TRAVEL: North Devon

It's not all cream teas and surfing beaches

With its rolling hills and stunning coastline, the one thing that north Devon can guarantee visitors is an area of outstanding natural beauty.

It boasts some of the most amazing coastal scenery in Britain while to its eastern boundary is the Exmoor National Park and to the south, the wild beauty of Dartmoor.

I recently visited north Devon for a six day break and stayed in the popular resort of Ilfracombe.

Having not visited the area for around 30 years, I really had forgotten how delightful this westerly county was and how much it still has to offer.

With miles of golden beaches, which are washed daily by the north Atlantic rollers, this part of Devon with its hideaway villages, its tiny bays and inlets, is a picture postcard dream.

We stayed in the Torrs Park area at the western end of Ilfracombe and booked into the Epchris House Hotel – www.epchrisguesthouse.co.uk – reputed to be one of the oldest buildings in the area sitting high above the Wilder Valley.

The Epchris stands in just over two acres on a steep hillside and was built in the grand Victorian style. It is now privately owned by Nicky Edwards and husband Rob who works at the North Devon Hospital in Barnstable but is also an Ilfracombe Lifeboat crewman when the call comes.

They had only moved in themselves four days before we arrived, so were extremely busy trying to get the place in shape.

Having worked miracles, they had managed to completely strip and renovate the attractive dining room and the adjoining lounge bar area, while also giving two of the eight en-suite bedrooms a makeover before we arrived.

Staying on a half board basis – as we had my 90-year-old mother-in-law with us – we were delighted with the accommodation, the Epchris having a spacious disabled groundfloor bedroom for just such a guest.

Besides the extensive gardens there was a small paddling pool – although the couple are not planning on accommodating children under eight years old – and a heated pool, while there is a separate games room with pool table which also acts as a pool bar and decked terrace.

However it was the choice of menus and the excellent quality that was a delight. Nicky, who used to run the Dorchester guest house in Ilfracombe, is an excellent cook and uses only local produce, so we ate our way through a variety of Devon dishes all cooked to perfection.

While the town itself has seen better days, Ilfracombe is still a magnet for holidaymakers with the bigger companies like Shearings and Holidays UK. They own some of the larger hotels along the promenade.

The two main beaches, the ladies and mens, are reached through a Victorian tunnel next to the town's bath house while the hideous looking 'twin towers' along the seafront are home to the theatre.

But it wasn't the town that we'd come to see, for with so many places of interest to visit, we opted to take in Lynton and Lynmouth along with nearby Watersmeet and The Valley of The Rocks plus a visit to Mother Meldrum's Tea Rooms for scones and a cream tea.

We also went into the larger town of Barnstable - well it was raining that day - and also to visit one or two of north Devon's beautiful houses and gardens.

Knowing that we would have to push a wheelchair wherever we went, we chose to visit the National Trust-owned Arlington Court, once home to the Chichester family.

However the link with the first solo round the world yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester wasn't made until we'd spent a good couple of hours wandering round the 200-plus acre site and its magnificent manor house.

Arlington Court also houses one of the country's largest collections of horse-drawn carriages and has an extensive stable block, while on the day of our visit, two dozen members of the Kent and East Sussex Austin Healey Sprite and MG Midgets Owners Club drove in as part of their Westward Ho Tour.

A visit to the Rosemoor Gardens near Great Torrington proved to be a tremendous hit with its natural beauty, stunning flora and fauna a must for all with a horticultural bent.

However for me it was a day's fishing and especially the deep sea trip from Ilfracombe harbour with skipper Mark Humphries aboard The Osprey.

Fishing below the high sea cliffs on our way towards Woolacombe, we got into so many dogfish – rock salmon in the local fish shops! – that by the time we upped anchor and headed three miles out into the Bristol Channel to fish at 110 feet at low tide, ten of us had already landed at least 60 all weighing around 3lb each. After that it was another 40 plus dogfish, two 10lb bull huss, a 20lb tope plus a small whiting.

Regular trips can also be made by boat to Lundy Island, a four by one mile wide wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the Bristol Channel while the area also boasts some of the best beaches you could wish to find at resorts like Woolacombe, Croyde Bay and Staunton Sands where surfing seems to be the most popular pastime.

Devon has many sites of special scientific interest including Braunton Burrows which comes under the UNESCO banner, its coastal landscape stretching from Marsland Mouth on the Cornish border to Combe Martin on the boundary of Exmoor.

With the credit crunch biting and many families opting for holidays in Britain rather than abroad this year, north Devon will remain one of the favourite areas for its sheer diversity as it certainly has something for everyone.