Whether it’s a clotted cream tea in a country hostelry, the wilderness of Dartmoor, a classic beach holiday in Woolacombe, murder mysteries in Torbay or Jack Wills clothing in Salcombe, everyone has their own idea of motorhome holidays in Devon. And it’s hardly surprising that there’s so much variation – it is the third largest county in England, after all. So anyone planning to tour Devon in a motorhome will find a county of contrasts and return home feeling they have seen far more than they bargained for.
Take North Devon for example. Craggy headlands for jaw-dropping walks interspersed with gigantic beaches and equally gargantuan Atlantic waves that roll and break over Croyde, Saunton Sands, Westward Ho! and Morte Bay. Mix it with a collection of quaint, stony villages like Appledore, Georgeham, Mortehoe or Combe Martin, plus a goodly quantity of stately homes and you’ve enough to fill a lifetime of exploration already.
Compare that to Tor Bay on the southeast coast of Devon though, and you’ll find a more refined air of Victorian elegance in the architecture of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. With sheltered bays and a microclimate that allows all-year-round palm trees on the promenade, the English Riviera seems far removed from its rugged cousin ‘up north’.
Of course the South Hams area in South Devon really offers all that and more. Surfing beaches at Bigbury Bay, yes. But also rockpooling beaches in tucked away Hope Cove, cobweb-brushing walks on coastal Bolberry Down and the orderly finesse of designer clothing, sailing togs and posh nosh in Salcombe. Not to mention the Kingsbridge Estuary, teeming with environmental nooks, crannies and creeks to mosey around.
In Devon’s rural heartlands – those luscious fields filled with Devon cows for which the county is so renowned, you’ll find another world. Whether it’s the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the pretty market towns of Crediton, Ottery St Mary or Honiton or the outdoor activities that abound on the Rivers Dart, Exe, Mole and Taw, you’ll find a plentiful supply of variation that’s different to any other part of the county.
But if you really want different, start in Plymouth to soak up some city sites – whether it’s playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe, just as maritime legend Sir Francis Drake did, or taking in a show at one of many cultural venues. Then drive only a handful of miles onto Dartmoor and you’ll see contrast alright. You really have to get off-road to thoroughly understand this striking landscape, where high Tors, bogland and mysterious standing stones add to the sense of drama. It’s an untamed area neatly packaged into a national park, but one that you’ll never forget.
Things to do in Devon
1.Go in search of film locations across Dartmoor, which was used as the location for Steven Spielberg’s film, ‘War Horse’, in addition to being the setting for Conan Doyle’s novel, ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’. The blockbuster, ‘We Bought A Zoo’, though not filmed on Dartmoor, is based on a true story about Dartmoor Zoo.
2.Hop on the saddle and take a leisurely traffic-free cycle ride along the whole or a section of the 180-mile Tarka Trail, a figure of eight route based around Barnstaple and using old railway lines. Or cycle the Devon Coast to Coast route from Ilfracombe to Plymouth.
3.Enjoy a guided South Devon Wine Tour to visit local vineyards, and the opportunity to sample some of the local, award-winning wines and cheese from the county. It’s a great, alternative view of the Devon countryside and someone else gets to drive, so you can have a drink!
4.A firm family favourite and an award-winning attraction is The BIG Sheep in North Devon, providing some wacky entertainments including sheep racing, horse whispering, sheep shearing plus dog and duck trials.
5.Do all things Agatha Christie! Follow the literary trail across Devon discovering the inspirations for more than 20 of her novels, take part in the annual Agatha Christie Festival on the English Riviera, walk the Agatha Christie Literary Trail, visit her former home, Greenway, where several of her thrillers were set and even be transported there by vintage bus from Torquay.
When to visit
The Devon County Show kicks things off in May (at least, usually; for 2021, the show will be held in July) to get everyone involved with rural activities, while in June it is time for Croyde’s annual GoldCoast Oceanfest, celebrating music and watersports. June also sees the Lord Mayor’s Day in Plymouth, when a carnival atmosphere comes to town.
In August Devon turns its attention to the Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta for a packed three-day programme of sailing, sport, music, street food and fireworks , while September offers munching matter in the form of the Seafood and Harbour Festival in Plymouth, celebrating fabulous food and amazing local chefs.
Also taking place in September is Torquay’s International Agatha Christie Festival, celebrating the town’s association with the crime writer, as well as the Appledore Book Festival on the north coast. In October, it’s the turn of the south coast with the Sidmouth Science Festival, a 10-day extravaganza of exciting family-friendly events for curious minds.
Finally, for some classic English eccentricity, head to Ottery St Mary on 5 November, where you’ll find burning barrels of tar hoisted aloft through the streets in the annual Tar Barrel Rolling contest!
Cheap overnight stops in Devon
Devon is a great county for budget breaks with your ‘van. With the Thelbridge Cross Inn, attached to the Practical Motorhome Nightstops Scheme, near Crediton, you can save money on campsite fees and spend the cash on a hearty evening meal instead, as overnight stops are just £6.50.
Torridge District Council also allow overnight stops in specific car parks at Bideford, Appledore, Westward Ho!, Holsworthy and Torrington for a minimal amount, which can be purchased in advance or paid for by credit card on site. Meantime, South Hams District Council are allowing overnight stays by own-facility motorhomes in five specific car parks for a 12-month trial period from May 2021. The car parks are in Totnes, Ivybridge, Kingsbridge, Modbury and Dartmouth.
For some of the best campsites in Devon, however, take your pick from the Top 100 Sites. In the 2021 awards, more than eight camping and touring parks in Devon featured.
The M5’s junctions 27, 30 and 31 are the most useful to access much of Devon, using Exeter as a gateway. Or use the A303 and A30 from the east to reach East Devon and the Jurassic Coast.
To be cautionary, the A39 (junction 24 on M5) to North Devon is twisty and narrow in places, with steep hills at Porlock (1:4), Countisbury (1:4) and Barbrook (1:4) – and its fair share of hairpin bends – so larger vehicles may prefer to use an alternative route. That said, the A39 is one of the best roads for stunning views of the North Devon coastline and Exmoor if you’re taking it gently.
On two wheels, The National Cycle Network boasts two off-road cycle routes in Devon, between Barnstaple and Hatherleigh, plus Tavistock and Plymouth. The routes from Exeter to Sidmouth and Dawlish, along the coast, are largely traffic-free.
On the railways, trains run regularly between Exeter, the English Riviera and Plymouth, but forget any such form of transport in South Hams and North Devon. There is, however, a very pretty rail journey between Barnstaple and Exeter, following the River Taw. There are plenty of buses across the county, however, including a Park & Ride service that’s useful to visit Exeter.
To explore Dartmoor, you can try the Haytor Hoppa between May and October, inclusive, which provides a circular, scenic bus service around the eastern side of the national park.
Motorhome access in Devon
Watch out for Devon’s minor roads, particularly down to the beaches; they’re beautiful but hedges are high and they can be single-track, hence some campsites have recommended arrival and departure times.
There’s no doubt that campervans have it easier than larger coachbuilts when they visit Devon, but with some forward planning, those with higher/wider/longer ‘vans can enjoy the county too. When touring, larger coachbuilts will find Exmoor and Dartmoor easier than the tiny roads of the south coast.
Daytime parking for motorhomes is allowed in the same car parks as those referred to under ‘cheap overnight stops’, above.
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You'll return home feeling you've seen far more than you bargained for