For years, Chris Parkin was haunted by references to two villages in Devon. It was time to lay some ghosts to rest with a timely trip.
When a place keeps popping up in your life, there comes a time when you have to ignore your wish-list of destinations and visit it just to satisfy your curiosity and still the nagging voices. It began during a school geography lesson, when I learned how a fatal flood had wreaked havoc on the picturesque villages of Lynton and Lynmouth in 1952. Later, there were reports of a curious, homespun music festival taking place there. And finally, the real spur: the villages – north Devon’s most beautiful twins – are linked by a water-powered cliff railway that has been in service since 1888. For a funicular fiend, this was too much to ignore.
Hidden by forests and moorland to the south and facing out to sea on the north, this fairytale scene exists far from north Devon’s more fashionable hotspots. We pootled in on the bus from Barnstaple, weaving through tight country lanes that shielded us from the breathtaking view we eventually arrived at. Set in a deep, verdant gorge that slashes through the edge of Exmoor, Lynton peers down on the smaller, beachside Lynmouth from atop a 500-foot cliff. This makes it plainly evident why they need their cliff railway, kindly paid for by George Newnes, the man who published the very first Sherlock Holmes mysteries. If only he’d stipulated that it should run after last orders.
At least the spectacular hill-walking was good preparation for the testing post-pub climbs. The two villages sit on the South West Coast Path and are home to the North Devon and Exmoor Walking Festival each May; they offer everything from strenuous hikes to gentle strolls. We marched several steep trails up into the Valley of the Rocks, where heather and yellow gorse carpet the floor and buzzards attempt to distract from the stunning views towards Wales. Less of a strain was walking into Glen Lyn gorge along the River Lyn, which offers ample opportunity for fly fishing. We were completely taken aback by the beauty.
It’s hard to imagine the horrors of August 15 1952, when the River Lyn engulfed the place. It was so perfectly tranquil on our visit that the biggest threat was the pesky seagull eyeing up our chips. And like Portmeirion (minus all the showing-off), Lynton and Lynmouth’s pretty Victorian buildings and seclusion breed a peaceful kind of eccentricity. The shops and pubs seem to open as they please, there’s a tiny cinema in the back of Lynton’s old church and none of the rumours about the annual music festival do it justice.
Psych-folk & late-night sea shanties
Llama (it stands for Lynton and Lynmouth Music Festival) takes place on the second weekend of June and is run entirely by local volunteers. Organiser Grace Jefferyes tells us it was conceived in the pub seven years ago by three friends. Yet the organisation, the great psych-folk line-ups (Badly Drawn Boy, David Holmes and Andy Votel this year) and the sort of boozy free-spiritedness that conjures impromptu, late-night sea shanties in the street make it impressive compared to any festival, especially for a free one put on by a bunch of villagers. The stages are spread across Lynton (St Mary’s Church, The Crown Hotel and the cinema) and Lynmouth (the beautiful Manor Green by the beach), so we got to sample the cliff railway several times. In fact, we couldn’t have lived without it.
Apparently, Lynton and Lynmouth’s heyday was during the Napoleonic wars, when holidaymakers, among them Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Gainsborough, stayed in Blighty lest they get a cannonball in the gut en route to their sun loungers in the Med. Judging by its growing popularity, we’d say it’s entered a new golden era.
Where to eat
Rising Sun Hotel and Restaurant With views out on to Lynmouth’s old harbour, this thatch-roofed smugglers’ inn-turned-restaurant and hotel – the place where RD Blackmore penned several chapters of ‘Lorna Doone’ – has a premier pitch down in Lynmouth, with prices to match. For a refreshing break from basic pub grub and fish and chips – the villages’ staples – it is well worth it. Much of the menu is sourced locally, like Lynmouth Bay lobster, Cornish crab, local game and salmon caught fresh in the nearby Lyn, all cooked in fresh and sparky ways. There’s a surprisingly impressive wine list, although, once again, this comes at quite a cost. If you’re on a budget, just as tasty and a lot cheaper is the daily bar menu. A word of warning: if you want to dine in the main restaurant, management aren’t very keen on chaps wearing short trousers.
Harbourside, Lynmouth, Devon, EX35 6EG (01598 753223 /www.risingsunlynmouth.co.uk). Main restaurant 7-9.30pm daily. Bar noon-3pm, 7-9pm daily. Main courses £7-£28.50.
Where to stay
The Crown Hotel There’s a good range of resting spots in the two villages, from cliff-top campsites and guest houses to small hotels. We opted for Lynton’s Crown Hotel, which claims to have been the main stopover here since 1760 and is the hub of the Llama music festival in the evenings thanks to its crude outdoor stage. There’s not much of a view from any of the well-equipped rooms above the traditional pub, but after so much breathtaking beauty and fresh air it was enough just to grab a pint of local ale or two, soak in a bath with the radio on, and sleep comfortably in a four-poster bed before a sprawling grilled breakfast. Our fellow guests were mostly couples and chipper trekkers preparing for a bit of ‘Valderi, Valdera’. Parking. Restaurant. TV.