England is a land of traditions, with its history-laden centuries laced with a wealth of customs that have endured the pressures of modernisation. Amongst the culinary traditions signature to the southwestern county of Devon sits the unabashedly indulgent Devonshire tea. Said to date back as far as the 11th century, this unerring combination of freshly baked scones, homemade jam and thick dollops of clotted cream is a requisite experience when embarking on a roadtrip through the region.
Gnarled moss-covered branches form a guard of honour over the winding road. Snarls of mist wrap themselves idly around tree trunks, evoking the sinister ambience of a Tim Burton film. Outside the air is silent, aside from the scrape of the car’s tyres across the wet asphalt; the stillness makes the atmosphere all the more foreboding.
Though it is close to midday, the thick fog I am cautiously navigating through could be mistaken for the beginnings of evening. Perhaps not the best climes for a roadtrip through England’s Devon region, but – enticed by the promise of fresh scones with generous helpings of jam and cream – I have set off regardless.
The forest begins to dissipate, but the mist stays ever stalwart. The road is just as narrow, but now lined with tufts of heather – a plant I have only ever previously encountered on the pages of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five novels. It’s a disconcerting feeling driving along a road without being able to fathom what sits five metres either side of you. Supposedly, according to the road map, I’m very close to the seaside. But from what I can see of the landscape, I could just as easily be journeying the precarious terrain of an alpine mountain.
Ever so reluctantly, the curtain of fog begins to peel away, revealing a pastoral expanse worthy of an Impressionist painting. Tumbling hillsides are a patchwork of autumn-hued fields, punctuated by crooked fences snaking down their slopes. Coal-faced sheep huddle in cosy flocks, as if cleverly pooling their body heat in a communal battle against the cold. The horses are more well prepared, their glossy manes bright against the khaki of the dapper winter coats they don courtesy of a caring owner.
Billows of wood smoke idle languidly from chimneys. Up on the hilltops sit piles of grey stones – the skeletons of thatched-roof cottages from a time when winters such as this one were endured without the luxury of artificial heating. The road adjusts into a steep decline, dipping deep into a valley and through a series of tiny towns before returning to an equally as steep incline back up the hillside. Inklings of spring are beginning to show with clusters of cheerful daffodils dotted along the roadside, and blossoms bashfully revealing themselves on the tips of tree branches.
As the road winds around the peak of a hillside and down another steep decline, the road map is proven correct – the English seaside stretches out in front of me, prefaced by rock walls and pebbled beaches. I disembark at the harbour village of Lynmouth which, sitting in the heart of Devon, I suspect might also be home to home to my holy grail: the Devonshire tea. As I open the car door, a distinctly salty breeze seizes my senses, and the familiar – and far from elegant – squawk of seagulls fills the air from all directions. Waves roll lazily to shore from the dark immensity of the Bristol Channel, tickling the sides of small sailboats on their way in.
At the edge of the small village, a tiny station is perched at the foot of a hillside. There is no sign of a tank engine of any sort, but rather an emerald-green funicular that glides up the cliff face to the connecting village of Lynton, commonly referred to as England’s ‘little Switzerland’.
I jump aboard, and when the funicular bounces to a halt at its zenith, the view that it reveals is a striking real-life portrait of England’s natural charms – the sea stretching out from the base of the cliffs and into a seemingly infinite horizon. Across the other side of the valley, I can glimpse the hill I had been driving over, which I now see was cloaked in an enormous cloud.
At the end of a winding path along the top of the cliff, the village of Lynton undulates over the hillside, comprising endearing old cottages, ageing churches and tiny antique shops overflowing with assorted bric-a-brac. By now it’s well past afternoon tea time, and I spy the quaint exterior of a small teahouse beckoning my presence. A bell above the door announces my arrival with a shrill jingle and a rosy-cheeked woman comes out from the kitchen to greet me. But my heart begins to sink when I see no sign of Devonshire tea on the menu. She quickly informs me that, since we are in Devon, the dish is simply called a ‘cream tea’. And with that, whisks out a plate of steaming fresh scones served with lashings of Cornish cream, raspberry jam and a robust pot of tea.