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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