Inside Track by Dominic Walsh
Hardly a week goes by without some survey or other claiming that fewer of us are going abroad for our holidays, choosing instead to take our vacation in jolly old Blighty. The staycation trend, we are assured, is on the up an up. The reasons are not hard to fathom. The dire economic conditions of the past three years mean we have less money in our pockets, are worried about our jobs (if we haven’t already been laid off) and are just being generally more cautious about how we spend what disposable cash we have. Throw in the weakness of the pound and the air transport chaos caused by strikes and security issues, and it is a wonder that anyone can be bothered to go abroad at all. All of which means that pubs, bars and restaurants up and down the country are welcoming new customers. Like a certain D. Walsh Esq of Surrey who, rather than heading off to his usual Mediterranean paradise, carted his wife and two small boys off to North Devon for a week’s camping. The key question is: was North Devon ready and able to welcome us in such a manner that we would be prepared to go back next year? Well, I have to say I was pretty impressed. One of our favourite watering holes during our holiday was Normies ice cream parlour in Woolacombe. Fast, smiling service from an army of pretty serving staff; yummy ice creams and well-made coffees; bright, clean, well-maintained premises. Crucially, Normies also serves locally made ice cream. Remember this is Devon, home to some of the most delicious ice cream in the world. Contrast that with the establishment we almost went into in Ilfracombe. It was well-located and looked bright and comfortable — but when we saw that it only served Carte d’Or and another national brand so anodyne I can’t even recall its name, we walked on by. Why would they do that?! Thankfully, a few yards down the road was an ice cream van manned by a charming young fellow serving only ice cream made in Devon. Ilfracombe may be a bit tacky in parts, but if you choose carefully there are enough quality establishments to warrant more than a flying visit. We went to a great restaurant, the slightly oddly named Espresso Café Bar & Grill, which while trendy, was nevertheless welcoming to our young children and – crucially – had a menu brimming with locally caught seafood. It was not cheap, but the quality meant it was definitely value for money. Local produce was also the focus of an unprepossessing café we visited on an excursion to Bude, just down the coast in Cornwall. We walked past it twice, put off by its rather fast-food looking façade, but thank God we went back. The array of fish and seafood was fantastic – not surprising when you realise that the owner has his own boat and serves whatever he catches as daily specials. The other thing that struck us about our trip to North Devon was the excellent value for money. Although places like Woolacombe and Ilfracombe are busy tourist spots, very few establishments were seeking to fleece tourists. Indeed, some of the places we patronised seemed ludicrously good value. At the tea shop in the village of Mortehoe the cream tea was so cheap I kept ordering more of their delicious home made scones. Mortehoe, though tiny, also had three pubs, one of which – the Chichester Arms – served excellent food, much of it – again – made with local produce. We actually managed to watch the World Cup final while eating some really good fish washed down with delicious local cider. It was a shame the landlord didn’t move the pool table to make room for more people to get a good view of the big screen, but overall the experience was first-class. The big 'but' about our trip was the good old British weather. The first three days, the weather was positively Mediterranean, but then all hell broke loose. After two nights spent praying for our tent to stay put in the most extraordinary storm, we packed up and spent the last three nights in a cottage. The weather may have been diabolical, but if my trip to North Devon is anything to go by, staycationers with a hardy streak and a penchant for dramatic coastal scenery will be pleasantly surprised by the food and drink establishments they find. Dominic Walsh is leisure industries correspondent for The Times newspaper