Slow Travel

Wet-weather activities in Devon

Hilary Bradt gives her tips on what to do on a rainy day in Devon.

In Britain, we’re so used to complaining about the weather forecast we often forget just how accurate it generally is – and Devon is no exception. However, most visitors have access to a television or at least a radio or some online device, so you just need to plan ahead for wet days. I know people who set out determinedly, booted and waterproofed, into horizontal rain but I’m not one of them.

Devon has some of the best walking country in England and it deserves to be seen through slanting sunshine, not slanting rain. For wet days there are some wonderful country houses, excellent museums and other interesting indoor attractions. Even zoos and wildlife parks can be rewarding on a rainy day, because the animals also hate rain so tend to come inside, nearer the viewer, if they have that option. So organise a day out in Devon, for a post lockdown adventure.

The Gnome Reserve

The little fellows deserve their reserve (opening July); after all there are over 2,000 of them, dotted around the dark mossy woods and involved in every activity you can imagine. You’ll find them cycling, skateboarding, wielding a tennis racket, a javelin or a violin and riding anything that moves: a bicycle, aeroplane, duck, pig, and a snail (at least I think it’s a snail).

Gnome reserve, North Devon, UK by Richard Breakspear, Flickr
There are over 2,000 gnomes around the reserve © Richard Breakspear, Flickr

There are two gnomes on their potties, mooning at delighted children, and one luxuriating in his bath. All in all they are having a wonderful time, and visitors are expected to play their part. You are greeted by the indefatigable owner, Ann Atkin, who asks you to select an ‘almost compulsory hat’ to wear as you tour the garden. Trained as an artist, she has been collecting gnomes since 1979 and it remains a family concern, with her daughter-in-law Marg baking the scones for the cream tea that any visitor should indulge in before going gnome.

Kents Cavern

I’ve had quite a few depressingly commercial and dumbed-down cave experiences and feared that Kents Cavern (opening 11th July) would be all entertainment and no education. Well, I was wrong. It’s wonderful! The prize find at the cavern was a fragment of Homo sapiensjaw bone which was recently dated to almost 40,000 years ago, making it the oldest fossil of modern man found in Britain.

Kents Cavern South Devon by Kents Cavern
Go underground at Kents Cavern © Kents Cavern

We learned about William Pengelly, the first cave scientist, and his work excavating and identifying the bones found here. There’s a model of the great man, frock coat and all, which highlights the difficulty of maintaining Victorian decorum in these conditions. Among the animal remains found in the cave were the teeth of woolly mammoth and scimitar-toothed cat, as well as a large number of hyena bones.

Recent evidence suggests that the humans using the cave may have been cannibals: marks from flints used to butcher animals were found on human bones. The stalactites and stalagmites are a real gem, too – and knowing that it took them 60,000 years to get that way adds to one’s appreciation.

Seaton Jurassic

Animal senses activities at Seaton Jurassic, © Seaton Jurassic

One thing to make clear: Seaton Jurassic isn’t Jurassic Park (open now). Tyrannosaurus rex doesn’t stalk the corridors nor does velociraptor terrify visitors in the toilets.

It is as much about survival as it is about extinction as it takes you on a journey through time, over land and under water, celebrating the fact that Seaton is unique on the Jurassic Coast in that you can see in one place all three components of the Mesozoic period: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous eras. And it celebrates the great landslide of 1839 which exposed these rocks and so excited the Victorian geologists of the time. It’s absolutely terrific!

Quince Honey Farm

You can’t judge a book by its cover. This garish building on South Molton’s main road houses a truly amazing exhibition (open now). If you thought you knew quite a bit about bees you will find that you have only scratched the surface.

Quince Honey Farm North Devon UK by Flickr
The farm offers the unique opportunity to learn about the history of bee keeping © Mackintosh, Flickr

Here you will learn about the history of bee keeping, going back some 10,000 years; the different species of bees; and where and how they make their homes in other parts of the world. There are observation hives that you can open yourself (by remote control), films, explanatory panels, and bees everywhere, but always behind glass.

You can watch the various stages of the commercial aspect of bee keeping, from candle-making to extracting the honey and bottling it, and you can learn a great deal about these remarkable creatures.

Dartmoor Otters and Buckfast Butterflies

The butterfly centre (closed until further notice) was founded in 1984 by David and Sue Field, who added the otter part in 1988 because of the proximity of the river Dart. ‘It seemed an obvious thing to use this in some way. Originally we wanted to divert a stream to run through the grounds to create otter pools but this wasn’t permitted, so the water is pumped out and in each day so they are swimming in river water.’

Otters and Butterflies Buckfastleigh South Devon British Isles by
There are three species of otter here © Otters and Butterflies

Even on a gloomy autumn day there were plenty of eye-catching butterflies in evidence, including my favourite, the brilliant blue Amazonian morpho, but Sue told me that they are far more active on bright, warm days. More easily studied are the rows of chrysalises attached to bamboos, showing the range of colours and sizes of these pre-butterflies.

Otters, on the other hand, are completely protected from the elements by their thick, waterproof fur, and are particularly active before feeding times: 11.30, 14.00 and 16.00. There are three species here, North American, Asian short-clawed and British, all displaying different characteristics.

Pennywell Farm

Forget conservation and endangered species, this hands-on animal place is just that – its aim is to bring humans and animals as close together as possible and as such it offers one of Devon’s most rewarding experiences for children (opening the beginning of July).

Pennywell Farm Devon UK by Pennywell Farm
Pennywell Farm is home to many animals such as these miniature pigs © Pennywell Farm

Just look at the expression of a little girl gently stroking a tiny dozing piglet, and you’ll see how well it works. Or sometimes doesn’t: the squeals of disgruntled piglets can be heard from far off, but whenever a baby cries there are nursemaids – or nursemen – on hand to take it back for a soothing word or two.

Pennywell has been selectively breeding miniature pigs since 1992, with the result that a piglet weighs just eight ounces at birth and grows to about the size of a springer spaniel. It’s not just the miniature piglets you can hug. The rabbits and older piglets are remarkably tolerant of human attention too, and selected ones are held in pens where visitors can join them for a stroke.

South Devon Chilli Farm

From the small beginnings of a few rented acres in 2003, this unique farm (closed until further notice) now has around 200 varieties of chilli on a ten-acre site, producing around ten tonnes of chillies in large polytunnels. Visitors are welcome to visit the show tunnel during the summer months and see the different varieties, and a video in the farm shop shows how the sauces and chocolates are made.

South Devon Chilli Farm South Devon UK by Gavin, Flickr
There are 200 varieties of chilli on the farm © Gavin, Flickr

Here you can buy a huge range of chilli products including chilli chocolate, made on the premises, which is addictive after the initial shock – cautious buyers can taste a sample first. Seeds, seedlings and plants are available by mail order as well as on the premises.

The plants are labelled in detail: where they come from, what they look like when mature (so the decorative side) and – most important – the degree of hotness. The very hottest is Carolina Reaper at around two million Scoville heat units, but there are plenty of milder ones too. The best months to visit are July to October, when the chillies are ripening and at their most colourful.

Bicton Park

These splendid gardens (open Wednesday to Sunday) are a mini-Kew with glass houses for different climates – arid, temperate and tropical – plus a palm house which is actually older than Kew’s (it was built in 1820).

Becton Park North Devon UK by Wikimedia Commons
These gardens are a mini-Kew ©

There is also a super Countryside Museum so even if it’s pouring with rain, as it was when I last visited, there’s plenty of undercover enjoyment including a good restaurant.

The Golden Hind

Prominent in Brixham’s harbour is a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s original ship in which he circumnavigated the globe, a feat which brought him lasting fame. Barely 100ft long, the ship is packed with interest, particularly for children who can collect stamps to show what they’ve seen, and be awarded a poster giving them honorary pirate status. And they can walk the plank, although sadly for desperate grandparents, it is only a safe simulation (opening 4th July).

Golden Hind, Brixham, South Devon by Golden Hind Museum Ship
These gardens are a mini-Kew ©

Adults will marvel at the cramped space that could house 70 men, ten of them officers. Only Drake had a cabin; the rest bedded down wherever they could. Among the well-labelled displays are weaponry, entertainments (the ship carried a band for part of the voyage), cooking facilities, and little nuggets of information such as why birds were kept captive: if the ship was lost they would be released to fly to the nearest land. 

Finch Foundry 

Sticklepath has some fine thatched cottages, but its main point of interest is the Finch Foundry, which isn’t actually a foundry at all but the last working water-powered forge in the country. In its heyday it made around 400 tools a day (sickles, scythes, shovels and more) for local farmers and miners (closed until further notice).

Finch Foundry, Sicklepath, South Devon by Leigh (Bella) St John
The Finch Foundry is the last working water-powered forge in the country © Leigh (Bella) St John

You can watch the machinery in action, and the precision of the great handmade wheels, cogs and other parts is amazing. Tucked away behind the forge is a peaceful little Quaker graveyard, probably dating from soon after 1700. The small thatched arbour there was built by a certain Thomas Pearse (yes, that’s the one, and presumably he had a grey mare) who was himself buried in the graveyard, in 1875, aged 81. 

Dartmoor Artisan Trail

Green shoes, Dartmoor Artisan Trail by Hilary Bradt

(Photo: Green Shoes is one of the stops on the Artisan Trail © Hilary Bradt)

Dartmoor has always attracted creative people; perhaps it’s to do with all that space and wildness. The Dartmoor Artisan Trail was established in 2017 to bring together a group of 20 or so of the most interesting artisans, artists and food producers to create an in-depth experience for visitors.

Blacksmiths and beekeepers, potters and painters, woodturners and weavers, farmers and brewers – they’re all there, and more. The trail gives you the chance to meet these people, see them at work, and perhaps try your hand at creating something yourself. You’ll also be able to buy products directly from the makers.The trail is self-guided: you choose the artisans that most interest you and, if you want to participate in a workshop, book ahead through the website.  

Read more in Hilary’s Slow Travel Devon series: