Dramatic setting

In North Devon, Helen Werin is blown away by the beauty of a camping trip by the coast.

My super-fit daughter Elena had torn up the steep hairpin path that links Lynmouth to Lynton in less than a third of the time it would take

most people.

What she'd failed to appreciate was a taste of what we'd come to North Devon for – some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in Britain. We'd taken the easy route from Lynmouth, 500ft below, in the Victorian water-powered Cliff Railway. This gave us the chance to appreciate the glorious vistas from a rather novel perspective. The Victorians, who turned these "twin" towns into popular holiday resorts, called this place Little Switzerland. Prior to the railway I imagine our ancestors felt as if they were climbing a mountain. Times might have changed, but the diverse beauty of this area hasn't.

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From our base at Caffyn's Cross, near Lynton, we could explore the golden sand beaches dotted between some of the highest cliffs in Britain, wander through the wooded valleys and across the wild heaths of Exmoor and meander through postcard-pretty villages.

The tourist brochure says there's enough "to keep you here forever". That almost happened to me as I rounded the top of Lantern Hill above Ilfracombe's harbour. I was blown off my feet by a powerful gust of wind and, but for the lightning reaction of my husband, I would have fallen on to the roof of the lifeboat station below. Scary stuff, certainly, but an experience the 13 members of the Davie family, who lived in the tiny house here in the mid-19th century maintaining the light, would have had to guard against daily.

The sand is unappealing, coarse and dark from the massive slate cliffs looming over the coves. What lured the ultra- modest Victorians here was the sheltered nature of the series of small coves, each separated from the last (and from the opposite sex) by tunnels. The coves are still home to large pools at low tide. Tunnels Beaches are rated as among the best in the country for rock pools, a view my youngest daughter Sophie would eagerly agree with. For me, by far the most interesting thing was reading old newspaper articles along the walls which offer amusing insights into Victorian seaside etiquette. Ladies were advised to leave corsets at home when rowing.

The perils of water and weather are shown by a poignant and graphic exhibition in Lynmouth's Memorial Hall of the floods in August 1952 which claimed more than 30 lives and destroyed 60 buildings. Water flowed off Exmoor after torrential rain, turning the East and West Lyn rivers into a raging torrent which swept 8,000 tons of boulders and 114,000 tons of debris through Lynmouth. Dramatic photographs and compelling newspaper accounts are shown alongside a model of the village, since rebuilt, before the flood.

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We also had a lesson in just how powerful the weather in coastal North Devon can be as 60mph winds rocked our campsite, destroying five tents and seven awnings.

As testament to the appeal of the area, one group who had been made tentless went all the way home to Oxfordshire to pick up a replacement tent and came back the next day.

They were soon joined by others, who had decamped on the site manager's advice to bed and breakfast accommodation nearby. We stood in torrential rain at pretty Watersmeet, just outside Lynton, where the Hoar Oak Water and the East Lyn rivers produce an awesome torrent. We sat at the edge of the Valley of the Rocks to admire the glorious sunset while dozens of goats skipped around us. Whatever we did, we were captivated by a North Devon which by turns is exciting, tranquil, challenging or relaxing. But never for a moment dull.

What else to see and do

The South West Coast Path runs through North Devon on its 630-mile journey around the South West Peninsula, taking in spectacular coastal views. For an easy half-hour walk along a small part of it, take the path which hugs the cliffs from Lynmouth to the Valley of the Rocks, or pick up a longer walk from Combe Martin.

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There are several beautiful and well-signposted walks of varying lengths around Watersmeet and in the East Lyn river valley, taking in the woodlands, waterfalls and boulder-filled streams of this deep gorge. It's a haven for butterflies, otters, birds, salmon and other wildlife. There is easy access from Lynmouth.

Woolacombe beach, with its three miles of sand, has been rated one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Croyde, Saunton and Westward Ho! are all firm favourites with watersports enthusiasts, including surfers, kite-surfers and kayakers who come for the powerful Atlantic waves. There are shingle beaches at Clovelly, Lynmouth, Lee and Ilfracombe.

Lynton and Barnstaple Narrow Gauge Steam Railway runs through picturesque countryside from Woody Bay Station to Killington Turn, one mile away. There's an excellent, cheap, fund-raising second-hand book shop at the station.

Visitors to Arlington Court, a Regency house on the edge of Exmoor, are

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greeted as guests, at the stipulation of Rosalie Chichester, who left her magnificent estate to the National Trust.

The estate also houses the trust's largest collection of horse-drawn carriages. www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Watermouth Castle's gardens are lovely. A variety of children's rides

are included in admission to the castle (off the A399 between Ilfracombe and Combe Martin).

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At the North Devon Karting Centre in Barnstaple drivers are divided according to experience and nerve.

North Devon – Useful websites

Herlen Werin stayed at the Camping and Caravanning Club site, Caffyn's Cross, near Lynton.







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