Where to go in Devon: travel guide writer Hilary Bradt’s top county spots

PUBLISHED: 11:19 01 July 2020 | UPDATED: 10:01 06 July 2020

Devon travel writer Hilary Bradt. Photo: Alex Graeme

Devon travel writer Hilary Bradt. Photo: Alex Graeme

Alex Graeme

Globe-trotting travel guide writer Hilary Bradt hasn’t minded being locked down at her Devon home

The Valley of the Rocks in North Devon is one of Hilary's favourtite spots. Photo: tatyana_tomsickova Getty Images/iStockphotoThe Valley of the Rocks in North Devon is one of Hilary's favourtite spots. Photo: tatyana_tomsickova Getty Images/iStockphoto

Hilary Bradt has enjoyed her time in lockdown. This seems surprising, she is after all renowned for her extensive global travels. The co-founder of Bradt Travel Guides has been adventuring all her life; indeed, the 78-year-old has not long returned from a trip to the island of Socotra.

I have no idea where that is, and she compliments me for my honesty. “Most people pretend to know where it is, but they can’t, no one knows where it is!”

It turns out that Socotra is a Yemeni island off the coast of Somalia. About the size of Cornwall, it has “a jumble of mountains”, some of which are 1,000m high, and forests of “dragon blood trees that look like something out of Tolkien”. It’s an extraordinary place, says Hilary, very hard to get to, but she promises that the resulting Bradt travel guide, will be “a book for dreamers”.

She’s just finishing writing it, quite content to be holed up in her home in Seaton, alternating writing with long walks and a regular dip in the sea.

The pebbles on this Jurassic Coast beach are known as Budleigh Buns. Photo: Leon Woods Getty Images/iStockphotoThe pebbles on this Jurassic Coast beach are known as Budleigh Buns. Photo: Leon Woods Getty Images/iStockphoto

“I have to admit I’m loving lockdown,” she says. “I’m quite an introverted person; I live alone, and I like living alone…and I love being out in the countryside going for walks in the local area and just looking at things.

“It’s all in the observation, seeing things and enjoying what you’re seeing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Devon going along a country lane, or in Africa looking at an extraordinary village or some wildlife, it’s all observation and a sense of wonder.”

Hilary, who received an MBE in 2008, has built her career on observation, and “a very strong sense of curiosity”. The origins of Bradt Travel Guides go back to 1972, when Hilary, working as an occupational therapist in America, and her then husband George, undertook an 18-month trip around South America.

Until they could find local work to support them on their adventure, they raised funds for the trip through their wedding; people sponsored various aspects – anything from a $5 hot shower to a $100 day trip to the Galapagos. In return, Hilary and George wrote letters back, describing their trip and how the various gifts were used.

The bronze age settlement of Grimspound, Dartmoor is spacious enough to accommodate plenty of socially isolating visitors. Phito:Ian Lycett-King Getty Images/iStockphotoThe bronze age settlement of Grimspound, Dartmoor is spacious enough to accommodate plenty of socially isolating visitors. Phito:Ian Lycett-King Getty Images/iStockphoto

They went on to write a little book about a trail they’d discovered in Peru. Then, on a subsequent trip around South Africa they wrote a more detailed guide. Word got out on the backpackers’ network, people started asking for their books and the Bradts foud themselves becoming publishers. George worked in a print shop in return for having 2,000 copies of their guide produced and they distributed them by finding free ways to travel across America, stopping off in towns and locating shops which would sell them. A decade later and Hilary was still publishing books by hand, carrying out every process, except the printing. Friends and family helped too, Hilary’s sister typing up the guides in return for babysitting duties.

She went on to become a tour guide in South America; it was a way to both research and help pay for the guides.

Even back then she wondered why people were so obsessed with going to tourist hotspots. Why did they only want to see Machu Picchu? Although wonderful, there were equally fabulous sites nearby which had no visitors.

How many of these top Dartmoor tors have you visited?

We reflect on the scenes of people flocking to Durdle Door in Dorset over the recent Bank Holiday weekend. “There’s an absolute obsession with going to somewhere that you’ve heard of, rather than looking at a new place,” she suggests.

It’s why Bradt Publishing launched the Slow Guides to Britain, a decision that coincided with Hilary’s move from Buckinghamshire to Devon in 2008. Naturally, she wrote the three Slow Devon guides, it was a way of exploring her new home county and it began with Hilary and her friend and co-writer Janice Booth, laying out a map of the county on the floor. They identified major towns and attractions, and set off.

Rather than settle with the obvious finds, these books reveal a hidden side of the county, the quirky side, the unusual side, the bits only the locals know about.

Hilary certainly recognises the value in being inquisitive and talking to people, be that village shopkeepers or local tour guides. Engaging with people always leads to new discoveries. She also admits a passion for little churches, of which Devon has many. “Churches are just lovely and the more I learn about what to look for, the more interesting it is. It’s the smell of an old church, the flower arrangements, the carved fonts and bench ends...”

She worries that in the world of Instagram and blogging, the tendency is to fleetingly describe something and not worry about the quality of writing.

For her, putting pen to paper and writing ‘to’ someone is the best way to articulate an experience. It “makes the words come alive”, she says. In the early days she would write letters home; it could take weeks or months for her words to reach their destination.

Perhaps travelling is not as exciting or adventurous these days. “People are never completely transported to a place they are travelling; they are always in touch with home and getting emails, so they’re not immersed in the other culture and its quite important to be immersed in the place.” But, she concedes, that’s just the way it is.

Lockdown has allowed Hilary more time to be creative. She’s always drawn, the early guides were filled with her illustrations, but she’s now turned to sculpture. She particularly enjoys creating animals out of found bits of metal and one of her latest creations is a dragon. Hilary loves dragons, they fire her imagination and I’m sure transport her to other lands; a dragon would look quite at home basking on the pink rocks of her magical island of Socotra.

Hilary’s favourite Devon places for uncertain times. All are where social distancing is easy:

‘Budleigh buns’ in Budleigh Salterton. The pebble beach of Budleigh Salterton is exceptional for the colour and smooth shape of its pebbles. Yes, they do look a bit like buns, and come in all sorts of subtle colours. They have been around a long time, probably originating from Brittany in the Triassic era.

Luppitt and the Blackdown Hills. Because of my love of Devon’s little churches, I had to choose one and hope that Luppitt, with its extraordinary, and probably pagan, carved font dating back a thousand years, will be open when you read this. If not the surrounding countryside of the Blackdown Hills is beautiful and deserted.

Dartmoor has to feature here. Avoid the most popular places and crowded car parks and head for Grimspound, a bronze-age walled enclosure, and spacious enough to accommodate plenty of socially isolating visitors. The sense of history and views of high Dartmoor are terrific.

Maidencombe beach. Forget the crowds of Torquay and Paignton and head for this isolated, walk-down-to beach north of Torquay. It is never crowded, the sand is the colour of a roan pony, and maybe the little cafe will be open serving terrific Portuguese snacks.

Hartland Abbey. My favourite manor house features here, with its spacious grounds, footpaths to the sea, and fascinating family history in the privately owned house.

The Valley of Rocks. This uncharacteristic Exmoor landscape of jumbled rocks deposited during the ice age is great for scrambling or walks to Lynton or down to the beach at Wringcliff Bay.


Readers of Devon Life can have a special 25% discount on the Slow Devon series and ALL Bradt travel guides. To claim your discount, go to bradtguides.com/shop and enter code DEVON25 at checkout. Offer expires 31 December 2020.

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