Asked to describe the ‘ideal’ English countryside, many people would conjure up a landscape of green rolling hills, of bright, fresh streams tumbling through wooded valleys, of white thatched cottages clustering around a venerable church, with a picturesque inn nestling beside it. Devon, of course, but only part of it. The whole of the Dartmoor National Park lies within its boundaries, a huge area of dome-shaped granite where the most frequently seen living creatures are the famous Dartmoor ponies that have roamed here since at least the 10th century.
The moor is notorious for its abundant rainfall – an annual average of 60 inches, twice as much as falls on Torbay, a few miles to the east. In some of the more exposed westerly fringes, an annual rainfall of 100 inches is common. In prehistoric times the climate was much drier and warmer. The moor then was dotted with settlements and this Bronze Age population left behind them a rich legacy of stone circles, menhirs, burial chambers and single, double or even triple rows of stones.
Then there’s the busy port of Plymouth with its proud maritime history and associations with Sir Francis Drake and the Pilgrim Fathers. The rugged coastline to the north contrasts with the almost Mediterranean character of Torbay – the English Riviera. There are hundreds of picture postcard villages, of which Clovelly and Inner Hope are perhaps the most famous, and scores of delightful small towns such as Salcombe, Totnes and Dartmouth.
The county also boasts some outstanding buildings. The Gothic masterpiece of Exeter Cathedral has been described as “one of the supreme architectural pleasures of England”, and it was a 14th- century Bishop of Exeter who built the glorious parish church of Ottery St Mary. The sumptuous mansion of Saltram House near Plymouth contains fine work by Robert Adam, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Chippendale, while Buckland Abbey is famed as the home of the Drake family and their most famous son, Sir Francis. Arlington Court is notable for the eclectic collections amassed by its last owner, Rosalie Chichester, during the course of a long life, and the now redundant church at Parracombe is a time warp building, still just as it was in the 18th century.
Part of Devon’s enormous charm derives from the fact that it is so lightly populated. Just over one million people, roughly equivalent to the population of Birmingham, occupy the third largest county in England, some 670,000 acres in all. And most of those million people live in towns and resorts along its coastline, leaving huge tracts of countryside where the villages, the lanes and byways are still magically peaceful.
Lynton and Lynmouth, though often mentioned in the same breath, are very different in character. Lynton is the younger of the two settlements and sits atop a great cliff 600 feet high; Lynmouth, far below, clusters around the junction of the East and West Lyn rivers just before they reach the sea.
Lynton is a bright and breezy village, its houses and terraces mostly Victorian. The Lyn and Exmoor Museum, housed in a restored 16th-century house, has an interesting collection of tools and products of bygone local craftsmen and other exhibits relating to the area, including a reconstructed typical Exmoor kitchen of around 1800.
If you are visiting Lynton in August, you won’t be able to avoid the strange characters lurking in gardens and doorways, sitting on roofs or shinning up drainpipes. Don’t worry – they are just participating in the Lynton & Lynmouth Scarecrow Festival, a popular event that has become the largest and longest running such festival in the West Country.