Every time an email from Travelzoo appears in my inbox, I always take a few minutes to browse through their daily deals whilst enjoying my morning cup of tea. Oftentimes I click on the city breaks and then promptly realise that actually I could put together a similar trip for a comparative (if not cheaper) price AND I get the pick of accommodation options.
Other times I’m sorely tempted by their package deals to destinations on my wish list because I’m pretty damn sure I couldn’t do them cheaper myself. But then I remember that I love the flexibility and freedom of travelling independently and organising my own itinerary, and I decide that I don’t want to compromise on this.
But on this one particular occasion in the run up to Christmas, the following offer popped up on their daily deals email, and my interest was piqued.
Despite my mum’s side of the family originating from neighbouring Dorset, Devon is a county I’ve barely explored – with the exception of attending a festival in Ottery St. Marys and spending a day in nearby Exeter.
Stu’s birthday was also just a few weeks away, and whilst he’s not really a fan of city breaks, he does love the coast. So I thought, hmmm, perhaps this could be a potential birthday gift for him.
I read through the details and learned that the coastal escape was based in a village called Branscombe, and that Branscombe is “one of the most relaxing and picturesque villages on the Jurassic Coastline,” according to visitsouthdevon.co.uk.
I then proceeded to Google the accommodation itself. The Masons Arms is described on Booking.com as, “dating back to the 14th-century” and offering “an award-winning restaurant, locally brewed ales and free parking.”
So, whilst staying in a village can sometimes isolate you from quality eating and drinking establishments, it sounded like we’d actually be staying at one!
It looked like a proper oldie-worldy place, with a huge open fire and beamed ceilings, and the attached rooms looked contemporary, cosy and clean. Booking were also advertising the nightly price for a standard double room as £99, so basically we’d be getting two nights for the price of one.
It seemed too good to turn down, so I ran the idea by Stu (he was keen as mustard) and then booked it later that day.
And, it turned out that the two-night Devon coastal escape was everything I’d dreamed it would be.
It started with a complimentary room upgrade.
I’ve only ever had a room upgrade twice before in my life – once on the island of Hvar, Croatia and once in Sighnaghi, Georgia – so this news was rather exciting – especially when I realised that the nightly price of the room we’d been upgraded to was £135!! It looked like this:
And the weekend continued with beautiful coastal walks, early morning runs, sunrises and sunsets on the beach, relaxing photo-taking wanders, hearty meals and warming fires. If this sounds exactly like the sort of weekend you’d enjoy then read on.
What is there to see and do in Branscombe?
One of the first things we did upon arriving (after grabbing a drink at the bar) was make the 10-minute (750 metre) walk to Branscombe’s beach. And one of the lovely things about visiting a beach in January? There’s hardly anyone on it!
The good news is that the beach-side cafe still opens in low season, so if you want to beat the chill outside with a warming mug of creamy hot chocolate loaded with marshmallows then there will be someone behind the counter who’s willing to make that wish come true.
To be honest, if you’re wearing the right clothing and some comfy, sturdy boots, and you ensure that you pack a hat, scarf and gloves, you won’t feel the cold. And I find that visiting the coast in winter can be an exhilarating experience; one that really makes you feel alive.
I love the smell of the sea and the sound of the waves, and that wonderful sense of freedom and isolation that’s both liberating and comforting at the same time.
Other than the odd fisherman casting his line, there’s not a lot of activity going on at Branscombe beach, but that’s a large chunk of its appeal to me. I also didn’t mind that it was shingle rather than sand, because I’m not really going to be walking along it barefoot in the middle of winter, and I love searching for interesting rocks and photographing seaweed (odd, I know).
As I was in the middle of completing Red January (a challenge where I ran every day to raise money for the mental health charity, MIND) while I was in Devon, I also went for early morning runs down to the beach (and around the village) each morning before breakfast.
The second morning the sunrise was so spectacular I was seriously contemplating running back to get my DSLR camera. But, as is the way with incredible sunrises and sunsets, they’re amazing for such a brief moment that I knew by the time I got back, it would’ve been too late to capture what I saw as I stood there, my mouth wide open in awe.
The sunsets were pretty nice though, too.
If you are a runner yourself, you can head over to Strava to check out the two routes I ran (20th and 21st of January). Although I’d probably advise against the first one if hills are your nemesis.
Take a walk around the village
Seeing as though Branscombe is famous for being the longest village in England, we thought we’d try walking from one end to the other in order to find out precisely how long the village is. Obviously it’s quite difficult (read:impossible) to know exactly where the village boundaries are but we can confirm that the only two pubs in the village are over a mile apart.
If you’d like to follow the same route between The Masons Arms and The Fountain Head, it’s shown below. It’s an easy enough route to follow: leave through the front entrance of The Mason’s Arms, turn right and walk uphill, and then at the T-Junction, take a left and follow the ‘main road’ all the way to The Fountain Head
Alternatively, you can follow The National Trust’s 1 mile / 1.6 kilometre circular walk around Branscombe. Both routes take you past all the major ‘sights’ (more on those in a minute).
Regardless of which route you take, you’ll soon discover that thatched-roofed cottages are commonplace here, and help to give Branscombe a charming, timeless appeal.
And even in the midst of Winter, residents do their best to decorate their porches and gardens with quirky ornaments and vibrant bursts of colour.
There are four major points of interest in Branscombe (three of which have been owned by the National Trust since 1965), although if you travel off-season (as we did), you’ll probably find two of these four attractions closed. Of course, you can still admire them from the outside though, and that was good enough for us.
The Old Forge
Branscombe Forge was built around 1580 and is believed to be the oldest thatched working forge in the country. Blacksmiths still work here, creating both practical and artistic pieces which they sell in the attached showroom.
Whilst we’d hoped to catch one of these craftsmen at work, when we popped in the blacksmith on duty seemed more interested in chatting to us about the history of the village than he did in working. But, hey, who can blame him? He probably doesn’t see too many passing tourists in the middle of Winter. And it’s likely a pretty lonely profession.
This is the only one of the three National Trust Properties that stays open all year round, opening daily between 10:00-17:00 hours – with the possible exception of bank holidays.
Millers have been living and working in Branscombe since the Middle Ages and there were once four mills in operation in the village. Nowadays though, Manor Mill is the only one that remains. It dates back to the 19th century and once provided the flour for all of the bread baking in the village. However, after the war it fell into disrepair, and it wasn’t until it was bought by the National Trust that it was restored to its current working order.
Its opening hours are very limited so you’ll need to time your visit carefully if you want to see it in operation. From 14 April until 29 September it opens every Sunday from 14:00-16:00 hours, and additionally in August it also opens on Wednesdays for the same two-hour period.
The Old Bakery
As the name suggests, this was once the village bakery, but the stone built and partially rendered thatched building now serves as a mini museum and tea-room. It’s located right opposite the Old Forge, in a beautiful garden with the mill stream running through it. There’s also a lovely orchard nearby, which you can walk through to gain access to the Manor Mill.
The tea room has earned the Gold Taste of the West award for its delicacies, so make sure you don’t eat too much for breakfast before visiting.
It closed for Winter on 28 October 2018 and is due to open again this Spring, but I can’t find any dates online just yet. Keep your eye on the National Trust Branscombe page for updates.
Saint Winifred’s Church
Saint Winifred’s is among the oldest and most architecturally significant parish churches of Devon. It’s a Grade I listed building and is believed to date back as early as circa 955.
Walk the coastal path to Beer
No, this isn’t some kind of strange pub crawl; Beer is actually the name of a nearby town, and there’s a beautiful coastal path you can follow (via the Hooken Cliffs) to reach it. National Trust list the walk as being 9.6 kilometres one-way, but their route takes you through the village of Branscombe first, so you can probably knock two or three kilometres off that if you’re starting from Branscombe beach.
The coastal path from Branscombe to Beer is a definite must if you’re of reasonable physical fitness. I say ‘reasonable physical fitness’ because the initial climb up from the beach is steep!
Our original intention (as Stu is not a huge fan of hiking/walking long distances) was to catch the bus from Branscombe to Beer and then walk the coastal path back. However, we hadn’t accounted for the fact that we were visiting a tiny village, in the off-season and over a weekend. Buses only run during the week around here (and occasionally on Saturdays; it was Sunday when we attempted the walk).
So we ended up walking until Stu was tired of walking (which was around two thirds/three quarters of the way to Beer), turning around, walking back to Branscombe, picking up the car, and then driving to Beer!
Although not quite as picturesque (or quiet!) as Branscombe, Beer makes a lovely morning or afternoon excursion from the village. You can get some great shots of the fishing boats on the beach, and there are some one-of-a-kind shops and art galleries to browse, and cafes, pubs and restaurants to sample.
Visit the Beer Quarry Caves
Just off the main road between Branscombe and Beer, you’ll find the Beer Quarry Caves – a vast man-made complex of underground caverns that are believed to be around 2000 years old.
We’d planned a visit here, but – due to failing to do our research properly – we rocked up to find the gates locked and a notice informing us that the caves were closed for Winter. If you’d like to visit, the exact location of the caves is shown below and they re-open again on Saturday, 6 April 2019.
The entry fee is £9 and includes a guided tour.
Cosy up inside The Masons Arms for a drink and a bite to eat
How could I write an article on Branscombe and not mention our favourite evening activity in the village? (after watching the sunset on the beach). The only thing this establishment is missing is a resident cat (big open fires and cats go hand in hand in my opinion), but on the plus side there were plenty of people who were drinking and dining with their dogs in tow. So, if you’re an animal lover, you’ll be right at home here.
The two prime seats in the bar are right in front of the aforementioned open fire, but I must admit that it even got a little too hot for me there after a while (and I always feel the cold!).
The Mason’s Arms seemed to be permanently busy during our stay, on both the Saturday and Sunday evening – so much so that we had to book a table both nights. I guess that, for Branscombe’s 500 residents, it’s one of only two places to eat in the evening (and, in my opinion, is the nicer of the two), so even without the influx of tourists, I can imagine they do a roaring trade.
I can personally recommend the baked goats cheese starter and mushroom risotto main, but apparently their pizzas are really good too.
Although I’ve absolutely loved the weekend breaks I’ve taken in the past, to cities like Canterbury and Liverpool, this coastal escape to the beautiful village of Branscombe has reminded me that there’s so much more to England than its big cities.
Admittedly, having a car is a bit of a necessity when it comes to exploring England off the well-trodden tourist trail (Branscombe is almost two hours and two bus journeys away from the nearest railway station), so it’s not a trip I’d have been able to make on my own.
But I’m hoping, considering how much Stu enjoyed this trip, I can talk him into making another one with me in the not-too-distant future. If you have any suggestions for where we should go, please leave them in the comments below 🙂
Lonely Planet’s Devon and Cornwall guidebook features a fantastic little road trip that passes by Branscombe and ends in Beer. There are seven stops on this 22 mile-journey that can easily be completed in a day.
Alternatively, if you’d rather choose a guide that focuses in more detail on this particular part of Devon then Bradt’s East Devon and the Jurassic Coast is an excellent read.
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