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Visit England- The West Country - South Devon

Sidmouth in South Devon, an ancient fishing village transfomred to a regency gem and poplular seaside resort.

As the sea-gull flies, the south Devon resorts of Sidmouth and Dawlish are only 12 miles apart. But in between is the River Exe, and the two seaside towns have developed in totally different styles.

In the early 19th century, the four main Devon resorts were the fishing villages of Sidmouth, Exmouth, Dawlish and Teignmouth. Torquay didn't blossom till later. 

Early visitors were wealthy long-stay health-seekers who came on doctors' orders to drink and bathe in the sea water, and breathe unpolluted air. 


Many more came as a seaside spin-off from aristocratic London and Bath, and they soon created a similar leisured social life in miniature. Even the Prince Regent himself came to stay, along with courtiers and all their mistresses.


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Sidmouth Folk Week. Usually the first week of August every year.

Sidmouth carnival is an annual event every September and provides a night to remember.

Sidmouth Regatta is held during the August Bank Holiday weekend, finishing with fireworks and live music.

The summer play season at the Manor Pavilion Theatre goes from end June to end September, with programme changed every Thursday.

Sidmouth Museum
on Church Street is open Easter to October.


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A simple fishing village like Sidmouth developed into a Regency-type seaside resort with architecture to match.

Meanwhile the locals went on fishing. The men sailed to the Great Banks off Newfoundland to harvest cod. When the fishermen returned, they were rolling in money from a triangular trade - fishing for cod, sailing to Portugal and Spain to sell the catch, and then home laden with wine for John Bull. 

Their sturdy village houses were built well back from the shore. They weren't interested in sea views or the healing values of sea water and sea breezes. They preferred shelter from the elements.

So the Regency houses, terraces and lodgings built for short-stay or long-term visitors had space tA cottage orne style of lodgings with characteristic thatcho cluster in-depth along the Esplanade. That's the key to the present-day charm of Sidmouth. 

A superb group of lodging houses was built near the promenade by a fisherman who cashed in with another type of Sidmouth architecture known as cottage orne, with thatched roofs and very attractive windows. 

You can read much of Sidmouth's history from the Blue Plaques on houses that were occupied by the nobility. Many of these buildings are still intact, while others have become hotels without losing their Regency charm. 

Sidmouth has over 500 listed buildings - mostly Regency style with elegant wrought iron balconies sheltered by canopies, and white painted house facades.

In the early 19th century, Dawlish had developed in similar style. But in 1846 a railway line reached out from Exeter and along the coast to Dawlish, which boomed throughout the next 50 years as an easily-reached holiday destination. The character of Dawlish totally changed, catering entirely for the up-and-coming summer holiday industry.

In contrast, Sidmouth - east of the River Exe estuary - had no branch line until 1874. Even then the town's holidaymaker development wasn't helped when the line stopped over a mile out of town. That was deliberate local policy. Upper crust Sidmouth wanted the railway, but didn't want day trippers who couldn't afford to hire carriages for transport to the front.

As a result Sidmouth - hemmed in by dramatic red sandstone cliffs - stayed secluded in a time warp compared with Devon resorts to the west.

Sidmouth's shingle beach Anyway it has been somewhat less popular for the bucket-and-spade trade because the main beach is pebble and shingle, except for a strip of beach known as Jacob's Ladder, just west of town. This Jacob's Ladder beach attracts families at low tide with its long stretch of golden sand and rock pools to explore.

The town is most popular with visitors who don't want to whoop it up till dawn. There are no amusement parks or all-night discos. It's a sedate retirement haven where residents can enjoy a quiet game of bowls or croquet, or slumber away a summer's afternoon watching cricket. 

On the entertainment front, the Sidmouth Town Band gives a concert in Connaught Gardens on Sunday evenings throughout June to August, while the local Radway Cinema has regular changes of programme. A weekly rep company features a summer season of drama and comedy at the Manor Pavilion Theatre.

Sidmouth takes special pride in its floral displays, and always scores in "Britain in Bloom" contests. Highlights are Connaught and Blackmore Gardens, with shops, guesthouses, hotels and private gardens all adding to the blaze of colour. 

Quite close are the picturesque villages of Sidbury and Salcombe Regis, which is also home to a Donkey Sanctuary. Further east is Branscombe, full of thatch. 

The National Trust has two properties within a half-hour drive: Killerton House and PowAn original fisherman's cottagederham Castle - stately homes with fabulous gardens.

Despite Sidmouth's genteel character, in early August for fifty years the resort burst into life as the host for the International Festival of Folk Arts, one of the largest festivals of its type in Europe. 

Sidmouth Folk Week isstill one of the finest events in England as can be seen from the current guest line up available via the festival website.

Check out these alternative West Country destinations:

BATH - weekend in Jane Austen territory

CORNWALL - choosing low season

CORNWALL - NORTH for beaches, cliffs & legends

DARTMOOR - Freedom to roam and explore

DAWLISH - Pioneer railway age resort

EXETER/EXMOUTH - Tour base for South Devon

ILFRACOMBE & NORTH DEVON - The Heritage coast

LYNTON & LYNMOUTH - Devon's Siamese-twin resorts

SOMERSET - Choosing a farm cottage for a walking holiday

UP THE OTTER IN DEVON - A winter cottage haven

Books to read - click on the cover pictures or click on the links below

The Rough Guide to Devon and Cornwall - Robert Andrews - Packed with accommodation recommendations, especially in the lower-cost sector.

South Devon and Dartmoor Walks  - Brian Conduit - Explores the hills and valleys of South Devon.

AA 50 Walks in Devon - Sue Viccars - An AA guide in a handy pocket format.

The Hidden Places of Devon - David Gerrard, Sarah Bird (Illustrator) - This book focuses on the more off-trail areas of Devon.

Ordnance Survey - Exeter & Sidmouth - No. 192 in the Landranger Map series, covering the area described in the article.


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