If you can’t get away for a proper bucket-and-spade holiday, a long weekend break, with Exeter as your base, will allow you to sample the towns and beaches, creeks and bays on the east Devon coast. Nearby Dartmoor National Park is also a powerful antidote to all metropolitan malaises. And, if it’s raining, there are plenty of attractions in the town and trips to the spectacular Castle Drogo, and the curious Gothic folly, A La Ronde, to enjoy.
Exeter’s history dates back to before Roman times. By the Norman Conquest, it was one of the largest cities in England. Exeter became an important seafaring city in Stuart and Tudor times, when it drew great wealth from the wool trade. It has some remarkable buildings to show for its long and prosperous history: six medieval churches; a 17th century custom house on the quayside; and a 14th century Guildhall. Chief among its architectural delights is St Peter’s Cathedral, with its ornate Gothic façade and gloriously rib-vaulted nave, flanked by two great Norman towers. The city continues its long tradition of entertaining temporary guests, though nowadays the Roman soldiers and Stuart seafarers have given way to armies of undergraduates and weekend boaties.
What to do in town
For some gentle shopping, visit the antiques, crafts and gifts shops in the 19th century quayside area. On 15 September, a "slow food" market on the quayside will be selling locally produced meats, cheeses, game, fish, fruit and vegetables. The small independent stores on delightful, cobbled Gandy Street and Queen Street are also worth a potter. But a trip to the coast will be the highlight of your stay. Exmouth, less than five miles away, was a popular resort in the 18th century and still has the gorgeous Georgian terraces to prove it. To the east, Budleigh Salterton is all thatched cottages and red sandstone cliffs – a charming spot. Sidmouth, the largest of the nearby seaside towns, is famous for its Georgian architecture, with nearly 500 listed buildings; some of its beaches, such as the strand at Weston Mouth, are isolated and beautiful. Beer is a fishing village, in a little cove eight miles east of Sidmouth, which can become overcrowded in high season. The more developed, pebbly resort of Seaton, a mile east, is also worth a trip.
Just off the road to Exmouth, don’t miss A La Ronde, a National Trust-run 16-sided folly, based on the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. It has a collection of Grand Tour mementoes and stunning views over the Exe estuary (closed Thursday and Friday). Another NT treasure, Castle Drogo is a five-mile hop west of Exeter, in the Dartmoor National Park. Known as "the last castle to be built in England", Drogo was designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1910-13 as a country house masquerading as a fortress. It was built as the home of millionaire Sir Julius Drewe, but construction took 20 years and Drewe died within a year of its completion. Perched in an ultra-exposed position, 900ft above the Teign Gorge, Drogo’s dramatic views of the moor are sometimes accompanied by extremes of weather – definitely a summer excursion.
The 201 miles from London sound like a long trek, but it is a simple journey via the M4/M5. The journey time from London Paddington or Waterloo to Exeter St David’s and Exeter Central is about 2 hours 15 minutes.
Want to stay?
The danger of going to Devon is, of course, that you will want to live there. You will be tempted by the picturesque thatched villages and spotless seaside, the wilderness of Dartmoor and rolling greenery of the gentler countryside, and by the modest property prices, to throw in the day job and stay. The prettiest parts of the county are indeed scattered with urban refugees, and you could join them. Make a start on your escape plan with some local estate agents’ websites