The cold wind whips around my ears and violently shakes the branches overhead. Right now, I’m unsure whether the bead plummeting down my cheek is sweat or rain.
As my feet weigh down on the pedals and my legs start to burn, I activate ‘turbo mode’ and battery power aids my climb to the top of the hill. I’m on an e-bike and that bead slipping down my cheek is most certainly rain – even on the steepest of South Devon hills, I’ve barely broken a sweat.
It’s my second morning in the South Hams region of Devon, located between Torbay and Plymouth and bordering the Dartmoor National Park to the north.
It’s an area with a strong rural and maritime heritage, where sandy beaches rub up against rich coastal grasslands. And it’s so pretty, it’s a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Naturally beautiful it may be, but exploring on two wheels has largely lacked appeal to the average South Devon visitor, due to the relentless and often steep hills. Thankfully, e-Xplore Devon (e-xploredevon.co.uk; from £50 per bike per day) have made cycling here more accessible (and a great choice during the summer, when car parks are full and the roads are gridlocked).
Their collection of battery-powered e-bikes (from all-terrain to e-tandems) will have you speeding along with minimal effort – though if you’re feeling energetic, you can drop to a lower setting or turn off the battery completely.
There are suggested cycling routes on the e-Xplore website, and the 21-mile Beach Circuit is a delicious amble along coastal roads and through quaint villages. I dismount in the tiny hamlet of Thurlestone and admire its 17th-century thatched roofs and its glorious bay (featuring Thurlestone Rock), before continuing to Bolberry Down, a long stretch of rugged coastline.
The route continues east and I refuel at The Winking Prawn (winkingprawngroup.co.uk/winking-prawn; seafood mains from approx £10), a family-run seafood restaurant on Salcombe North Sands beach. Beer fans should order the aptly named Prawn Juice, which is brewed in partnership with the South Hams Brewery.
I continue on my cycle and initiate ‘turbo mode’, mainly because I’m full of garlic prawns and don’t fancy a stitch. The route flanks the Salcombe estuary – its vibrant blue waters punctuated with small white sailing boats – before turning back inland. I finish back at the e-Xplore showroom in Kingsdown and space permitting, you can leave your car there whilst you cycle. The crew at e-Xplore can also drop your bike directly to your accommodation.
The rainy weather and long cycle have me craving some home comforts, so I head back to my rustic but extremely cosy shepherd hut. Located at the, the Salcombe Shepherd Huts (salcombeshepherdhuts.co.uk; from £200 for Monday-Friday and weekend visits, and from £325 for a week) are an excellent choice if you want a slightly more luxurious camping experience. The four huts are handcrafted using local and sustainable wood, and each includes a log burner (perfect for winter trips or chillier nights), and a fully-equipped kitchen.
I’m in the Foxes Den which has an en-suite toilet (new for 2021), a comfy double bed (though it’s up a ladder so book either The Potting Shed or The Shippen if that’s a problem), and a small leather couch. I enjoy my morning coffee at the picnic table with its views of the Kingsbridge Estuary and flocks of sheep merrily grazing in the surrounding fields.
The next morning I’m zipping along country roads to Bigbury-on-Sea, where I’m booked in for a surfing lesson with Discovery Surf School (discoverysurf.com; from £35 for a 1.5-hour lesson). All equipment is provided and I’m thankful for a super thick wetsuit, as the temperature is barely hitting double digits.
We start on the beach as Matt, our instructor, guides us through the basics. We’re soon in the water and Matt’s constant encouragement fills us with enthusiasm and motivation, even after numerous wipeouts. Slowly but surely we start to stand, unsteady but feeling accomplished. There are just three of us in my group, but the maximum size is six, so expect lots of useful feedback (the team also offer Surf Courses and 1:1 sessions).
Catching tiny waves makes me hungry and I drive the 30 minutes to Hope Cove, an old fishing village with two sheltered beaches (making them popular with swimmers). I settle in at the Lobster Pod Bistro (lobster-pod.co.uk; seafood mains from £8.50) which you’ll find perched on the hillside above Harbour Beach. I gorge on the Seafood Platter, which includes today’s catch (gurnard and mackerel), alongside potted crab, prawns and a selection of salads.
Visitors can sit on outdoor benches or self-contained pods (which seat up to 10 people) and all have views of the ocean and the grassy Bolt Tail headland (a 15-minute amble along the coastal path will take you up to the headland viewpoint). I spend the next hour marvelling over the view. The sun has made an appearance and I’m lapping it up with a pint of Salcombe Pale Ale (brewed just up the road in Kingsbridge).
The small town of Salcombe is one of South Devon’s most popular (its location on the banks of the estuary make it a long-time favourite with the sailing community), and its independent shops, award-winning restaurants and waterside cafes make it worth a day or two of exploring.
Parking can be hectic, so leave the car at your Shepherd Hut and jump on the number 606 ‘Tally Ho!’ bus from Yarde Gate Nursery (£1.80 per person, each way). Alternatively, you can take the scenic, but extremely hilly, 40-minute walk into town via the village of Batson.
Gin fans should visit the Salcombe Distilling Co. (salcombegin.com), located on Island Street. Every bottle of Salcombe Gin is distilled on-site using a single copper still (you can spot its gingery hue from the street outside). Tasting Sessions include a tour and lots of samples (including the limited-edition Voyager Series and the zero alcohol, New London Light).
The distillery also runs a Gin School, which allows visitors to create their own bespoke gin recipe. You’ll take charge of a miniature copper still under the watchful eye of an expert distiller, who will guide you through the process of choosing botanicals and naming your unique creation. Take your bottle home or enjoy it at the waterside Distillery Bar (which is a destination in its own right and serves a delicious selection of gin-based cocktails and Salcombe & Tonics).
Along the street from the distillery, you’ll find the Salcombe Dairy (salcombedairy.co.uk), which has been churning ice cream for over 40 years. Over half a million litres of the stuff is pasteurised, churned and packaged each year beneath their shop on Island Street, and they’ve recently started making bean to bar chocolate on the site as well. Must-try ice cream flavours include Honeycomb (their signature flavour) and Rum and Raisin (my personal favourite).
My final evening is spent at waterside restaurant Dick and Wills (dickandwills.co.uk; mains from £15.95). It’s April and government guidelines mean we’re sitting outside in the freezing wind, but luckily the team are on hand with heaters. The salad from my Asian Chilli Beef starter gets blown into the estuary, but luckily my main course, a Prime Devonshire Steak Burger topped with Vintage Cheddar and a side of chips, proves to be a sturdier and equally delicious option.
The rain arrives, but I’ve learned to embrace it this time, because it’s not a British trip to the seaside without a healthy serving of wind, rain and well, soggy chips.
How to plan your trip
For details of places to stay, visit or experience in and around Salcombe, visit salcombeinformation.co.uk
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