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The view overlooking the town of Sidmouth from Salcombe Hill with the magnificent Belmont and Victoria hotels in the centre of the picture looking out across Lyme Bay.

Victorian splendour in Sidmouth – a classic west country resort

Sidmouth's red sea cliffs are eroding

By Alan Wooding

"We're beginning to see a lot more people holidaying here," said Tim Beauchamp, the friendly general manager responsible for two of Sidmouth's most prestigious hotels. 

And there's certainly no doubting that this quintessential Victorian seaside resort is beginning to buck the trend, judging by the amount of holidaymakers enjoying the early summer sunshine when I visited what is truly a quaint South Devon resort for a few days in mid-May.

Proud to be the gateway to UNESCO's World Heritage Jurassic Coast, Sidmouth sadly became something of a holidaying backwater when its links to London and the Midlands were axed by Dr Richard Beeching back in the 1960s after he shut down its railway connections.

With so many of Britain's traditional seaside resorts falling from favour during that period – mainly thanks to cheap foreign package deals – with its wide esplanade, clean shingle and sand beach, Sidmouth seems to have reinvented itself. 

The Belmont Hotel and car park

Boasting magnificent views across Lyme Bay, instead of playing second fiddle to the likes of its larger west country neighbours Torquay and Paignton, it is both lively and bustling and is now a magnet for holidaymakers and day trippers alike.

It's more than 50 years since my last visit to the town but when I was invited to see what Sidmouth has to offer nowadays by the family-owned Brend Hotel chain – www.brendhotels.com (08455 760 760) – I jumped at the chance. 

The Brend Group own two of the grandest and most striking four star residences along the whole of England's south coast – The Victoria and The Belmont – while both are located almost side-by-side close to the seafront towards the western end of the town's wide esplanade.

The Belmont and its car park are reached through an ornamental stone archway and, having been booked into a deluxe sea-facing double room overlooking both the beach and a nine hole putting green, we were met by Mr Beauchamp, Brend's General Manager, who arranged for our cases to be collected and taken to our room.

Part of the Belmont's magnificent gardens

Built as a private residence back in 1817, the Brend family purchased The Belmont in 1987 and since then it has become a firm favourite with guests. "We get clients returning year after year," said Mr Beauchamp who joined the Brend group in 1996 and was originally based at The Victoria. 

"There are plenty of people nowadays who don't want to travel abroad but they want luxury accommodation and we try our best to make sure they get it. Brexit could make a difference as some people just want a 'staycation'. I tend to stay at The Belmont and leave Matthew Raistrick (the Brend company's Area Director) to look after the day-to-day running at The Victoria," he added.

With its 50 en suite rooms (eight of which are singles), accommodation at The Belmont is impressive. It's traditional in terms of old-fashioned service but it certainly offers all the modern comforts you would expect from a top quality hotel. 

Meanwhile guests have a three acre garden to explore which is a real delight, for besides an immaculate lawned area and some colourful planted flower beds, there's a peaceful and almost hidden woodland trail beside which runs a small stream… sheer tranquility indeed!

Looking eastwards along Sidmouth esplanade

Superbly decorated throughout, our spacious comfortable bedroom with its French door and balcony was extremely well appointed with free Wi-Fi and the usual tea/coffee making facilities… and the en suite was simply enormous.

"In total we've got 220 members of staff across the two hotels," explained Mr Beauchamp, adding "the maintenance people and gardeners are naturally shared."

There's a sun terrace and two restaurants, the Belmont and the Horizon with it's huge picture window, the latter created just 12 months ago from a little used lounge which now consists of just seven tables. Evening dress code in the Belmont restaurant means a suit and tie are requested to be worn while the Horizon is far more casual. 

The same evening dinner menus are available in both restaurants while the choice is huge – a superb six-course Table D'Hôte Menu being priced at £40 although each course can be ordered individually.

One of the exquisite dishes at the Belmont

"Our head chef at The Belmont is Andrew Slater and he's a local," said Mr Beauchamp. "He's been with us since 1996 and there are ten others in the hotel's kitchen. They use local fresh ingredients whenever possible while we also grow some of our own herbs and vegetables.

"We often have non-residents dropping in. They are often here for breakfast meetings or luncheon parties and it's no surprise to see the same people several times a year," explained Mr Beauchamp.

There's a passenger lift and an extremely comfortable lounge area with large picture windows while the staff are very attentive, always friendly and they make you feel extremely welcome.

While the Belmont doesn't have a swimming pool or sporting facilities, when we checked into magnificent Victoria next door, we were spoilt for choice. However Belmont guests can simply pop across the road and have complete use of all the facilities including two swimming pools – the outdoor one being really impressive – a sauna, hot stone beds along with spa treatment areas, tennis courts, snooker and games rooms and an 18 hole putting green.

The Victoria was the first purpose built hotel in Sidmouth and dates back to 1903.

The Victoria was the first purposes built hotel in Sidmouth and stands in five acres of beautifully manicured gardens. It's sheer grandeur and opulence is of another age and when this magnificent building opened in 1903, it was naturally named in honour of the reigning monarch.

An elegant red brick building, The Victoria offers award-winning first class service to its guests in 64 bedrooms, 12 of which are singles. 

Once again we were spoilt as we were checked into a huge sea-front State room (No.107) with its enormous bed, 50 inch television, mini bar, settee, balcony and every conceivable comfort imaginable. 

There's plenty of car parking, a well stocked bar, lounges and sun terraces plus an AA Rosette Awarded Jubilee Restaurant in which guests are expected to dress for the occasion.

However we dined in the White Room where no dress code (as at the Belmont) was required even though I had made the effort! The White Room was created three years ago and consists of just eight tables and once again, the menu choice is huge. 

Under the Victoria's head chef Stuart White, there are 18 other chefs in the hotel's three kitchens and once again, just as in The Belmont, the quality and presentation is quite magnificent. A five-course dinner is offered at £42 while the staff are polite, attentive and very respectful, especially as some of the guests are less able when it comes to getting around.

The Victoria Hotel's outdoor swimming pool

Brend Hotel's Area Director Matthew Raistrick is justly proud of both hotels and explained that they cater for many different events. 

"We have a loyal following and are proud that guests recommend us and enjoy our facilities," he said.

"We offer quality and give guests luxurious accommodation in a range of rooms including suites which are located either in the hotel towers or by the poolside."

Traditional Devon cream teas or an afternoon cocktails in the sun lounge can be enjoyed by the guests while one important feature is that a passenger lift provides access to all the hotel's floors.

Sidmouth's bustling High Street

About Sidmouth 

Both hotels are approximately a five minute stroll along the sea front to reach the town centre, parts of which have been designated a conservation area. Sidmouth began to really expand during the Georgian and Victorian periods while today a number of impressively preserved Regency buildings remain.

The pedestrianised High Street has plenty of independent shops – the usual mix of charity, food and coffee – while there's a small cinema (The Radway) plus an excellent free to enter museum featuring relics from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods while there's a special feature regarding local women's suffrage, 100 years of the RAF and the town's maritime past.

The aforementioned esplanade walk is actually the town's seafront road which runs from the foot of the enormous red cliffs of Salcombe Hill to the east towards Peak Hill and Jacob's Ladder beach in the west.

Jacob's Ladder viewed from Peak Hill

We climbed both hills and enjoyed the magnificent views back over the town which dates back to the 11th century when Sidmouth was then known as Sedemuda which means the 'Mouth of the River Sid'. 

The Sid which runs down the valley beneath Salcombe Hill trickles out onto the beach close to where the inshore fishermen keep their boats while those red-coloured rocks – which indicate the arid conditions of the geological Triassic period – are slowly being eroded by the sea and it is beginning to seriously threaten many properties close to the South West Coastal Path.

The creation of several artificial offshore islands have helped in a bid to protect the town's seafront – especially opposite the Victoria and Belmont hotels – but it's the erosion just along the coast that is becoming a nightmare for the Environment Agency.

A view through the arch at The Victoria Hotel

The wooden white painted steps heading from Jacob's Ladder beach up to Connaught Gardens have undergone some serious repairs over the years while the Sea View Gardens themselves, with their traditional bandstand, were actually renamed after Queen Victoria's third son, the Duke of Connaught, who officially opened them in 1834 – at the age of 84! 

One thing that has put Sidmouth on the map is music and its annual week-long Folk Festival takes place in August. It attracts musicians and visitors in their thousands who flock to specially-erected marquees in Blackmore Gardens and The Ham. However the main action now takes place in the hamlet of Bulverton on the edge of town, close to the main campsite.

Places to see around Sidmouth

Located in the heart of some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain, the two Brend hotels are close to the stunning, unspoilt scenery of Dartmoor National Park with its dramatic moorland landscape. And close by is the lovely 12th century cathedral and excellent shopping which can be had in the county town of Exeter which also boast a popular racecourse, a top notch rugby team and is home to the annual Devon County Show which takes place this week (May 17-20).

A State room at The Victorian Hotel

There's the picturesque fishing village of Brixham (home to the replica of the Golden Hind); sailing and windsurfing havens of Exmouth, the lovely mile-long beach at Seaton and the charming and friendly market town of Honiton. Also close by is Budleigh Salterton, one of Devon’s most unspoilt and tranquil coastal towns while Agatha Christie’s cherished holiday home of Greenway (now owned by the National Trust) is set on the banks of the River Dart.

There's some glorious scenery and the ancient Cobb at Lyme Regis, the pretty and traditional village of Branscombe; and the dramatic Geoneedle stone sculpture at Orcombe Point with its beautiful coastal backdrop.

Meanwhile the two Brend hotels are the ideal base from which to explore the amazing Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws visitors from all over the world and which has been described as a unique ‘geological walk through time’.

Hot stone beds in The Victoria's Spa

Travel Facts

Alan and Jo Wooding stayed at both The Belmont and The Victoria hotels. Summer break prices start at £152 per person per night at The Victoria in a standard double room which includes a full English breakfast and five-course dinner. The Belmont's Summer prices are from £132 for a standard double per person which also includes a full English breakfast and a six-course dinner. 

Many thanks to Tim Beauchamp, Matthew Raistrick and Sue Bradbury of SBPR Ltd for arranging our stay at both the Belmont and Victoria hotels which are part of the Brend Hotels Group which won the 'Hotel Group of the Year' in the AA Hospitality Awards in 2015 and 2016.   

The Victoria Hotel, The Esplanade, Sidmouth, Devon EX10 8RY – Tel: 01395 512651 – www.victoriahotel.co.uk and reservations@victoriahotel.co.uk

The Belmont Hotel, The Esplanade, Sidmouth, Devon EX10 8RX – Tel: 01395 512555 – www.belmont-hotel.co.uk and reservations@belmont-hotel.co.uk


Early morning mist over Derwentwater

A Wildlife Adventure in Lakeland

Derwent Bank Hotel from the lakeside jetty

Words and pictures
by Alan Wooding

It was a horrible high-pitched squeal that suddenly made us aware that something serious was happening close by. But little did we expect to see a juvenile stoat attempting to kill a large rabbit just yards from the RSPB's Campfield Marsh building where we were eating our picnic lunches.

It was certainly one of nature's less attractive moments, but as we were on a four night 'Autumn Wildlife in the Lake District' holiday, then it became one of the major talking points with our fellow guests back at HF Holidays' lovely Derwent Bank Hotel during the evening. 

Located on the banks of one of Cumbria's most attractive lakes and just over a mile from the town of Keswick in the pretty village of Portinscale, Derwent Bank is one of 18 UK hotels owned by the company which began life as Holiday Fellowship back in 1913. 

Surrounded on all sides by mountains, Portinscale's village name has an odd twist for in old English it means 'Harlot's Hut' – Portcwene meaning 'harlot' and skáli translated as 'hut' – so you can draw your own conclusion as to what went on there!

Britain's Lake District was granted UNESCO World Heritage status just six months ago which positions it with other ‘must see’ iconic outdoor destinations such as the Grand Canyon and Great Barrier Reef and I was delighted to be invited there for a four night stay by HF Holidays.

Following an easy four-and-a-half hour drive from Bedford, I was met by 28-year-old Russell Hedley, our wildlife expert and guide for the duration of the holiday. Now I've met several naturalists before, but Russell's knowledge really rubbed off on our group of ten – which included five retired teachers – his sheer enthusiasm seemingly taking everybody's interest in wildlife to a new level.

A spirited taste of Lakeland

Sitting together in the hotel's lounge on the first evening, Russell explained that he intended taking us into coniferous forests and deciduous woodland and then to visit wetland habitats in the hope that we might see plenty of wildlife, although he added that the intended itinerary was always subject to change.

Our transport for the Monday to Friday holiday was a Mercedes minibus driven by Bolton-born Nathan Greenhalgh who, just weeks earlier, had been ferrying the cast and crew of the television drama The 'A' Word around its lakeland location.

"I had breakfast with Christopher Eccleston and Lee Ingleby one morning and they were delightful," he said. "However I wasn't allowed to say anything about the filming or the actual locations as it's all very hush hush."

Our first destination on the Tuesday morning was to Whinlatter Forest, the largest man-made plantation on a mountainside in Britain. It was established between the two World Wars in a bid to replace some of the timber used in the Great War. 

We spent the morning searching for the elusive red squirrel and despite seeing plenty of signs – and a few colourful crossbills – our quarry remained hidden apart from seeing one on a live camera feed on television once we returned to the forest's visitor centre. 

There were plenty of LBJs – Little Brown Jobs – which I failed to identify with my limited knowledge although we spent our lunchtime watching the bird feeders which attracted dozens of blue, coal and great tits, chaffinches and the occasional siskin plus Britain's smallest bird, the goldcrest. 

After that we drove off to the other side of Keswick to visit the Great Wood and Frier's Crag before we walked into town alongside the lakeshore where we watched a huge murmuration of starlings, redwings chasing mistle thrushes from tree to tree, a pair of goosanders, a shy kingfisher and a whooper swan which was being hounded by a slightly larger male mute swan.

In total we walked around seven miles and also enjoyed a hot chocolate at the Keswick Theatre restaurant before returning to the hotel for a hot shower before dinner. En route we passed Keswick's quirky Pencil Museum while that evening we were treated to a talk by Keswick Museum's curator who bought along a huge selection of strange objects for us to try and identity and to guess their age and usage. 

Naturalist Russell Headley shows the group an unusual fungi

The following morning we set out for the Woodlands Trust-owned Powter How where Russell pointed out dozens of different fungi and numerous plants but again the squirrels stayed hidden. 

Then it was off to lakeland's most northerly mass of water, the four mile long Bassenthwaite Lake in the shadow of the mountains of Blencathra at 868 metres and Skiddow at 931 metres, the latter being the sixth highest peak in England. 

It's only found in Bassenthwaite and Derwentwater, but the vendace is one of the world's rarest fish, having been trapped there after the Ice Age. However as the lake has otters and cormorants on its shores, it could well be even rarer – or even extinct – as their quest for food wouldn't distinguish the vendace from any other fish!

Sadly there were no waders but just a few tufted ducks on show so we headed off to the more impressive seven hectare Dubwath Silver Meadow wetland nature reserve where we first spotted a peregrine falcon while several snipe rose from the boggy landscape to zig-zag away into the distance. 

Given that barn owls are common there, we popped into the nearby Pheasant pub to sample their mulled wine before returning to the meadow as dusk began to fall only to find a couple of owl pellets which were carefully dissected by Russell and the group back at the hotel. It revealed that the owl had eaten three individual field voles plus a tiny shrew in the last 24 hours.

Our final full day saw a change of plan, for instead of visiting the re-wilding projects at Ennerdale, Russell arranged for us to travel north close to the town of Bowness-on-Solway and the picturesque Solway Firth where the sun shone all day from a cloudless blue sky and gave us excellent views across the water to Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland.

A juvenile stoat with its kill

It was also easily our most successful day of wildlife watching as we saw more than 30 bird species, from various waders on the shoreline like dunlin and redshank to numerous winter visitors like fieldfares and whopper swans. And then there was that stoat which managed to disable the unfortunate rabbit only to run away into a nearby barn every time it let out that high-pitched squeal.

But the little stoat returned at least a dozen times before finally ending the poor bunnies misery with a savage bite to the back of the neck. It then proceeded to try and push the rabbit into the barn only to discover that it was much easier to pull it. It took it at least 20 minutes but it was a lesson learned and it also reminded us that nature itself can be so very cruel.

Walking out onto the boggy Campfield Marsh reserve on a raised walkway, we spotted three roe deer while our hopes of seeing that elusive red squirrel quickly evaporated. However we were treated to watching a large flock of pink-footed geese and four whooper swans fly in to roost for the night. 

Over the three days we had spotted and enjoyed seeing 113 different species of birds, plants and fungi, all carefully logged by Russell who present a list to us at our final evening get-together. Oh! and one thing I had never heard of before was that by reversing your binoculars and looking through the 'wrong' end, they become microscope-like when viewing plants or leaves from close quarters.

DERWENT BANK HOTEL

Located on the shore of Derwentwater in the quaint Cumbrian village of Portinscale close to the town of Keswick, the four-star Derwent Bank Hotel has been owned by HF Holidays since 1937 although it actually dates back to 1788 when it was constructed as Finkel Street House by Joseph Pocklington (1736-1817).

However the house has been sold to various owners since then and has undergone some major changes in appearance, its three-storey original having been deemed 'very ugly' by all who saw it, its owner being branded 'A Man With No Taste' by the locals.

Various wings and extensions have been added and major improvements made by other owners down the years. But the biggest changes came in the early 1900s when wealthy widow Emily Haigh Edmondson (1862-1936) had several walls removed, opening up some of the rooms while adding a number a dated features like the huge wooden fireplace which stands proudly from floor to ceiling in the current dining room.

However once Holiday Fellowship purchased it together with its 20 plus acres of woodland garden in 1937, they began adding bathrooms, toilets and extending upwards above the current bar/cafe area, bringing the number of bedrooms to 38 – 23 being twins and 15 singles.

Having undergone a total refurbishment just last year, Derwent Bank has everything you need for an outdoor-style holiday, especially with that separate boot room to help with the drying of the wet clothing and footwear, the entire lakes region likely to suddenly change from bright sunshine to a torrential downpour at the drop of a hat.

There are no particular frills inside the building itself which has a large comfortable lounge, a conservatory and bar while its bedrooms are nicely finished. Our premier room (No15) looked out across the lake with its wooden jetty while other rooms faced the extensive flower and vegetable gardens and the hotel's own bee hives. 

All the room are nicely furnished and provide plenty of storage while there is the usual television, tea and coffee making facilities and free Wi-Fi while the beds themselves are particularly comfortable.

Derwent Bank currently has 13 staff members under the guidance of its Spanish manager Mariano Marcos-Granados who has been with HF Holidays for a total of 21 years and has headed up the Portinscale operation for more than a decade. 

"I've really enjoyed my time here," he told me. "We've got a great staff and we really try and give our guests an enjoyable experience. They are really loyal to the HF Holidays brand and many return year after year and have become good friends.

Some of the hotel's attentive staff

"Our head chef João is Portuguese and he looks to use as much local produce as possible. In fact last night's six-course dinner was pretty much all local produce, even the tapas starter of Serrano ham, chorizo and salami were made here," he added.

While local dishes often include Cumbrian Herdwick lamb, English Lakes ice cream together with numerous Cumbrian cheeses, everything else is supplied by local butchers and grocers. Drinks too are brewed and distilled locally with speciality gin and vodka now becoming a firm favourite.

However it was the breakfasts that I particularly loved. A bowl of freshly-made yoghurt with honey and granola plus a fruit juice to start with and then a truly memorable Full English – black pudding, bacon, sausage and hash browns, tomato, beans, fried bread and plenty of mushrooms. While there were plenty of other choices all cooked to order, the former certainly set me up for a day of healthy walking and bird watching in the crisp lakeland air!

There's a choice of lunchtime picnic sandwiches – which you pre-order the night before – while you can then load up your lunch bag with fruit, crisps, pies and healthy snacks before setting off for the day.

It's the same at dinner, for you are able to choose the following evening's three-course meal just after you've eaten the current one and before you meet up with fellow guests in the conservatory for coffee.

One word of warning… on arrival day we happily tucked into warm scones, jam and cream at 4pm but then struggled through dinner a mere three hours later. Just saying! 

Bird watching on the Solway Firth

FACT FILE

Travel writer Alan Wooding and photographer Alan Stafford were the guests of HF Holidays – www.hfholidays.co.uk  on their four night 'Autumn Wildlife in the Lake District' holiday staying at the Derwent Bank Hotel on the shores of Derwentwater in the village of Portinscale. The hotel is open year round and caters for all outdoor activities, both guided and self-guided walks plus cycling. 

Wildlife expert Russell Hedley has worked with HF Holidays for five years and is managing director of Talks & Walks Guided Nature Tours – www.naturetalksandwalks.co.uk, tel: 07505 149582, email russ@naturetalksandwalks.co.uk

Many thanks to Alison Barr and all at Gough Bailey Wright – www.gough.co.uk tel: 01527 579555 – of St John's House, 16 Church Street, Bromsgrove, B61 8DN for arranging the holiday.

ABOUT HF HOLIDAYS 

All HF Holiday country houses welcome self-guided walkers, so you can enjoy the same diverse array of scenery, culture, history and wildlife as the rest of the guests, but with the freedom to explore wherever and whenever you choose. Each of the houses has a Discovery Point packed with a selection of local walks for you to explore. All you need to do is decide how far you feel like walking that day, pick your route card off the wall, lace up your boots and head off.

HF Holidays is actually owned by its members. Standard membership can be brought for a minimum investment of £100 (100 £1 shares) while Investment Membership means an minimum outlay of £1,000 (1,000 £1 shares) – details at www.hfholidays.co.uk/membership or call 020 8732 1290. Membership itself means various rewards, discounts and advanced booking privileges.  

With over 100 years' expertise in creating unique breaks, HF Holidays have devised special courses with experts for Photography, Arts & Crafts, Music, Theatre and Festivals, Dancing, Natural World, Mind & Body, Bridge and Touring. And while the majority of these activities take place in Great Britain, there is the opportunity to travel to all parts of the globe by checking out the website at www.hfholidays.co.uk