Devon, along with its neighbour Cornwall, is consistently one of the most popular UK staycation destinations. Especially in summer, many flock to North Devon’s popular beaches like Woolacombe and Saunton. We found the sea at Croyde so packed with bodyborders there was no space for our kids to paddle in the safe area.
But even at the height of summer, it’s possible to find quieter natural beauty spots in North Devon – if you know where to look.
During our August holiday in North Devon we enjoyed scrambling down to secret beaches, giddying clifftop walks and walking through verdant valleys, all without the usual crowds. It was filled with nature, adventure, and a bit of culture too.
So I wanted to share our North Devon hidden gems with you, so you too can enjoy a family break in this beautiful, dramatic landscape. There’s seven places here – enough for a week’s leisurely holiday, or a busier few days.
Lundy Island day trip
📍Lundy Island, Bideford, Devon EX39 2LY
This tiny slither of granite has been home to Vikings, Normans, pirates and outlaws. Today it’s a nature lover’s paradise with thousands of marine seabirds and other animals. Owned by the National Trust and managed by the Landmark Trust, this unspoiled island has no roads. The ‘village’ is one pub and a shop, and elsewhere there’s only a smattering of historic buildings and evocative ruins punctuating the dramatic scenery.
Even getting there is an adventure, with a two hour sail on Lundy’s own ship, the 1958 German-built MS Oldenburg. From the top deck, we even spied a pod of dolphins! Note that even the walk from the jetty to the village is challenging, so Lundy is best saved for good walkers.
Walking tracks and footpaths crisscross the island. We headed east across grassland dotted with Lundy ponies and Soay sheep, across fern-covered slopes and scrambled down a rope to a deserted rocky beach. Seals bobbed in the water only a metre or so from where MB watched on, amazed. With the sun beating down, we abandoned plans of traversing the whole 3.5 mile length of the island and instead just soaked up this special place.
Afterwards we sent postcards with Lundy stamps from the Post Office to get the special Lundy postmark. It’s an excellent souvenir, as well as a bit of sneaky literacy practice.
MS Oldenburg sails to Lundy up to 4 times a week from Bideford and Ilfracombe between March and October. Expect to pay around £109 for a family of four (2+2) for day sailing. There are no further charges to visit the island. Allow two hours sailing time each way, with between four and six hours to explore the island, depending on tide times and where you sail from. We sailed from Bideford to get the maximum amount of time on Lundy.
Valley of Rocks walk
📍Valley of Rocks, Lynton, Devon EX35 6JH
Just where Exmoor dives headfirst into the Bristol Channel lies the Valley of Rocks, one of the most dramatic parts of Devon’s coastline. Crumbling spires of Devonian stone rise from the long abandoned river bed. Wild goats roam freely between the outcrops, nimbly traversing the jagged rock edges. It’s an inspiring place for adults and children alike.
For those with a head for heights, it’s a spectacular spot for a circular walk. Head along the South West Coast Path to Lynton for dramatic sea views. This is for adventurous families with slightly older kids – there’s a hair-raising sheer drop to the sea, without any barriers. On this very narrow path we were surrounded by feral goats, bounding down the precipitous cliffside.
Wannabe wildlife photographer Museum Boy was in heaven. Whatever you do, don’t touch the goats – and not just because they might bite. In summer the mothers leave their young whilst they go off to feed, but will return. If you disturb or pick up the youngsters it can cause their mothers to abandon them.
After that magic encounter we zig-zagged our way down a wooded hill to the seaside town of Lynmouth. The kids loved our ride on the Victorian Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway the highest and steepest water-powered funicular railway in the world. They watched with fascination the cars’ tanks empty and refill at the foot and top of the cliff. It’s a popular attraction – expect a wait to board the cars.
Hearts still in mouths from our clifftop walk, we returned inland over the forested hill before descending back into the Valley of Rocks for tea and homemade cake in Mother Meldrum’s Tea Garden. Its stunning location distracts somewhat from its steep prices.
For a wild beach, follow the steep and winding path from Valley of Rocks to Wringcliff Bay. It’s very remote with no facilities.
Barricane Beach sunset dinner
📍Barricane Beach, Beach Road, Woolacombe, Devon EX34 7AS
Just a short walk along the Esplanade from the ever-popular Woolacombe lies beautiful Barricane beach. Nestled amongst steep rocks, this picturesque cove is famous for cowries and other tropical sea shells. It’s said they’re carried thousands of miles from the Caribbean on the Gulf Stream and aren’t found anywhere else in the country. The shallow sandy beach and water quality make it a good place for swimming and paddling. Just be aware there’s no lifeguards.
And it was home to one of our most memorable meals in Devon. Every night in summer the beach café turns itself into a Sri Lankan takeaway serving homemade food. Watching the sunset with fresh food and a friendly festival vibe is a fantastic experience. After we ate, the kids climbed the rocks kissed pink in the fading light, and scoured the beach for sea glass and precious shells.
Curry is served 17:00-19:00 or until sell out from May to September – just turn up. Notes there’s no curries in wet or wild weather. You can check their Facebook page for updates on opening days here.
Expect to pay about £12 for an adult curry, in cash – no cards accepted due to poor signal. Choose from the veggie option (three vegetable curries) or meat option (one meat and two vegetable curries). Both are served with basmati rice, poppadoms and sambol. All curries are gluten and dairy free. Smaller portions available, as well as jacket potatoes for those who prefer plainer food. The freshly squeezed pineapple juice is a real treat!
If you’re very lucky you may find a spot in a metered parking bay on the Beach Road. Otherwise, there’s a large paid for car park at Woolacombe – allow about 15 minutes walk along the busy promenade.
Arlington Court and the National Trust Carriage Museum
📍Arlington Court and the National Trust Carriage Museum, Arlington, Devon EX31 4LP
Take a walk along one of Arlignton Court’s many way-marked trails. There’s over 20 miles of footpaths through the wildlife reserve made by Rosalie Chichester, the Court’s former owner. Our wander took in stunning views over the rolling Devon countryside and the memorable monkey puzzle avenue.
The Wilderness play area in the woods has stepping stones and balancing logs, ropes to help you up the steep slippy slope and mudslides for a fast descent. Despite the map saying otherwise, Monkey Puzzle play area on the other side of the estate has been removed, although these balancing logs remain.
And here’s one more reason to visit – the National Trust Carriage Museum, which houses fancy vehicles for every occasion from cradle to grave in the restored courtyard. You don’t need to know your phaeton from your landau to enjoy this. Each carriage has a short explanation of how it was used, whether it was driven by the owner or a servant, and how many horses (or other animals) pulled it. Very friendly volunteers are bursting to share their extensive knowledge.
Highlights include the Earl of Craven’s State Chariot, the miniature Road Coach built for Charles Stratton, also known as ‘General Tom Thumb’, and a cart pulled by a Newfoundland dog. Unfortunately the glorious, gilded Speaker’s State Coach from the Houses of Parliament was inaccessible due to social distancing.
Kids can clamber on the wooden play carriage and bounce in chairs to test out spring mechanisms. In normal times they can harness up a model horse. During our visit toy Dalmatians were hidden on carriages for young ones to spot.
Built in 1823, the house itself is practically cozy by National Trust standards. Unfortunately we didn’t get the full experience as its museum room and entire upstairs were closed for coronavirus protections, along with its batcam. A cream tea from the Old Kitchen Tea Room rounded off our visit – you really can’t beat a National Trust scone!
Heddon’s Mouth, National Trust
📍Heddon Valley, near Barnstaple, Devon EX31 4PY
Heddon Valley is a deep, lush wooded river valley or ‘combe’ running down to a wave-beaten beach between some of England’s highest cliffs. The valley is cared for by the National Trust. The Heddon’s Mouth circular walk is absolutely beautiful. Follow the babbling River Heddon, shaded by gnarly sessile oaks. You might even see herons or otters the along the way.
Its heathery slopes and woodland clearings are a magnet for butterflies. The view opens out to sheer scree slopes abandoned by the last Ice Age and towering cliffs made from 400 million year old Devonian sandstone. It’s easy to see why the West Exmoor coast was a favourite with the Romantic poets Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge.
You can follow signposts for a longer walk to Woody Bay, an even more secluded pebble beach. But the two mile, one hour stroll to Heddon’s Mouth was just the right length for us.
We swam in the sea at Heddon’s Mouth, although it is stony and steep. Kids can paddle in the crystal clear river, either along the wooded path or as it enters the beach, as Museum Girl did. Museum Boy’s main entertainment was building vertiginous rock towers. Look out for the restored 19th century lime kiln on the beach. Limestone and coal were brought by sea and then burnt here to make the lime needed to counteract the acidity of the local soil.
We fell in love with this secluded valley. Next time we want to stop by at The Hunter’s Inn. Built in the local ‘Swiss style’ there’s ample space for children to run around in its vast tree-shaded beer garden.
There’s plenty of parking in the National Trust car park, which is charged up to £5 per day or free for Trust members. Opposite the car park is a small cafe which sells ice cream. The information centre lends litter pickers to help keep paths clean and hires out all terrain children’s buggies on request. The summer we visited, free children’s workshops ran on Wednesdays between 14:00 and 16:00. The only slight negative was that the public toilets weren’t well kept, although they cleaned them on request.
📍Moor Lane, Croyde, Braunton, Devon EX33 1PA1
Despite being described as an easy access family walk, Baggy Point is not for the faint-hearted. I can’t imagine how the cliff edge narrow path is passable with a pushchair or mobility aid. But those who can do this walk will be rewarded with stunning coastal and sea views.
There are two paths to Baggy Point – a lower and higher one. The lower one has the more dramatic views and frightening sheer drops. The higher one is more inland, so is less worrying with younger children.
Baggy Point’s thin, acidic soils are battered by harsh, salt-laden Atlantic winds in the winter. Yet hardy wild flowers carpet its cliff slopes and rock crevices in spring and summer, bright yellow gorse and fungi in the autumn, and lichens and moss all year round. Its west-facing cliffs are a popular nesting place for sea birds including herring gull, fulmar, shag, cormorant and sometimes peregrine. In the summer months, the very keen eyed might even spot grey seals playing in the waters around Baggy Point.
We parked at Baggy Point National Trust car park, which is paid but free for members. It’s very popular – we were lucky getting a space as someone was leaving. There’s also public toilets and a tea room. We combined with a visit to Croyde Bay, a beautiful and sandy, if busy, beach.
Broad Sands Beach
📍Off the South West Coast Path, via the road behind Sandy Cove Hotel, Ilfracombe, Devon EX34 9SR.
This little taste of paradise isn’t in Thailand, or even the Med. Broad Sands (or Broadsands) is just off the South West Coast Path between Watermouth and Combe Martin. Ignore the name – this secluded cove is neither broad nor sandy. Instead it is two gorgeous shingle beaches with turquoise waters, surrounded by dramatic cliffs fringed with vegetation.
The unspoilt cove regularly features in top 10 wild swimming beaches in the UK – its clear waters and sheltered aspect make for safe swimming. For adventurous kids, there’s many caves or a rocky island at its centre to explore.
Access is via its 200+ staggeringly steep steps, or by sea – you can hire paddle boards or kayaks from nearby towns. And with no facilities nearby, you’ll not be able to stay too long.
Go early or late in the day for the chance to have it to yourself. Check tide times before your visit as the spacious beach is markedly reduced at high tide, and the coves are separated by water.
Driving and parking nearby is tricky. When we visited the track which leads on from Old Coast Road was closed to traffic. Instead we parked roadside at Barton Lane and walked about 10 minutes until we spotted the handmade sign to the beach on our right.
Here’s a handy Google Maps with all the places in North Devon I’ve mentioned in this post.
Where we stayed
📍Strawfields, near Ilfracombe, Devon EX34 8PJ
We stayed at Strawfields, a rustic 8 acre smallholding which offers cottages, cabins, shepherds huts, glamping and eco-camping. Hidden away in beautiful North Devon countryside, it’s only a few minutes drive from the sea. It proved a really relaxing place to come back to after a day of exploring, with only a handful of other families and sheep for neighbours.
The back-to-nature site has quirky and rustic facilities, including hot showers and a choice of flushing or sawdust toilets. Pre-book for their decent farmhouse breakfast; unfortunately pizza nights were on hold during our visit. You can walk from Strawfields through fields to the local village of West Down, with its community village shop and highly rated local pub.
I hope this guide helps you plan a fantastic family holiday to North Devon. Have you visited before? Let me know in the comments below which are your favourite quiet spots in the area.
Disclosure: We visited North Devon in August 2022, with Museum Boy (9) and Museum Girl (7).
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