Rugged and appealing, the coast of North Devon has beaches for surfers, beaches for families and ‘secret’ beaches only the locals know about...
Devon is the only English county with two separate coastlines. The gentle lush south coast is an unbroken sequence of busy seaside resorts and smart yachting centres, but the north is wilder, less developed - and much more interesting.
Particularly rugged and appealing, the northern seashore has two of the west’s finest day trips (Clovelly and Lynmouth), some of Britain’s best surfing beaches (Croyde, Saunton and Woolacombe), charming old-fashioned resorts (Ilfracombe and Combe Martin) and two spectacular estuaries (the Taw and Torridge).
I’m an international travel writer but I was bought up in Devon and have just written a book all about it. I love the entire county but the north coast is fantastic. I’ll tackle it in the order most people approach, ie: from the east.
Lynton and Lynmouth are really one place, split by beautiful wooded cliffs. Walk a zigzag between them or take the extraordinary Victorian water-powered cliff railway. Lynmouth’s beach is rocky, so walk further to the east, under the great Countisbury cliffs, for a few bits of sand. Much better sandy beaches are hidden down the winding toll road west, via the spectacular Valley of the Rocks, to secluded Lee Bay and Woody Bay.
Then there’s a rugged seven-mile stretch of inaccessible shore till you reach Combe Martin. Two miles down England’s longest high street you eventually reach a small harbour, nice safe sands and rock pools. The sheltering headland of Great Hangman is among the country’s highest. With the handy waterfront Fo’c’sle Inn for food and drink, it’s my favourite family beach on the North coast.
Just off the main road to Ilfracombe are two good sandy beaches hidden along the wiggly coast. The best is by the campsite opposite Watermouth Castle. Ilfracombe is a great mix of peeling Victorian grandeur, kiss-me-quick tat and contemporary chic. Highlights include multi-millionaire artist Damien Hirst’s Number 11 restaurant on the harbourside, the Landmark Theatre’s twin towers known locally as ‘Madonna’s bra’, and the collection of little sandy beaches dotted around the rocky shores and inlets. The best are Tunnels Beaches, reached via an ancient path through the cliff. There’s a stylish café, shop and watersport centre here.
Between Ilfracombe and the surf beaches you’ll need a map to find two more ‘secret beaches’ - Lee Bay (not to be muddled with the one near Lynmouth) and Rockham Bay. They’re great if you like escaping crowds. Beware: you’ll have to walk half a mile to reach Rockham, and Lee is notoriously tricky to find by car.
Then there are the big three: Woolacombe, Croyde and Saunton. They each have miles of flat sand - you could walk a long way out to sea if it wasn’t for the crashing waves. There are plenty of sports facilities like sand yachting and sea canoeing, but it’s mainly surfing round here. The narrower funnel of Croyde Bay is the most hardcore; beginners find the waves at the other two less demanding. Saunton has the best beach café and hotel, Woolacombe the best pubs and restaurants, Croyde the most dreadlocks and campervans.
After all that cool action, the Taw and Torridge estuaries could be neglected. But there’s great gentle scenery here. Explore the dunes of Braunton Burrows or the beautiful valley of the Torridge, where the village of Instow has its own fine sandy beach. Beyond Bideford is the long sandy stretch of Westward Ho! The beach and dunes are fabulous; the town is a shabby disappointment.
Bideford Bay’s rocky wild shore stretches west with a few tiny secret spots of sand at Bucks Mills and Peppercombe. Clovelly is an unmissable day out - an ancient fishing village tumbling down a steep cobbled path to a harbour and pebble beach. And the jagged coast round the Hartland headland is wonderfully dramatic. Hartland Quay is a particular favourite of mine but even the most optimistic brochure writer couldn’t call the treacherous rocks round here a ‘beach’.