Ashburton, Devon's historic Stannary town on the edge of Dartmoor
PUBLISHED: 18:00 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
Trudy Turrell explores the delightfully bustling Devon town of Ashburton with its eclectic shops, fine foods and the surrounding countryside of Dartmoor.
One of only four stannary towns at the edge of Dartmoor, Ashburton has a solid, traditional feel. Stannary towns were where tin, mined on the moor, was taken to be assayed before it could be sold, and with 40% of all the tin mined on the moor passing through Ashburton, it became a prosperous place from medieval times onwards.
The town keeps with tradition, and is one of only a handful in Britain which still has an elected portreeve; this position as 'scribe' dates back to AD 820 when the portreeve was perhaps the only person in the town who could write! In July the town enacts its bread-weighing and ale-tasting ceremony, continuing a tradition from 1276, which ensured that customers received good ale and bread for their money.
Today Ashburton remains a good place to buy fine food and drink, as I discovered on my stroll around the town. I've always loved its fine traditional shops such as
AR Church, the ironmonger under the stone arches of the Old Mermaid Inn, The Ark - a jam-packed wholefood emporium in the downstairs rooms of a fine East Street house, and the Ashburton Delicatessen, with shelves from floor to ceiling, selling a great range of fresh and preserved foods and helpful service to match. Visiting after a few months' absence, I was impressed by a new funky feel to the town, as shops selling the retro, vintage and home-made had sprung up during the year.
Wafts of soap and rose petals led me by the nose from the imposing granite Italianate town hall to Odds and Suds opposite. Filling much of the shop was a painted cart piled high with soaps, solid handcream bars and bath mallows, each dressed or impressed with dried flowers, citrus slices or cinnamon sticks. It's all made at the back of the shop by Jenny Elesmore, who had been making handcream bars that morning at 6am. "I like to gift wrap every purchase," she explained, deftly tucking a rosebud into the raffia and cellophane of a purchase.
Georgina Grant is another shopkeeper who loves what she sells. In the old Globe Hotel opposite, Tallulah in Aunt Esi's Attic sells the sort of clothes that Bugsy Malone's Tallulah might wear. Jewel-bright vintage chiffon dresses, gold kid shoes, handbags and diamante offer a touch of glamour. "Some of the clothes are new, but as long as they are fun and frivolous, that's OK," explained Georgina.
Close by I found Sara's Lavender Box, with vintage fabrics, enamel pans and embroidery silks, plus three good antiques shops, making this end of town a fascinating browse.
On the way to visit another new business on the block I called in to Trailventure, a good stop-off if you plan to walk on the moor. They have a huge range of covetable outdoor clothing, plus socks, compasses, maps and good advice on where to go.
Turning into East Street, it was olives not fish which enticed me into The Fish Deli. Thrombes, Kalamata, Spanish marinated and more were crammed onto a table, with an open invitation to try before you buy. With ready-made tapas and pts, they make an instant buffet and it's this plus the excellent local fish which brings customers from many miles away to chef Nick Legg's shop. Local, line caught and sustainable, his packs of 'fish for a fiver to feed four' are snapped up by local families, whilst Nick's ready-made fish dishes - from bouillabaisse to crab thermidor offer easy options for a dinner party.
Talking of food, further up East Street, between the gentle Georgian faades, I notice a small sign for the Ashburton Cookery School. An amazing range of courses is on offer to suit everyone from professional chefs to novice cooks. Given a day to spare I wonder which I'd choose - Mediterranean, express dinner parties, patisserie or taste of the Westcountry?
Returning to the centre of town it was time for lunch - but where to choose? Caf Green Ginger, set in a beautiful Georgian house, where it feels as if a friendly aunt has invited you to tea. Or maybe the diminutive Studio Tea Room, with its table laden with tempting home-made cakes? On a chilly winter's day I was enticed by the warm orange interior of Moorish, where you can taste tapas anytime and pretend you are in the Mediterranean for a while.
Warmed by sweet potato and chilli soup, I made a final detour down St Lawrence Lane, past St Lawrence Chapel, (one of Ashburton's oldest buildings, and now a heritage centre) the old station, and down Chuley Road to Tuckers Country Stores. If it's a henhouse, riding boots or Bonios in bulk you are after, then this is the place. Tuckers also sell their own seeds plus a range of real ales made at Tuckers Maltings in Newton Abbot. Come on Thursday to Saturday and you can enjoy a farmers' market selling local fish, meat, flowers, ice cream and more.
But enough of shopping. Being just minutes from the moor, I took myself off to New Bridge to wander in the National Trust's Holne Woods. Parking just on the Ashburton side of the bridge you can follow a path through acres of sessile oak woods and get close to the Dart in full flood as it tumbles wildly over rocks and falls.
Thrill-seeking kayakers throw themselves at the mercy of the river, but you can watch in safety as they tackle Squirt Corner, the Washing Machine, Triple Falls and finally the Tumble Drier. The names are enough to make my stomach do a somersault on dry land!
For a gentler view of the Dart and the chance to walk through a carpet of snowdrops, follow the road and river to Staverton. Along the way you'll pass Riverford Vegetables, the hub of this huge organic growing enterprise. You can take a tour of the fields and crops on foot or by trailer before savouring them, cooked with imagination and flair by Jane Baxter, formerly of the River Caf. You'll have to book though.
No booking is required for a stop at my favourite farm shop - Riverford - just a mile or so further on. A wonderful alternative to the supermarket, Riverford offers an amazing range of fresh, local and mostly organic produce. The meat is fresh, humanely reared and the staff will tell you how to cook it. The bread, cakes and pasties are not too perfectly shaped and have a lovely home-baked taste - a good accompaniment to a winter walk by the river.
Take the lane behind the farm shop to Staverton and cross the tracks of South Devon Railway's station. With an engine at the siding, brown and cream paint and vintage luggage you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd landed on a Miss Marple film set. Although regular trains don't run down the track, which follows the Dart to Totnes, there is the occasional service in February, so you might see an engine steaming by when you go.
Follow the path left, cross a narrow footbridge over a mill leat and beside the river through woods and meadows. Be careful to tread lightly between the nodding heads of snowdrops that carpet the riverside. If the permitted path is open, you'll be able to walk on, crossing the railway tracks and returning via the church and lanes. If not, retrace your steps. Drink in the sight of all those snowdrops and be cheered by the promise that spring is just around the corner.
And if you feel in need of something warming and delicious, then pay a visit to The Sea Trout Inn.
As an alternative, nearby Broadhempston offers a pleasant winter wander through winding lanes with picturesque cottages. There are two good pubs to warm up in, including the Monks' Retreat in the old almshouse of the ancient church.
South Devon Railway. (01364 642338), www.southdevonrailway.org
Riverford Farm Kitchen. (01803 762074), www.riverford.co.uk.