Logs crackled on the open fire and quiet chatter filled the cosy Grove Inn in Kings Nympton, a small village in rural north Devon. I sipped a pint of Spinney, a delicious malty ale brewed in the West Country, and warmed my hands and feet, chilly after an early morning stroll.
Friends had complained that certain parts of south Devon are more like ‘Islington-on-the-moor’, so I’d gone to the north of the county in search of a quiet midwinter break and, I hoped, to experience the real Devon.
I’d rented a small cottage near the un-touristy village of Chulmleigh. It was at the foot of a steep 1:4 lane, so my mobile signal died long before I reached the bottom. I’d chosen self-catering rather than a B&B for privacy and peace and to give me the chance to potter about in the kitchen making pies and casseroles on dark afternoons. But I also wanted to spend time recharging and doing some winter walks to burn off Chritsmas’s excesses.
Well, the alcoholic excesses at least. A delicious lunch of venison steak and mash at the Grove inspired me to cook something local and seasonal. Later that afternoon I popped into a farm shop and bought a medley of game meats – pheasant, partridge, pigeon, mallard – which I turned into a tasty casserole.
The next morning was clear and sunny. I braved the -4C temperature and headed out to Exmoor. The 40-minute drive along winding lanes was so beautiful I didn’t mind being stuck behind a tractor. I saw llamas, two camels, lots of birds, including a falcon, and pastoral vistas across undulating hills; pheasants leapt out of the hedgerows at every turn.
Exmoor National Park covers 267 square miles and is largely upland moor. Under the weak winter sun it was still frosty well into the morning, but the landscape glistened and looked magical. I hopped over the heather, crunched frozen fronds of grass with my boots, watched a herd of native ponies foraging for grass, and enjoyed my solitude on the exposed moor. In the afternoon I drove along a twisty road to see Exmoor’s dramatic coastal cliffs and Lynmouth, a seaside resort that’s a tourist magnet in summer but is pleasantly serene during the winter months.
The next day I decided not to drive anywhere and instead laced my boots and took a long ramble along local footpaths through fields and wooded valleys (or combes). It was muddy and climbing the steep hills got my heart pumping but later that evening, settled in front of the fire, I was contented. I’d got what I wanted: fresh air, walks, space to think, views… and not an Islington fashionista’s silver Hunter welly in sight.
Where to eat
The Grove Inn
The snug, wood-beamed Grove pub in Kings Nympton has been owned and managed by husband and wife Robert and Deborah for the last seven years. By the bar are black-and-white photos of the great freeze of 1962-3 when snowfall topped the hedgerows.
It’s a gastropub but without any crude modernisation, and free of music and fruit machines. I was glad I’d booked; even midweek all the tables were reserved and no wonder. Deborah’s cooking is tip top.
Robert explained that most ingredients are sourced locally; chutneys and jams are made by a resident in a nearby village. Portions were generous. Our starter of smoked trout on granary bread was carefully presented and easily enough for two. Venison steak arrived perfectly pink, as requested, and was accompanied by mounds of mash and veggies; beef Wellington had a delicious pastry crust and the meat was melt-in-the-mouth. Filling as it was, we couldn’t say no to homemade hot chocolate pudding and ice cream.
Kings Nympton, Devon, EX37 9ST (01769 580406, www.thegroveinn.co.uk). Two-course meal for two with drinks: approx £50.
Where to stay
Park Mill Farm
The five self-catering cottages on 20-acre Park Mill Farm are stylish barn conversions on a peaceful lane that sees more horse-riders than cars. It’s surrounded by trees and sheep-filled fields and is a 30-minute walk along a bridleway or up the steep lane to the village where there are pubs, a bakery, a well-stocked deli, a Spar store and a model railway shop.
We stayed in Cider Barn, a smartly decorated two-storey cottage with oak floorboards upstairs, slate flagstones on the ground floor and views of farmland. Downstairs is a charming double bedroom and bathroom with claw-foot rolltop bath; upstairs is an open-plan kitchen/living space with a flatscreen TV and woodburning fire.
The kitchen was well stocked and owners Sue and Ray had left us fresh scones, jam and clotted cream as a welcome treat.
Chulmleigh, EX18 7EA (Bookings at 0844 561 2001, www.bluechipvacations.com). Park Mill Farm has five cottages. Cider Barn and the Old Dairy both sleep two: three nights from £249 and seven nights from £348. Park Mill Farm Cottage sleeps four: three nights from £319 and seven nights from £448.
How to self cater
Check with the owner or manager beforehand and ask what the property will be supplied with; most come with bedlinen, towels and basic kitchen utensils. This kit list should help you plan the rest:
Cooking pot/s Cafetiere Sharp knife Loo roll Kitchen roll Apron and teatowels Condiments Matches and firelighters Torch and candles Corkscrew/bottle opener Freezer bags or Tupperware for leftovers and packed lunches Cling film/foil Pre-cooked dinner for the first night
You can get to Chulmleigh using public transport but you’ll have to carry food supplies and clothes in a wheelbarrow. Get a car: Avis eco-collection cars (with emissions lower than 120g/km), such as the VW Golf 1.6 TDI 90ps, are availabe from £24.60 per day (www.avis.co.uk/aviseco).