A thatched cottage with a history, country walks, market shopping and fish and chips by the sea… they all made a perfect weekend for Katherine Rake
A weekend away in East Devon – a chance to relax in a traditional, thatched ‘chocolate box’ cottage, take a walk in the beautiful countryside and enjoy the invigorating seaside air. Plus a chance for some shopping, afternoon tea, fish and chips and all the other activities you simply have to pack into a holiday break. My partner Simon and I managed all these and more on our winter weekend in this picturesque corner of the West Country.
But first, the cottage. A mile west of the centre of the ancient market town of Honiton, it was indeed traditional, thatched and chocolate box… and it came with quite a story.
“Do you realise this was once a leper hospital?” asked the owner, Mrs Illsley, when she welcomed us for our stay. It was news to me. She proceeded to tell us the fascinating history of the home where we were spending our break.
With foundations dating from the early 13th century – and reputedly built for the care of lepers by one of the knights who assassinated Thomas Becket in 1170 – it was rebuilt in 1530 as an almshouse for the poor of the town.
Mrs Illsley’s adjoining cottage was once the leper warden’s quarters, while the claim to fame of the small chapel next door – St Margaret’s – was that many centuries ago the barren women of the town were said to come here to pray for help, in the company of the priest, for a day and a night. Miraculously, they would often leave the chapel pregnant – their prayers having apparently been answered. This tale is now captured in Honiton’s official seal. We later discovered that the garden was a former burial ground, its most notable incumbents being 17 victims of Judge Jeffreys’ Bloody Assizes back in the 17th century.
Despite this spooky history, March Cottage was anything but ghostly. Tiny, beamed, and with lots of quirky features that it had gained over the centuries – such as gothic windows, wooden latched doors and wonderfully sloping bedroom floors – it felt welcoming and we soon made ourselves at home.
Once we’d settled in, it was time to explore. First we took a stroll round Honiton; renowned as a coaching stop on the Exeter to London route and once famous for its fine lace making and pottery, it’s now better known as a centre for the antiques trade and antiquarian books.
‘The view that afternoon was stunning, with the winter sun setting the cliffs ablaze while the sea gently shimmered’
You’ll find the ubiquitous antiques emporiums lining either side of the long hilly High Street, intermingled with a wide range of independent retailers, including bakers, butchers, delicatessens, hardware stores, craft, gift and clothing shops. It’s a great place for browsing. We liked the Fountain Antiques Centre near the bottom of the hill, which had an eclectic mix of bric-a-brac and collectibles.
A general market runs either side of the wide High Street twice a week – on Tuesdays and Saturdays – with all the usual wares you’d expect to find, from clothing and hardware to fruit and veg and other groceries. We were fortunate enough to catch the weekend one, and we also discovered a Christmas bazaar at a community centre, where we stocked up on homemade cakes for tea time.
We stopped for a break at the Boston Tea Shop at the top of the hill; I can highly recommend its cake, teas and coffees. And if you’re desperate to use wi-fi broadband, you’ll find free access here, even on a Sunday.
If you want to see examples of Honiton lace and find out more about the history of the industry, visit Allhallows Museum just off the High Street. This has a lace collection dating back more than 400 years as well as a display of the town’s famous pottery which dates back to the 17th century.
Next on our agenda was a trip to the coast. You’re spoilt for choice in this part of Devon – take your pick from Lyme Regis, Seaton, Beer, Branscombe and Exmouth, among many others, all lined up along the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Jurassic coast.
We decided to head for Sidmouth, an easy 10-mile drive that winds down through the valley carved out of the hills by the River Sid, passing through picturesque villages such Sidbury and Sidford.
Relatively unspoilt, Sidmouth is not your traditional kiss-me-quick sort of seaside town, though you’ll find plenty of ice cream and fish and chips as well a broad pebbled beach and clean waters in which you can safely paddle or swim.
The winter sun started to break through the overcast grey skies as we entered this handsome Regency resort, putting in a full appearance as we reached the long promenade lined with elegant 18th century houses.
As we bathed our faces in the warm sunlight, looking out across the clear, calm sea to catch sight of passing ships, we realised someone else was bathing, too – in the sea. A keen swimmer was braving the late November temperatures for what I can only assume was his daily dip.
If you tire of the sea views and the beach, the town centre immediately behind the promenade has plenty to offer, with many interesting independent shops, tea rooms, cafes, restaurants and pubs. A bonus in the out-of-season months of November to April is that many of the on-street parking restrictions are lifted, so you can park by the roadside for free.
The fine weather continued the next day, so we headed off to the Donkey Sanctuary, which sits up high on the hills above Sidmouth. It’s a great place for a low-cost day out for all the family as entry and parking are free, and you have a virtually free run of the sanctuary area.
It’s run by a charity that rescues donkeys from around the world, and you can wander the fields – there are several marked walks – meeting these friendly creatures and finding out more about the work that’s done here. There’s also a barn and stables close to the visitor centre where you can visit the elderly donkeys – some as old as 40-plus – as well as a shop and a small café/restaurant. Dogs are welcome, and the charity also runs children’s workshops.
We spent a couple of hours here, taking advantage of the good weather and doing one of the long walks around the outlying paddocks, before heading off down to the coast again.
After a quick stop-off in Sidmouth for fish and chips (it had to be done), we headed west to Budleigh Salterton. This small town lacks Sidmouth’s grand promenade and long seafront stretch of Regency homes. Instead, the centre is huddled away to one side of the front, and you can walk along the simple pavement edging the shelved pebble beach, enclosed at either end by the towering burnt orange cliffs of the Jurassic coastline.
The view that afternoon was stunning, with the winter sun setting the cliffs ablaze while the sea gently shimmered. Many people were out enjoying a Sunday stroll, and we joined them as dusk began to fall, before driving back to Honiton and a cosy night in at our holiday cottage.
Where we stayed
We stayed at March Cottage, a four-star thatched cottage a mile west of Honiton town centre, sleeping up to four in two bedrooms. Parts of the property date from the 13th century, and it has been refurbished by the owner, Mrs Illsley, who bought it as a holiday home for herself 14 years ago. She has since acquired the adjoining cottage, where she now lives, and the neighbouring chapel, which she has conserved and now plans to convert into a one-bedroom holiday let.
Although the cottage has many original features, including low beamed ceilings and a winding staircase, it also has all modern conveniences, including a newly fitted kitchen and full central heating. It’s very cosy and easy to live in, and its fascinating history only adds to its charm.
A week’s stay at the cottage, costs from £258 to £580. It can be booked through Farm & Cottage Holidays, tel 01237 479146, www.holidaycottages.co.uk
Want to know more?
For more information about East Devon, including activities, events and places to visit, go to www.eastdevonaonb.org.uk
The official Jurassic Coast site explains how it was formed and has a host of resources, including a What’s On guide for events – educational and social – in the area: www.jurassiccoast.com
The Donkey Sanctuary is open all year round from 9am until dusk, with free admission and parking. Tel 01395 578222, www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk
Honiton’s famous lace and pottery are on display at the Allhallows Museum in the town, which is open the Monday before Easter to 31 October. It also holds lace-making demonstrations during June, July and August. Entry costs £2 for adults, £1.50 for senior citizens, and children can visit free of charge. Tel 01404 44966, www.honitonmuseum.co.uk