Devon Feature

By Avocet Line into T Rex territory

GHD goes in search of the Devon he knew from childhood holidays, and takes a caravan break by the seaside.

Our family trips to Devon as children, before the days of jet-away package tours, were simply the most exciting things ever. We headed west by steam train up impossible inclines over Dartmoor behind heroic monsters called King Henry V or Isambard Kindom Brunel, then changed onto little branch lines behind some Thomas the Tank Engine look-alike.

That was then. Today, as it keeps up in the world holiday market, Devon and Cornwall are right to let the PR people give every valley and stretch of coast a marketing name, and promote some globally-significant features. But was there anything left of the Dear Old Devon I knew? I went to find out, just like we always used to, by train.

An unpromising start. I Googled in vain for The Devonian or the Comish Riviera Express of old on the Train Line site. The 10.05 to Exeter would have to do. So there I was, on Paddington Station waiting for my train, summoning up the spirit of those glorious old posters of holiday expresses thundering west, when the travelling was part of the holiday, and children never asked “Are we there yet?”

Those glory days of steam have gone, but the route’s the same. The sinuous non-stop section from Reading to Taunton is one of the most scenic journeys in England. A magnificent jumble of Kennet and Avon canal, gin-clear fly-fishing streams and pretty villages with trademark church spires flashed past. In the distance, dreamy views up to Glastonbury, and Salisbury plain. On into the rolling green hills of East Devon. Where would I rather be? G&T to hand watching the essence of rural England unfold, or toiling down the M4? No contest.
Arriving in the West Country, the romantic traveller intent on recapturing the old days is spoilt for choice. They list all the branch lines under “Great Scenic Railways of Devon & Cornwall”. There’s the Tamar Valley Line, the Maritime Line, the Atlantic Coast and St Ives Bay Lines.

At Exeter station I had a choice of exotic wildlife to lead me deep into Devon. I could sweep north on the train to Barnstaple - named ''The Tarka Line'' after the most loved of literary otters, in Henry Williamson''s classic novel. Tempting: but the call from the south is stronger still.

The Avocet Line, hugging the Exe estuary down to Exmouth, is named after the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ emblem avian with the elegant upturned beak. Now they are back in big numbers, thriving on this wonderful wedge of water and mud.

From dainty wader to Palaeolithic terror. Just round the headland, cosy inlet morphs into T Rex territory. 93 miles of Jurassic Coast ranks alongside the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon among the natural wonders of the world.
My base to observe these serial identify switches in the West Country landscape was Haven Holidays’ Devon Cliffs caravan site. As this was Devon, my taxi driver at Exmouth station was, naturally, an exiled Scouser. Grumbling amiably, he drove me to reception.

This was caravanning, but not as we knew it. I recalled my childhood trudge to the forbidding washblock in the corner of a farmer’s field. Here the cons were all modern – a spa, full-blown entertainment, a supermarket – and international. Who needs the Dordogne? The resident French bakery seduces the site at 7 am prompt with aromas of croissant and baguette.
And as I waited for my keys, I watched an avian version of Big Brother beaming in live and unexpurgated from a colony of kittiwakes on a nearby, inaccessible promontory. Some abseiling Royal Marines had set up “kitti-cam”, a remote-controlled webcam, there. Better than the real thing? Well, birds don’t swear.

I searched for my caravan. Instead of the humble tin box we knew, I found this boudoir on wheels, with room for half my street, and a big choice of bedrooms. Just one snag: they must have marked my roof off as a landing pad for the resident seagulls. And judging by the frequent clunks above, they come with steel heels.
Haven’s sites are endorsed by naturalist David Bellamy. Once he raged against the tedious ranks of mobile homes in clashing colours, marring our beautiful coastlines. Then, ping, he changed his mind, He saw caravans as a clever way to bring holidaymakers closer to nature. Devon Cliffs is one of the showcase sites, full of nest boxes for owls and eco-friendly landscaping. A full time ecologist keeps them to a green plan – they even squash the cardboard for recycling. There’s a bus to Exmouth, so you don’t need a car.

Early next morning it was just me and the tap-dancing seagulls as I stepped out into the velvety air. While the rest of the site slept, I turned left onto the Jurassic Coast.
Disney aren’t in charge, so there’s no full-size brontosaurus to announce the start. Instead, the startling Geoneedle, a contemporary take on Cleopatra’s Needle, composed of all the types of stone along the Coast, in the geological sequence in which they are found. If you have seven days spare, check them all for yourself. But my bacon baguette beckoned, so I gave it an hour.

This is all part of the 630 mile long South West Coast Path. There’s a pattern to the path along its entire length. So I began with the usual steep climb up an open slope, followed by a stretch of high-hedged flower-strewn path, serenaded by wrens. Below some rusty red cliffs the sea slumbered. Beyond a flash of creamy yellow gorse bushes, I dipped into a shady valley for a view over a secluded bay. Down there were the T Rex footballs - Budleigh Salterton pebbles, unique and oval, so hard they survive millennia of bashing by the waves.
I looked back over the Exe estuary, listening for the “fluty ''kloot'' and a yelping ''kleep, kleep...'' of the avocet , as promised by the RSPB website. A distant train out of the far west cantered for many minutes around the coast. Far off Dartmoor loomed green and round and tremendous.

Different packaging, maybe. But yes, it was the same old Devon.

Prices for four nights at Devon Cliffs from £89 (self-catering) for up to six. Information and bookings : or 0870 242 2222.

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