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Driving South West from London it was the last stage of pillows of green and auburn fringed hedgerows that confirmed I was in Devon. The beauty of modern navigation in a car is that it takes one the most ‘direct’ route not necessarily on the main roads. This is a by-product of convenience that I love. Wonderful farms, one-track lanes and plenty of hidden gems, the villages and pubs drift by interspersed with glorious green countryside.
South Sands is a neat 22-room hotel that also has a few apartments for good measure. Visiting in January was a joy. Yes you have to be lucky with the weather but the roads are empty, the air crisp and clear and sea is at its most enigmatic. I found its tempestuous quality strangely calming and restful. And of course coming from London the people are not only pleased to see you, they are positively chatty and helpful. London it is not!
Sitting in a small cove just down the road from that sailing staple Salcombe, South Sands has its own boutique vibe. My large room looked out over the sea and like an episode from an Enid Blyton book I could see a ruined castle in the distance, a mysterious blinking light in a far away cottage and I could hear the howl of a dog as the sun went down. The perfect setting for an adventure.
My vast and extremely comfortable bed and under-floor heating took the strain after my drive. There was even a little fridge where a tiny glass milk bottle was replenished daily to keep me in tea and coffee whenever I wished. South Sands is all about comfort and ease.
The restaurant has a wall of windows facing the Blue Flag beach, there’s a bar and a cosy settee or two in front of a roaring log fire, muted tones and lots of space. Dominique, the manager was delightful and explained the dishes on the menu that would be suitable for my recent gluten free diet. I can recommend the crab (with excellent gluten free bread on the side) and my main of venison with roasted vegetables and mushrooms was sublime. The crème brûlée with raspberry sorbet was brilliant, sweet, crunchy and tart all at once. Head chef Allister Bishop has a wealth of experience is clearly at home. He is a great believer in foraging along the coast for those impossible to buy ingredients. If you stay try to eat here it’s very good.
Waking to the sound of waves is a luxury for a city dweller like me and I never tire of it. A sunny day and the tide out revealed an apron of golden sand as the hotel’s garden. Breakfasts are spot on here. They even had gluten free cereal. Impressive.
It was crisp and windy as I took a quick stroll along the beach. The beach and its environs are really perfect for exploring. If you’re into walking Salcombe is not too far and if you’d rather more of a challenge then a cliff top yomp of a couple of hours will reward you with a splendid pub lunch and plenty of amazing views along the way.
On my drive down I passed Dartington Hall near Totnes. Sitting in 21,000 acres it is one of those oddities that make Britain so great. Established as a trust in 1935 the renovated hall built between 1388 1400 for John Holland Earl of Huntingdon has since become a byword for the arts. As well as a hotel they hold an International music summer school, writers retreats, music festivals as well as having a grade II listed garden created by Dorothy Elmhurst, there’s also a very good little pub like restaurant.
In many ways visiting the garden in January is better than high summer. The topiary is clear and refined the definition of the structure apparent and there’s hardly anyone there. I wandered around for an hour or two and only saw two gardeners and one other visitor. There are sculptures dotted around one by Henry Moore another by Willi Soukop. A yew tree said to be 2000 years old commands attention and it is said that the Knights Templar are buried in the grave yard although there is no evidence of that.
Lunch was in the White Hart next to the gardens and it turned out to be very beautiful and full of local fare. The goat’s cheese for my salad starter had been made on the estate. The skinny burger (can’t believe I actually wrote that line) and fries was perfect after a wander around the gardens. The food was very attractive as well as being flavoursome and I found myself in a small enclave of writers. Some were staying to finish their projects some just taking time out and calling in for lunch in this flag stoned eatery.
The estate has some 42 listed buildings and was once home to no less than two of Henry VIII’s wives. It employs over 300 people and offers a chance to experience a shrinking world where things are done locally. There’s even a cinema. They are offering ‘be a farmer for a day’ or ‘how to fly fish’ (in the correct season of course), which I’d love to return and try one day soon.
Back in Salcombe the seaside shops (all open in January) offer the usual striped jumpers and wellington boots as well as few quality gift shops and teahouses. I ate supper in the lively Victoria Inn. This award-winning pub is worth a look in. The food is very good, think mussels with tomato and chorizo and local beef from Graham Letherbridge’s farm Holesome Park, which is less than five miles away. Most of the produce is from the West Country and the seafood from outside the door literally. Regular visiting ales and a good wine selection complete the reasons to visit.
After another night’s restful sleep in my boutique abode I had one thing to do before setting the compass to North East and heading home. Salcombe as well as being that thriving centre for sailing, the second home and all things Devonian is now the proud centre for a new brand of gin. Start Point is the first in a planned long line of authentic high quality gins. It’s the usual story (except they made it work!) two good friends love gin and promise themselves one day they will set up a company and make the best money can buy. Well that’s just what Angus and Howard did. Once both sailing teachers they now have an empire on their hands.
I called in to see the operation first hand and sample a couple of cocktails in the onsite bar. All the botanicals are blended by hand to an exact recipe with natural grains and distilled in a copper pot still. They have won an award or two, last year they sold all their stock completely. To stop this happening again they have purchased a larger still. The high quality London Gin they produce is smooth and very drinkable they call it Devon dry.
As well as the bar, which is open to sample superb cocktails like a marmojito their take on a mojito but with marmalade – devilishly good. They also have a gin school opening up where you’ll be able to blend your own gin and take it away with you. Book early, I think there will be a long waiting list!
Heading back to London my thoughts were full of wholesome living, green fields and quality produce. I couldn’t fault my visit, every meal I had was good if not brilliant, and the hotel the epitome of comfort. Salcombe and its environs offered lots to do not just for a few days but also for a few weeks. I’ll be back soon I hope to live out those Secret Seven and Famous Five stories.