Hunkering down in Devon, as the weather takes a turn for the worst, Jeremy Gates discovers the best ways to keep warm on a British mini-break.
It was the first time I had ever sat in an outdoor hot tub, supported by a raft of bubbles, and listened to a chorus of happy moos from cows munching their breakfast across the other side of the valley.
As the sunlight slowly pierced the autumnal mists in Devon’s South Hams district, I could see some animals craftily using a back leg to prop themselves up on the hillside.
After a swim in the largest (certainly the warmest) indoor pool I have had entirely to myself, I strolled back to my barn-style holiday home for breakfast. On my huge TV screen, business reports flashed in from London, New York and Tokyo.
I knew self-catering holidays in Britain had gone up in the world. But I hadn’t realised just how luxurious they had become until the sat-nav drew us to the near-deserted village of East Allington, and then down a single track road for a mile as we searched for a sign in high hedges on either side.
Flear’s complex of nine cottages and three lodges sit in the centre of a 45-acre estate in the middle of nowhere. After dark, you need a torch to wander from your front door.
The facilities are so good, however, that guests have to sign in visitors who drop in for the day. Beside the pool is a large indoor play area, including trampoline, climbing frames, wendy house and indoor footy.
For older children and creaky dads, an outdoor play area lower down the hillside includes a hard tennis court, three holes of pitch and putt, and space beside a babbling country stream where you can kick a ball around until the sun goes down.
Proper golfers get a 25% discount on 18-hole or nine hole golf courses at nearby Dartmouth Golf & Country Club.
Orchard Lodge, our base for the week, boasts a Gold Award from tourism body Enjoy England, and is set on slope with a massive open-plan oak-beamed living area above and sleeping quarters downstairs.
Each of three bedrooms has its own bathroom, and the master bedroom sports a ‘love shower’ which sprays at interesting angles. Rural holidays have moved on a bit since Swallows And Amazons.
I could have passed days happily in front of the open log fire with some good books.
In the event, it was showery, rather than wet. Our first stop was the beach, barely five miles away along muddy country lanes. Blackpool Sands, a wide, open beach flanked by high trees on steep, wooded cliffs, must look terrific under a hot sun.
This is also a handy spot to join the South West Coastal Path, great for walkers. My son took his time to enthuse about a yomp along Start Bay and beyond a hamlet of whitewashed homes called Torcross, where the fish and chip shop is firmly endorsed by Flear guests.
Nearly as famous is Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve almost alongside, where the marshes, reed beds and woodland provide a natural magnet for numerous species of birds, mammals, butterflies and moths.
Beyond there, we were buffeted by coastal breezes along Slapton Sands, beneath the Stars and Stripes which mark a massacre here in 1944. When German E-boats attacked US infantry divisions rehearsing for the Normandy landings, more than 600 men were lost in the darkness.
Some days, it was a bit chilly to walk, so what could be better than a visit to Totnes, beloved among elderly hippies and anybody else determined to escape modern Britain?
Did Mary Portas pass this way when she tried to find a future for Britain’s high streets? Totnes embraces visitors, its shops stuffed with fine local foods, including delicious breads and cheeses made locally, and gleaming fresh fruit and veg.
There’s mountains of cheap clothing in the market square, bookshops flogging nearly new titles in untidy heaps for a pound or two, and lectures on fighting globalisation or becoming a vegan.
For lunch, the granary bread sandwich in The Brioche was so crammed with crayfish, rocket and parmesan that my wife and I had to share it.
It helps, of course, that Totnes was probably designed by John of Gaunt rather than Tesco, on a gradient which gets steeper after you pass beneath the splendid medieval arch. The higher you climb, beyond the Norman castle, the wackier the shops and shopkeepers become.
Next day, the drizzle was a bit harder. We went west, to the Georgian town of Modbury and then to Bigbury-on-Sea, where the tide rolls back each day to reveal a sandy causeway leading to Burgh Island and an award-winning art deco hotel where Edward VII and Mrs Simpson might have stayed in its 1930s heyday.
Today, the hotel gates are barred to any visitor who hasn’t booked. You’d better settle for a pint and pie in The Pilchard Inn next door, before dashing back to the mainland without getting your feet wet.
Wherever you go in this corner of Devon the food is terrific, but in Dartmouth, a self-proclaimed gourmet town, your credit card must be in fine fettle.
One evening, we drove down the hill into the town, while the lights twinkled on the steep hillside of Kingswear across the river, to grab the last table at The Seahorse, famous for the roasted monkfish signature dish by celebrity chef Mitch Tonks.
Having flirted with telly fame and running a public company, Mitch has gone back to basics: buying his fish each morning on the quayside at Brixham and using a charcoal base to roast it at searing temperatures.
No expense was spared, however, on the design decor which matches West End standards, so bills can top £50 per head. But that obviously doesn’t worry diners, because this place has an atmosphere of warmth and friendliness.
Last year, Mitch added a cheaper gaff next door: Rockfish. Designed to resemble a beach hut inside, it offers fish and chip lunches in cardboard containers which cost about £50 for three, including drinks. Kids crayon happily on paper tablecloths, and young mums look ecstatic.
Luckily the weather cleared just in time for us to tackle the day trip voted one of Britain’s best.
It’s the brainwave of Dartmouth Steam Railway, which took on the line between Kingswear and Paignton when British Rail gave up in the 1960s, and today carries more than 200,000 passengers a year.
The line itself, climbing the hillside to give panoramic views through the trees across the River Dart, was built by the one-and-only Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the engine gasps a shriek of relief when it gets to the peak.
Since the 1990s, this train ride has been teamed, on a family day out ticket, with an open top bus ride between Paignton and Totnes and a riverboat journey on the Dart from Totnes back to Kingswear.
All services run to a timetable, so you make the journey as fast or as slowly as you like.
The boat ride back along the Dart to Kingswear in the evening light, past the Dimbleby family pub in Dittisham and Agatha Christie’s former home high on the hill, and blessed with an hilarious commentary by Johnny Harris, convinced me the glorious South Hams merits an early return visit.
Key facts - South Devon
:: Best for: Walking, boating, exploring history and fine dining, with gastropubs keen to give restaurants a run for their money.
:: Time to go: Year round.
:: Don’t miss: The great day out by train, bus and riverboat linking Dartmouth, Paignton and Totnes.
:: Need to know: Most popular centres, include Salcombe and Dartmouth, operate park and ride to handle the hordes during peak season.
:: Don’t forget: Walking shoes, and waterproofs for sudden downpours.
Jeremy Gates was a guest of Premier Cottages, which currently offers seven nights’ self-catering breaks at Flear Cottages, East Allington, South Devon from £373. Orchard Cottage from £1058, March prices.
Flear Country Cottages reservations: 01548 521227 and www.premiercottages.co.uk
Flear belongs to Premier Cottages, which has nearly 1,000 properties with four/five star facilities from the Channel Islands and Isles of Scilly to Angus hills of Scotland.
Visit South Devon for Totnes, Teignbridge, Salcombe, Dartmouth, South Hams - a free guide is available on 01803 864894 or by email to email@example.com
Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Co (01803 555872/www.dartmouthrailriver.co.uk).
Walks Along The South West Coast Path: Dartmoor To Plymouth by Ruth Luckhurst (£4.95, Coastal Publishing).
Rough Guide To Devon & Cornwall (£9.99).