North Devon Versus South Devon

Published: Tuesday 20th Oct 2015

When it comes to holidays in Devon, there is one age-old question that’s posed again and again: “Should we go to North Devon or South Devon?” Distinctive though the two coastlines are – one faces the wild Atlantic, the other the calmer English Channel – they also have much in common: magnificent walking, surfing and swimming; dramatic seascapes that cause jaws to go slack and a more-than-adequate supply of rainy-day diversions. Still, to help you make a decision about which side of the North-South divide is best for you, we’re weighing up the pros and cons of each.

The coastal scene

The north coast meets the Atlantic Ocean, which is undoubtedly wilder and rougher than its south coast counterpart. The sandy stretches up north are a little longer, the cliffs a little higher and the scenery a touch grander. But thanks to the harsh Atlantic conditions, it can appear bleak (though beautifully so). But before you go making any decisions, consider what the north coast lacks: the little inlets, estuaries and indents that South Devon’s coast possesses, as well as the milder, warmer climate the south enjoys thanks to the shelter of the surrounding South Hams hills.

Nature-wise, the contest between north and south is extremely tight. The north is home to the UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve, which is centred on Braunton Burrows, the largest sand dune system in the UK and an important habitat for more than 400 plant species. South Devon may not have a Biosphere Reserve, but its Jurassic Coast (which runs from East Devon to Dorset) also has the stamp of approval from UNESCO, who designated it a World Heritage Site for its incredible geological value. Opportunities for fossil-hunting along the beaches and cliffs here are rife and guided tours can help you learn about the fascinating and now extinct land and marine reptiles that would once have roamed here.

Surf’s up

North Devon is the classic surf destination and for good reason. Beaches like Croyde Bay, Saunton Sands, Westward Ho and Woolacombe bear the brunt of the Atlantic swells and are the first stop for many eager surfers in the region. These sandy beaches stretch for miles, giving wave-riders heaps of space to do their thing.

Traditionally, South Devon’s surf scene has been less active, but that is quickly changing. If you want to surf in the south, head to Bantham; in-the-know surfers have been coming here for more than 30 years. Torquay is also becoming increasingly popular – and a particularly promising choice for beginners who can try and find their feet in the less challenging waters.

Swimming time

Swimming is a sure-fire holiday hit among all ages, and both North Devon and South Devon have oodles of swimmable beaches. If you’re heading north, the key is to avoid the choppier waters. Blue Flag-awarded Woolacombe is just the ticket, with paddler-friendly waves and lifeguards watching over the seas in the summer months. Westward Ho!, also guarded by lifeguards during the summer season, is another good option.

South Devon’s coast is generally tamer than the north and many of the beaches are well-equipped with facilities, which can really come in handy when you’ve got kids in tow. Among the top swimming locations here is the Blue Flag-winning Blackpool Sands, which – despite its name – is actually a shingle beach. It’s privately owned and extremely well-kept, and is bordered by a pretty backdrop of evergreens and pines.

Walking the coastal paths

When it comes to walking opportunities, it’s a tie. Both the north and south coast are incorporated in the mammoth 630-mile South West Coast Path, which winds around the South West Peninsula and provides ample rambling routes.

The north coast is characterised by towering cliffs and steep, narrow valleys, which can produce demanding roller coaster-esque ups and downs for walkers. A particularly strenuous section runs between Westward Ho and Clovelly, though if you push through the muscle pain, the cliff top section delivers stellar bay views.

On the South Coast, meanwhile, the walking options are manifold. Declaring any stretch the outright best will only give rise to impassioned debate, but there is one coastal route here that receives a fair amount of effusive praise and that’s the walk from the promontory of Bolt Head to the peninsula of Bolt Tail. Ramblers here can admire vistas of vegetation-covered cliffs sloping into the blue blanket of the sea.

It’s raining – what now?

So you’ve chosen where to base yourself, you’ve picked out your perfect Devon holiday cottage, but when you arrive, the heavens open. Never fear.

If you’re in south Devon, you can find a dry refuge in the carriages of the Seaton Tramway, the South Devon Railway or even the Dartmouth Steam Rail. In North Devon, heritage trains snake along the narrow-gauge track of the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway Company.

In the south, heritages houses including the Agatha Christie-owned Greenway are a great place to spend a rainy afternoon, while North Devon’s Arlington Court – a Regency-style stately home that now houses a carriage museum – also provides protection from the elements. When the weather prevents your brood from playing around in the sea, bring them to the aquarium to educate them about the sea instead. If the downpour falls on you in North Devon, try the aquarium in Ilfracombe. If it’s South Devon that’s soaked, keep dry at the Torquay Living Coasts Zoo and Aquarium.

South Devon has the rainy-day edge with plenty of underground attractions too. If the sky threatens to pour, head to Kents Caverns, where Stone Age hunter-gatherers found shelter many thousands of years ago. Beer Quarry Caves is another good wet-weather day out, and involves touring the man-made chambers, which were created as a result of quarrying stone for churches all around the country. Hear about how smugglers used to hide here and look out for the bats, which can be seen clinging on to the stony ceiling.

Here’s the bottom line: neither coast trumps the other, it’s just a case of preference. And if this blog post has only left you more confused, there’s only one thing for it – you’ll have to visit both!

Find your perfect South Devon holiday cottage today