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Family travel: Devon in style

Steam trains, sandy beaches and... snakes? The charming South West county has a foolproof formula to win over your kids

Family travel: Devon in style
Terrace deck, overlooking bay, Overcombe, Devon, UK. Image: Ian Kingsnorth

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Occasionally, just occasionally, you can get everything you want as a parent. Holidays don’t always have to be style-free, toddler-proof and functional; those plush, designer properties you eye up in home interiors magazines can be somewhere you stay, even if you can’t actually live there. And when you’re seeking seclusion, somewhere to escape from it all, you can have that too.

Satisfying these two needs is one thing, but are the kids catered for as well? Well, if remote beaches, seaside towns, steam engines and a rare breeds farm will keep them happy, then I know just the place…

Overcombe, Perfect Stays’ latest addition in South Devon’s Bigbury-on-Sea, proved to be everything we wanted from an Easter holiday. We’d already fallen for the strikingly modern architecture and decor from the images on its website but hadn’t quite realised how special those views were.

It was practically a raging storm when we arrived, late on Saturday afternoon (thankfully, this was as bad as the weather got all week) but even then the view was spectacular. Situated high on the cliff overlooking Bigbury Bay and Burgh Island — sandy beaches, pristine countryside, rugged coastline — Overcombe is the kind of ultra-modern five-bedroom hideaway that causes a stir on Grand Designs. Completely rebuilt by the owners of 15 years, it’s largely a blend of glass and white walls; modern yet comfortable, with clever interior design touches. The decking surrounding the house — approximately 5,000sq ft of it — and the all-glass kitchen/dining space, offer vistas across the coast from almost every angle.

As the owners point out, “We’ve built the property out over the cliffs on stilts and we’ve put in a huge amount of glass, so it really maximises the views. The Avon Estuary below is very tidal so the views are changing all the time — at one time of day it’s full tide and at another time there’s a massive expanse of beach.”

Spread out over one floor, the eight of us — four adults, four children — found it more than spacious and while we had concerns about the white walls and cream carpets and furniture, thankfully there were no accidents. And with mod cons including a SONOS sound system, 60” HD screen, PlayStation 4, log burner, Nespresso machine and games room (darts, table football, pool), it’s somewhere you could be ensconced in whatever the season.

A short walk across the sand, when the tide is out, is Burgh Island, celebrated for its art deco hotel and Agatha Christie links — it’s featured in two of her novels — while the island’s pub, the Pilchard’s Inn, dates back to 1336. The kids, of course, couldn’t care less for history but were amazed by the sea tractor — the only way to and from the mainland when the tide is in.

Bantham, just across the bay but a good 30-40-minute drive when the tide’s in, is hugely popular with surfers and kitesurfers. Our offspring were too young for either but were more than happy building sandcastles, playing football and flying kites for hours. Refreshment is on hand with the excellent Sloop Inn pub and less conventional Gastrobus, a popular beachside pop-up cafe.

Once the weather had settled we headed inland, and a shortish drive north — the country lanes are never fast — took us to South Devon Railway. Built in 1872, it offers steam train journeys along its seven-mile stretch between Buckfastleigh and Totnes. Kids, it seems, never fail to be amazed by trains, especially steam ones, and this is an ideal day out for younger children. Of course, the real highlight for them was the Totnes Rare Breeds Farm, seconds from the platform, where they were greeted by an eagle owl (with his handler) and several other enchanting species. From feeding lambs and goats, to holding guinea pigs and snakes, this was the kids’ highlight of the week.

And me? South Devon has a wealth of other attractions — Dartmouth, Plymouth and Salcombe to name a few — but these will have to be reasons to return as I was content to sit gazing at those views from Overcombe.

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Who travelled: Pat and Jo Riddell with their children Mia (6) and Dexter (2), and friends with children aged 5 and 2.
Highs: Hard to choose but the Totnes Rare Breeds Farm ticked the boxes for the children. Adults were more than happy with the accommodation.
Lows: Having to leave.
How to do it: Overcombe is available from Perfect Stays. Prices range from £1,800 to £4,800 for a week or £1,400 to £2,400 for three-night stays, depending on the season.


Published in the Summer 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family