Devon & Cornwall: Exploring the Southwest English Countryside
Southwest England is full of surprises. Narrow hedge-lined roads lead to Elizabethan castles and haunted manors, like Boringdon Hall, that host murder mystery nights. But you’re equally likely to end up in an artsy beachside town like St. Ives where ghosts and pirates don’t seem so scary after all. There’s more than one way to experience Devon and Cornwall, whether it’s rugged isolation or gardens and cream tea that you’re after. Just remember to eat seafood every chance you get – it’s the best and freshest in the United Kingdom.
Devon and Cornwall can easily be combined into one trip exploring the Southwest English countryside. Locations here have inspired talented authors Agatha Christie and Daphne Du Maurier to write some of their best work. What might the countryside inspire in you?
Where To Stay
The Lugger Hotel is the kind of place where time stands still. There’s no cell reception and WiFi is only available in the main building, so you are forced to truly unplug, as you should when you’re on holiday. The boutique hotel was built in 1701 by a brandy and silk smuggler and has just 22 rooms. Book a deluxe room for beautiful views of the bay. If you wake up at dawn, look out your window and spy Portloe’s local fisherman setting off for the day. You’ll be lucky enough to enjoy their freshly caught haddock, lobster, crab, and mackerel at dinner in the hotel’s excellent restaurant. You may also spy seals, basking sharks, or dolphins depending on the time of year.
For a more majestic Victorian vibe, check into Newquay’s The Headland Hotel. The property juts out into the Atlantic, offering stunning views from the Cornish cliff headlands. When the hotel first opened in 1900, it was clearly the finest hotel in the southwest and the royal family were frequent guests. During the Second World War, it became a RAF hospital and later fell into disarray. Now, it’s a family-run hotel and the grand lobby, elegant ballroom and historic guestrooms have been restored to their former glory. The weather will go from sunny to drearily foggy in a matter of minutes, which has a charm of its own as you move from the terrace to the cozy bar, sipping a kir royale or rosemary smoked gin and tonic.
Where To Spa
The Headland Spa is the best in Cornwall – the only to be rated “Five Bubbles” by Britain’s prestigious Good Spa Guide. Although the hotel was built in 1900, the spa is only a couple of years old. You’ll wait for your therapist in the busy reception area, but once you step into the spacious treatment rooms, the zen experience begins. A gentle facial utilizing Cornish brown seaweed is simple but effective, plumping up tired, thirsty skin without any extractions. The Afyna organic skincare line used at the spa is all hand-blended in Cornwall too.
Where to Eat
While in Devon, The Treby Arms should be at the top of your list. Chef Anton Piotrowski won MasterChef in 2012 (The UK version of Top Chef) and he’s interpreting traditional British fare in a contemporary fashion. Take, for example, the carrot dessert that won him MasterChef – basically a baby carrot sticking out of chocolate pop rock soil, with layers of orange cream cheese and carrot cake underneath, all served in a planting pot. The meats here are very good as well, from a curry-spiced goat served with a samosa to succulent lamb with crispy sweetbreads over a pea purée.
If you like to see where your food is coming from, visit Riverford Organics for a tour of the farm before dining at Riverford Field Kitchen. The family-style meal is truly something special. Cooking smells intermingle with the scent of herbs in the garden just outside and leave you salivating in eager anticipation of your meal. I was stuffed to the gills from a fantastic and largely vegetable-based lunch. Yet, as soon as I saw the spread of chocolate walnut brownies, quail egg custard tart, poached rhubarb pavlova and sticky toffee pudding, I couldn’t resist dessert.
In the small towns of Cornwall, fish and chips, Cornish pasties, and Cornish ice cream, made with clotted cream, will greet you around every corner. Put together a simple lunch of these staples in scenic seaside towns like St. Ives or Padstow while sitting on a bench enjoying the warm sea breeze. Make sure you have a proper cream tea at some point during your journey. This consists of English breakfast tea accompanied by a fresh baked scone, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. In Devon they put the cream on first, then jam, while the Cornish do the opposite. The thick, cool clotted cream is the best part so you just need a thin layer of jam before heaping on as much clotted cream as you can.
Where to Cook
If you’d like to get hands on with your food, visit the Padstow Seafood School, run by Rick Stein, one of the country’s most beloved chefs. Stein is credited with reviving English seafood cookery since opening his first restaurant in Padstow in 1975. Stein is also an expert with Indian and Southeast Asian flavors and the options are endless at this hands-on cooking school. There are full-day and half-day classes, so you can come in, learn a couple of recipes, and cook your own dinner with seafood caught fresh that morning. I’d never cooked crab before but was pleasantly surprised by how tasty my efforts at Singapore chili crab were.
Where to Explore
Make a quick stop at the Mayflower Steps in Plymouth to see where our forefathers set off on their journey to discover America. After a stroll along the Barbican, pop into the Plymouth Gin Distillery for the grand connoisseur’s tour. Plymouth is the oldest operating British gin distillery and you will learn about the gin-making process, as well as the different botanicals in gin. Following the tour, we sipped and swirled our way through a blind tasting of five gins, describing the aromas and tastes we picked up, then tried to guess which brand was which. As a girl who normally only drinks gin in a gin and tonic, this was an excellent crash course in the spirit.
Getting to Greenway, Agatha Christie’s former estate, might seem like a bit of a detour, but Christie did refer to her holiday home as “the loveliest place in the world.” We took the same steam train Christie herself would have taken, followed by a leisurely ferry ride. If you’re a fan of Christie’s mysteries, exploring her house and the grounds – including the boathouse where Marlene Tucker was strangled in Dead Man’s Folly – will hold special meaning. Even if you’ve never read one of her novels, the well-preserved house, collections of porcelain and Japanese lacquerware, and lush camellia gardens are worth a visit.
Where to Sweat
Hike the rugged, vast (368 square-mile) expanse of Dartmoor National Park. Climb to the top of Haytor if you’re feeling adventurous, or wander the moor at a more relaxed pace. You’ll spy remnants of Bronze Age huts, granite quarries, and plenty of peat moss. There are also wild ponies, cattle, and sheep roaming the land, co-existing in harmony. Not quite as exotic as a safari, but a chance to see animals in their natural habitat roaming free.
Along the coastline there are many opportunities for watersports between March and October. Koru Kayaking will take you sea kayaking along the North Coast, and if the sea is too choppy, river kayaking is always an option as well.
The Headland Hotel also has a surf sanctuary, where certified instructors offer guests of all ages and abilities the chance to try surfing, kitesurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, or coasteering, a combination of rock-climbing, cliff jumping, and cannoning. I never would have guessed, but Newquay is the surfing capital of the country.
Fly into London and take the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station where you can head to Plymouth or Penzance on the First Great Western. Consider upgrading to a first class ticket for a much more comfortable journey and the chance to dine in a Pullman dining car.
It’s worth spending a couple extra days in London too. If you’re looking to party well into the night, The May Fair is a trendy home base. For discreet elegance that is quintessentially British, check into The Goring. It’s the next best thing to staying at Buckingham Palace. You’ll feel entirely at home in this 69-room mansion and there’s a sense of intimacy as if you’re staying in a friend’s mansion and everyone knows your name. The Front Hall has just been renovated, featuring a new hand-gilded silverleaf wallpaper scene of exotic animals frolicking through an English park. The bar, with sumptuous red walls and a gilded gold ceiling is the perfect place to enjoy a glass of bubbly when the weather is gloomy. On a sunny day, find the secret Bollinger champagne garden within The Goring’s garden, the largest hotel garden in central London.