48 Hours in Topsham, a very special and historic Devon town on the River Exe
PUBLISHED: 18:36 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013
It's small, sophisticated and architecturally charming, says Simon Cooke, as he visits historic Topsham on the east bank of the Exe.
Topsham occupies an idyllic spot on the eastern bank of the River Exe estuary, just under midway between Exeter and Exmouth. It is one of Devon's prettiest and best-loved towns though it might be easy to overlook if you drove through without stopping. It would be a shame not to spend at least a few hours exploring this historic town, which in its heyday rivalled London as a port.
Topsham has a rich and varied history stretching back to Roman times when it was first established as a Roman settlement. Although village-sized the town was granted a Royal Charter in August 1300 by Edward I, and is now officially a suburb of Exeter. Topsham's unique position offers a sheltered harbour to seagoing trade, which enabled it to thrive as a port and as a centre for fishing and shipbuilding - trades which continue to a certain extent to this day.
The main thoroughfare of Topsham runs in a more or less linear fashion parallel to the east bank of the River Exe. Consequently no part of the town is ever more than a five- or ten-minute walk away from the water's edge and it is this proximity to the tidal waters of the Exe that pervade the town and lend it its nautical atmosphere. There are numerous fine examples of Georgian and Edwardian architecture, along with many exquisite Dutch-style houses which date from the time when Topsham was an important cotton port. Many of these houses were built using Dutch bricks brought over as ballast from Holland, to where wool and cotton from south-west England was exported from the town's dock.
Topsham is an atmospheric and very pretty town and conveniently level to walk around, and is far from being a sleepy backwater suburb. On the contrary, the many thriving businesses and the artistic community lend the town a vitality that many towns in the South West lack.
Topsham can easily be explored in an hour if time is pressing but lends itself well to detailed exploration, offering up many secrets from its long history to the suitably inquisitive. The High Street has some intriguing arts and crafts shops along its length, together with most of the town's restaurants and pubs. The infamous 'Topsham Ten' - now reduced to nine pubs - are a favourite of the Exeter University and Rolle College students.
Three things to take home
Jottys Interiors (01392 875542) in Fore Street stocks an attractive range of straw shoppers, eco-friendly, hand-woven straw shopping baskets with leather handles in various colours, small- or medium-sized.
Tony Isham (01392 876434) is a renowned marine artist. He sells his seascape and maritime paintings through his website and they are displayed at Gallery 58 in Fore Street.
For a truly unique wedding cake Country Cheeses (01392 877746) offer a break from tradition. Their wedding cakes - made
from whole cheeses - are becoming something of a phenomenon in the South West. If you're not looking for a wedding cake try something from their wide range of cheeses.
Where to stay
Topsham is well serviced by a range of B&Bs and self-catering accommodation. Exeter has a greater range of hotels from budget to luxury, but to stay in Topsham would promise a far less frenetic pace of life. The Globe Hotel (01392 873471) is one of the largest hotels in Topsham, with 19 en-suite rooms, some with four-poster beds. All rooms are individually furnished and include TV, telephone and tea- and coffee-making facilities. The hotel also has a popular restaurant and bar attached. The Salutation (01392 873005) in Topsham High Street enjoys a prominent position in the centre of town. This attractive restaurant and bar also offers five comfortable en-suite rooms at very reasonable prices, including breakfast.
The award-winning Galley Restaurant (01392 876078) is a 5-diamond/AA premier establishment offering cabin accommodation with a contemporary twist and unique style, each with a nautical theme. Guests are offered en-suite double or twin rooms or private holiday cottage accommodation with hot tub/Jacuzzi and spa facilities exclusively for guests' use. For superb views of the Exe try the Reka Dom B&B (01392 873385) - a 17th-century merchant's house with all rooms offering superb views over the estuary.
In the village of Ebford a little out of Topsham you will find a very fine B&B at the 17th-century Ebford Cottage, which offers guests a very tempting 15% reduction on beauty and complementary sessions at The Studio.
Topsham has a growing reputation for the quality of its restaurants, with many award-winning establishments in a relatively compact area. On 31 March 2006 Topsham was judged Best Small Town for Food in the Western Morning News' annual food awards. Even the town's tearooms have been getting in on the act with the Georgian Tearooms recently winning the 'Best Tearoom/Caf in Devon' award - their cream teas are something to behold. In fact it's staggering how many awards have been given out to the town's eateries and one could do a lot worse than start a gastronomic tour at Oliva Restaurant (01392 877878). This attractive and relaxed restaurant was winner of Devon Life's 'Best Restaurant of the Year' 2007. With its stylish, comfortable interior and delicacies using locally sourced produce, along with their trademark seafood, paella and tapas, this is a winning combination in more ways than one.
La Petite Maison (01392 873660) is styled as a French bistro - a former Taste of the West award-winner, the husband and wife team of Doug and Liz pride themselves on attention to detail and a focus on good seasonal, locally sourced menus with a decent vegetarian selection.
The dock area and waterfront is usually a hive of activity, with a couple of pubs and a stylish restaurant-caf from which to watch the world pass by. Quay Antiques is housed in the large brick warehouse here and has 70 dealers selling a fascinating range of antiques.
From here a walk down The Strand leads you past many of the town's architectural delights. Topsham Museum (01392 873244) can be found here in one of a group of late-17th-century buildings overlooking the estuary. Topsham's sheltered position enabled it to thrive as a busy port and there was a time when the Exe was crowded with sailing vessels and its shipyards were major employers. The museum gives a fascinating insight into the maritime history of the town, with one particular exhibit - the River Gallery - featuring unique historic rivercraft. Admission is free and there is also a tearoom and pleasant gardens.
At the end of The Strand is the Goat Walk, a narrow walkway along the sea wall. Unfortunately, the tale that gave rise to the walkway's name isn't suitable for publication in a family magazine, but it did bizarrely culminate in the goat being shot near Totnes by Charles Babbage, the computer pioneer. For the curious the internet, as always, has the answers.
Stuart Line Cruises (01395 222144) is based in Exmouth but also runs boat trips from Topsham. This is a great way to get a different viewpoint of the estuary and trips range from estuary tours right up to cruises along the Jurassic Coast to Sidmouth.
For the keen swimmer the town has a very popular heated open-air pool (01392 874477). The water is kept at a very agreeable 28C (82F) and is open every day from mid-May to mid-September. The pool is, unusually, a registered charity and is run by volunteers.
Darts Farm Village is just a short drive from Topsham town centre and is well worth a visit. The centre is essentially a supercharged farmers' market with local organic produce on offer supplied by up to 200 different local food producers. Gerald David, the award-winning butcher, has an outlet here and there is also a restaurant, art gallery, bakery, deli and florists. There are also some very upmarket - and correspondingly priced - homewares on offer from the likes of Aga and Fired Earth. Last but not least, Cotswold Outdoor has a large outlet here selling all manner of clothing and equipment for outdoor activities.
14 September: Eco Fayre - a collection of all things eco-friendly to peruse and buy; everything from composters and wormeries to organic, Fair Trade food.
Every Saturday morning: Topsham Market at Matthews Hall.
June 2009: Topsham Food Festival - a weekend community celebration of local and locally sourced foods, taste workshops and live music.
Car parking: Matthews Hall, short-term pay-and-display; The Quay, long-term pay-and-display; limited parking in High and Fore Streets; unlimited in Holman Way
Tourist Information: nearest office in Paris Street, Exeter (01392 265700
First Great Western trains: Customer service (08457 000 125
National Rail Enquiries:
Stagecoach buses: Traveline
Exeter Airport: Travel Desk