Dorset vs Devon showdown: Comparing 2 of the most popular West Country hotspots
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Maybe you’re looking to plan a last-minute getaway for the upcoming bank holiday or a trip in autumn but still fearful to go abroad — so why not try a staycation? We’ve published guides on many regions of the U.K. this year but couldn’t decide if we preferred Dorset or Devon — so we’ve put them head to head.
According to a recent survey of 42,000 people by YouGov, Devon and Dorset are the most popular English counties — tied for first place — with 92% of people voting it as their favourite spot. So which do you choose?
We have broken them down by beaches, outdoor activities, historical sites, cities and towns, food, accommodation and location to see which county comes out on top as the ultimate U.K. staycation spot.
Dorset is best known for its stunning Jurassic Coast, England’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage Site — miles and miles of fascinating rocks, fossils and landforms. The majority — 65 miles — of this precious coast is in Dorset, with the remaining 30 miles in Devon.
Dorset has the most iconic spots, too. They include Durdle Door, a natural arch standing vertically out of the sea, Golden Cap, the highest cliff on the southern shore, the Fossil Forest, formed 144 million years ago plus 18 miles long Chesil Beach, the inspiration for the novel and film “On Chesil Beach” — need we say more?
But if you just care about sunbathing or playing in the sand, Dorset ticks those boxes too with great bucket and spade options at sandy Swanage Beach, Studland Knoll beach and the ever-popular Bournemouth beach, which also has a 300-metre Victorian-era pier with amusements.
Related: Best coastal staycations in the UK
As for Devon, the beaches are more varied as it encompasses shorelines along both the southern English Channel and the northern Bristol Channel. In addition to the very western stretch of the Jurassic Coast, including the ammonite fossil beach in Lyme Regis, Devon ups the ante by being home to the English Riviera — a series of picturesque, south-coast harbour towns including Torquay, Paignton and Brixham that offer a combination of sandy shores, charming coves and marinas with a range of watersports.
Devon is also blessed with the towering cliffs of the northern Exmoor Coast, which include some of England’s best surfing beaches — the three-mile-long sandy Woolacombe, nearby craggy-cliffed Croyd and neighbouring Saunton Sands.
Winner: Devon — for more variety.
This is a tough one, as visitors to both areas are spoiled for choice on both land and sea. Dorset and Devon have gorgeous cliff and beach walks along the South West Coast Path, as well as woodland walks, horse riding, mountain biking, rock climbing, falconry and shooting. Both areas also offer lots of watersports — beyond surfing, there’s sea kayaking, canoeing, fishing and even coasteering, where you don a wetsuit, life vest and helmet to then jump off the rocky cliffs along the shores.
For something unique to this part of the U.K., try fossil hunting, which is better in Dorset, or one of the guided fossil walks offered by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre or the Lyme Regis Museum.
As for Devon, it is home to the dramatic landscapes and unique wildlife of Dartmoor and Exmoor, together making up over 500 square miles of national parkland. While both have wild ponies milling about, Dartmoor is inland and features deep bogs and rolling hills topped with oddly shaped “tors” (granite outcrops formed some 280 million years ago), whereas Exmoor runs from the jagged northern cliffs of the Bristol Channel, with hidden coves and deeply forested glens.
Dartmoor is the only place in the world where you can try “letterboxing”, a combination of orienteering, treasure hunting and puzzle solving, which originated on Dartmoor in 1854 when the famous fisherman and Dartmoor guide James Perrott set up a small cairn (pile of rocks) at Cranmere Pool on north Dartmoor, leaving a glass jar where visitors could leave cards. This began the “letterboxing” tradition, where hikers leave a letter or postcard inside a box along the trail and the next person to discover the box collects the notes and posts them.
Both Devon and Dorset are rich with history, from a thousand-year-old castle to manor houses to churches. There are also abbeys and plenty of places with literary significance, most of which are available to visit through the National Trust.
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Dorset sites reach far back, starting with Maiden Castle, one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe — it’s about the size of 50 football pitches and is most impressive. An important site for the English Civil war, Corfe Castle, built in 1086 by William the Conqueror, can be visited along with the village of Corfe, which it looms over.
In Weymouth, there’s Portland Castle, which was built in the 1540s by King Henry VIII to protect against French and Spanish invasion. Examples of lavish formal and country gardens can be seen at Forde Abbey, Athelhampton House and Mapperton House, Exbury and Minterne gardens, all of which are award-winning for everything from azaleas to topiary.
Various areas of Dorset have also inspired some literary greats. Thomas Hardy lived on the outskirts of Dorchester, where he wrote “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” — his cottage and home, Max Gate, are open to visitors. Children’s author Enid Blyton holidayed in Purbeck and many of her books include locations inspired by places in Dorset. For TV and film buffs, Dorset was the location for the ITV series “Broadchurch” and films including “Far From the Madding Crowd”, “Dunkirk” and “Howard’s End”.
Devon holds its own with some unusual historical sites: Buckland Abbey, originally settled by Cistercian monks in 1278, is surrounded by beautiful woodlands, orchards and gardens. Arlington Court is an unexpected jewel on the edge of Exmoor, a family estate built in 1823 and held by the Chichester family for over 500 years. It also houses the National Trust Carriage Museum, with vehicles from every era including a gilded carriage with over 300 years of history.
On the southern coast of Devon is Compton Castle, a rare example of a fortified manor house, a medieval fortress with high curtain walls, towers and a portcullis, set in a landscape of rolling hills and orchards. As for literary heroes, Devon has no shortage: Jane Austen set her first novel, “Sense and Sensibility” in the village of Upton Pyne but perhaps most famous is Agatha Christie, who was from Torquay and set many of her mysteries in the area. Fans can visit her house Greenway, overlooking the River Dart near Galmpton.
Winner: Dorset, more to see from long ago.
Cities and towns
As it’s largely rural, there are no cities in Dorset, only pretty towns, Victorian seaside villages or inland villages with pastel-coloured thatched-roof cottages, knobbly stone churches and quaint pubs. The towns of Poole, Weymouth and Swanage are popular for their sandy beaches, boutique shops and there is also the vintage Swanage Steam Train, which travels up to Corfe Castle. The town of Sherborne, located in the northern part of Dorset boasts not one, but two castles.
Devon has two major cities. In Plymouth, this year marks the 400th anniversary since the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth to the Americas, plus it is home to the National Marine Aquarium.
In the smaller city of Exeter, go to Exeter Cathedral and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, which documents the city’s 2,000 years. Along the northern coast, pretty Lynton and Lynmouth are worth a visit for gorgeous views from the water-powered Clifftop Railway funicular. Also stop off in the pedestrian-only village of Clovelly, which still bans all motor vehicles then along the south coast, the English Riviera towns of Brixham, Paignton and Torquay are all lovely for their Victorian-era vibe.
Winner: Devon, which has both cities and towns, on both coasts and inland.
Food and drink
From farmers markets to Michelin-starred restaurants, both Devon and Dorset won’t leave you hungry. In Dorset, go to a farmers’ market held in the key towns around the county to savour some of the area’s delicious local food. One of the best is in Bridport, held every second Saturday of the month — the town sits in the heart of Dorset’s farmlands.
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A big thing in these parts is a cream tea. There’s a whole debate on whether jam or cream go first — natives of Devon eat it cream first, those from Cornwall go for jam first. A memorable spot to try in Dorset for afternoon tea is the five-star Summer Lodge, overlooking the glorious gardens followed by a game of croquet.
Meanwhile, in Devon, it’s a more casual affair best enjoyed in one of the many tea rooms along the South West Coast Path, or the Lynmouth Bay Cafe, which was awarded best scone from Devon Life magazine. For something more sophisticated, both counties have Michelin-rated restaurants, though Devon is home to two — Lympstone Manor and the Masons Arms. For a local tipple, in Devon, there are two distilleries, Plymouth Gin and Salcombe Gin and Alder vineyard in Dartmoor, which specialises in rosé and a fruity white, Madeleine Angevine.
Dorset is home to three award-winning wineries: Furleigh Estate near Bridport, the Langham Wine Estate near Dorchester and English Oak Vineyard near Poole, and two breweries: Palmer’s Brewery in Bridport is among the U.K.’s very best small independent brewers and the Hall & Woodhouse brewery, which has been brewing Badger beer since 1777.
Winner: Draw, with abundant farmland and seafood-rich coasts, both counties spoil travellers with delicious food.
Depending on your budget, both areas offer a mix of small luxury hotels, B&Bs, cottages, farm stays and camping. There are very few points options, though there is a Marriott Bournemouth for those desperate to use some of your Bonvoy points supply.
Sitting side-by-side in the southwest, Devon and Dorset are easy driving destinations and it is best to have a car once you’re there to explore the countryside, though both areas are easily accessible by train. Dorset is the closer option from London and points west and if you are coming from the north, the journey is similar to both counties. There are flights from many U.K. airports to Exeter International Airport (EXT) including Aberdeen, Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich and the Channel Islands.
Winner: Dorset, which is further east and closer to most U.K. cities, and just two hours drive from London.
It is easy to see why Dorset and Devon tied for first place in the recent YouGov survey, both have lots to offer staycationers: gorgeous countryside, plenty to do, historic sites to explore and delicious food. Dorset is closer to the U.K’s bigger cities, but if you are willing to travel a bit farther, there is more variety of landscape and activities in Devon, encompassing both the northern Exmoor Coast and the southern Jurassic Coast. Basically, see what you fancy and can book, you will love either place. And let us know what team you’re on!
Featured photo by John Harper/Getty Images
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