Braunton Burrows sand dunes, besides being an official AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), are also used regularly for military troop training. It is said that there are more than 500 species of flora, fauna and wildlife living in the dunes and in the adjacent Braunton Great Fields area which is a well known archeological site.
As we only had two full days in which to explore the area, we decided to walk from Braunton village to Barnstaple along the six-mile traffic-free Tarka Trail… although in total it actually runs for around 30!
Named after author Henry Williamson's classic fictional story about Tarka the Otter, the trail starts from Braunton's Caen Street car park and follows what is a now a disused railway embankment which was closed by Dr Richard Beeching some 50-plus year ago.
The trail is also part of the National Cycle Network (it's No.27) and the coastal path while it follows the Taw estuary all the away into Barnstaple town centre. However there are stops for refreshments along the way at places like the Waterside Cafe after 2.5 miles and the castle-like Braunton Inn a few hundred yards further on. Apparently you can download an audio guide for the walk from northdevonbiosphere.org.uk
Close to the start of the walk you could also hire bikes from Otter Cycle Hire (tel: 01271 813339) but we chose to stretch our legs instead and on reaching Barnstaple, having viewed plenty of wildlife including oyster catchers and various waders out on the mudflats, we visited the town's famed indoor Pannier Market which is largely unchanged since it was built around 150 years ago and is situated along the pedestrianised High Street.
On our way to the bus station to catch the No.21 back to Braunton, we had chance to pop into Saunton Sands' sister hotel, The Royal & Fortescue. It's one of four Brend Group hotels in the town where the family once owned a butcher's shop before building up their hotel portfolio.
Had we had time, then a visit to the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon might have been in order. It's located in a large Victoria building at the end of Long Bridge and it's free… so worth thinking about if the weather changes for the worst.
There are certainly plenty of things to do come rain or shine in this part of North Devon as Ilfracombe is only a short car ride away from Saunton Sands. There you can visit the aquarium or book a trip out to Lundy Island to see the nesting puffins aboard the 267-seat passenger ship, MS Oldenburg. It sails four times a week at 10am on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from Ilfracombe and on Saturdays from Bideford – enquiries 01271 863636 or firstname.lastname@example.org
From Ilfracombe you can also enjoy a Sea Safari – www.ilfracombeseasafari.co.uk - tel: 07827 679189 – with trips of varying length along the coast aboard a fast rubber boat with twin outboard engines. If you're lucky you might see dolphins, seals and all species of seabird nesting on the cliff ledges.
Alternatively there are several fishing boat trips on which you can catch mackerel and dog fish. They all go from the harbour while if sailing or fishing is not your thing, then visiting pretty villages such as Clovelly, Lynton and Lynmouth or the charming Watersmeet maybe an alternative as might be a visit to the Royal Horticultural Society's Rosemoor Gardens close to Great Torrington – see rhs.org.uk/rosemoor
As for the children, then meeting more than 600 animals at Exmoor Zoo in Barnstaple or going to The Big Sheep theme park in Bideford is a possibility as is a shopping trip to the Atlantic Village located along the Clovelly Road in Bideford.
For horse riding and trekking enthusiasts, then Roy's Riding Stables at Croyde Bay is a must (call 01271 890898) while that area is also famous for jumping into the sea off the rocks – it's called 'Coasteering' – and is really only for adrenalin junkies and not the feint-hearted!
For our final day, we chose to visit nearby Arlington Court, once the permanent residence of the Chichester family and now home to the National Trust's Carriage Museum. The museum itself is crammed with horse dawn carriages once owned by various lords and ladies and it also includes the impressive golden House of Commons-owned Speaker's State Coach and Queen Victoria's pony phaeton.
In the impressive neoclassical-style Regency house there are collections of model ships, pewter tankards and ornaments but especially seashells, although visiting children will probably be more excited about spying the bat camera or hunting for geocaches in the extensive grounds.
On the upper floor of the house is an exhibition dedicated to Sir Francis Chichester, the famed sailor who exactly 50 years ago in 1967 single-handedly circumnavigated the globe in his yacht Gypsy Moth IV.
Sir Francis was actually from a different branch of the family, the son of the Rev Charles Chichester, the vicar of the nearby village of Shirwell.
However the last family member to live at Arlington Court was Rosalie Chichester who was responsible for much of the huge eclectic collections. She never married and decided to leave the mansion and its 3,500 acres of gardens and parkland to the National Trust before she passed away in 1949.
Arlington Court also has a small Victorian kitchen and tearooms serving dishes made from fruit and vegetables grown in its impressive walled kitchen garden while the flower gardens are quite stunning.
There are acres of lawns and flowering meadows but it is the many walks and trails that meander through the deer-inhabited woodland that are so impressive, some passing into deep picturesque valleys and alongside babbling streams. For more details about Arlington Court, call 01271 850296 or visit nationaltrust.org.uk/arlington-court
Many thanks to Saunton Sands Hotel's executive manager Peter Brend and his charming wife Kelly and to Sue Bradbury of SBPR Ltd for arranging our three-night stay. The Saunton Sands Hotel, Saunton, Nr Braunton, North Devon EX33 1LQ – Tel: 01271 890212 – www.sauntonsands.com and email@example.com