spent many happy hours and days walking on Dartmoor and camping out.

Among my favourite tors are Sheepstor and Vixen Tor - neither very high though Vixen Tor is the only one, as far as I know, which requires a little more than walking at the top. For a quick view in passing, if that is your limit, it would be hard to beat Pew Tor.

Water Features

As well as the rivers there is Burrator Reservoir, which is very attractive, and the leats which were used to boost water supply at one time. One is named after Drake and supplied Plymouth. It was, of course, a commercial venture and not a charity.

As for rivers, the ones mentioned under Plymouth all have attractive moorland stretches - though the valleys between the moor and the coast are more attractive to many people. Then there are the Dart itself, a truly beautiful river, the Bovey and the Teign. Further north the Taw and Torridge start their courses to the north Devon coast but I know this area much less well as the army were often firing on it. (I do not know what goes on in this area now but you need to if you are thinking of going on the north part.)

Prehistoric Remains

The main features are stone circles and stone rows. Whereas many can be seen from the road, there is little to beat the excitement of going a long way and finding some.

Other Attractions

The Dart Valley railway is very beautiful, one of the best of our preserved railways in England, I think. I rate it along with some of the Welsh ones. The granite churches of the villages on the fringe of the moor are often very interesting.

The Dartmoor Wildlife Park is good for children.

China clay works and remains have their interest.

Exmoor and Around

Perhaps "and around" is scarcely a fitting heading for the North-east Devon and West Somerset coast which is some of the most scenic in the UK but Exmoor runs up so near to the coast that it is very difficult to separate their appeal. This fact itself plus the relative proximity to Bristol and London will make this a favoured area for many.

For the record my favourite place on the coast is the walk - short - from Porlock Weir to Culbone Church, the smallest church in England and my favourite inland one is around Cloutsham nature trail.

However these have intense competition with other areas and you will find your own. The only advice you really need is to look at a map, go anywhere you can get on the coast and try anything on the moor or its verges that looks interesting. If you do not like it immediately, pull out and go somewhere else - but I should be amazed if you need to.

There are some serious hills for drivers. Porlock Hill, the best known, is nothing to a modern car and its width makes it easy, (though the toll road which enables anyone to evade it is well worth the payment in its own right as a wonderful scenic route). Some of the very narrow and tortuous roads on the moor which include gradients above 30% are another cup of tea and are not for nervous drivers or passengers. I was only worried myself when I realised that the woman driving down as I drove up had her eyes tightly shut!

South Cornwall

The part closest to Devon contains some quaint villages such as Cawsand and Kingsand near Plymouth and then come Looe and Polperro, full of natural charm but terribly crowded in the main season. A less impressive area ends at Fowey and from there right down to Land's End the coast is impressive except for the odd bit.

It is an area of creeks and inlets and its charms are compounded by numerous wonderful gardens. The Eden project is something from the millennium developments that came off in a big way. I have yet to see it but I do want to. The Lost Gardens of Heligan are given extra appeal by their history - I warmly recommend the book - but they hardly need it. Then the National Trust has several gardens in the area, from which the one at Trelissick stands out for its marvellous setting. The appeal of the gardens is certainly not confined to rhododendron time but I feel I have missed something by not seeing them then and it is something to be remedied. Read more about Cornwall.

The North Coast

The eastern part of the Devon coast together with that of Somerset is covered with Exmoor. I find this the most to my taste of any but the North Cornwall coast and that in north Devon abutting on to it have an appeal of their own. This is an area of huge cliffs interspersed with beaches and inlets such as at Tintagel and Boscastle and is particularly good for surfing as it is the open Atlantic. It is wildly spectacular when a fair gale is blowing and should certainly be included in any touring around Cornwall in winter. The county is noticeably warmer than other parts of the UK in the winter and it is worth the extra cost and time getting there.


Exeter can easily make a stop on a visit to any part of the south-west and it certainly merits a visit on either the outward or the return journey. The cathedral is one of England's most beautiful and that is saying something. The maritime museum is excellent.


In general it will be obvious which sites relate to which areas but having mentioned the National Trust in a particular area I should indicate that it is worth a look for any part. I think Killerton, east of Exeter, is pretty special and it has to be good for a picnic on the way.

Slow Photos - West, West Cornwall: David's Cornwall photos

Slow Travel Google Map for Dartmoor

www.nationaltrust.org.uk: National Trust, historic houses and gardens

www.cornwall-calling.co.uk: Cornwall travel information

www.cornishlight.co.uk: Cornwall travel information

www.heligan.com: Heligan Gardens

www.plymouthcity.co.uk: Plymouth travel information

www.beautiful-devon.co.uk: Devon travel information

www.dartmoor.co.uk: Dartmoor travel information

www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk: Dartmoor National Park

www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk: Exmoor National Park

Get more information from the Wikitravel England West Country Travel Guide.

Get more information from the Wikitravel England Travel Guide.

David Cross was born in Plymouth but is now a "happily naturalized" Yorkshireman. He has grand-children in Wales and Scotland. David is a moderator on the World Travel Experience forums - groups.yahoo.com/group/worldtravelexp/. See David's Slow Travel Member page.

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