Though Devon’s economy today is mainly agricultural and tourism-based, it has served a number of purposes throughout its history. With evidence of human activity in Devon as far back as the Stone Age, the natural history of the county is equally impressive, with national parks Dartmoor and Exmoor being world-famous for their landscapes and ancient features.
The county has birthed key figures in history such as Sir Francis Drake, and is also home to Plymouth, the site of one of the most important ports in the world during World War Two.
With sites on offer such as the oldest working woollen mill in England to the youngest castle in the country, a day out in Devon is never boring. Here’s our selection of 10 sites you mustn’t miss when visiting.
1. Castle Drogo
Castle Drogo in Devon has all the appearances of a medieval castle, but was actually constructed in the early 20th century. Built to contain all the features and furnishings of a great stronghold, it is said to be the last castle built in England, and was the creation of businessman and entrepreneur Julius Drewe. Construction of the castle began in 1911 and was completed by 1930, taking a total of 20 years to complete due to delays surrounding World War One and the Great Depression.
Today, Castle Drogo remains under the management of the National Trust and is open to the public. At its stunning setting above the Teign Gorge, visitors can tour the castle’s updated layout and newly displayed historic treasures. With design styles borrowed from the medieval and Tudor periods, both the castle’s exterior and interior features offer an intriguing visit, intertwined with all the modernity of the 20th century.
2. Buckfast Abbey
Located near Buckfastleigh in Devon, Buckfast Abbey is part of a Benedictine monastery. It first became home to an abbey in 1018 which was followed by a Savignac (later Cistercian) abbey in 1134. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was surrendered for dissolution and later demolished. The former abbey site later became home to a Gothic mansion house. In 1882, the site was purchased by a group of Benedictine Monks, who re-founded the monastery.
The abbey is arguably most famous for the production of the fortified tonic wine Buckfast, which the monks there started making in the 1890s. As well as continuing to function as a religious organisation, there is a visitor centre on-site.
Drizzlecombe is a collection of Bronze Age artefacts, including a stone row, large megalithic menhirs (standing stones) and tumuli (burial mounds) located in the south side of Dartmoor. Drizzlecombe was a focus of activity during the Bronze Age, and contains 5 enclosed settlement sites and huts, cairns and a cist. However, it is the 3 principal stone rows, each with an associated barrow and terminal menhir, that dominate the landscape today.
Today the site is much unchanged, even after millennia. With any luck, you may see Dartmoor ponies wandering among the stone rows.
4. Tarr Steps
When looking to explore Exmoor National Park, the ancient and picturesque Tarr Steps are a good place to start. The ‘clapper bridge’ – a bridge made from large stone slabs placed over smaller stones – is the longest of its kind in Great Britain. Though there’s no definitive date with regards to how old it is, some theories suggest the Tarr Steps date as far back as 1000 BC. The official listing, however, is the medieval period. Local legend has it that the steps were laid by the devil.
The steps are hugely popular amongst experienced hikers and those out on a stroll alike, especially during the spring and summer months. They’re situated towards the southern part of Exmoor, around five miles from the town of Dulverton.
5. Hartland Abbey
Located in North Devon, the 12th-century Hartland Abbey originally survived as a monastery longer than any other in England. In 1539, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII gifted the house to the keeper of his wine cellar, and around half a millennia later it remains in the same family.
Today, the impressive interiors of the Abbey feature medieval, Georgian, Regency and Victorian-era decoration and furnishings, and exquisite works of art.
6. Coldharbour Mill
Situated in Uffculme, Devon, Coldharbour Mill is one of the oldest woollen mills in the UK to have been in continuous production, having started in 1797. Originally owned by the world-famous textile manufacturers the Fox Brothers, the mill played a key part in the South West’s Industrial Revolution.
Today, the working mill is a museum open to visitors who are able to relive the authentic sights and sounds of the Industrial Revolution. Over 12 acres, visitors can enjoy exploring boilers and steam engines alongside exhibitions about the history of the mill and Industrial Revolution more generally.
7. Exeter Cathedral
Previous buildings have existed on the site of Exeter Cathedral, including a 10th century Anglo-Saxon construction and a subsequent Norman cathedral, which was completed in 1180. The main body of the current Exeter Cathedral was completed by around 1400, with improvements and renovations continuing through to the 19th and 20th centuries. In times of conflict, Exeter Cathedral has often been subject to damage, occurring during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the English Civil War and World War Two when it was damaged in a 1942 German bombing raid.
Visitors to Exeter Cathedral can explore its stunning architecture, stonework, sculptures and stained-glass windows. The Minstrels’ Gallery, Astronomical Clock and Bishop’s Throne all date from the 13th and 14th centuries, while the Cathedral Green is also a popular place for relaxing in the sunshine.
8. Agatha Christie’s House – Greenway House
Greenway House is a stunning 18th-century Grade II-listed Georgian mansion in Devon. Overlooking the River Dart, the picturesque site was once the holiday home of prolific author Agatha Christie from 1938 to 1976, and is still full of some of her best-loved possessions. Though it’s widely accepted Christie didn’t actually write any of her novels at Greenway, it does feature in Five Little Pigs, Towards Zero and Dead Man’s Folly. Christie once described it as “the loveliest place in the world”.
Today, Greenway House is open to visitors and offers a rare insight into Christie’s private life. Each room is packed full of the trinkets she loved, including the dominoes and card games she played in front of the Drawing Room’s fireplace, and her beautiful Steinway piano. Since her family were avid collectors there are a staggering 11,000 items in the house to peruse.
9. Powderham Castle
Located in Powderham, Powderham Castle is a Grade I listed fortified manor house which is open to the public. The medieval core of the structure was first built sometime after 1390, and it was originally known solely as a fortified manor house, earning the name ‘castle’ at some time during the 17th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was expanded significantly.
Today, the castle remains the seat of the Earls of Devon, the Courtenay family. However, a regular programme of open house events, tours and outdoor activities means that it is a popular destination for visitors.
10. Underground Passages
Built during the 14th century, the dark and narrow Underground Passages were designed to house the pipes that delivered clean drinking water into medieval Exeter, and today run under a large portion of the city. When a cholera epidemic hit the city in the 1800s, it was decided that the water system needed a complete overhaul, and by 1901, the passages were finally closed down as Exeter had weaned itself off the natural well.
Exeter is the only city in the UK to have underground passages of that type, and today, guided tours take place for those who are brave enough to enter the dark and narrow underground space. The modern visitor centre also provides a wealth of fascinating information about the history of the tunnels.