It’s no secret that Devon and Cornwall are astoundingly beautiful counties. Similar in many ways, yet also quite distinct from each other, with the ever-present Cream Tea War looming in the background.
Both counties are full of real people – salt-of-the-earth types – who are friendly and welcoming.
Cornwall has a very strong national identity – remember, the Cornish were once a proud and independent nation, under its own king. History runs deep through both counties, and in Devon there are remarkably well-preserved Bronze Age settlements dotted about in many places.
Avoiding the politics of it all, Brexit has undoubtedly changed the notion of a quick European holiday so many Brits have become accustomed to, and with COVID19 thrown into the mix, the picture looks rather bleak indeed.
That leaves Devon and Cornwall to be rediscovered by the rest of the UK for the utter holiday gems that they are. This post will look at some of the options you may have.
Sadly, public transport ranges from poor, to very poor. There are of course bus services, but outside of cities and major towns, these are few, infrequent, and expensive. While there’s a main train line running all the way down to Penzance, there are very few branch lines left in the two counties, courtesy of the Beeching cuts in the 60s.
For most people, this absolutely means driving down, driving around while down here, then driving back. As a result, parts of Cornwall and Devon can grind to a complete halt under the weight of more traffic than the roads can handle.
I once had to drive down to Redruth, Cornwall, and when driving back to Plymouth, I was caught in a huge exodus of holiday makers. What should have been a one hour 30 minute journey took over five hours that day, and I felt sorry for all those people, stationary in their cars on the A30, going nowhere fast.
Choose your holiday
Holidays mean different things to different people. Some want to lie on the beach every day for a week, while others want to do different activities. We’re all different, so having different ideas of what we want from our holiday makes sense.
What most people do seem to want from their holidays is to escape the hassle and stress of daily life, socialise, relax and have a laugh. Last time I checked, doing all of that was not compatible with being stuck in non-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the A30.
When on holiday in Devon or Cornwall, it is impossible to escape the effects of millions more cars on the roads, but you can minimise that impact. However, to do so, you need to be aware that severe traffic congestion is real, and you need to know the worst places for it.
Life is all about choices. Different choices usually have different consequences. What you need to do is choose what kind of holiday you want to have – a high-stress holiday, or a more enjoyable one.
The town of Barnstaple, in North Devon, straddles the river Taw, right by the Taw and Torridge estuary. It is a picture-postcard pretty area, with many stunning beaches nearby. Small enough to retain the countryside town ambience, Barnstaple is also big enough to offer a range of restaurants and coffee shops, along with other attractions.
Crucially, Barnstaple is reachable by train, via the stunning Tarka Line, linking it with Exeter. If you wanted to (and I rather strongly suggest that you do so) you can take your bicycle along on the train. Barnstaple realises the value of cycling, and there are are many traffic-free cycle paths in and around the town.
The Devon Coast To Coast route runs right through Barnstaple, and links the town with Braunton, Instow, Bideford and the edge of Great Torrington, all completely traffic-free. In the high season, I cannot overstress the value of this. Having crossed Woolacombe Station Road in the middle of summer, while cycling, I recall the very many angry, red faces in the great many cars on either side. Cars, stopped in congestion, going nowhere.
Woolacombe is one of the best beaches in the UK, and just slightly further south, closer to Braunton, is Saunton Sands, an equally great beach. Saunton Sands is easily reachable by bicycle from Braunton, via (usually) quiet lanes, and of course Braunton is reachable via the traffic-free cycle path. Once you’ve experienced the wind through your hair, and smiled at all the angry car-occupants as you breezed on by, you’ll appreciate having chosen to cycle.
Another great beach, even closer to Barnstaple, is Instow beach, and that is reachable almost completely traffic-free. My Tarka Trail guide has more details, including exploring the old shopping area of Bideford.
The county capital of Devon, Exeter is a small, but vibrant city, directly on the main branch line. Situated on the river Exe, the city has no beaches. However, it offers much in the line of nightlife, many shops, restaurants, museums and other attractions, including the cathedral.
There is also the Exe Estuary Trail, which offers gorgeous, mostly traffic-free cycling all the way to Exmouth, where there are some stunning beaches, plus many cafés and other attractions. As a bonus, if you’re feeling lazy after a day on the beach, you can catch the train back to Exeter, taking your bike on the train.
The Exe Estuary Trail runs on both sides of the the river, and if you followed the other side, it will take you past Powderham Castle, through Starcross and Dawlish Warren, all the way to Dawlish, again, either completely traffic-free, or along very quiet lanes.
As the trainline mostly follows roughly the same course, you again will have the option of returning by train, from Starcross, Dawlish Warren, or Dawlish.
The city of Plymouth is the largest in Devon, and is growing still. It is a very vibrant city, though far less cycle-friendly that Exeter. Despite that fact, Plymouth has good public transport, a very busy night life, with many pubs, restaurants and clubs to choose from, as well as a number of great attractions, including the newly opened The Box.
From Plymouth, it is easy to cycle, almost entirely along traffic-free paths, to Tavistock, through Yelverton. It is also possible to divert at Yelverton, taking a few quiet lanes, then a traffic-free (but bumpy, and often muddy) old railway course, over open moorland, all the way to Princetown. No other city offers you the chance to cycle, mostly traffic-free, out onto Dartmoor.
Though Plymouth has no real beaches of its own, there are several within easy reach of the city, including Whitsand Bay, which is but a bus ride away. You could also take your bike on the Cremyll ferry to Mt Edgecombe, then follow the traffic-free path around to Kingsand and Cawsand, to visit the beaches there.
The town of St Austell is an interesting one. Situated right on the main trainline, it’s easy to get to by train, and has several stunning beaches, including Carlyon Bay and Par Beach, within easy cycling distance.
Perhaps less well-known is the fact that you could cycle to the Eden Project from St Austell, using quiet roads and the traffic-free Cornish Clay Trails. When you consider how the roads around Eden grinds to halt due to weight of traffic, being able to bypass all that is a godsend.
As a bonus, there are luggage lockers at Eden that you can use, and if you’re on an ebike, take your charger with, then they’ll happily plug it in (in a secure, monitored area) so the battery’s all charged up when you’re ready to leave – all for free.
These are just a few of your options. You will notice I’m firmly in favour of taking your bike on the train. The benefits are immense – just ask anyone who’s been stuck, unmoving, in completely choked-up streets, on a sweltering hot day, when they’re meant to be enjoying a holiday.
As a holiday destination, Barnstaple received my top vote, for the sheer flexibility the town offers. It really can be almost everything to anyone, and I’ve no doubt that your holiday would be so much better because of it.