I don't explore England enough. It's well enough saying that it's good to get out of London sometimes, but having done weekends in New York, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and Copenhagen this year, those types of weekends aren't exactly relaxing. Airports themselves I find quite stressful - if you've ever been on the verge of missing a flight, I'm sure you can sympathise - and then you're racing around trying to see everything on the limited time you have. I know, I know. Woe is me. Recently I spent a couple of days in rainy Devon, cozying up by roaring fires and eating a whole lot of seafood, and it happened to be just a mere two or so hours on a very pleasant train journey. I was clearly lucky enough to avoid Sunday replacement bus services.
The Cary Arms is an adorable converted pub, down a steep hill and right on the coast of Baddacombe Bay. It has typically low ceilings and several nooks and crannies to hide away in with the morning papers, or indeed a digestif. Probably not a digestif in the morning though.
We were a group of five, invited to visit by their people. They have rooms as well as cottages, and the Beach Cottage was very well equipped with everything you might need for a self-catering stay. When we arrived we warmed ourselves by the Aga, before migrating over to the living room for a couple of board games. A pre-stocked fireplace made it incredibly easy to light... by someone else... I'm terrible at practical things like that. I'm much better at pouring out sloe gin that came complimentary and - joy! - was replenished daily.
Unlike most self-catering cottages though, here you still have the luxury of nightly turn-downs in the spacious bedrooms. When I tiredly whipped off the covers of my big bouncy bed I discovered a hot water bottle warming the sheets. There is not much more glorious than getting into a pre-warmed bed.
For breakfast, fruit, honey, granola and yoghurt were on offer as well as a more traditional European-style breakfast of sliced meats and cheeses, thus enabling a three course breakfast once you factor in the cooked breakfasts that obviously I wouldn't turn down.
I ordered the grilled kippers and I got literally all the kippers in the world. See? That was just for me. It was a bit much actually. We giggled so heartily at the size of it, the waitress shrieked into the kitchen - "'ere! They're laughing at your kippers!" I gamely attempted it in its entirety but had to stop, fearful of a slow death by salt. They were good kippers though.
Much more manageable was the smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. I felt the eggs could have been a little creamier, a little fluffier but that was merely a light gripe.
As it pissed it down with rain, we donned our raincoats and, er, leopard print trainers ("you definitely didn't bring wellies...?") and set off with David Beazley, our wild food foraging instructor.
Sure, we look pretty soggy and bedraggled. But David was really brilliant, and took us on an hour long leisurely walk, picking out various leaves, encouraging us to taste them as we went.
We gathered leaves along the way in little plastic tubs, with the view of making our own salad as we went along. Many of the leaves were citrussy in flavour, some strongly of celery, others a hint of cucumber.
The views along the way were stunning. Admittedly it might have been rather more picturesque if the sun had been shining and we were romping around the coast in shorts and hats, but then we definitely wouldn't have seen this mini waterfall.
I have absolutely no recollection of which leaf was what, which is incredibly helpful, but luckily David has a Kindle book and an app that details pictures as well as recipes.
What else is there to do in the area? I'll come on to that later, to avoid this becoming the longest post there ever was, but what was an incredibly enjoyable way to spend a morning is a wine and cheese tasting at Sharpham's Vineyard. There's nothing quite like legitimising an 11am glass of wine - only really acceptable at weddings or wine tastings APPARENTLY - and Sharpham's wine is very fine indeed.
If you want to learn anything about English wine then I would strongly recommend visiting. On account of said pissing rain we forewent the vineyard tour, opting instead to have a good sit under some warm blankets and be guided through all their wines instead. The Dart Valley Reserve was my favourite, and happily you can find it in Borough Market.
What Sharpham's also do incredibly well is cheese. Each cheese we tried matched a different glass of wine, but standalone we could only sit on our hands to avoid scoffing the lot. Well worth seeking out - stockists are listed here.
Back to our abode, and The Cary Arms also serves food in the evenings, with a menu that can only be described as gastro-pub with a strong leaning towards seafood. Full of solid comfort food like steak and ale pie and fish and chips, they also do lighter, more elegant options. I really enjoyed the seared (very local) Brixham scallops with crisp parma ham wafers. The star anise jus lifted it from being a bit obvious to bringing something a little different about it.
The 'trio of fish' changes depending on what's fresh at the market. Cooked very simply and sympathetically to bring out the best of each, the seabass, ling and hake were all topped with pistou sauce. A seasonal vegetable accompaniment of mange tout, green beans and cubes of fried potato really did make me reminiscent of the veg sides you get in countryside pubs. That's not a criticism, it's just very straight-forward.
On another night, seared pigeon breast with butternut squash puree and a black pudding sauce was very generous with not one but three whole breasts, cooked perfectly blushing and juicy in the middle. Someone had a big day on the red cress garnish, but the flavours worked really nicely, the tang of the black pudding off-setting the sweetness of the squash.
I opted for the Devon crab salad with wholegrain mustard mayonnaise and while I was happy to get both white and brown crabmeat, the mayonnaise was a bit too plentiful to fully appreciate it.
With a sticky toffee pudding and a cheese board to properly finish us off, there was really only one thing for it - either fall asleep in front of a fire, or take advantage of the ex-pub's throwback - pool.
They also have a spa there, with treatment rooms. In 2016 a set of beach huts will be built, completing their spa and offering rooms right on the seafront. After a restful night's sleep in a properly dark, properly silent room - this is a novelty for a Londoner - we were treated to a 25 minute neck, shoulder and back massage. Completely blissful. Afterwards I flopped into a big squishy seat and stared at the sea for a while.
I was invited to The Cary Arms, but as with everything on this site, all opinions are my own. Rooms start at £196 per night for two, including breakfast.
The Cary Arms
Tel: + 44 (0) 1803 327110