Between here and Okehampton you will be hard pushed to find more than a handful of hamlets, but some stunning scenery. And as you pass the ruined mine head of Wheal Betsy, consider that this was once one of the most profitable, modern and philanthropic mines in the world, and all due to the presence of water power. Anyway, this is a good place to stop for walkers, riders, and cyclists, and has an excellent pub or two. On the northern edge of the National Park is Okehampton, a great centre for walkers and the start of the annual Ten Tors race. This is a two day 'yomp' across the moor for the young, the oldest participant allowed is only twenty, and takes place over three different courses, dependent on age. The longest route takes you over 55kms and you have to carry all your supplies and equipment, so there is no nipping into the Prison for a cosy night with the warders. The Army have a substantial training camp just outside the town on the moor and look after the 2400 teenagers who try this event every year. The town is basically grey, being made of the local granite, and has most of the local amenities you would expect in a small town anywhere else in England. There is a large ruined Norman Castle, a museum of Dartmoor Heritage, and a couple of shops that will kit out the novice or experienced walker. A range of holiday cottages, pubs, restaurants, and cafes completes the picture. To the north the green and rolling hills and cottages in north Devon, to the south, the bleak and granite-strewn moor land. Now this is not to say that there is nothing to do on Dartmoor as you can try walking from one side to the other, or go by pony. Challenge the elements with your camping prowess, but be prepared the weather can change here just as quickly as it can in the Scottish Highlands. You can visit Neolithic cairns and stone circles, secluded country houses, castles and nature reserves; see hidden waterfalls, or even try and find the famous Prison. This is the only wilderness in England so if you bump into anyone else you will be unlucky.
North of Dartmoor is a different story altogether as the landscape is much more pastoral, as evidenced by the number of small markets held regularly in the small towns that dot the countryside. The largest town, and centre of commerce, is Barnstaple, over 1000 years old and the oldest Borough in England. It boasts a modern shopping centre alongside the traditional old market, including Butchers Row, a row of open-fronted shops selling local produce. The centre of town is pedestrianised and is wheel-chair friendly, with drop-down kerbs for ease of access. You can also rent motorised wheelchairs from the Bus Station. Barnstable is well served with Guest houses, B&Bs, and Hotels, and being the local hub is ideally suited to tour the locality. So, situated near the mouth of the River Taw, you are only a few miles from the nature reserve of Braunton Burrows and the 3 mile long Saunton Sands. The village of Braunton, it claims to be the largest village in Britain, is a confusion of narrow lanes with cob-walled cottages, attractive pubs and restaurants, including a Fish and Chip shop that has frequently been voted the best in the South-west, and several Surf shops. The beaches to the north and south of Buggy point are the best in north Devon and Braunton is where to get your wet-suits and boards to try your hand at the waves in Morte Bay, Croyde Bay, and Saunton Sands. More unusual, and possibly unique, are the Tunnels Beaches at Ilfracombe on the north coast. These hand-cut tunnels were constructed in the 19th century to allow Victorian visitors to visit numerous secluded sandy coves. Ilfracombe has been a popular resort since the 1830s when the town started to receive its first influx of tourists and there are numerous large Victorian villas that have been converted into Guest houses and Hotels. With its central harbour and sea-front bars, hemmed in by cliffs, the town has a continental feel allied to Victorian gentility. Ilfracombe is not only the start of the Coast to Coast cycle route, which will take you down to Plymouth, but also the start of the Heritage Coast Walk. From the harbour the M.S. Oldenburg will take you out to Lundy Island and its Marine Nature Reserve. The island is only 3.5 miles long but has its own species of plant, the Lundy cabbage, and is home to various species of marine birds including Puffins, Guillemots, and the Manx shearwater amongst others. After spending a day on the island it is possible to return instead to Bideford, known as 'The Little White Town'. This is a working fishing port, market town and a popular tourist destination, and also the town that held the last hangings for witchcraft, in 1682, when three local women were publically The usual collection of shops selling local produce rub shoulders with those offering local arts and crafts, and there are plenty of pubs, clubs, and bars catering to visitors of all ages. It was the home to the writer Charles Kingsley for many years, and it was here that he wrote his novel Westward Ho!, and there are lots of reminders of his stay.
The village of Westward Ho! itself is a couple of miles away on the coast and was named after the book, not the other way around. Another popular resort village this one however has an old-fashioned promenade with all the usual stalls to keep the children happy. Inland of the village are 1000 acres of the Northam Burrows Country Park, common land which is a lovely nature reserve, and you will also find the oldest Golf Club in England here. The long beach is good for surfing so there are plenty of activities for all ages and appetites and accommodation to suit all pockets. Following the coast along Bideford Bay you come to Clovelly a little village almost caught in a time-warp. Perched on cliffs 400ft above the quay the streets are fairly precipitous, and goods and people were carried to the top by donkeys, with the street of Up Along one of the most recognised and photographed. Needless to say this is a car-free village and extremely popular, with B&Bs and Guest houses at a premium, but there are plenty of pups and cafes to refresh the day visitor. The only way to continue west from here to Hartland Point is on foot and this is an energetic, but thrilling, cliff-top walk with marvellous views north to Lundy. Inland from the point you will find Hartland Abbey and its gardens, a 12th century Augustinian Abbey that has been occupied since 1540 by the same family so you will find paintings and artifacts gathered over the last 550 years, and the architecture includes some bits of the old Abbey, as well as Queen Anne, Georgian, Victorian Gothic, etc. etc.. The gardens, in places, have remained unchanged since the monks were evicted.
The coastal path turns south from the point and very soon you will be in Cornwall, however all is not lost as there are other delights to charm you in North Devon. Returning to Ilfracombe you are only a short distance from Exmoor Forest and National Park. The village and harbour of Combe Martin is at the north-east corner of the Park, and was once a bustling port exporting silver, flax, and more unusually, strawberries. The main street is over 2 miles long, claiming to be the longest in England, and has all the outlets usually found in a sea-side holiday venue, with a variety of self-catering cottages nearby. Until 2008 there was an annual wheelbarrow race along the street with participants required to have a pint of beer in each of the pubs on the street, but Health and Safety have stepped in and so replaced it with a sober version. There is one particularly unusual building in the village, the Pack O' Cards Inn, a hostelry won on the turn of a card with the winner celebrating his good fortune by converting the existing building into this souvenir of his good fortune. The building has 4 floors, 13 rooms and fireplaces, and before the advent of the window tax, had 52 windows. On the coast to the east are the Hangman Hills which rise to a height of over 1000ft and run to the sea, so for those with a head for heights a trip to the Great Hangman, a cliff with a drop of 820ft, is a must. Devon only stretches into the west and south-westerly margins of the Park but this will hopefully give you a taste of the whole. Similar to Dartmoor in the south, this is an area of bleak moorland, scarcely populated, with its own breed of ponies. Only the coast has been continuously inhabited over the last 1000 years, although grazing rights on the moor have been leased during this time.
The largest Devonian village is Lynmouth at the bottom of the gorge at the confluence of two rivers, and its twin Lynton 400ft above, and reached from below by a cliff railway. This is doubtless why the Victorians referred to it as Little Switzerland. Lynmouth is very busy during the summer months and although there are lots of B&Bs, Guest houses, Hotels, and camping grounds, the area can get a little bit busy with walkers, surfers, pony-trekkers, and just plain holiday-makers all rubbing shoulders. Not so in Victorian times when visitors included Thomas Gainsborough ['the most delightful place for a landscape painter this country can boast'], R.D.Blackmore ['Lorna Doune' is set on Exmoor], and Shelley who brought his new bride, Mary, to Lynmouth for their Honeymoon. The harbour used to land vast quantities of herrings but the shoals have moved elsewhere and it is now a safe haven for yachtsmen on this rugged section of coast. Skirting the edge of Exmoor to the south the next opportunity to use as a base for exploring the moor is South Molton, and at last a town which is reasonably flat! The town was a major centre for the wool trade, collected from the surrounding area and then taken north to Barnstable, and the wealth from this trade can be seen in the architecture as much of the area around the town square has remained totally unchanged. Situated in the middle of this pastoral area the town sells a large variety of local produce both in its traditional shops and at the weekly Thursday Market. The largest honey farm in the World is situated here and has an excellent visitor centre where you can see the bees at work, don't worry they are behind glass, and have a go at extracting the stuff. As the only town of any size in the area it is no surprise that there are almost 100 Hotels, Guest houses, B&Bs, and self catering cottages where you can stay either in the town itself or in one of the surrounding villages. In the rolling countryside to the north of the town you can find the largest Palladian house in Devon, Castle Hill, a home to members of the Fortescue family for 16 generations. The present building was finished in 1740, and although it was burnt down in 1932, remains very much as it was then. This is very much a working estate but the extensive gardens are open to the public and are punctuated with numerous paths taking you to a variety of Follies, built by successive generations of the family, culminating at a large fake castle on top of a hill which gives panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. The centre of the county is a wealth of narrow lanes and tiny hamlets, charming cottages, old churches, and a wealth of history. This is farming country and the dairy cattle are famous the world over, especially as they produce the milk that makes the cream that goes into a Devon Cream Tea.