Lizzie PopeSee other travel guides written by Lizzie Pope
Visit North Devon and you're never quite sure what to do first. You could stick on the kettle for a brew to accompany a cream tea (with locally made clotted cream, naturally), or dig out the bucket and spade and make a beeline for one of the many spectacular beaches. There is, of course, the opportunity to do both during your caravan holidays in North Devon.
But if you're after something a little more cosy, don't forget Hele Bay, which is great for rockpooling and crabbing, go to Watermouth Cove for a few smugglers' tales, or the beach at Instow, beautifully sandy and sheltered by the River Taw estuary. Or visit Ilfracombe for the unique Tunnels Beaches. These equally sheltered finds, alongside a tidal Victorian bathing pool, are accessed via four tunnels that were hand-carved in the 1820s.
In between these sandy stretches, many of them massively popular with surfers, you'll find craggy headlands that are superb for a bracing clifftop walk. Go walking on Bull Point, Morte Point and Baggy Point, while further west you can explore Hartland Point, all accessed on foot by the South West Coast Path.
Ilfracombe, Woolacombe and Westward Ho! are the best known of the coastal towns offering traditional seaside holidays, but prettier still are the tiny coastal villages. Clovelly arguably takes first prize for quaintness, with its traffic-free cobbled streets, flower-decked cottages and 14th-century fishing harbour.
Though don't dismiss the lovely villages of Appledore (trying Hocking's ice cream – made by the same family for generations – is a must, and it's only available in North Devon) and Instow, their narrow streets and traditional painted fishermen's cottages lining the mouth of the River Torridge. Or the stone village of Mortehoe, just back from the coast but with direct access to Rockham Bay where, with a net, you can potentially catch supper – or the starter at least!
In the far north east of North Devon are the twin towns of Lynton, perched on the clifftop, and Lynmouth – a unique water-powered cliff railway accesses the pair if you don't fancy the climb. From Lynton, you get some impressive views of this part of the North Devon coastline and, being within the boundaries of Exmoor National Park, some equally impressive views inland. Indeed, this short section of national park is a succession of pretty hills and valleys with tiny streams running to the coast and worthy of a walk to witness the flora and fauna up close.
It's not all about coastal this and that in North Devon, though. The hinterland is riddled with gorgeous rural villages like Chawleigh, Combe Martin, Holsworthy and Hatherleigh, the latter filled with vernacular thatch and cob cottages. Great Torrington, perched on an inland 'cliff', has plenty of historical character having played a big part in the English Civil War, while Barnstaple is North Devon's oldest as well as largest town, harking back to Saxon times.
Barnstaple is also the focal point for the figure-of-eight Tarka Trail, a 180-mile circular cycle route, much of it traffic free using old railway lines. The route is named after Henry Williamson's famous novel, Tarka the Otter, and passes through much of the area that Tarka 'lived' in, such as the River Torridge valley. It's not the only river valley worth pondering over though – the Rivers Taw, Mole and Waldron all make their own mark on the landscape.
And the great thing is that you have so many campsites in North Devon from which to choose, meaning that wherever you base your caravan, you never have to go too far to find something worth looking at or doing.
Top five things to do in North Devon
Take a trip on the Lynton-Lynmouth Cliff Railway for great views of the North Devon coast. The funicular railway avoids a hearty climb between the two Victorian towns.
Enjoy the 65-acre gardens when you visit RHS Rosemoor, the Devon home of the Royal Horticultural Society. With tranquil gardens, an arboretum and family friendly woods complete with activities and children's trails, this is not just about highbrow horticulture.
Watch craftsmen at work at the world famous Dartington Crystal. From viewing galleries above the factory floor, you can see them working with the molten glass and shaping the crystal before your eyes. Discover the story of glass in the Visitors Centre and 'stock up' on glassware in the factory shop.
Explore the world of the honeybee at Quince Honey Farm near South Molton. Get intimate views of the workings of bee colonies inside the hives without the need for protective clothing, discover everything there is to know about bees and making honey – and have the chance to taste and buy honey and beeswax products.
Hire a bike and take a leisurely traffic-free cycle ride along the whole or a section of the 180-mile Tarka Trail. A particularly popular coastal section is from Bideford to Instow.
When to visit North Devon
So, when should you book a stay at one of the many campsites in North Devon? Summers are busy, when the world appreciates the superb beaches that the area offers, so if you're looking for quieter times with better weather, make the most of May and June, before the schools break up for the summer holidays.
There are regular events taking place throughout the year at major attractions like the National Trust's Arlington Court and the Devon home of the Royal Horticultural Society, Rosemoor. Elsewhere, Bluebell Sundays are popular May events to see the carpets of bluebells in the woods around Hartland Abbey and Gardens, while the Landmark Theatre in Ilfracombe puts on the Landmark Beer and Music Festival, also in May.
The North Devon Show is the area's celebration of its agricultural roots, held every August just south of Barnstaple.
Plus, of course, there is our very own Practical Caravan Reader Rally, held on the first May bank holiday weekend at Stowford Farm Meadows near Combe Martin.
How to get to North Devon
For North Devon, the quickest route is to use the A361 off junction 27 of the M5. Parts of this are dual-carriageway, with many speed cameras and the route does undulate as it follows the contours of the hills and valleys. There can be traffic delays as the road funnels to a single-lane section at Tiverton and also when crossing the River Taw at Barnstaple.
The A39 (junction 24 on the M5) to North Devon is not recommended for caravans, with steep hills at Porlock (1:4 – although a small, but twisty toll road avoiding the hill runs alongside), Countisbury (1:4) and Barbrook (1:4) – and the A39 has its fair share of hairpin bends, too!
That said, the A39 is one of the best roads for stunning views of the North Devon coastline and Exmoor when exploring by car without towing. Approach Lynton and Lynmouth and Devon's slice of Exmoor from the west to avoid the steep hills.
An alternative route from the east uses the A303 linking to the A30 and the M5 at junction 29. This is a restricted junction, with access onto the M5 westbound only from the A30. A quick scuttle around Exeter and you're onto the A377 to Barnstaple.
Go steady on the minor roads. With high hedges and narrow, twisty lanes – particularly in the areas around Hartland and no-through-roads to the coast that can be busy with traffic – long forward visibility is not an option.