Drive south from Totnes on the A381 and you’re in for a treat. One of Britain’s areas of outstanding natural beauty, the South Hams are genuinely lovely, and don’t fail to live up to their title. Devon is a very English county: only next door to Cornwall, but there’s no chance of a separatist movement here. Whereas Cornwall revels in its isolation (sort of, at least), and takes pride in its place names beginning with Z or ending with -ick, Devon’s a much more genteel location: cream teas, cricket on the green, villages with names like Aveton Gifford, Chudleigh Knighton and Buckland Monachorum; farmers’ markets, local smokeries, church fetes. When I visited in August, seemingly every village in the district was holding a fete, or a ram roast, or some sort of themed jamboree. It means that unlike Cornwall, Devon’s much less split into two camps. Cornwall is a land of two halves: the massively popular tourist side with its surfing beaches, artists’ havens, and glowering moors vs. the impoverished local population, with few jobs, low wages and inflated rents. Devon is somewhere to live and enjoy life – if you’ve got a bit of spare change handy.
The road from Totnes wends through picturesque villages and rolling fields, over heritage steam train lines and alongside sparkling brooks. As you descend into Kingsbridge you’re guided away from the steep high street and around until you reach the very bottom, the harbour. This is hardly a fishing outpost or a cruise liner destination: Kingsbridge is situated at the head of its eponymous estuary, which itself is of great beauty. Apparently it’s technically a ria, although I’d struggle to tell the difference. The harbour is mostly for pleasure cruises and the occasional lazy sea-fish. I parked on the harbour, and started exploring from there, however it’s recommended to go straight up to the top of the slightly dizzying Fore Street first and make your way back down, if only to avoid having to slog up it on your way back.
At the top of Fore Street is the Mare & Foal Sanctuary, a massive shop which smells of damp. Tons of clothes here, although on this occasion, no vintage thrills. As you make your way downhill, have a poke down some of the little passageways and alleys, as they’re all deeply cute – a little reminiscent of Totnes in many respects. Next stop will be the St Lukes Hospice shop, a much cuter affair: split between a pokey upstairs for books, and downstairs for mostly ladies clothes – definitely ladies, rather than women, I think.
Opposite are Oxfam and Scope. Oxfam is particularly good here: not a huge amount of clothes, except for babies/children, but some great books – Oxfam always give me great trouble whenever there’s a ‘collectables’ shelf: I’m a sucker for a hardback volume, but Oxfam know their prices. Not many CDs here, for some reason, but at Scope I left with an Ella Fitzgerald double album, which is very classy of me, and also a Linda Smith standup album, which is fantastic, it goes without saying.
At the bottom of the hill you’ll find Mill Street, with the Harbour Bookshop nestling alongside The Country Hill Animal Shelter, and The Cornelius Shop. I’ve yet to work out what charity the latter actually represents but nevertheless it’s worth a poke, especially if you’re into comedy recipe teatowels. I continued my Jonathan Raban collection here, as well as gaining a passing acquaintance with the history of Irish emigration. Opposite is the frankly huge Animal Shelter shop. This is the kind of place that’s really worth rooting around in: everything’s higgledy-piggledy but there’s gems to be found no doubt – be warned, it’s also a touch on the fragrant side. You can then cross over to the large Cancer Research on Bridge Street to complete the lot.
Kingsbridge is only a little town really, with a population just shy of 6,000 people, but it serves a huge area as the main town and as such feels far more lively than other towns of equivalent size. Everybody seems happy enough to be there, whether they’re poking for bargains in the CD sale that always seems on in the town hall; watching the silver screen in the incredibly quaint Reel Cinema; scoping the market for flavoured oils and cheap tools; or frequenting one of the many artisanal butchers, fishmongers or greengrocers. I’d heartily recommend a visit if you ever find yourself this far out.
Find: Kingsbridge @ Google Maps
Best buy: probably the ace Linda Smith album for £2, or a pretty decent bike D-lock for £5.
Consume with: Red Earth Deli is nationally renowned, and it’s pretty lovely.
Visit: Plenty to poke at in Kingsbridge, otherwise have a trip out to the cute Salcombe (though not in the summer!) or have chips on the beach at Torcross.
Overall rating: four cassettes