Sequestered on the edge of the finest Devon countryside, Exeter is a charming city of cobbled streets, Tudor-beamed pubs and tea shops, and historic Quayside with a waterside line of restaurants and shops selling everything from antique jewellery to locally made ice cream. Once you’ve had your fill of its medieval underground passages, walks along the River Exe and multitude of activities and museums, Dartmoor National Park is just a car/bus/bike ride away, making this brilliant city all the more appealing for a long weekend. For a real treat, do as we did and fly into Exeter’s airport (the journey from London City was a mere 50 minutes), leaving maximum exploration time…
Exeter’s Historic Sites
Having been around since AD 50, Exeter is unsurprisingly swathed in history with various sites dotted around the city donating architectural triumphs of yesteryear. Start with the magnificent Cathedral (there is a cost to go inside, but one sight of those stained glass windows makes it totally worth it), ensuring not to miss the equally stunning buildings that make up the Cathedral Quarter. Then soak up the Norman splendour of Exeter Castle (with a turn around the famous Rougemont Gardens). Finally amble down to Exeter’s historical quayside, a most attractive waterfront of old shop fronts and quaint cafes with a couple of ye olde cannons outside Custom House for obligatory comedy holiday snap opportunities.
Clip n Climb
Down by Exeter’s quayside, you’ll find a wealth of potential activities for those that want more of a challenge than a gentle walk or cycle along the river’s edge including kayaking and boat trips. Our top tip is Clip n Climb, which is basically indoor climbing with colourful walls and variation for short attention spans. Apart from the fact that we were outnumbered by children who made tackling the climbs look effortless, it was both fantastic fun and a proper work out.
Dartmoor National Park
There’s no point coming to Devon and not ambling across its mystic moors. When we visited, vast valleys were blanketed in gorse turned auburn by autumn and the cloud-scattered sky was dark and brooding against the forest-lined horizons. Hardier types can talk to local guides and plan long walks or guided tours, whilst weaklings (read us) are best to note a nearby pub on said walk, so you have the prospect of a pint and a fire to spur you on…
The Magdalen Chapter
Generally considered one of the finer foodie spots in Exeter’s city centre, The Magdalen Chapter also happens to be a rather attractive looking hotel. The building, The Former West of England Eye Hospital, has a glorious façade of tall curved windows and warm red brick whilst the interior is a stark contrast of modern good taste. We had lunch in its main restaurant which not only impresses with its impossibly tall ceilings, but its menu guided by Matt Downing. The dishes switch with the seasons but we enjoyed a delicately spiced, pink-in-the-middle quail and fresh-off-the-coast crab salad to start. Then a stand out winter main of venison with all the right trimmings and a duck done two ways (and both of them delicious). We’d recommend for a buzzy lunch, particularly when the good weather makes the most of those floor-to-ceiling windows out to the garden.
If you fancy cabbing it out of Exeter for the night for a bit of old-school dining splendour, then Bovey Castle is a fantastic choice for dinner. On our visit, its main restaurant The Great Western (named after the Great Western Railway who were the first owners of Bovey Castle), didn’t put a foot wrong. Everything from the brilliant breads (all created by a mother dough named “Daniela” which was ‘born’ in 2011) to the service (our waitress took us through the cheese trolley with so much enthusiasm, we wanted her to stay and share it with us) were top notch.
Dishes have all the bells and whistles of fine dining without any of the pretention. Highlights included a beautiful plate of Brixham crab & local mackerel cleverly paired with sharp picked cider apples, a sweet jelly and roasted peanuts; and a beer-braised cheek of Devon Red beef alongside smoked slices of rib eye and violet potato gnocci. If you’re not staying, sneak in a quick tour of the hotel’s many (and too-splendid-to-miss) public rooms after dinner.
Whilst Exeter has many lovely hotels, you’re unlikely to find anything that quite hits the highs of nearby Bovey Castle. Part of the exceptional Eden Hotel Collection, and set in the splendour of Dartmoor National Park, guests can expect royal treatment from the moment the car pulls into Bovey’s winding driveway and draws up to the neo-Elizabethan entrance. Built around 1890 as one of Viscount Hambleden’s many country retreats, it first operated as a hotel in 1930.
History lesson aside, the building’s opulent heritage has been beautifully maintained, with every public room, walnut-lined walkway and sweeping staircase in jaw-dropping condition. Modern touches include a comprehensive spa, gold-edged swimming pool and the addition of the second, more casual, Smith’s Brasserie. There’s also an immaculate 18-hole golf course plus numerous other pursuits that can be arranged including falconry, quad biking and sloe gin making (they’ll also bring round the Jag if you fancy a lift into the moors).
There are 63 rooms in total, offering everything from snug singles to mews set in the grounds for large groups. Our suite, in the main house, offered all the comforts one could need – from a bed so sinkable it was a struggle to get out of, to a bathroom so large, the two double sinks and standalone bath needed the addition of an armchair to keep them from looking lonely. Expect the very best linens, the most stylish wall art and bathroom products of every description.
Bovey Castle has so much to recommend it, we’d advise splashing out at least a two night stay. Even with 48 hours to take in its charms, we found ourselves with a checklist of things we didn’t get to do (board games and whiskey in front of the drawing room fire, taking tea on the balcony overlooking the grounds and, having heard it is QUITE the spectacle, watching the staff decorate the massive Christmas tree which requires a very tall ladder).
Whether you stay for two nights or ten, Bovey Castle is not only the ultimate country retreat but one with the advantage of having a fabulous city on its doorstep…
We flew from London City Airport to Exeter Airport with Flybe
Words by Lucy Self, our new girl about town and restaurant writer. She is an all round food obsessive and has been writing about food in London for several years, as well as having a steady day job in restaurant PR.