Devon and Corwnall are two of the UK’s most revered tourism destinations. But as I found out in Devon and my son in Cornwall, both make you work hard to photograph their beauties.
While this post mainly deals with Devon, a lot of the content can be extrapolated to Cornwall, which I have visited on other occasions and was my son’s vacation spot at the same time as my wife and I toured Devon. Google Map here.
Reasons to visit are numerous, but the two standouts are beauty and climate. Devon is considered to be the riviera of the UK. Cannes resident might want to qualify this statement but, relative to the rest of the UK, the sun seems to bathe this area with more generosity than most others. And the beach town of Torquay does have a lovely vibe to it, much like a smaller Nice in which bowling clubs, putting greens and public gardens replace the fancy hotels and casinos along the beach.
To those star tourist must-haves, I’d add really lovely food, great historical features, and lovely ports. But …
As it happens, it’s pretty hard to find an ugly-looking place in the UK. Provided you steer clear of the many man-made monstrosities that dot most countries, you can just about drive anywhere in the country and find the scenery perfectly lovely. What Devon adds are a few more twists and turns, and more vertical ripples, as if the architect of the Island had gotten tired of unruffling the landscape when he got to the South-West. Cornwall then piles on more apparent stone.
This makes both counties prime walking territory. Everywhere you’ll find footpaths leading to great views over rolling hills and hedged fields as green as green gets. Book accommodation, find a way to get there and walk for weeks. Alternatively, book accommodation, grab a good book and watch the sea to your heart’s content. And note that neither activity involves much driving.
Because, if you’re from the US, Europe or Asia, where tourist roads can give airfields inferiority complexes, you’re in for a bit of a shock in most of the UK and particularly in the South-West. Roads, there, are a joke. Several times a day, you might stop your car, thinking you’ve taken a wrong turn into someone’s private drive, only to see your GPS confirm you’re on a B-road or – shockingly – the occasional A-road. As we often do when visiting a pretty part of the world with photography in mind, we had rented a campervan. Biiiig mistake! This turned out to be hugely stressful when meeting someone head on on a road like the one below, wet, far steeper than the photo suggests, narrow enough for my mirrors to touch plants on both sides.
In case you’re now thinking I’m exaggerating or just too lame to drive out of my comfort zone : when we returned the van, the guy performing the inspection admitted that over half of the rentals in the previous week had come back lightly to severely damaged. Over half of them! Considering the amount of the deposit, I felt fortunate and relieved to be in the minority. What looks quaint in TV series is much less fun in mud covered reality, trust me.
So, pretty? Definitely, though no more than many other, far more accessible, areas of the UK. Sunny? Maybe, sometimes 😉 Relaxing? No way. Not in a van, at any rate. And this was off season! A couple of years ago, friends visited the area in summer and came back quite disappointed with the unending queues and tourist overpopulation. I can now relate.
Before you leave the page thinking the area’s not worth a visit, let me try to be more constructive and helpful. This can be a marvelous photographic destination. It just requires the sort of preparation we rarely care about in these days of Waze reliance and more often associate with more exotic countries.
First, the geography.
The South Eastern side of Devon is rich in Agatha Christie history. Torquay, a very nice town in its own right, devotes a lot of its touristic energy to the famous author, who wrote many of her crime novels in local hotels, which you can now visit, walking from one to the other. Very enjoyable. Exeter, a little further North (it seems really close on a map, but it’s best to double your driving time estimates) is a nice stop with great food around the river and lovely walks. In between, the superb little Dartmouth offers great views over the sea and a great atmosphere.
At the very bottom stands Burgh Island, with its art deco hotel, inspiration for Agatha Christie’s And then, the were none, and glorious views over land and sea. The walk atop and around the Island is roughly 30 minutes long, plus any snapping along the way, and can be accessed on foot from the mainland at low tide and via this “tractor” at high tide. It is a beautiful and peaceful place off season, but one heck of a drive from Exceter. Don’t let the map fool you into thinking this will just be a detour. The road is a dead end, and occasionally narrow. I can’t begin to imagine the unpleasantness during the high season.
Dartmoor. Huge reputation. Probably well worth it, when you do it right. Which is to stop somewhere and walk. As a touring destination, forget it. The high and narrow hedges will not only slow you down and stress you out but also prevent you from actually seeing anything. Camp sites profiles are more up-and-down than bitcoin charts and what probably makes it prime country for hiking photography, makes it quite unpleasant for drive-through photography. Need to pee? Find a bottle, because you won’t find a spot to park.
The reward, in this part of the land, comes in the form of multiple hidden gems such as whimsical gardens and standing stones, plus a lot of interesting wildlife. Please don’t think I’m bashing Dartmoor. It is a very interesting area. I just want to warn you against the idea of touring it. A family relative who farms there hates it! It is just a lot of work to drive around, there are no obvious stops, views are mostly blocked by hedges … But as a walking destination, it’s probably Heaven on Earth.
Exmoor, up North. Again, for driving, we found this far more gratifying, because of the less demanding roads, more open vistas, and more frequent places to stop for a pint of cider and a pasty 🙂 The popular route takes you from Lynton in the west, to Dunster in the East (technically, no longer in Devon, though still in Exmouth), via Porlock. It’s popular for a reason, we found all three stops – and others along the way – well worth it, and it feels slightly better equipped to handle the madding crowds that descend over the area in the school hollidays and week-ends.
This may sound harsh, but I don’t recommend a trip specially to photograph the South-West of Britain. There, I’ve said it. As written above, there are multiple counties in the UK that are equally beautiful and far more welcoming to tourists. Because, yes, both my son and I found Devon and Cornwall quite unwelcoming. Not only the roads, but galleries open only by appointment, pubs that don’t seem particularly happy to see you if you’re not one of the fold, and the general lack of infrastructure. It may be us, but that’s how we felt separately, and this has been confirmed by more local family who visit more frequently.
But, it’s still a wonderful area in many other respects. I thoroughly enjoyed the Agatha Christie related walks and the food around Torquay and Exceter. And, out of season, found the North simply superb and easy to navigate. You can get to Torquay by train, which sounds just perfect to someone like me who loves that mode of travel: the scenery will probably be much easier to admire than from a car, and the train station in just opposite one of the hotels in the recommended walks. Very central.
As for the North, my recommendation would be to couple it with a tour of the Cotswolds. It’s quite the drive between the two. Probably 3 hours on most days. But you could do worse than stop off in Bath and Bristol in between, walk through two beautiful cities enjoy some of the best cheese in the world from Cheddar (yes, that’s coming from a French cheese lover). 4 days in the Cotswolds, on day in Bath, 3 days in Exmoor, 1 day in Bristol and one more around. A great way to spend a 10-day photo holiday in that area.
Whatever you do, get a proper map. Waze is completely out of its San Francisco comfort zone here. In my experience, the app is always bad at predicting ETAs when traffic is involved, but I’ve never seen it wrong by such a huge margin as here. In one particularly spectacular fail, it indicated 1h50 for a drive that actually took 4h30! And directions aren’t much better because the algorithm can’t tell a country lane from a 12 lane motorway. So it *will* send you to places you do not want to be. You have been warned 😉
If you want green forests, pink stone landscapes and a glorious coastline, Brittany, on the other side of the Brexit waterway, would get my nod over Devon and Cornwall. And if you want sublime and even more mystical walking, dare I suggest heading on slightly North from Bristol, into that baffling place that is Wales. My only experience puts Wales close to the very top of my faves list. It is just painfully beautiful, offering scenery I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. Mebbe one Steve M can tell us more about it one day? 😉
So there you are: what to expect in Devon, how I would do it, and alternative routes for some specific goals. Let me know if this helps 🙂 Or shout your heart out if your live in Dartmoor and feel my words don’t do it justice 😉
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My stepmother comes from Torquay. The narrow, winding country roads bordered on each side with hedgerows was adventurous to say the least. I was shooting family activity photos with a Nikkormat FTN film camera and assorted lenses, particularly the 105/2.5 Nikkor my favorite lens of all time. These were best photos I have ever taken.
Hi Mel, “adventurous” is a great word for this, yes 😉 It’s probably fun on a lonely winter evening, too. But at peak season with a million other tourists, it must be an absolute mightmare. And it’s probably better that way. It would be such a shame to destroy those hedges to make way for larger roads.
It’s great that you made your best photos there. That must be a very special memory for you 🙂
Damned by faint praise – if I were to sum up your impressions Pascal
Close, Ian, close 😉 We did enjoy our stay, and it was easy for us to get to. But our friends visited from a long distance and were quite disappointed. It’s worth pointing out the availability of easier alternatives to people like that, I think.
Your evil streak is peaking out. You provide these wonderful images, yet say don’t visit here.
It seems you are taking a hint from ancient mariners that left notes on their charts saying, “Here there be monsters!”
Argh, busted 😉 😉
Your travelogue certainly agrees with my experiences in touring around the UK! I don’t have any fond memories of all the hedges – I can’t image how difficult it would be to negotiate them with a camper-van.
My husband and I just returned from picking up a new camper-van for our son……in San Antonio, Texas! We drove the 2300 miles back home in 100+ degree weather (through dust storms and painfully dry conditions)in just four days….touring the hedgerows in the UK is starting to sound more pleasant in comparison.
You did get some nice pix (especially the lone tree) despite the difficulties.
2300 miles in 4 days !? That’s dedication 🙂 I hope your son said thank you 😉 He’s a lucky man, many great days of exploration await, for him, now.
LOL – reminds me of when I left home, Nancee – jumped in the car and drove 3,620 miles. In 7 days. Much the same, I think. I can’t claim dust storms, or painfully dry – although it was summer where I started and heavy monsoonal weather where I arrived, dust and dry were conspicuous only by their absence.
Unusually for me, I’ve backed off on this post – I’ve driven plenty of narrow roads around Europe, but this is TOO much – if their main roads are like that, it’s high time they improved them! Worst I ever experience was in Italy, where you moved to the right till you could hear the swish of grass on the doors of the car, if you didn’t want your rear vision mirror ripped off by a car going in the opposite direction.
And despite all the horrible comments people make about english weather, in all the times I’ve been there it only ever rained once, and that was only for one day. Most of the time it’s been quite sunny – and most of the time, quite pleasant.
Doesn’t really sound like you made much effort at all to research places to go, just turned up ad expected to drive around with everything laid on for you ! Dartmoor has some great places for photographers. However you greatest miss seems to be the coast of Cornwall particularly the far south west, no mention at all.
Hi RP, you’re absolutely right, we didn’t research any of this beyond a few names of places we wanted to visit. There usually is no need, these days, with most pretty area being easy to navigate in Western Europe. This was a family holiday, not a workshop.
Cornwall has some beautiful areas. My uncle used to have a farm there and it was spectacular in places. I didn’t visit, this time, so didn’t bring back any pics of the coast. Only Devon is featured here. But I have fond memories of Marizion and other coastal towns.
My point is not that those areas aren’t pretty. Only that they are difficult to get to. It took me 4h30 to get from Bristol to Burgh Island! And that was off season. I can begin to imagine what that would be like a on busy summer school holiday. It’s my idea of a nightmare.
Dartmoor is lovely, but hard work to. We criss crossed it until my stress levels were too high to continue. 90% of the time, all you see are hedges … But yes, if you stop off, you can find some gorgeous scenery. I’ll post something about Stone Lane Gardens, soon. I think you have a Flickr page, right? If you ever feel like posting something here to defend the honour of the are, please do 🙂 🙂 Cheers
Pascal, I think I ought to have mentioned this earlier. I do have cornish blood in my veins – amongst various other varieties, smothering everywhere from the “Hielands o’ Sco’land” to Morocco.
My “french” decided to smuggle stuff from there into England and so they set up a base there, in Cornwall, where they operated their racket for ages.
And I can’t comment on pasties from Devon, except to confess that I’ve never heard of such a thing and it sounds rather dubious, to me. But you can get excellent pasties in Cornwall. Honest. (Just because some of my ancestors were smugglers, doesn’t mean I’d lie about it!)
Ah, the pasties of Devon are just “borrowed” from their neighbours, methinks. We didn’t notice any difference with the traditional recipe, other than exotic woke flavours that would have been unthinkable in the times of your scoundrel ancestors 😉
Smugglers and bandits don’t get enough credit for the cultural influence they had on local communities. Closer to (your) home, there are genetic traces of shipwrecked sailors from Western Europe in aboriginal communities, I think. The powers that be have always tried to keep us parked in our designated part of the world, and all those legal and illegal travelers should have statues erected in their name for breaking that stupid rule 🙂
Strangely, there really weren’t effective border controls until the 19th century. I think that’s when passports (as we know them) were invented, anyway.
And I’ve always been fascinated by the story of our aborigines – they told me when I was young that they’d only been here for about 10,000 years – then it became 25,000 – then 50,000 – then they found “the world’s first ceremonial burial” in New South Wales, dating from about 72,000 – then it pushed out to something like 90 to 100 thousand. And in the past 10 years, they’ve found that roughly 5% of aboriginal DNA is descended from the earliest form of hominid on the planet – a species that goes back 300,000.
Poor old western europeans apparently go back 30,000 – spring chickens, really! (That’s FAR west – not ALL europe)
I can scarcely be a racist – with 7 different races inside me it would be utter nonsense.
How things change over time!
In the 80s, my sweetheart of the time and I, living in Switzerland, were so much in love with Devon that we spent several Summer holidays there… but knowing about those narrow roads, we went there… on my trail-bike motorcycle :).
The Yin side of the gently sloped hill, the Yang side of the abrupt cliffs…
Fantastic memories; including these ancient stone walls; so hated by car drivers.
Our local pub in Strete where the owner recognized us each time, putting our favourite real ale on our favourite table… feeling like home.
Dartmoor, camping in the wild, woken up by poneys and rabbits running around, or sleeping in B&B looking like little dolly houses…
People there were so warm and welcoming… Dartmouth and the “Singing Kettle” where I shocked tha owner by swallowing a whole plate of the famous scones with clotted cream…
Exmoor, where a couple, former journalists for the Times in London, retired… he cooked delicious meals (ahead of the trend :D) for the local pub, his wife Dolly Moll (if I remember her name correctly after 40 years!), who wrote weekly poems for the Times, offering me her manuscript of her peom “I left my heart in Devon”…
My feeling is that it’s not you, it’s the slow degradation of “everything everywhere”… tourist overcrowd, disillusion, the whole game… I feel it in many place when I travel these years in Europe, and it’s one of the reason I feel well in some remote parts of Asia…
I think you nailed it, there, Pascal. One: the motorbike and the hiking are great ideas here. Two, staying with locals, spending time to enjoy what makes the local culture special. The idea of going to Devon as a touring destination to take some photographs is all wrong. The idea of settling there for a while, and using appropriate means of transport is all right! Thanks for sharing those lovely memories.