As I descended down the winding roadway into the secluded, very real fishing village of Port Isaac in North Cornwall, my heart was thumping. Irrationally, I was fully expecting to meet all my telly friends from the British ITV series, Doc Martin, which is filmed here (fictitiously named Port Wenn). Alas, not one of them was there! But I was not disheartened; the picturesque village is every bit the quintessential sleepy English seaside hamlet and it did not disappoint. And delightful Port Isaac was but one stop on my unforgettable, evocative sojourn through the counties of Devon and Cornwall.
The Hoe, Plymouth, Devon, England. Credit: VisitBritain
The day had started out even more memorably, with a visit to Tintagel, on the crashing Atlantic coast, the home of fabled, legendary Camelot, the locus of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and also the backdrop in countless literary works. For the courageous traveler, the treacherous descent down hundreds of rickety stone and wooden stairs rewards with Merlin’s magical cave on the rugged beach. Later that day we visited a less formidable beach, the 1,500-feet-wide Polzeath coastline, a surfing enclave, which, while no competition to Australia’s Gold Coast, is still an unexpected sight in serene England.
My tour guide for this wildly diverse day was Squadron Leader and fighter pilot, Adam Fox-Edwards, former equerry to Queen Elizabeth, and currently the proprietor of his family’s homey, gracious Arundell Arms, which happens to be the United Kingdom’s number-one-fly-fishing hotel, where lessons are under the tutelage of Jell-o-wristed master fisherman David Pilkington. Comfortably nestled in the Lifton Valley, just two miles from the Cornish border, the inn is a destination for countless groups looking to fish, hunt, bond, and make merry—and that is easy here, as there are some 24 breweries in Devon; two homegrown, popular ales are from Dartmoor Brewery and St. Austell Brewery. Those less interested in the native brews, but still wanting homespun flavor, will revel in the delicious cuisine served at the Arms, prepared by aptly named master chef Steven Pidgeon. (A typical main dish: mignon of wild Bratton Clovelly venison with spiced quince, pomme Anna, glazed salsify, roasted shallots in a red-wine reduction.)
Romantic Combe House in Devon
Devon and Cornwall offered up many other remarkable sights, including the 13th-century Church of St. Michael, some 1,100 feet above sea level—a hardy climb—on the western edge of Dartmoor. The atmospheric Dartmoor moors, punctuated with perfidious bogs and encapsulating misty fog are home to the notorious Dartmoor Prison in Princetown. It is the ideal setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baker Street Boys; in fact, the jail is referenced in several stories, including the celebrated Hound of the Baskervilles. (The institution even held American captives during the War of 1812.) At the other end of the mood spectrum is the dreamy Combe House (voted Most Romantic Hotel in the UK and Ireland, in Condé Nast Johansens’ 2012 compilation), where tea in the “kitchen” (sans electricity), presided over by innkeepers Ruth and Ken Hunt, is a sensory experience.
Majestic Bovey Castle in Devon
At Bovey Castle near Moretonhampstead, more extraordinary food and fun await you. The glamorous hotel offers over 80 activities, including the usual suspects (falconry, skeet-shooting, archery, canoeing, croquet) and some that proved more jovial—sloe-gin- and cider-making. The splendid 20th-century, Tudor-style mansion is baronial and features a main cathedral room with grand details, and which serves as the nerve center of the hotel. But with so much to see and do—Devon is home to more thatched cottages than anywhere else in Great Britain, and it’s the only county to have both north and south coastlines, with 250 miles of beaches—you won’t hunker down indoors until you’re ready for Bovey’s delectable, impressive tea or a fabulous meal preceded by a drink in the sumptuous Oak Bar.
Other outings might include the delightful village of Chagford, with its quaint emporia and art galleries, and the wonderful city of Tavistock, where the UK’s most famous market is located; there are also adorable shops here, including the gourmet grocer N. H. Creber. Exeter offers its royal cathedral; its pedestrian shopping street, the Princesshay, the first such walking/shopping boulevard in the country; and the Royal Clarence Hotel, built in 1769, believed to be the first recorded hotel in Great Britain; and the contemporary Magdalen Chapter Hotel, an ideal spot for a tasty lunch. You’d be remiss if you didn’t visit Plymouth, as well, where the largest concentration of cobbled streets in the UK exists, and where the town’s famous gin distillery has been producing spirits for over 600 years, these days, churning out 2.5 million bottles a year. By the seaport, etched in a panel on the side of a building is a list of the hardy souls who set sail from this Plymouth for our Plymouth...which will make you feel that you are part of history.
visitbritain.com; exeter.gov.uk; visitdevon.co.uk; tavistock.gov.uk; dartmoor-npa.gov.uk; arundellarms.com; boveycastle.com; combehousedevon.com; fly direct to London/Heathrow on British Airways, in comfort in Club Class, britishairways.com