Category Archives: Devon

Tavistock

Tavy Toy Town by Jamie Henderson. Image used under Creative Commons; click pic for link

Tavy Toy Town by Jamie Henderson. Image used under Creative Commons; click pic for link

There are some towns which are just lovely, and Tavistock’s one of them. It’s found secluded in the Tavy valley, nestled amongst foliage at the foot of the Dartmoor hills – just a short drive from Plymouth, but a world away in character. The town centre is chock full of local granite buildings, many of them named after the Russell family, Earls of Bedford and lords of the manor, who held great sway in this stannary town from Henry VIII onwards. The towns roots run much deeper than that though – today’s pannier market was charted in 1105, and the ruined abbey goes back to 961; but there’s plenty of evidence of habitation way before recorded history. It isn’t just an olde town though – Tavistock’s history continues through its favourite son, Francis Drake, a wide range of mineral mines, even a canal and two railways – although none of these are functioning today. These last do make for some highly attractive features though – you can walk the canal for several miles through this part of the UNESCO world heritage site. In fact, any direction you wish to strike out from the town you’ll find something rather beautiful.

So – plenty of history and plenty of scenery. But that does not make a charity shop tourist destination in itself, does it? Happily, Tavistock is just as good here. The outermost shop here is Children’s Hospice South West, on West Street, on the corner of Russell Street (that name again…). A large shop this, with some huge linguaphone sets and mad Pyrex dishes causing certain individuals trouble here. On the same stretch is Sue Ryder, opposite Brown’s Hotel, which served us very well for a coffee stop.

Further down there are two Oxfams, an ordinary one and an Oxfam Bookshop with a collection of beautifully illustrated children’s books. Thankfully, at this stage on our holiday we had convinced ourselves that when we returned to civilisation we were going to go and live on a boat, which rather limited our purchases (and somewhat relieved our bank accounts). I’m not even joking; if Diglis marina weren’t so overlooked, we might well have been living afloat by now. St Luke’s Hospice is large and bright and well-stocked; Woodside Animal Hospice is almost its exact opposite, dingy, cramped and crowded, and filled with all sorts of amazing gubbins you had no idea you needed.

We found several secondhand-by-commission shops in this part of the world – Handmedowns takes a small cut on any children’s clothing you want to sell on, which doesn’t seem a bad idea (although I’d a bit rather donate to the charity shop). That just leaves us with MacMillan, tucked away up a little shopping alley called Paddon’s Row, surrounded by hifi shops, art shops, vintage clothes shops and the like. In fact there’s plenty of this sort of shop scattered through the town. A few chains aside, the majority of shops here are independent concerns, some of a highly excellent nature – the cheese shop and health food shop in the market come very much recommended. The market itself is, to be honest, a bit pricey for the likes of me; but again it’s mostly individuals selling their own crafts and produce, and there’s a very lovely atmosphere indeed.

I feel I’ve probably failed to sum up Tavistock’s charm. We spent a whole day here, which is very rare for us, not just pacing the charity shops but exploring the alleyways, browsing the market, walking along the river and canalside through the very charming Meadowlands Park. We certainly have plans to return and will be walking the canal route, as well as lunching in the Tavistock Inn on Brook Street, home of pretty much the biggest pub grub portions ever, and a lovely pub to boot. If you’re ever in Devon, try and make a detour, this is my advice.

Find: Tavistock @ Google Maps
Get there: no railway connections anymore (as yet) – you’ll be after the A386 halfway between Okehampton and Plymouth.
Consume with: definitely lunch at the Tavistock, though bear in mind you’ll need that riverside walk afterwards.
Visit: plenty to go to, but to be honest our loveliest time was spent walking the canal and riverside paths in the park, trying out the outdoor gym equipment and chasing ducks.
Overall rating: five mad pyrex dishes

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Filed under 5/5, Devon

Torquay

Book here, under creative commons, by Andreas-photography. Click pic for link.

Book here, under creative commons, by Andreas-photography. Click pic for link.

Driving to Torquay makes it very clear what this part of Devon is all about. Whereas Totnes and Kingsbridge are happy, self-sufficient little towns, the acres of chalet parks and campsites, the signs declaring entrance to the English Riviera, the model villages, all cry out what Torquay is for: it’s all about the tourist. The continental climate of the Devon coast, the palm trees lining the seafronts, the hotels lining the harbour mark out Torquay as a poor man’s Cote d’Azur, and on a wet, grey, cold December day, you’d have to be a poor man indeed to mistake the gaudy ethnic restaurants and chain stores of Fleet Street for the vieux ville of Nice or the art deco exaggerations of Cannes.

Nevertheless, it’s not without its charms. Some people must think so at least: the unitary authority of Torbay (comprising the adjoining Torquay, Torbay and Paignton) are campaigning for city status, giving it a population of 64,000, just shy of Brighton. But you can’t get away from the tourists: in peak season, the population swells to around 200,000. It’s difficult for me to comment then on what makes Torquay what it is, without seeing it at its peak (something tells me I wouldn’t really like it: l’enfer, c’est les autres).

I panic slightly on entering a new town, mostly due to parking. This time it meant finding a space in the first car park we saw, which turned out to be the slightly gaudy multi-storey for the Union Square shopping precinct. This means that most signs of Torquay as a centre of civilisation are a hike downhill from here, and a hike uphill to get back. Nevertheless, we press on, only to find that the charity shops we were searching for were actually very close to Union Square, just in the opposite direction. No matter: TK Maxx duly yielded its desired pair of gloves, and the trip downhill was worth it.

This trip to Devon seemed to be spent mostly in department stores. Like Austins in Newton Abbot and Pearsons in Enfield Town, we stopped for some lunch at a self-service restaurant on the third floor, and looked out at the lowering skies over the harbour and out into the English Channel. I’m starting to feel a real fondness for these places: like a little world unto themselves, the Grace Bros comparisons come thick and fast.

The charity shops here are a mixed bag: an Oxfam is really the best equipped and obviously appropriated the best of the local donations, but Scope, PDSA, Rowcroft Hospice and British Heart Foundation all mean that the town is definitely worth popping into – for an hour or two, and probably not in season if you value your sanity.

Find: Torquay @ Google Maps
Consume with: Lunch at Hoopers on the Strand. Not quite Simpsons in the Strand, but not too bad.
Visit:
I’m still trying to convince my better half to go to the model village in Beaconsfield, so Babbacombe is a non-starter. Nevertheless, if you fancy recreating Hot Fuzz, here’s a good place to try.
Overall rating: three brand new sleepsuits.

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Filed under 3/5, Devon

Newton Abbot

Come To Sunny South Devon! by menthedogs, under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Come To Sunny South Devon! by me'nthedogs', under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Most places I visit, the Tourism to Charity Shop ratio is actually pretty decent: there’s something worth seeing, a town worth mooching in, and so on. There’s exceptions of course, and Newton Abbot is one of them. Wikipedia has a fairly big section on its landmarks, but if a wiki article makes heavy of the town’s train shed and cheese and onion fair, you know you’re not onto a touristic delight.

To be fair, there’s no real reason for Newton Abbot to act as such a place. Its role is more as the functional hub of the area, leaving the tourists to get on with the attractive bits: Dartmoor, Torbay, Dawlish Warren, Exeter and Totnes are all within close proximity.  Newton Abbot has instead the big supermarkets, the administrative functions, and fulfils any longing the region had for modernist architecture in its dusty, angular main streets.

Compared to those aforementioned towns, you’d never know Newton Abbot was in the heart of prime Devon rural idyll, but it’s right there. It’s got a big horrible Asda, a local department store spread over several sights, oh yes, and about a million charity shops. Newton Abbot falls down comfortably high on the thrift side of the meter here. There’s more than I can remember, more than we had time to visit, and you could quite happily spend a couple of hours here completely avoiding the sites and focusing on the charity shops. There’s a large Oxfam books and music, a Cancer Research children’s store, British Heart Foundation, Rowcroft Hospice, CLIC Sargent, YMCA and many more. I think I counted around a dozen.

There’s clusters found on Courtenay Street, Market Street and Bank Street, and by the very laws of probability, you’re bound to find some sort of thrifty bonanza in Newton Abbot. Don’t go for the sights though, you’ll be disappointed.

Find: Newton Abbot @ Google Maps
Consume with: we just ducked in a Costa, but there’s some sort of ancient cider house.
Visit: How about Puritan’s Pit, erstwhile hiding place of fugitive rogue puritans.
Overall rating: three baby pajamas

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Filed under 3/5, Devon

Dartmouth

Dartmouth, under creative commons from davepattens Flickr photostream. Click pic for link.

Dartmouth, under creative commons from davepatten's Flickr photostream. Click pic for link.

I’m not the first to visit Dartmouth, you know. I’m only following in the footsteps of others, in this case Chaucer, Henry Hudson, the Pilgrim Fathers, Charles II, Flora Thompson and Jonathan Raban, and countless oiks who’ve passed through the dramatic gates of the Royal Naval College which overlooks the town. It’s principally as a port that Dartmouth is known – its strategic importance as a deep-water port was noted by the French who sacked it twice in the Hundred Years War, and for whose benefit the twin castles of Dartmouth and Kingswear were presumably built. Today though, it’s tourists by the million that throng the streets – no rowdy sailors looking for a night out, more nice English families come to gawp at the quaint harbourfront.

It really is quaint though: full of brightly-coloured buildings and the odd Tudor number (see John Burton Race’s restaurant The New Angel for an example), around packed alleys and streets and markets, it’s a really pleasant little town to visit. There’s plenty to see at the castle, and plenty of shops and things in town – a cute walled market, and the odd cobbled street with rows of boutiques, hand made soap shops, expensive kitchenware stockists, etc. There’s pasty shops and cream teas a-plenty, and you can even take the boat up river to Totnes or a steam train to Paignton, should you feel so inclined.

So, a tourist destination par excellence on the English Riviera, in the South Hams area of natural beauty. But not really the spot if you’re looking for a bargain. Aside from the many boutiques and chandleries there’s the National Trust shop and the like (and look out for the discount White Stuff store if you can find it), but only the two charity shops. They’re pretty good mind – Cancer Research has a big shop on Duke Street with some good finds: I’ve found a number of props in here before and I left this time with a nice grandad collared shirt, which is pleasant. Expect plenty of stripy boating-type shirts and slacks.

The other is the Mare & Foal Sanctuary. This is somewhat less ordered, but full of odd things – we spent a happy while browsing the children’s clothes and looking at odd board games and electricals.

That’s it for charity shops, so if you’re thinking of visiting Dartmouth try and work out if you fall more on the charity shop side, or the tourism side. Me, I’m a full-on tourist sometimes, so I like it here.

Find: Dartmouth @ Google Maps
Consume with: The New Angel is the place to go, probably, but there’s some awesome cakes in a window on Duke Street.
Visit: The castle’s pretty good – there’s cannons and arrow slits, which is what you want from a castle.
Overall rating: three little oil bottles

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Filed under 3/5, Devon

Ashburton

Ashburton bunting, under creative commons from eversions photostream, click pic for link.

Ashburton bunting, under creative commons from eversion's photostream, click pic for link.

There’s a certain credibility that comes with being the first town in the country to elect an official from the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. Alan “Howling Laud” Hope was elected to Ashburton council in 1987 and eventually became mayor of the town in 1998. Hope became co-leader of the party after the death of Screaming Lord Sutch and continues today. The Howling Laud is now as departed from Ashburton as his former co-leader of the party Cat Mandu (although not quite as terminally), as is the former party headquarters, Hope’s pub The Golden Lion.

There’s little trace of the town’s illustrious recent past in Ashburton these days, and much more is made of the historic stannary status (i.e. the town was a tin mining centre in this part of Devon) and for being the gateway to the scary wastes of Dartmoor. It’s been there since Domesday times, and was certainly there in the Civil War, being a hideaway from scared cavaliers running from Fairfax. Today, Ashburton is a small town just off the A38 Devon Expressway (the title reminds me of Billy Bragg’s A13 Trunk Road To The Sea) with about 3,500 residents, and 3 charity shops.

All three are local concerns. Brainwave is a little shop with no much that was worth buying in the end – but it’s well maintained with a good variety of stock. Animals In Distress is more of the same, but the best is the Mare & Foal Sanctuary store. As usual, my opinions are based on just the one visit, but nevertheless. I came out of here not only with a personal triumph (an etymological dictionary) but two Le Creuset saucepans – £100 odd new, £5 each to you, guvnor.

There’s not a great deal of Ashburton, and it won’t take you long to wander around and sample its sights. There’s cafes and inns and bookshops and giftshops, but the appeal of the town is less the shopping, more the magnificence of the moors on its doorstep. Therefore, it’s definitely a good stopping off point, if only for a pub lunch and a charity shop mooch.

Find: Ashburton @ Google Maps
Best buy: Definitely the Le Creuset. Mmm, saucepans.
Consume with: I went with the full English at Katie’s Kitchen, and it was not half bad.
Visit: There’s not really much to look at in Ashburton, but who needs it when the whole of Dartmoor is awaiting your walking shoe?
Overall rating: three hardback boxset

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Filed under 3/5, Devon

Kingsbridge

Kingsbridge, by menthedogs - under a creative commons licence. Click pick for menthedogs photostream.

Kingsbridge, by me'nthedogs - under a creative commons licence. Click pick for me'nthedogs' photostream.

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

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Filed under 4/5, Devon

Totnes

 

Totnes, by dachalan, under Creative Commons.

Totnes, by dachalan, under Creative Commons.

Here I am and here I rest. And this town shall be called Totnes. 

So, allegedly, declared Brutus of Troy, mythical founder of Britain, upon landing at the “coasts of Totness”. Given that Totnes is a good 6 miles to the coast it seems unlikely, but nevertheless the town has become the de factoadministrative capital of the South Devon region known very cutely as the South Hams.

Brutus is commemorated with his own Stone on Fore Street (see here for pic and more info). Whatever its actual origins, by the 12th century Totnes was a bustling market town situated on the river Dart and on the major route through this part of Devon – even today, Totnes is just off the excitingly named A38 Devon Expressway and on the main rail route from Paddington through to Penzance. 

It’s a nice town, is Totnes. You can start at the bottom or the top – recommended would be the Steamer Quay car park by the river: it’s a hike and a half to the top of the hill, and you’ll not likely want to do that to go back to the car. Cross the river Dart and make your way to the foot of Fore Street where we start our trek.

First stop, a low-beamed Scope, sets the tone. A large shop, well-stocked with all manner of interesting things in an attractive setting. Amidst the many butchers, handmade shoe shops and other such boutiques, the charity shops of Totnes slot in admirably. Scope yielded me a Phaidon book of boring postcards, which was maybe the highlight of my whole holiday.

We continue up the steep slope via Save The Children (good for board games, and I’ve seen some excellent records here in the past) and British Heart Foundation. The hill peaks at Castle Street, where you can turn off for the small but charming Totnes Castle. It’s worth taking the time to poke off the main drag – the residential streets around the old part of town are really cute, especially leading up to the castle. 

Finally, there’s a few shops bunched together as the High Street bends round: an Oxfam and accompanying Oxfam Books & Music (I left with an Andre Gide, but as usual, not the cheapest), then two more local shops (a vast and sprawling Rowcroft Hospice, and a much smaller, but jam-packed Animals In Distress.

Definitely a well-worth-it trip out, because once you fight passed the massed ranks of hippies and crystals Totnes is a really lovely town, and one of my favourite haunts when I’m in a Devon way.

Find: Totnes on Google Maps
Transport: Totnes railway station is on the mainline from London to Penzance.
Consume with: Lunch, coffee, whatever at the Tangerine Tree Cafe – this was a great discovery.
Visit: The castle, of course. But nearby is the wonderful wilderness of Dartmoor, and I prefer that.
Overall Rating: four battered Mills & Boons


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Filed under 4/5, Devon