A slice of Devon
Katie Mather finds a different kind of countryside, through pubs, orchards and churches
Monday 18 January 2021
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At the end of a worn, white gravel path in the South Devon village of Slapton is a tower. It’s the only remaining structure from a former 14th century priests’ college, and even on a relatively clear August afternoon, the jagged walls loom. Clouds swirl above. Rooks caw. I like it.
A few more steps down the same path and The Tower Inn inches into view. The pub’s whitewashed walls stand behind a stony beer garden, and iron crows guard the signage. After a wholesome morning of beach strolls, eating strawberries on a park bench and taking pictures of interesting gravestones in the sunny churchyard, it is irresistible. I always feel guilty for somehow turning every trip we go on into a protracted pub crawl, and I good-naturedly pretend the dark windows on the oldest side of the building aren’t calling me inside. I want to try to be the sort of holidaymaker who would rather get back in the car to visit a museum about farm machinery (I am also that sort of holidaymaker – a person can be two things). I take a photo and am about to wonder out loud if we absolutely have to get back to the campsite when:
“Let’s go in,” says my husband, already making a move towards the door. I didn’t need to be told twice.
The holy grail, for me anyway, is finding pubs that are as decent as they are atmospheric. There are some very old pubs in this country that aren’t much cop – old alone doesn’t do it for me. I love a pub with idiosyncrasies, but the beer and the vibe has to be perfect too. Perhaps there’s a whippet on every seat, leaving only standing room for customers. Perhaps there are witch-marks above the doorframe. Maybe on your way to the toilets, you spot a salt shaker on a dusty, high-up tankard shelf, put there by a mischievous drinker 60 years earlier. I want to drink something great, ideally something made not far from the pub I’m in, in a room with beams so low that my husband could easily concuss himself on them if he’s not watching where he’s going. I want to be told offhandedly by a member of bar staff that the room I’m about to sit in is haunted by the ghost of a wailing monk.
We sit in the oldest room, all to ourselves, and I contentedly drink my pint of Sandford Orchard cider, wishing we were staying for dinner. The smell of roast potatoes is almost unbearable. Buying a second pint, I speak to the two women running the bar about the beers they have on, and in return they ask where we’ve already visited. I ask them if they know The Church House Inn in Rattery. Not too far away, I thought.
“Oh, we don’t go goin’ up there!” one of them laughed, putting on an accent for the tourist. “That’s miles away! Up near the A38? Nah, that’s a long way to go.”
It’s about 13 miles.
I had noticed when we first arrived at our campsite in the idyllic fishing village of Beeson that the roads weren’t exactly made for easy progress. Where I’m from, country roads are twisty-turny, but they’re also pretty good for razzing around on too. In South Hams, for the most part, tall green hedges frame a single-track road, with passing places to slam on the breaks and reverse into when you come across another motorist. I become very acquainted with the hedgerows of this part of the country thanks to those passing places, and having the window on my side of the car pressed so frequently into them. They are so thick with late summer life, these pockets of wilderness. Hawthorns and plane and sycamore bent and bound together over hundreds of years, with nettles and ivy and blackberries and all sorts of herbs and agricultural interlopers nestling in the in-between. But I can imagine they don’t make travelling to rural villages for a couple of pints very easy.
We planned our Devon trip during the first lockdown, as a way to prove to ourselves that we’d be allowed out of Clitheroe at some point in the distant future. Back in April, August seemed years away, and by the time we were packing our tent in the car I’d been dreaming about swimming in the sea for months. The main draw of Devon for me was a different sort of countryside, a new landscape to look at. For a week I wanted to swap the Forest of Bowland and it’s dripping ferns and craggy hills for rolling green fields. We might not have planned time to visit Dartmoor properly (we are saving that for another trip), but I was excited to be on the coast, watching waves curl infinitely towards the shore.
I’d also obviously planned to visit Buckfast Abbey during the trip. When we get there though, it’s pouring with rain and we find out that the People’s Port (copyright, me) isn’t brewed there anymore. Looking at the abbey while drinking take-away coffee in a lavender garden, we pretend it is ancient and mythic, instead of mostly from the 1920s. I am determined, as a Buckfast fan, to enjoy myself and to be fair to the place; there is some beautiful stained glass inside, and an absolutely magnificent horse chestnut tree in the grounds at the front door. In fact, the gardens are my favourite part, even in the rain, especially a tiny sort-of-instructional orchard, where apples, pears and quinces are trellised over walkways with signs pointing to each of them. I pick an apple from above my head – we’d just come from Little Pomona’s cidery on our way down through the country, so picking apples is now a compulsion – and when I bit into it I caught two people staring at me. We wandered around the rest of the garden and back to where we started, to find a group of happy visitors with their own apples. I’d started a fall. Change my name to Eve.
In South Devon, each tiny, picturesque village is more beautiful than the last one you visited, so when we leave Buckfastleigh in search of an old pub I want to visit, we almost roll our eyes at the beauty of the hamlet of Rattery as it hoves into view beyond a leafy corner. Oh look, gorgeous white cottages with thatched roofs. Dappled sunlight scattered over cottage gardens, which themselves are tumbling with flowers. A garden full of marshmallow-white geese. Yeah, yeah, we get it.
We sit by an unlit woodburner and wish we’d come to Devon three months later
The Church House Inn is a classic coaching inn, the type of low, white rectangle that’s been so well-used over the centuries it’s sunk roundly into its foundations. The front of the pub boasts big black wagon wheels and a double-take-inducing building date of 1028. A long pub, and full of horse brasses, we sit by an unlit woodburner and wish we’d come to Devon three months later. It is too nice outside to have the fire on, but it seems a shame to be sat in the best seat in the pub without flames threatening to melt the soles of my boots.
So, the 1028 opening date. Actually, it turns out that The Church House Inn was actually converted into a pub, or at least a drinking house separate from the local church building, in the 1400s. Most of the aesthetics are clearly from a refurb which happened sometime in the 1600s, but I’m happy with that, being closer to the discovery of gravity than the invention of the Spinning Jenny. We order scotch eggs and chips, which were amazing snack choices and go brilliantly with our beers: a Dartmoor Brewery Jail Ale and an Exeter Brewery Avocet Ale. Devon really has got some excellent breweries.
Eventually it is time to head back to the campsite to meet our friends for extremely posh and Southern fish and chips at Beeson, somewhere called Brittania at the Beach. You can tell a really good pub by how much of a wrench it is to leave it. We really don’t want to go, no matter how good the calamari is meant to be at this place we’re going to (note: it was unreal, and we saw a seal in the bay). But leaving does give us a positive in the end – we realised how much these pub visits aren’t just ways to pass the time. They’re part of what make our trips special. And we also realised during lockdown that not being able to get out and snoop around creaky Inns has been a real bummer, actually. We come to the conclusion as we pull back into the space beside our tent that any time one of us is thinking about how much they’d like to go on a ridiculous journey to visit a spooky old pub they’ve found on Google maps, don’t even raise it as a suggestion. Just get the coats and the car keys. Let’s go.
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