OMG! I can’t believe I’ve never been to Topsham before. I’ve just spend two days in this historic south Devon town and fallen in love with the place. Quite simply, it’s the most picturesque, quintessentially English countryside town – but with seriously good restaurants, proper old fashioned pubs that actually serve decent food, quirky cafes and independent boutiques.
Banish from your minds all thoughts of twee tea shops, stores selling naff nick-nacks and disappointing Fawlty Towers-style hotels that you tend to find in small English towns, Topsham is not THAT sort of quintessentially English place.
Sitting right on the east bank of the River Exe, it’s only a short drive from Exeter, or a few stops along the Great Western Train line. Once a thriving port and ship-building centre, it’s now a lovely, cosmopolitan little town with a laid-back, outdoorsy vibe. This is the sort of place where you see lycra-clad cyclists wizzing through the streets at all hours, locals mucking about in boats on the water, and joggers running along country lanes on warm, dusky evenings. In other words, it has a youthful energy in an historic, relaxed setting.
With so many dining options, self-catering is the way to go in Topsham; you can eat out in a different pub or restaurant every night for a week, or why not pick up something for a barbecue at the Pig & Pallet. My husband and I stayed at the coolest, quirkiest Airbnbs, one of several converted 17th century boathouses on Ferry Road, opposite the river. Check out our bath, on the left.
Booking.com also has a few catering options right in the town centre.
Do this with the nippers:
This is no sleepy village, there are plenty of things for families to do.
Take a short walk along the pretty Bowling Green Lane and you’ll arrive at Bowling Green Marsh, a real treat for city-dwelling kids. There’s a large wooden hide (lookout), open 24/7, from where you can spot a whole host of weird and wonderful birds – there are even laminated cards with pictures of the birds to help identify them – bring binoculars if you have them. Next to the hide is a children’s Lookout indoor play area, with comfy sofas overlooking the marsh – it’s open at weekends, from 11am-1pm and 2pm-4pm. There’s also a lovely outdoor picnic area.
Cycle hire is available from Route2 right in the town centre. The bikes, £12 for a half-day, are good quality and locks, helmets and lights are provided. You can cycle from here all the way to Exmouth, which is about 5.5 miles away and has a nice, sandy beach. Stop for a drink in Lympstone, another quaint village, on the way.
You can also take a ferry to the other side of the Exe, from where there are some lovely walks and two waterside pubs, or along the river to see more wildlife, or all the way to Exmouth’s beaches.
If it’s warm enough, you might want to try a swim in the open air pool, which is next to Matthews Hall in the town centre
You’re spoilt for choice in Topsham, where there are several pubs serving really good grub, plus excellent independent cafes and one or two top-notch restaurants.
We had some fabulously fresh fish and chips with good old fashioned mushy peas at The Lighter Inn, which also, incidentally, claims to offer views of one of the best sunsets in southwest England!
Some of the old boathouses on the waterside have been renovated and one is a now a little pizzeria and another a cute French-owned cafe. The pizzas at Pebblebed Cellar are excellent and it also produces its own (very good) Pebblebed wine from its own Devon vineyard. Apparently they also produce an excellent Rose sparking wine, which, sadly, I didn’t get to try. I was still full the next day, but I managed, in the interest of research, to force down an amazing French buckwheat galette.
On our last night we treated ourselves to dinner at The Galley, a smarter, white-table cloth sort of restaurant where the menu is very fishy. My seared scallop and black pudding starter was melt in your mouth delicious, as was my sea bream in a spicy crab bisque. Disappointingly, I had no room for pud – I’m such a rubbish food writer.
One of the things I loved about Topsham is the almost total lack of chain stores. Instead, there are a few independent boutiques, two or three homeware stores worth a browse and independent bakeries, a green grocers, an independent cheese shop, a butchers and a smokehouse.
The old Customs House on the quay has been turned into a large antiques store. I say ‘antiques’ but it’s really one large junk shop, still, it’s worth a rummage if you like that sort of place.
Topsham Museum (and its famous movie star collection). The museum is housed at 25 The Strand, one of a neat row of picturesque 17th Century Dutch merchant houses in the town centre and, get this, amongst the exhibitions is one dedicated to Gone With the Wind star Vivian Leigh, who was married to Devon man Leigh Holman before she hitched up with Laurence Olivier. Holman’s sister Dorothy lived at 25 The Strand, later turning it into a museum. One of the exhibits is the silk nightie Leigh wore as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, which was donated to the museum by her daughter. I did not know of the exhibition when I was in Topsham, but if I had, I would have made more effort to go visit the museum Next time, because as Scarlett would say, tomorrow is another day…