Devon’s gate

Jeremy Gates explores the cuisine and culture of one of England’s prettiest coastal regions now the crowds have gone.

In its calm, unhurried way, East Devon is re-emerging from a terrible pasting from poor summer weather, and it makes a perfectly cosy place to while away a crisp, long winter weekend.

Sidmouth, the jewel on this stretch of the coast, is the perfect introduction to the gentler pace of life. The seaside town which entranced Regency England and fascinated Queen Victoria is maintained so well that more than 500 buildings are listed for architectural interest, including a splendid Georgian terrace on the Esplanade. Little seems to have changed here since the 1950s.

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Early one morning, we leave the car on Salcombe Hill, circle the Observatory, and walk down the hill on the South-West Coastal Path as a panoramic view of the town opens up before us.

The red cliff face of Peak Hill sits like a giant bookend on the far side of the town and beyond Sidmouth’s small strip of sandy beach below Jacob’s Ladder.

Local food and drink is another East Devon speciality: in The Holt at Honiton, a pine-tabled gastro pub included in the 2012 Good Food Guide, I ask the cheery fellow on the bar why the pub makes such a show of local Otter beers. He replies: “Well, dad runs the brewery” and we load the boot before our journey home.

The base for our week is a courtyard of converted stone barns a mile or so inland of the Lyme Regis-Exmouth coast road.

Higher Wiscombe is part of the Premier Cottages consortium, which boasts five-star self-catering few rivals are able to match.

Owners Alistair and Lorna Handyside sunk about £1.5m into their complex which is so far from the road that a water diviner was called in to find the nearest well. At night, the only light is from the stars.

Whatever the season, almost any holiday in Devon includes at least one day when the rain never stops, and soggy clouds sit motionless on the hills.

That’s when posh self-catering comes into its own. Our three-bedroom simply named Thatched Barn has underfloor heating, remarkably comfy beds and views (on bright mornings) when it’s worth setting an early alarm to catch shafts of sunlight climbing up the hill across the valley.

From Higher Wiscombe, there is plenty to explore within a half hour’s drive.

Beer, a seaside village which has lately gone up in the world, is just down the road. At night, its restaurants are heaving.

Almost on our doorstep is the donkey sanctuary outside Sidmouth, where donkeys in serene retirement munch the greensward and stroll with the swagger of Eton boys – as well they might, given the lists of bequests around the complex.

In the other direction lies Seaton, where once-heaving holiday camps have made way for a gleaming new Tesco.

The big attraction now is beguilingly olde worlde: on the Seaton Tramway, electrically-powered open top double deckers clank their way past the mudflats of the Axe Estuary Wetlands and on to the village of Colyford, where the Tramstop restaurant serves up local produce from the station master’s garden.

Our visit to Lyme Regis (just across the Devon border in Dorset) begins with stunning views of The Cobb – alas without Meryl Streep perched hauntingly on the far end – and the curve of Lyme Bay stretching more than 20 miles past Portland Bill.

The original streets and buildings of Lyme Regis remain largely intact: we settle for some scrumptious local crab meat in a seafront sandwich bar beside The Philpot Museum.

The elegant voice of The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s author John Fowles, which, along with the Meryl Streep film, put the historic town back on the map, is audible on headphones.

There’s also a splendid section on Mary Anning, whose passion for fossils on the Jurassic Coast unlocked some of the mysteries of Prehistoric Britain. This museum is well worth the £3.45 fee.

There’s a fascinating backstory too at The Salty Monk, in the Sid Valley, a 16th-century building once used by Benedictine monks who traded salt at Exeter Cathedral.

Annette and Andy Witheridge bought it as a boutique B&B in 1999 and have been redeveloping the building ever since. “So many guests go on to Cornwall,” says a puzzled Andy, “but there is so much to see and do around here.”

Getting there

Jeremy Gates was a guest of Premier Cottages, which features almost 1,000 four- and five-star self-catering cottages in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Isles of Scilly and Channel Islands. Properties range from romantic boltholes to family-friendly country estates, many with onsite facilities like swimming pools, gyms, spas, indoor games rooms and play areas.

A seven-night stay for up to six people in Higher Wiscombe’s Thatched Barn ranges from £495 to £2,095 and three-night weekend breaks from £455 to £1,295.

For reservations call 01404 871360 or visit www.premiercottages.co.uk.

For East Devon information, see www.heartofdevon.com.

For fine eating in Devon, see The Trencherman’s Guide at www.saltmedia.co.uk.