Your group travel guide to Devon
Whether it’s pretty fishing villages, historic properties and gardens, bustling cities or simply enjoying countryside and wildlife, Devon has much to offer all types of groups. Val Baynton suggests options for visits to the county.
Devon’s historic houses reflect architecture from medieval times onwards.
Powderham Castle, just south of Exeter, was built in 1391 and has been owned by the Courtenays ever since. A guided tour of the castle will allow your group to discover the history of the family – now in the 28th generation, and learn about the interiors and architecture of the castle. The gardens are extensive and a Park Safari can be pre-booked to help your members explore the huge deer park and get a better view of the deer.
‘The ‘Monastic Way’ exhibition is a highlight of a visit to Buckfast Abbey this year. Marking the Abbey’s Millennium (1018–2018), this interactive experience offers insights into 1,000 years of Monastic life throughout Europe, and entry is free. The Abbey church, with its newly-installed organ, offers a spiritual haven throughout the day. Groups can also enjoy a bespoke tour of the tranquil grounds, including the RHS award-winning Millennium Garden. The Abbey gift and bookshops stock produce and wine from Buckfast and other European religious foundations. The Grange Restaurant provides food all day and, with a little advance notice, can accommodate large groups in designated seating areas.
Killerton (National Trust) near to Broadclyst, Exeter dates from the 18th century and is set on 6,400 acre estate, which also includes a working watermill and a medieval hall house. Killerton boasts an extensive fashion collection of some 20,000 items, which was given to the National Trust in 1978. Examples date from 1690 to the 20th century and the collection also includes many couture designer items by the likes of Coco Chanel. This year’s annual exhibition, The Tree of Life, runs until 3rd November and includes court uniforms once worn by the former owners of Killerton, the Aclands, which are decorated in gold thread with symbolic oak leaves and acorns.
On the English Riviera in South Devon, are two more National Trust houses. By the River Dart is Greenway, the holiday home of author Agatha Christie and her family. The relaxed and atmospheric house is set in the 1950s and filled with collections of archaeology, Tunbridgeware, botanical china and books. Fully opened to the public in 2009, Greenway will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2019 with a line-up of festivals including an inaugural ‘Greenway Literary Festival’ at the end of May and finishing with an ‘Autumn Tea Festival’.
At Coleton Fishacre, close to Kingswear, groups can enjoy the Jazz Age at the former country home of the D’Oyly Carte family. Built in the Arts & Crafts style, a joyful atmosphere fills the rooms and music plays, echoing the family’s Gilbert and Sullivan connections. Outside, in the RHS accredited garden, tender plants from the Mediterranean, South Africa and New Zealand thrive in the sheltered valley.
Castle Drogo, near Newton Abbot, was the last castle to be built in England and was designed by Edwin Lutyens. A six-year restoration programme is mainly completed but now the interiors are being brought back together. Groups can visit the castle to see this transformation in progress, but pre-booking is essential. The gardens are also open.
Amongst other smaller historic properties to add to an itinerary is the 16-sided A La Ronde (National Trust), an 18th century house close to Exeter which has a shell gallery decorated with around 25,000 shells. Nearby, Cadhay, a Tudor manor house near Ottery St Mary, offers accommodation for up to 22 people – but is open to the public with guided tours of the house every Friday afternoon from May until September. Meanwhile, your group can go back to the 11th century at Chambercombe Manor, close to Ilfracombe, in North Devon. House tours are available and the gardens can be explored as well.
The historic properties mentioned above also have glorious gardens, but there are more to discover.
RHS Garden Rosemoor is one of the best places in the country to see roses. A five-week Rose Festival begins on 15th June with weekly floristry demonstrations, a floral themed craft market, guided walks, talks and loads of advice. There is also a dedicated Rose Weekend and craft market from 22nd to 23rd June, with specialist rose advice, free guided walks around Rosemoor’s stunning rose gardens and a floral-themed craft fair in The Garden Room, where you will find a host of beautiful variety of crafts made in the West Country.
Aside from this there are many other events such as Rosemoor Live in May and a vintage weekend in late July as well as the Garden Flower Show in mid August. New for 2019 is a ‘Cool Garden’ created by garden designer Jo Thompson. Its theme is centred on the use of water in gardens, and how gardeners can deal with heavy rainfall, and the focus will be on blue and white flowers and silvery foliage and bark, all enhanced by water. Visits can always be finished with a delicious homemade Devon Cream tea for the quintessential English country garden experience!
Green fingered groups might also like to plan a visit to the Burrow Farm Gardens near Honiton in East Devon. The garden has interest through the year with an Azalea Glade and a Grasses Garden planted with Asters and ornamental grasses. Owner Mary Benger, who has created the garden over 50 years, will give guided tours to pre-booked groups.
In North Devon, Hartland Abbey, four miles from Clovelly is also worth a visit. The gardens were created by the Augustinian Canons who lived there from 1157 to 1539.
In the early 20th century Gertrude Jekyll helped Lady Stucley create intimate paths and terraces but post the First World War much of the garden, such as the Victorian Fernery, became overgrown. In the last part of the century and continuing into this, the Stucleys have carried out extensive restoration revealing areas such as the ‘Baronets Bog Garden’ and each year there are new plantings.
Exploring the County
Many attractions provide fun ways for all age groups to learn about Devon and the natural world.
Set along the Jurassic Coast and nestled in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is The Donkey Sanctuary and its home to hundreds of friendly rescue donkeys. Over recent months the Sanctuary has been developed to provide better facilities for the care of donkeys and for the welcome of visitors. The new Exhibition Barn explains the work of the Donkey Sanctuary worldwide and the centre also includes a new restaurant serving freshly prepared seasonal dishes and a gift shop stocking a variety of souvenirs and locally-made preserves.
Discounted group menus are available for pre-booked groups of 10 or more and includes a complimentary meal for the driver and a guided tour of the sanctuary. Pre-booking is essential with a minimum one week’s notice. Admission and parking is free and there’s an easy drop zone right at the entrance for coaches.
The Quince Honey Farm is re-opening in April at a purposebuilt site close to South Molton. Having out-grown their current location, the family-run business is taking the opportunity to open as an attraction to explain the role of bees to a wider audience.
The attraction will include a Visitor’s Centre housing the Farm Shop selling seasonal honeys and beeswax gifts plus a restaurant, over-looking the gardens and serving homemade dishes, drinks and special honey cream teas. The Honey Factory features a ‘Products of the Hive’ exhibition and viewing windows into the honey production area. A behind-the-scenes guided tour enables visitors to get a close-up look at how honey is extracted from the hive and then bottled in jars to sell in the shop. A daily activity programme includes beekeeping demonstrations and taster sessions, candle rolling and critter encounters. The new gardens are to be landscaped with seasonal planting and features such as dry stone walling and willow structures. All planting will be bee-friendly.
All round the county there’s the chance to take a cruise to explore inland waterways or coastline. Stuart Line Cruises operates from Exmouth and provides various itineraries for groups of 15 or more. The Exeter Canal Cruise takes passengers down the oldest working shipping canal in Europe, while the River Exe Cruise departs from Exmouth Marina, past Powderham Castle and along to Exmouth’s seafront. The boats each have a fully licensed bar on board and serve locally sourced seasonal produce.
Further down the coast, the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Cruise Company offers many delightful ways to explore the Dart estuary. There are a variety of river trips such as Dartmouth to Totnes or a circular cruise around Dartmouth offering sights such as Kingswear and Dartmouth Castles, Sir Walter Raleigh’s Boathouse, you can glimpse the pretty village of Dittisham and there are lots of chances to spot wildlife such as dolphins, seals and herons.
The steam train follows a picturesque route from Paignton along the coast to Goodrington and Churston, then through woods to Greenway Halt for the 30-minute walk to the holiday home of Agatha Christie. The best selling tour combines a river cruise, steam train and bus visiting Paignton, Dartmouth and Totnes. Discounted rates for groups of more than 20 people are available.
The 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings will be marked by events remembering the role the region took in training American troops, when Braunton Burrows, Saunton Sands and Woolacombe became the Assault Training Centre, Exhibitions in local museums will be held between April and October and a living history event will be held on 15th and 16th June at Saunton Dunes.
Exeter and Plymouth are easily accessible and make great bases for short breaks.
Great Western Railways (GWR) make it easy for groups to travel to Devon and as well as Exeter and Plymouth, many other towns are en route. GWR’s Group Save offers for groups make this an affordable way to travel. Track upgrades and new trains will soon shorten journey times and improve capacity.
Plymouth’s highlights include Smeaton’s Tower, a lighthouse built in 1759, the National Marine Aquarium – the UK’s largest public aquarium and the Royal Citadel, which overlooks the harbour was built in c.1660 and is now owned by English Heritage. Tours can booked but as an operational military establishment access can be suspended at short notice. In 1620, the harbour was the final departure point for the Mayflower on its journey to the New World and this event will be marked by many activities next year including an exhibition in the city’s new cultural hub, The Box. This development will tell the story of Plymouth and it will comprise a museum displaying the city’s natural history and historic collections and hosting the archives. Art galleries are also included.
An elegant Cathedral City, Exeter welcomes groups all year round. The Gothic Exeter Cathedral has a range of tours for groups including evening tours that coincide with Choral Evensong, rooftop, tower, and library and archive tours. As well as The Royal Albert Memorial Museum with collections of local silver, glassware, clocks and watches, groups can book guided walking tours of the city with the Red Coat Guides choosing from topics such as the ‘Woollen Cloth Trade’ or ‘Exeter in the Blitz’ and even explore the city’s underground tunnels.
In Devon you are never far from quaint fishing villages offering sea views.
Once owned by a Queen of England, Clovelly, clinging to a 400 foot cliff overlooking Bideford Bay, is one of the prettiest seaside villages. Importantly, though, it is still a working fishing village, and no traffic is allowed through the narrow steeply cobbled streets, which has ensured its retained historic charm.
Events for 2019 include the annual “Seaweed” May, “Lifeboat & Maritime” August, “Lobster and Crab” September and “Herring” November and the village will be celebrating Charles Kingsley’s Bicentenary with a host of activities including talks, workshops, exhibitions, live themed music and street entertainment from 12th to 16th June 2019. Kingsley lived there as a child and returned several times as an adult – hence the village museum in his honour. There are no additional charges for groups (or visitors) to attend Clovelly’s annual events.
The Red Lion Hotel on Clovelly’s 14th century harbour wall is undertaking further major renovations, which will be completed in March. In addition to the reception area and lounge, both bars will also be very much refurbished, whilst not losing their original character.
Another bustling harbour to visit is on the south coast. Brixham has a world famous fish harbour and despite the 6.00am start, tours of the harbour given by volunteers to raise money for The Fisherman’s mission are very popular. There are a series of dates that small groups of up to 10 people can join, subject to availability. Additional dates may be possible on midweek dates for groups of up to 25 depending on volunteers and the agreement of the Brixham Trawler Agents.
In Dartmouth preparations are underway for the Mayflower 400 taking place in 2020 with a week set aside for special events between 30th August and 5th September. It was in August 1620 that two ships – the Mayflower and the Speedwell – left Dartmouth for the New World America. The Speedwell started to sink at Lands End, so she returned to port. Amongst events being planned are a ‘Warships, Tall Ships and Mayflower Replica’ festival, a Son et Lumiére and a Grand Dart River Pageant.
Located on the Devon/Cornwall border the Arundell Arms in Lifton is just off the A30 road to Launceston. There are 26 individually appointed rooms, a cosy lounge and bar and a more formal dining room, and the hotel can cater for your group’s specific requirements at a competitive rate. It’s the perfect base from which to explore the peninsular and it is well-sited to enjoy the spectacular Dartmoor. With parking for 80 cars it’s a great venue for classic car rallys too. As well as many places on the English Riviera, popular destinations such as Clovelly, The Eden Project, Bude, Boscastle and Tintagel can all be reached within 45 minutes.
In Torquay, Daish’s appropriately named, The Devonshire Hotel, occupies a 1900s building overlooking Tor Bay. The 75-bedroom hotel has a heated outdoor pool in the summer, a lift, bar and dance floor. There’s live entertainment every night with cabaret, dancing and a selection of games and quizzes including bingo also on offer. The team at the hotel can help arrange excursions and day trips and you can book travel to Torquay using one of Daish’s own comfortable coaches. The group booking team will also tailor the whole break for you ensuring the holiday is as stress free as possible. Free places for GTOs and driver start at groups of 20 plus people.