From the moment we pulled into the North Devon hotel’s reception area and were greeted by jovial doorman Neil Tynan, suitably attired in a top hat and smart tailed coat, we were made to feel at home, writes Alan Wooding.
“Welcome to the Saunton Sands Hotel,” he beamed while indicating to a porter to remove our luggage, adding: “We hope to make your stay with us an enjoyable one”. It was just the start we needed on a long weekend break, especially after a four-hour drive from Bedford to the village of Saunton which is a few miles east of Barnstaple, North Devon’s largest town.
Saunton Sands is the flagship of the family-owned Brend Hotel Group which features 11 top quality West Country properties and was voted the proud winner of the 2015 Hotel Group of the Year at the AA Hospitality Awards.
The four-star art deco-styled Saunton Sands Hotel has the enviable position of being perched high on the hillside overlooking more than three miles of a pristine sandy beach while it sits alongside the unique 1,500-acre World UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve site of Braunton Burrows.
Built in the 1930s by the Christie family of Glyndebourne Opera fame – they also own Tapeley Park, a large family estate at nearby Instow – during the Second World War the hotel was used as a military school before reverting back to a top class establishment.
Purchased by the Brend family in December 1977, Saunton Sands has undergone many changes but has thankfully retained its many glamourous art deco features… including those wonderful large mirrors in the AA Rosette Award winning dining room and the gold coloured staircases.
Settling into room 118 – let’s forget that annoying ‘one, one, eight’ directory of enquires television advert! – our sea view room on the ground floor had absolutely stunning views from its balcony.
Beautifully appointed, our deluxe accommodation had all the accoutrements you would expect from a top class establishment – a free mini bar, daily newspaper and WiFi, a safe and large flat screen television plus coffee/tea making facilities together with a comfortable giant-sized bed and large en suite with a separate bath and shower cubicle.
With its heated indoor and outdoor swimming pools and an aromatic sauna, the 80-plus room hotel (there are also 12 separate apartments) has plenty of other facilities for those with a sporting bent – a gym, snooker room, squash and tennis courts and table tennis plus a putting green – while right next door is Saunton Golf Club, reputed to be one of the finest in the South of England and one which offers generous discounts to hotel guests.
There is a smart cocktail lounge and terrace bar along with a gift shop, hairdressing and beauty treatment salon, while the hotel regularly caters for weddings in its conference and banqueting suites.
The 160 or so hotel staff all seemed very polite indeed and couldn’t do enough for you. They were immediately to hand every time you required a drink or snack and were all very smartly turned out in their coordinated black uniforms.
Offering a superb buffet breakfast and an extensive dinner menu – you needed to reserve evening dining with the restaurant manager – guests in deluxe rooms are always seated by the windows so that they can enjoy uninterrupted views of the beach and Braunton Burrows.
The hotel can also provide picnic lunches, while according to a fellow guest, they have an impressive Sunday lunch menu as well as some scrumptious afternoon teas!
Naturally there is a smart dress code in the dining room as befits a quality establishment but the hotel is also a magnet for families with younger children thanks to the closeness of that stunning beach and those wonderful sand dunes in which you can always find plenty of space.
We also enjoyed a delicious complimentary Devon cream tea on the terrace overlooking the beach while the Sands on the Beach restaurant, located at the foot of a winding wooden staircase, is open throughout the day and serves steaks, burgers and locally caught seafood until late in the evening.
The beach itself is gently shelving so is perfect for youngsters while surfers, longboarders and paddleboarding abound as the consistency of the waves brings them to the area in their droves.
The hotel, which is located high above the northern end of the beach, can also arrange surfing tuition with Sarah Whiley, herself an expert wave rider and the hotel’s resident coach, while wetsuit hire is available for all shapes and sizes.
Other surfing hot spots are nearby Croyde Bay and Woolacombe which are just round the headland while beyond Saunton beach and across the wide expanse of the River Taw estuary you can just make out Hartland Point several miles away.
As part of the South West Coastal Path at the southern end of the beach some three miles distant – that’s if you have walked alongside Braunton Burrows – you come to Crow Point which lies at the mouth of the Taw estuary. Incidentally the beach itself has a chequered past for it has been used for location shots on several major films while it has also provided the backdrop for a succession of music videos for the likes of Robbie Williams, Olly Murs and Pink Floyd.
However it is its military use which is far more exciting as the Royal Air Force has regularly practiced beach landings on Saunton Sands using its massive Lockheed C-130 Hercules transporter aircraft in preparation for action in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Braunton Burrows sand dunes, besides being an official AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), are also used regularly for military troop training. It is said that there are more than 500 species of flora, fauna and wildlife living in the dunes and in the adjacent Braunton Great Fields area which is a well known archeological site.
As we only had two full days in which to explore the area, we decided to walk from Braunton village to Barnstaple along the six-mile, traffic-free Tarka Trail… although in total it actually runs for around 30!
Named after author Henry Williamson’s classic fictional story about Tarka the Otter, the trail starts from Braunton’s Caen Street car park and follows what is a now a disused railway embankment which was closed by Dr Richard Beeching some 50-plus year ago.
The trail is also part of the National Cycle Network (it’s No.27) and the coastal path while it follows the Taw estuary all the away into Barnstaple town centre. However there are stops for refreshments along the way at places such as the Waterside Cafe after 2.5 miles and the castle-like Braunton Inn a few hundred yards further on. You can also download an audio guide for the walk from northdevonbiosphere.org.uk
Close to the start of the walk you could also hire bikes from Otter Cycle Hire (tel: 01271 813339) but we chose to stretch our legs instead and on reaching Barnstaple, having viewed plenty of wildlife including oyster catchers and various waders out on the mudflats, we visited the town’s famed indoor Pannier Market which is largely unchanged since it was built around 150 years ago and is situated along the pedestrianised High Street.
On our way to the bus station to catch the No.21 back to Braunton, we had a chance to pop into Saunton Sands’ sister hotel, The Royal & Fortescue. It’s one of four Brend Group hotels in the town where the family once owned a butcher’s shop before building up their hotel portfolio.
Had we had time, then a visit to the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon might have been in order. It’s located in a large Victorian building at the end of Long Bridge and it’s free… so worth thinking about if the weather changes for the worst.
There are certainly plenty of things to do come rain or shine in this part of North Devon as Ilfracombe is only a short car ride away from Saunton Sands. There you can visit the aquarium or book a trip out to Lundy Island to see the nesting puffins aboard the 267-seat passenger ship, MS Oldenburg. It sails four times a week at 10am on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from Ilfracombe and on Saturdays from Bideford – enquiries 01271 863636 or firstname.lastname@example.org
From Ilfracombe you can also enjoy a Sea Safari – www.ilfracombeseasafari.co.uk – tel: 07827 679189 – with trips of varying length along the coast aboard a fast rubber boat with twin outboard engines. If you’re lucky you might see dolphins, seals and all species of seabird nesting on the cliff ledges.
Alternatively there are several fishing boat trips on which you can catch mackerel and dog fish. They all go from the harbour while if sailing or fishing is not your thing, then visiting pretty villages such as Clovelly, Lynton and Lynmouth or the charming Watersmeet maybe an alternative as might be a visit to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Rosemoor Gardens close to Great Torrington – see rhs.org.uk/rosemoor
As for the children, then meeting more than 600 animals at Exmoor Zoo in Barnstaple or going to The Big Sheep theme park in Bideford is a possibility as is a shopping trip to the Atlantic Village located along the Clovelly Road in Bideford.
For horse riding and trekking enthusiasts, then Roy’s Riding Stables at Croyde Bay is a must (call 01271 890898) while that area is also famous for jumping into the sea off the rocks – it’s called ‘Coasteering’ – and is really only for adrenalin junkies and not the feint-hearted!
For our final day, we chose to visit nearby Arlington Court, once the permanent residence of the Chichester family and now home to the National Trust’s Carriage Museum. The museum itself is crammed with horse dawn carriages once owned by various lords and ladies and it also includes the impressive golden House of Commons-owned Speaker’s State Coach and Queen Victoria’s pony phaeton.
In the impressive neoclassical-style Regency house there are collections of model ships, pewter tankards and ornaments but especially seashells, although visiting children will probably be more excited about spying the bat camera or hunting for geocaches in the extensive grounds.
On the upper floor of the house is an exhibition dedicated to Sir Francis Chichester, the famed sailor who exactly 50 years ago in 1967 single-handedly circumnavigated the globe in his yacht Gypsy Moth IV. Sir Francis was actually from a different branch of the family, the son of the Rev Charles Chichester, the vicar of the nearby village of Shirwell.
However the last family member to live at Arlington Court was Rosalie Chichester who was responsible for much of the huge eclectic collections. She never married and decided to leave the mansion and its 3,500 acres of gardens and parkland to the National Trust before she passed away in 1949.
Arlington Court also has a small Victorian kitchen and tearooms serving dishes made from fruit and vegetables grown in its impressive walled kitchen garden while the flower gardens are quite stunning. There are acres of lawns and flowering meadows but it is the many walks and trails that meander through the deer-inhabited woodland that are so impressive, some passing into deep picturesque valleys and alongside babbling streams.
For more details about Arlington Court, call 01271 850296 or visit nationaltrust.org.uk/arlington-court
** Many thanks to Saunton Sands Hotel’s executive manager Peter Brend and his charming wife Kelly and to Sue Bradbury of SBPR Ltd for arranging our three night stay.
The Brend Group Hotels
The Brend Group’s Contemporary Restaurants
Sands on the Beach, Saunton Sands Hotel, Saunton Beach, Devon EX33 1LQ – 01271 891288.
Carriages Bar & Brasserie, The Devon Hotel, Matford, Exeter, Devon EX2 8XU – Tel: 01392 259268.
62 The Bank Cafe Bar and Bistro, Boutport Street, Barnstaple, Devon EX31 1HG – Tel: 01271 324446.
Florentinos Italian, The Royal & Fortescue Hotel, Boutport Street, Barnstaple, Devon EX31 1HG – Tel: 01271 3244446.