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South West Devon and Somerset Steam and Cruise - August 2023


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It was summer holidays again and the family had booked a week away so I wasn’t needed for Grandparenting duties. I’d booked a holiday with Acklams Holidays, a local company based in Beverley, who I’ve used before and like. They offer a home pick up which means once I’ve locked the door, I’m their responsibility.

The coach driver was lovely - very customer orientated and very diplomatic at negotiating the expectations of a very diverse group. He sent us regular texts during the day to remind us of pick up times and locations so no one could say they had forgotten!

Titled Devon Steam and Cruise the brochure promised:
“We start in the stylish Regency resort of Sidmouth, before heading to the seaside resort of Exmouth for a River Exe circular cruise. The delightful Exmoor National Park is the next stop, visiting the unique medieval village of Dunster. Included is a nostalgic steam train ride through the glorious Somerset countryside on the West Somerset Railway, the longest steam heritage railway. Finally, we watch the world go peacefully by in the delightful setting of the River Exe , along the idyllic Grand Western Canal on the last horse-drawn barge trip in the South West - a little bit of ‘heaven’ in Devon!”

The prospect of a trip on the West Somerset Railway (highly recommended by steam train mad grandson) was one of the clinchers in deciding on this trip, along with the horse draw canal trip...

Unfortunately it was a wet start to August this year and the weather wasn’t as good as I’d hoped...

Monday - To Tiverton

Not a good start with rain and low cloud...

Having been picked up from home, I was taken to the interchange pick up at Drax Golf Club. We had a stop at Webbs of Wychbold Garden Centre on the edge of Droitwich. This has recently won the Midlands Best Destination Garden Centre 2023, so we were expecting great things.... It didn’t live up to the hype. Prices in the restaurant were expensive and the menu wasn’t very imaginative. The farm shop wasn't as good as others I've seen and had a very limited selection. The cake selection in the bakery section was very disappointing and, at the prices they were charging, I wasn’t tempted and ‘made do’ with the sandwiches I’d brought with me.

I always go and look at the plants, although don’t buy any while I'm away on holiday. By August, the plant selection was limited and many plants were looking past their best. The retail area was limited with a lot of large furniture although there was quite a good craft area (again expensive). About the best bit was the small Lakeland shop, although I did enjoy looking at the selection of reptiles in the pet area.

Back on the coach, I wasn’t the only one grumbling and interestingly recent reviews on Trip Advisor are saying the same thing. It was then straight to Tiverton and the Tiverton Hotel where we would spend the next four nights. It is an excellent location on the edge of town with easy access to roads out. The hotel is a bit like a rabbit warren with long corridors. I had a large and pleasant bedroom which was very quiet. The room was clean although the pink and cream corporate decor was beginning to look a bit sad. (Radiator paint had chipped off in places.) The bed was extremely comfortable with a cosy duvet and pillows. The bathroom had been modernised with a large walk in hi-tech shower with a choice of two shower heads. It was very effective once I worked out how to work the controls... Those are the positives.

It was really let down by the food. Breakfast was a self service buffet and the usual (but rather uninspiring) offering. Unfortunately the hot food was only just warm not hot on two mornings... There were few staff on duty and they were slow to refill when food ran out. One morning there were no fried eggs. Another morning we waited ten minutes for more bacon to be brought out. When asked I was told ‘it is still in the oven’.. It eventually appeared ten minutes later and was still squeaking.

Being a coach party, we had a set menu for dinner. This was uninspiring and a couple of nights I was rather scratching round to find something I wanted to eat. I’ve never seen bread and butter pudding like that served here - anaemic slices of bread swimming in milk with no fruit and no crispy top. Apparently this is the way the chef always makes it - we said he needed to take lessons or buy a new buy a new cook book.

After many negative comments about the food, the coach driver took this up with the hotel. Things did improve - breakfast was a bit hotter and the meal on the last night a definite improvement.
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Tuesday - Sidmouth and a cruise on the River Exe

It began dull and damp with low cloud and rain showers. Not the most auspicious beginning.

We spent the morning in Sidmouth. I liked Sidmouth a lot more than I expected. It had a lot of character. It still feels very old fashioned place and, although being on the seaside, didn’t feel like the usual seaside resort. There was no pier, no amusement arcades and no kiss me quick style shops along the front.


We had about two hours, so I just walked and explored. It is a compact town centre with a good range of shops, mainly small independently owned ones. It has also avoided the blight of closed shops and charity shops. There is no out of town shopping area and, apart from a Tesco Express, the large supermarkets have yet to arrive.


It became fashionable in Georgian and Victorian times. Queen Victoria brought here for holidays when a child. There are some really nice large C19th houses away from the front and it was obviously the place the wealthy went for their holidays. It still has attractive gardens scattered around the town.

The Parish Church of St Giles and St Nicholas in the centre of the town was rebuilt in the mid C19th to accommodate the rapidly expanding population of Sidmouth, although it still has its C15th tower. Its main claim to fame is the west window given by Queen Victoria as a memorial to her father, the Duke of York who died in Sidmouth.


At the upper edge of the town is All Saints’ Church, also dating from the mid C19th and built in response to the growing population. The two churches are very different with All Saint’s being a multigenerational evangelical church.

In the afternoon, we drove to Exmouth for a river cruise up the River Exe. Fortunately the rain had blown away by then and it turned into a lovely sunny afternoon.

We were dropped off near the Marina by the ticket office of Stuart Cruises to join the line for our trip on the Tudor Rose. I managed to set a seat in the open air on the top deck.


The cruise took us along the front of Exmouth before doubling back towards Dawlish Warren and then up the river with views of Cockswood and Starcross on the far side of the estuary, turning round just before Powderham Castle set back in the trees.



There were a lot of boats moored up here, as well as the very popular River Exe Cafe, a custom built barge moored in the river reached by its which is open during the season as a very popular restaurant with a very long waiting list. The river is very wide and shallow here with many sandbanks. These apparently are popular with oyster catchers and curlew, but all we saw were a few shags drying their wings after fishing.

In the sunshine, it was a very enjoyable and relaxing trip. The commentary gave enough information without becoming too intrusive.

Back on dry land, we had about an hour before returning to the coach. Not long enough to see the centre of Exmouth, but long enough for a wander around the marina and along the sea front.


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Wednesday - West Somerset Railway, Minehead and Dunster

The morning started wet and the rain got heavier as the day wore on. We drove to Bishops Lydeard for the trip to Minehead on the West Somerset Railway.


At nearly 23 miles long, this is the longest heritage steam railway in Britain, so we were promised long run through the lovely Somerset countryside before dropping down to the coast and Minehead. Unfortunately with the rain, low cloud and mist you could hardly see the view. Each time I put my head out of the window to take a picture the rain off the roof blew down my neck....



Even so, it is a lovely run with many small and beautifully preserved, restored or reassembled stations.


The steam loco was very atmospheric too, with lots of steam around it.


Minehead was also wet. We had about 90 minutes there - mainly to allow people to find somewhere to have lunch. I’d got a packet of oat cakes, slab of fruitcake and an apple which I’d packed as my lunch rations. I spent the time wandering round the town but didn’t attempt to climb up to St Michael’s Church on North Hill overlooking the town and harbour. I didn’t get as far as the harbour either. St Andrew’s Church was locked although the Methodist Church was open. What I saw I liked. Although it has a Butlin’s on the edge of the town, the centre has avoided the kiss me quick seaside attractions - or at least where I went.


The delightful medieval village of Dunster was our final stop for the day and fortunately the rain clouds were clearing and the sun eventually came out. Unfortunately the majority vote on the coach was to spend an hour here. I could have done with longer!

I had visited Dunster in 2019 when I explored the village and church. This time I wanted to visit the castle, I made sure I was first off the coach and headed off at a cracking pace up to the castle. I managed to scamper round the inside and back to the coach in the hour. I didn’t have time to stop and read the information panels so took pictures of them to read at my leisure.

Set high above the village, the castle has a long history and was redesign in the late C19th as a comfortable Victorian family home, although the medieval gatehouse and gateway are still there.




I did like the castle and would have liked to have spent a lot longer there as I didn’t really do it justice. The views from the terrace were super.
Thursday - Tiverton and a horse drawn canal trip

We spent the morning in Tiverton. The coach dropped us off in the centre to save the 25 minute walk from the hotel. It is another attractive market town on the Rivers Exe and Lowman


I’d found a couple of town trails on the web so used these to plan a walking route on the map I’d got from the hotel.

I walked down the main street past the impressive Town Hall and Memorial Hall and across the river to C19th St Paul’s Church set among very attractive Georgian style terrace housing. Back across the river I headed to St Peter’s Church which is the old church next to the Castle (unfortunately both shut). It was then back down Castle Street which still has the remains of the Medieval leat running down the centre of the street which used to carry good to the port at Topsham. I ended up on Gold Street with a row of splendid almshouses.




The afternoon we did a horse drawn barge trip along the Taunton Canal. This photograph was taken for us by the coach driver when we sailed past him on our barge! This is the only horse drawn barge left in England.

Barge copy 2.jpg

By now the sun had come out and it was a lovely afternoon. It really was the highlight of the holiday. We were pulled by a lovely Welsh Cob called George, who was a big softie.


I’d always assumed they would have used heavy horses like shire horses, but they didn’t. Most barge traffic would have been pulled by donkeys, mules or ponies. It doesn’t take much effort to get the barge moving (a person can push it to get it started) and once moving the forward momentum keeps it going. A single horse could pull three barges in a line each with a load of up to 10 tons!

It was really slow and relaxing with the river bank vegetation at nose level. There was reed mace, bog bean, water mint, yellow water lilies, purple loosestrife, great hairy willow herb. The banks had bushes and trees along them so there weren’t views of the countryside. There were plenty of ducks as well as moorhen and a couple of swans.


The person in charge asked everyone to stop talking for five minutes so we could really experience the silence. The only sound was the water lapping against the barge, the wind in the vegetation and the clip clop of the horses hooves. It was completely relaxing and peaceful. It was a wonderful experience. An excellent end to three good days.

Friday - Return Home

We had a couple of stops on the way home. The first was at Gloucester Services on the M5. For anyone who has not called in there before, it is a revelation and shows just how good a service area can be. It is part of the group that run the Tebay services on the M6 in Cumbria. There is a large farm shop selling local produce and a restaurant, again serving locally sourced food. The cake selection is to die for and prices aren’t excessive either. There are no gaming machines, fast food franchises or other shops.

Our next stop was Dobbies Garden Centre , just off teh M1 and a definite improvement on Webbs of Wychbold. It is a shopping experience as well as a garden centre with a range of shops from shoes to clothes as well as a Waitrose and the usual gifty type ideas.

The plant area was huge with a wide variety of potted plants for both indoor and outdoor. Considering the time of year when many outdoor plotted plants are past their best, these looked to be in good condition and prices were competitive if not slightly cheaper than other garden centres I've visited recently. A bonus was that packets of seeds were being sold off at half price!

It had a large and busy restaurant which I didn’t use.

It was then back to Drax and my feeder service home.

So all in all a good break despite the less than good weather. I did however buy a waterproof top reduced in Dobbies ready for my next holiday!

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