Enjoy Visiting East Devon Towns - Honiton and Axminster
Trudy Turrell explores the two East Devon Towns of Honiton and Axminster and their unique attractions.
The hub of East Devon, yet set between rolling hills on the edge of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the town of Honiton is a busy place. The A35, originally a Roman road, runs through it, and on this route, once the main coaching route between London and Exeter, Honiton grew up as a coaching stop. Its fine bow-fronted shops, Georgian buildings and inns must have provided a welcome break for weary stagecoach travellers, and today this fine historic town is definitely one to stop and enjoy rather than pass through.
Before you head for the High Street, spend a few minutes in the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, just behind the car park at the rear of the High Street. Once the home of Thelma Hulbert, an artist whose work has been featured in the Tate, it houses changing exhibitions of contemporary art. We enjoyed displays of all the famous mice in animation, from Mickey to Angelina, and there was plenty to keep children and adults riveted, with sketches, videos and the original Fingerbobs puppets, and all for free.
Heading out past Honiton's few chain stores, you pass through Lace Walk, the new shopping precinct which commemorates the link between this solid farming town and the most delicate of floral handmade laces. The term 'Honiton lace' refers more to its style than location, as from the 16th century lace was made from Beer to Branscombe, the craft coming from Italy and readily adopted by locals used to handling flax and wool. Working from home, workers were poorly paid and often only received tokens redeemable at 'company stores'.
Today you won't see any lace shops on Honiton's High Street and will have to make an appointment to visit the Honiton Lace Shop, with its vintage and modern lace (made elsewhere). You can try your hand at lacemaking or simply watch an expert during July and August at Allhallows Museum, just off the High Street. As you would expect, here they have displays of fabulous lace from the area plus the remains of one of the town's earliest known inhabitants, the Honiton hippo, whose 100,000-year-old bones were discovered when the Honiton bypass was built in the 1960s.
The diminutive squat flintstone building is itself worth a visit. It's a medieval chapel, the only reminder of a far older church which was demolished to make way for St Paul's church in 1835. From 19th-century schoolroom to a chapel for pupils who were killed in the Boer War, to a First World War ambulance station, it has had a chequered past.
Though the High Street is full of individual, independent shops, it is this end of town, uphill past the church, that I found most attractive. Small, many bow-fronted and specialist, there's a good mix of shops, from kitchenware to clothes, fine art to florists.
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Tucked beside the imposing Evangelical church, Honiton Antique Toys seemed worth a look. Once inside, this tiny shop held me captive. Floor-to-ceiling glass display cabinets hold literally thousands of toy cars, buses and trains from the last hundred years. Turning round gingerly because there's not much space, I was confronted by battalions of model soldiers, tribes of Indians and herds of lead farm animals, together with scarecrows and milk churns, each cabinet a little world to get lost in and reminisce. A draw for collectors as well as for children, there are lots of pocket-money toys to buy here, with plastic soldiers starting at a mere 2p.
At Wine World opposite, very drinkable wines are on sale for �3 a bottle, thanks to owner Jonathon Sing's canny knowledge of wine, much of which he snaps up in small quantities at auctions or buys by the container load. He learned his trade living in a German monastery and studying under an expert Transylvanian sommelier, later becoming a buyer for a large wine retailer before buying the shop 17 years ago. Customers trust his palate and recommendations on the ever-changing selection, which this spring includes a Sarcey champagne as drunk at Buckingham Palace, for �15.99. Wines are displayed simply in crates with handwritten tasting notes tucked into each. You won't find adverts for this small and busy shop, nor is it on the web - its success comes from word of mouth. Now that I find refreshing!
Enticed by the space and cosy sofas of The Boston Tea Party close by, I called in for lunch. Spreading through three large rooms and a garden, the Tea Party is the kind of caf� in which you can stretch your legs out whilst enjoying your latte. Helpings are generous. My baked potato was so filling I couldn't contemplate the home-made brownies, and smoothies were long, tall and made while you watched. With excellent coffee and a menu of real food for kids, it's popular with families.
And east to Axminster
From Honiton, it's an easy, straight drive along the old Roman road to Axminster, on a crossroads of Roman routes. One of the earliest settlements in Devon, a minster (or 'monasterium') was founded here soon after 705 AD. Although the original abbey has long gone, its stones have been incorporated into many of the town's fine buildings, and the minster, around which the town clusters, gives the feel of a cathederal town in miniature.
Like Honiton, Axminster's claim to fame is cloth-based, but this time it's carpets. The original factory was founded by a Thomas Whitty after studying those made in Turkey. Using local wool and a labour force used to working with textiles, he built a special factory just behind the church. The tall, many-windowed building which had produced floor coverings for such places as Chatsworth House and Brighton Pavilion, was hard to find, marked only by a small plaque.
In Whitty's time the hand-tufted carpets took so much time and labour to complete that a peal of bells was rung to announce and celebrate a carpet's completion. Although Axminster carpets are now made in a modern complex, a local campaign to buy and transform this original factory building into a museum seems a fitting tribute to the town.
Reviving local traditions is at the heart of the River Cottage Produce Store close by. Established by back-to-the-land cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, this converted inn is an emporium of locally grown and produced food and drink. Organic fruit and vegetables are sold from the crate, next to home-made cakes and artisan breads, and there's an impressive cheese counter which includes the local Stinking Bishop, Exmoor Jersey Blue and Dorset Blue Vinney. Wood-floored, wholesome and carrier-bag-free, it inclines you to cook.
The restaurant at the back, which is called the Canteen, serves a seasonal menu of meals, with ingredients as local and pure as they come. Great basics such as a free-range bacon roll sit alongside Lymington line-caught sea bass with organic Shillingford salad and a citrus salsa. You can accompany it with the River Cottage Stinger Beer, brewed with hand-picked Dorset nettles. Described as 'slightly spicy with a subtle tingle', it's a delicious lesson in food miles.
A few doors along, cheerful DVD hire shop and restaurant Route 66 offers a taste of the US and a very warm welcome to families. Moving from her native Houston to Axminster "where the grass really is greener", Gina King, now a mum of three, opens between 6pm and 9pm and after burgers, fajitas or a steak with maple syrup, you might be invited to see 'Buck', an animated talking moose head which generates giggles amongst clientele old and young.
Thelma Hulbert Gallery: Dowell Street, Honiton.
Open Wed-Sat. 01404 45006, www.thelmahulbert.com
Allhallows Museum of Lace and Local Antiquities:
High Street, Honiton. 01404 44966, www.honitonmuseum.co.uk
Wine World: High Street, Honiton. 01404 43767
River Cottage Local Produce Store: Trinity Square, Axminster. www.rivercottage.net