Stepping out in... Sidmouth, Devon
Anna Turns gets her bearings in sunny Sidmouth Photos by Martyn Norsworthy
Sidmouth lies between the dominating red cliffs along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and the South West Coast Path, which owe their colour to the presence of iron. On first arrival to the town, the sound of the crashing waves washing on the pebbles makes a lasting first impression, as the sea water looks red-brown where it mixes with the red soil.
Sidmouth is a great spot for some serious people-watching. A stroll past the striped deckchairs along the promenade will clear away any cobwebs, for sure.
Getting your bearings
A great way to get a feel for the town is the free Hopper bus service put on by the Sidmouth Town Council and various local businesses. The bus runs from the Triangle in the town centre, up to Salcombe Hill and then comes back along the seafront to Peak Hill Ridge. Jim Tucker, who drives the bus, even helps some of the older locals across the road!
Why visit now?
August in Sidmouth is folk central, with its popular annual folk festival. For one week, the town fills with morris men, clog dancers, folk singers and musicians. While the sun is shining, the walking possibilities are endless, and you could always try a dip in the ocean for some good old-fashioned sea bathing! And year round, there’s a club to suit all ages, from scuba-diving to croquet.
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To the East
This year, the Hopper bus is stopping for the first time at the Sidmouth Donkey Sanctuary, just a couple of miles outside of town on the east side up Salcombe Hill, with its peaceful location and breathtaking views over the fields and down to the sea. It’s free to wander around and see the rescued donkeys, of which there are many, and this charity is a great testament to Dr Elisabeth Svendsen MBE who, in 1969, rescued seven poor donkeys crammed into one pen. Today, the charity is international, and over 12,500 donkeys have been rescued in the UK and Ireland alone.
One lady who has a particular passion for the donkeys is Pat Whiting, who recently made a special visit to the Sidmouth-based Donkey Sanctuary to donate 44 knitted donkeys, beautifully crafted in all shapes and sizes, which the charity will sell to raise funds for its worldwide work.
For a scenic walk, try the coast path route accessed from the Norman Lockyer Observatory on Salcombe Hill. This site is also a fascinating stop-off in its own right, as it is one of the few public access observatories in the country, and thousands of people gather in the grounds on open days. Named after the well-known British astronomer, the observatory was built here in 1912 and houses many historical instruments including the world’s smallest telescope in daily use.
If people-watching is a favourite past-time then caf� culture will be right up your street. Try the stylish Blinis on York Street for a decent cappuccino, or Duke’s by the seafront for delicious al fresco dining. The caf� in Connaught Gardens is a favourite with everyone, with a delightful setting on the clifftop in immaculately kept gardens. There is plenty of choice in town when it comes to ice creams too.
For shopping, Sidmouth market has lots of fresh local produce to tempt you. Across the street, Fields of Sidmouth is a must. One of the few family-owned independent department stores left in the country, Fields is well stocked and has been going since 1953. Other independent shops can be found selling anything from African art to unique handmade jewellery, and Flo and Us is a great little centre for holistic therapies. For evening entertainment there’s the art deco cinema as well as the Manor Pavilion Theatre.
To the West
On the other side of town, the ‘green flag’ Connaught Gardens is a lovely viewpoint, with the caf� in the fort and the distinctive white Jacob’s Ladder leading down to beach.
Along the verge, just above Connaught Gardens, the lawn is left long and wild as it’s home to some rare purple wild orchids. Another wildlife hotspot is Mutter’s Moor at the top of Peak Hill, where rare birds such as nightjars and hobbys are known to breed, so be careful not to stray from the footpaths.
This coastline was extremely popular with smugglers, especially those smuggling French brandy. John Mutter, from one of the local smuggling families, made the fatal mistake of whistleblowing to the customs’ officers. Legend goes he was murdered by his family and his body parts were buried across Mutter’s Moor, hence the name.
Enjoy the view
Along Peak Hill, the 1830s cottages are delightful, although many years ago the cottages were a lot further from the sea, and the coast has eroded so much that one cottage stands only 8ft away from the cliff. At The Gazebo at Peak Hill there’s a boulder with a plaque in memory of author RF Delderfield, who lived in several homes in Sidmouth during his lifetime. And from here you can walk west to the village of Otterton, where there is an artisan bread mill, and then continue along the flat to Budleigh Salterton.
By road: Take the A3052 from Exeter to Sidmouth.
By bus: Regular buses run from Exeter bus station to Sidmouth. Call Traveline on 0870 6082608. The Sidmouth Hopper is a free bus service in town, which runs throughout the summer until the end of September. Main bus stop at the Triangle in Sidmouth town centre.
By train: Nearest station Exeter St Davids
Sidmouth Tourist Information Centre: Ham Lane, Sidmouth. 01395 516441
Sat Nav Ref: EX10 8XR