A warm welcome in the west

Date Posted: 13/05/2011

Jeannine Williamson discovers a wealth of things to see and do in Devon and Dorset.

It’s easy to plan an itinerary covering this pretty part of the West Country, where the countless attractions range from maritime and military heritage to the classic seaside resorts of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham that make up the English Riviera, along with dramatic landscapes that have inspired art and literature.

Take in fragrant gardens, such as RHS Rosemoor, and admire stately homes and castles that include Corfe, one of Britain’s most majestic ruins. Seafront palm trees and tropical gardens are evidence of the region’s mild climate, so groups can expect a warm welcome in more ways than one. When it’s time to relax there are many regional delights to tempt the palate, including Devon’s famous cream teas.

The recently relaunched Heart of Devon Tourism Partnership has introduced a new travel trade pass entitling GTOs to free entry at a selection of the region’s attractions, including the South Devon Railway, Exeter’s underground passages and Powderham Castle, plus discounted accommodation rates. For more information call 01392-265204 or visit the current group travel page at www.heartofdevon.com. Also look out for the new group website going live later this year.

Multi-million pound makeover at Durlston Castle

A £5.5 million restoration project is nearing completion at Durlston Castle, the centrepiece of Durlston Country Park and National Nature Reserve near Swanage. The renovation will bring the Victorian castle back into full public use as a visitor centre at the eastern gateway to the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.

The castle is due to re-open this summer and will include a range of exhibitions and displays that will introduce your group to the area’s renowned natural heritage, along with catering facilities and a gift shop. As part of the project, a geological timeline is being created along the path to the castle and a fossil-packed slab of Purbeck stone, weighing one ton, will be sited in the castle to illustrate the diversity of life 120 million years ago.

Durlston Castle was built in 1887 by local stonemasons commissioned by entrepreneur George Burt for his estate, which is now the country park. To check out the latest news on the re-opening date visit www.durlston.co.uk.

National Trust news

Thomas Hardy’s former home in Dorchester, Max Gate, will be open five days a week from this month, with groups able to see the room he used as his study and, until now, was previously closed to the public. The famous writer, who based many of his novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles on the landscape of the region, designed and lived in the house from 1885 until his death in 1928. Max Gate was previously only open three afternoons a week.

For groups interested in literature the National Trust also looks after two other writers’ homes in Dorset: Hardy’s birthplace at Higher Brockhampton and Clouds Hill, Wareham, the isolated brick and tile cottage that was the peaceful retreat of T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia is renowned for its lavish interiors and outstanding art collection. Don’t miss the newly restored Tintoretto painting that is on display for the first time in the dining room.

In Devon there is a new costume exhibition, Dressing Up, Dressing, Down, at Killerton. Built in 1778, it was home of the Aclands, one of Devon’s oldest families, and the fashion exhibition explores the numerous changes of dress required daily in a country house, from walking, relaxing, dining or going to a ball. Saltram, close to Plymouth, is a relatively undiscovered treasure. Areas of the stable block are open for the first time and there is a new exhibition covering the history of the estate. All National Trust properties offer a variety of group benefits, including discounted admission and themed tours.

On the Agatha Christie trail

One of the world’s greatest crime fiction writers was born in Torquay and spent much of her early life in the area before buying her holiday home. Greenway is on the banks of the nearby River Dart and was re-opened by the National Trust following a multi-million pound refurbishment. Groups can uncover even more ways to follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie with a number of initiatives launched by the new English Riviera Tourism Company for 2011.

They include the new Agatha Christie Literary Trail featuring 20 places that inspired her life and works across the region. You can also keep your group guessing with the ‘did you know?’ snippets included as part of the trail. In addition to the trail, Torquay’s Agatha Christie Mile takes groups to places that were special during her younger years including Princess Pier where she enjoyed rollerskating; Beacon Cove, where she was a regular swimmer; and the Victorian Pavilion, where she loved to dance. Agatha Christie’s Potent Plants Garden at Torre Abbey, features many of the poisonous plants that inspired some of her dramatic and deadly storylines.

Five great group attractions

Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens: This 20-acre garden is home to rare and exotic plants from all over the world and group tickets can be combined with a visit to the neighbouring swannery - where feeding the 600 swans is a daily spectacle - and children’s farm.

Exeter Cathedral: This soaring building is considered the finest surviving example of Decorated Gothic, an architectural form that flourished in England during the 13th and 14th centuries, and is said to have the world’s longest gothic ceiling.

Lyme Regis: Called the pearl of the Dorset coast, this enchanting seaside resort has been famously featured in films such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Swanage Railway: Running through six miles of scenic Dorset countryside, this preserved line is an atmospheric way to take your group to Corfe Castle and Swanage. There is a coach drop off point at the northern terminus at Norden.

Tank Museum: Military enthusiasts may fancy this Bovington attraction, which is home to more than 200 historic armoured vehicles, including several rare examples than are not on public display anywhere else. There is reduced entry for groups of ten or more, and special talks and tours can be arranged. 

Five great animal attractions

The BIG Sheep: This all-weather attraction near Bideford is a must for sheep and animal lovers and the sheep racing is always a highpoint. In addition to discounted entry, coach parties can stay for up to one hour free for a refreshment stop in the Shepherds Restaurant and a visit to the Sheepy Shop.

Jurassic Coast: They may be extinct, but dinosaurs have left indelible footprints along England’s first natural World Heritage Site, stretching from Exmouth in Devon to Studland Bay, Dorset.

Monkey World, Ape Rescue Centre: This heart-warming 65-acre centre near Wareham is home to more than 240 rescued and endangered primates from around the world. There is discounted admission for groups of ten or more.

Oceanarium: Bring your group face-to-face with a vast array of creatures from the furthest reaches of the globe at this amazing aquarium conveniently situated on Bournemouth seafront. Groups of ten or more benefit from discounted entry.

Paignton Zoo: A king colobus monkey, born in February, is the newest resident at the zoo where groups can embark on an exciting adventure through the desert, savannah, tropical rainforest and other themed areas. There are special tours and benefits for parties of 15 plus.

Useful contacts:

English Riviera Tourism Company:
0844-474 2233

Visit Devon:

Visit Dorset:


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