As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to East Devon, Jackie King visits this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (designated in 1963) that's home to a spectacular stretch of coastline. Part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, it covers 103 square miles, 29 parishes and a geologically engaging stretch of the South West Coast Path. Its borders reach towards Exmouth at the most westerly, the fossil beaches of Lyme Regis in the east and the countryside south of Honiton that runs under the A35; north of the A35 is the neighbouring AONB of the Blackdown Hills.
The magically varied landscapes include wooded valleys, swathes of wild heathland, breath-taking cliffs and pretty coastal and inland villages and towns. It’s an area that on the one hand celebrates its rich farming heritage, yet also attracts and welcomes new businesses, many involved with food and drink and arts and crafts, with owners that bring a contemporary dynamism to the historic area. There is a nostalgia-inducing flavour to holiday breaks here… an Enid Blyton-type is evoked by glorious days spent dipping in rock pools, fishing for mackerel, wildlife spotting, fossil-hunting or cycling through the quiet lanes with a picnic lunch in your pannier.
For those who like their leisure time spiced with a challenge there is a 40-mile way-marked walking route that takes ramblers through some hidden gems and swoops up to glorious viewpoints. The route runs from Exmouth to Lyme Regis and passes through eight villages and over five rivers. In the north you explore the Farway valley, the Bronze Age landscape of Farway Common, a nature reserve and the Roncombe Valley. You’ll find stacks of information on eastdevonway.org.uk that will save you hours of plotting and planning yourself.
Where to stay
East Devon is blessed with a beautiful, World Heritage coastline, stunning undulating countryside and lots of pretty towns and villages. With its reputation as a perfect holiday spot, it's no surprise to discover an astounding variety of places to stay. There are many off-the-beaten track places so you can always find something to suit your budget and style. We have chosen some of the greenest places to stay: there's a B&B with yoga classes, a luxury hideaway that gives guests a discount if they arrive on public transport and plenty of open fires and locally sourced breakfasts, too!
The award-winning Salty Monk is 16th century and renovated as a boutique B&B. There’s a sauna, fitness studio and the chance to join in with a yoga class. It is a restaurant with rooms and the foodie side has been awarded two AA Rosettes and serves the best local produce. There are dog-friendly rooms, too. Like something a little quirky? Then The Nest is for you. It’s a fully equipped snug treehouse where you sleep 30 feet up an English oak tree. It’s in the Blackdown Hills just above the East Devon AONB and offers a peaceful escape from reality. There’s even a balcony/veranda looking onto your own private wood, so buy some local beer or cider and prepare for a peaceful sunset. For something spot on for families, come and join in the Mazzard Farm magic… we salute owners Jacqueline and Ruud for encouraging holidaymakers to arrive by public transport and, if the whole party does, they’ll offer a free shuttle to and from Honiton station. There are 6 lovely cottages arranged around a convivial courtyard and 17 acres to explore of woodland, fields, garden and orchard. There is a play area, paddocks and, most likely, playmates to entertain. Children won’t want to leave!
Where to eat
East Devon has become something of a magnet for gourmands. Seafood, such as Exe river mussels and freshly caught fish, as well as dairy products, naturally play a big part but so too does Red Ruby Devon beef and local wine. Any chef worth their (West Country) salt is making the most of local ingredients and you can sample their menus in fancy hotels with starched linen and silverware, or in country pubs with pasties and pints. Devon is, of course, famous for its cream teas, and we have picked some of the best cafés and tearooms where you can indulge in freshly-baked scones with teetering piles of clotted cream. If you are self-catering or in search for picnic ingredients, stock up on local produce from farmshops and delis. Here, you’ll find some of the best places in the area.
Millers Farm Shop is an institution among locals and visitors – it is the perfect place to find something out of the ordinary and all the food and wine seems to be impeccably sourced, thanks to the owners’ regular trips to French markets for authentic cheese and fresh produce. They have been selling and growing for over 40 years and we recommend giving yourself time and perhaps exploring the store without little ones in tow. When you’ve stocked up on Lyme Bay fresh fish, French cheese and limited-edition wines, you can sneak in a cheeky cream tea before heading back. Fancy the Red Ruby Devon beef favoured by Rick Stein? Then head over to East Hill Pride Farm Shop that is choc-a-block with great quality food AND has a rather lovely view for shoppers, too. Their farm is one of the few in Devon that has an on-site ECC-approved abattoir and not surprisingly they operate a thriving box scheme delivery.
Dukes Seaside Inn prides itself on being a Sidmouth mainstay and a lasting presence on the town’s esplanade. Drop in for a drink: they sell Sandford Orchards Devon Red and Devon Dry at the bar and Salcombe Gin and have a rather large menu with plenty of pub grub staples. If you have the family with you, a great spot for breakfast or afternoon tea is the Honiton Garden Centre & Restaurant – local sausages for brekkie and home-made cakes for an afternoon stop-off. Plenty of retail therapy too in the beautifully laid-out garden centre.
For a fish-based treat, Neils Restaurant has a daily changing menu dictated by the fishermen’s haul. It’s one for a special occasion rather than a fuel-up-the-family affair. Neil has years of experience of creating a network of trusted suppliers and the results look pretty enticing! For tea-and-cake types there is an old working watermill to visit at Otterton Mill where you can see flour being milled and get to taste the result with a Devon cream tea on the terrace. The Sunday Times claims it is ‘one of the best places in Britain for afternoon tea’.
Where to visit
The East Devon AONB has plenty of exciting activities to keep the whole family amused come rain or shine. There’s abundant wildlife to spot, rescued donkeys to pat and llamas to walk with at animal sanctuaries, narrow-gauge trains and trams to ride and exquisite gardens to roam around. And if you're coming with children, they'll be kept entertained on fairground rides and log flumes at adventure parks dotted around the AONB. East Devon is peppered with pretty villages worth a visit and the greenest way to explore is of course be foot or by bicycle or public transport. Honiton and Axminster are the main railway hubs for the AONB with regular services from London. Places such as Newton Poppleford, Beer and Seaton are well served with the X53 bus route that runs all along the Jurassic Coast.
For families there are few better days out than a visit to the world-famous Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth. Pecorama will delight train buffs young and old and the climb above Beer with the sea in the background is memorable; there is even a chance to drive the train yourself. One of the country’s leading animal conservation charities in the UK is the Wildwood Trust and a sister site to the Kent centre opened at Escot estate in Devon in 2015. Find a walk-through enclosed forest area, breeding beavers and a camp of yurts. When little (or old) legs get tired, there is Stuart Line Cruises to come to the rescue… trips around Exmouth and Sidmouth give views of the Jurassic Coast with no effort at all. You can even have a cream tea while taking in the beauty.
Things to do
With its gently undulating hills and 28 miles of stunning Jurassic coastline, the East Devon AONB has plenty of opportunities for lovers of the great outdoors. Whether you're an avid cyclist, a keen rambler, or prefer to laze away the afternoon on a beach with the family, you won't be left high and dry.
There are plenty of cycle routes in the AONB which cut through forest, valleys and farmland, perfect for both hard-core cycling enthusiasts and families, many of them linking up the towns and villages of the AONB. For route ideas check out the East Devon AONB cycling page.
With so much marshland and the estuaries from the four rivers - the Exe, Axe, Sid and Otter - the East Devon AONB is a great place to spot wildlife. Bring the binoculars and look out for redshanks and warblers; you might even be lucky enough to catch a sighting of an otter or beaver! The Jurassic Coast is alive with possibilities for days out for nature lovers, fossil hunters, swimmers and walkers. In August the coastal town resounds to the alternately melancholic and cheery beats of folk music during its famous Folk Festival; every gathering place, be it pub, café, community hall or town square, is packed with merry-making bands and music fans.
To the east of the AONB, just before Lyme Regis, discover the Undercliffs National Nature Reserve - it is a significant coastal site and most safely explored at low tide, so take care to check locally about conditions. For a different view of the AONB altogether, choose your vessel and head out to sea. You’ll find plenty of excellent adventure companies that will accompany you or hire out a kayak, boat, canoe or paddleboard. There are many companies that operate along the coast, including Jurassic Paddle Sports in Sidmouth.
Getting to the East Devon AONB by public transport
It’s easy to get to East Devon by public transport. There are frequent and regular trains and coaches to the major hub of Exeter, from where you can reach smaller towns such as Axminster, Honiton and Exmouth. Within the AONB, there is a good network of buses serving coast and countryside, villages and footpaths. Bus stops have individual codes and you can text an enquiry about the next bus to arrive at that stop. There are spectacular footpaths and well-signed cycle tracks if you want a more invigorating way to explore the AONB.
Southwest trains has regular services from London Waterloo to Axminster, Honiton and Exeter, from where there are onward services to Exmouth. You travel through some beautiful pastoral scenery on the way, and, on the branch line to Exmouth, the track hugs the Exe estuary. National Express has coach services to Exeter from London and Bristol.
Once in the East Devon AONB, there are plenty of bus routes connecting the major villages and towns. One of the best is the X53 bus, Jurassic Coast route, a frequent service that is perfect for exploring the area and good for walkers wanting to do one-way hikes. It runs the whole length of East Devon on its 4.5-hour journey from Exeter to Poole in Dorset. Most services are double-deckers, giving you excellent views above the hedgerows from the top deck. More information: bus routes within East Devon.
There’s even a narrow-gauge tramway that runs for three miles between Seaton and Colyton, a fun way to get around for a bit of sightseeing. Otherwise, there are miles of footpaths and cycle routes, sometimes car-free. Hire bikes at places such as Soanes Cycles in Colyton or take your own bikes on the train for no extra cost.
For more information about visiting East Devon, including where to stay, find local food and drink, attractions and low impact activities, see Green Traveller's Guide to East Devon AONB