Leaving Barnstaple via the main road to Ilfracombe, you will come across Braunton and Saunton Sands. West Down – a beautiful village that nestles in the North Devon hills – is also worth a visit.

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Braunton

From Barnstaple there are a number of interesting villages to discover on the main road to Ilfracombe. The first of these is Braunton which claims to be the largest village in England. It has two main attractions the marvellous coastal features of Braunton Burrows and Saunton Sands.

Sauton Sands is a hive of activity in the Summer as its the perfect venue for all kinds of beach and water sports. Miles of golden sands stretch out into the Atlantic Ocean leaving plenty of space at low tide for all beach-goers.

Braunton also boasts a countryside centre and museum, which details the rich history of the area. The village has a comprehensive range of shopping facilities, pubs and restaurants for the visitor to enjoy. There is also an active Braunton in Bloom committee and the whole village throws itself enthusiastically into the task of growing blooms.

Do not leave Braunton without visiting the Elliott Gallery its a fine exhibition centre for works by many prominent artists. Craftwork and sculpture of all kinds are displayed including woodcarvings, modelled porcelain, glass engraving, handmade clocks, dried flower collages, leatherwork, stained and engraved glass, lampshades, model ships, woodwork of all kinds, an extensive range of fine pottery and sculpture, to name but a few! The gallery also promotes exhibitions of renowned art societies from London, other major cities and regions of the UK, providing the very best in current art and crafts. Individual artists and craftworkers can occasionally be seen at work, and video painting demonstrations are held daily.

West Down

West Down sits 450 feet above sea level in a bowl in the hills on the edge of one of the steep, wooded valleys which slice through the hills of this part of North Devon. It is the largest of the inland villages that support the scattered farms that have moulded the landscape.

Substantial farmhouses and smaller cottages are packed tightly around the 14th century Church. Many of the older buildings are of cob with slate roofs, and date back to the 17th century. The farmhouses are now mostly private dwellings and their land has been sold off it now being worked from farms on the periphery of the village. At the west end is the village square.

Hidden Valley, just out of the village of West Down, is worth a visit. At this lovely location you can find a gift shop with a range of crafts made in North Devon, together with a delightful coffee shop which has an outstanding view over the lake and gardens. Wildlife photographs by Trevor Beer, unique mirrors by Mike Taffinder and ceramics by Heather Nicholls are all on display, to name only a few. There are also nature trails to walk, or you can just enjoy a relaxed stroll around the gardens. Hidden Valley is easy to find just on the A361 between Braunton and Ilfracombe and has plenty of free parking plus good access and disabled facilities.

An international attraction

Braunton Burrows has achieved international status by becoming a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

Being a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve puts the Burrows and surrounding North Devon coastal areas alongside 400 similar biospheres worldwide, including the Okavango Delta in Southern Africa, the area around Mount Vesuvius in Italy and the Danube Delta in Eastern Europe.

The area has also been expanded to now cover more than 3,000 hectares, including a buffer zone which incorporates Northam Burrows, the Taw-Torridge estuary, Braunton Marshes and Great Field and stretches as far as Croyde Dunes and Kipling Tors.

The Burrows, which have been in the ownership of the Christie family for the past 350 years, is one of the largest systems of sand dunes in the UK. It is considered of international importance because of the diversity and abundance of rare plants and its continuous human use dating back to ancient times.

The dunes contain around 500 species of flowering plant. It is one of only two sites in the UK for the Water Germander and is an excellent site for a range of rare orchids. Unusually for dunes, there is also a long history of human activity in the area, including the original overland route linking North Devon to the rest of the country.

The biosphere area incorporates one of the few surviving medieval field systems and, in more recent times, was used by American Forces for D-Day training in the Second World War. Nowadays it is a popular recreation area and incorporates the Saunton golf course and a military exercise range.

Conferences hosted at Saunton Sands attract delegates to learn about the background to UNESCOs biosphere reserves programme and the experience of reserves in other countries.

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