I’ve recently come back from a week with my family in the town of Dartmouth, south Devon, and I have to admit, it’s totally thrown me. Up to this point, if you’d asked me my favourite place for a family holiday in the UK, I’d have said Wells-next-the–Sea in stunning North Norfolk. Having spent some very happy holidays there, I’ve been recommending it on the Trunki Files for years; as far as I’m concerned, it packages up all that’s best about a seaside holiday on these shores. But, following our Easter sojourn, I’m now more than a little worried that Dartmouth may have knocked Wells off the top spot. An absolute gem, in possibly one of the prettiest settings in the country, with a plethora of wholesome activities for the family, Dartmouth is a serious contender. I decided the only way to settle this battle is to consider how each town scores for the essential components of a UK seaside holiday, and then hopefully crown an overall winner. Here goes.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Dartmouth has no beach, so Wells wins by default. And even if Dartmouth did have a beach, it would be almost impossible to better Wells’ glorious sands, which stretch as far as the eye can see in every direction. To make things more perfect, a row of cheery beach huts runs along the back of the beach (you can rent some) and there’s a café in high season for cold drinks and ice creams. Running behind the sands is a forest of Corsican pine trees that goes all the way to Holkham and makes for beautiful walks and bike rides: heaven on a sunny day.
To give Dartmouth some credit, although the town itself lacks a beach, it’s only a short drive to get to some stunners. Blackpool Sands is closest and justifiably popular: a picturesque, sheltered cove, it is privately managed and offers easy parking, a café and watersports. The coarse sand just lets it down for me – I want powder between my toes.
Winner: Wells, for the endless sands
No UK summer holiday is complete without a trip on a steam railway, and Dartmouth has a rather splendid one. Strictly speaking, the railway isn’t in Dartmouth – it starts at Kingswear across the river (they never built the intended bridge across). You see the trains chuffing back and forth from pretty much everywhere in the town and it’s a very scenic ride along the coast to Paignton. Getting to Kingswear station on one of the ferries that shuttle across from Dartmouth is all part of the fun. Be prepared to shell out though; a return ticket for a family of 5 will cost you about £40.
Wells can’t compete on scale when it comes to railways but it can compete on numbers: it has two! There’s the dinky harbour railway that shuttles passengers from the quay to the beach (about a mile away) and back – without doubt the kiddie-preferred way to arrive at the sands. Then there’s the Wells and Walsingham light railway, a lovely 30 minute puff thorough the fields to one of the UK’s most famous pilgrimage sites (and home to a rather nice farm shop and café). Neither are anywhere as pricey as the Dartmouth railway and should give you and your kids all the train action you need without breaking the bank.
Winner: Wells, for keeping costs down
There is nothing remotely honky-tonk about Dartmouth; it is upmarket, classy and – lacking a beach – has none of the bucket-and-spade tackiness of most English seaside (you just try and find a slot machine). However, about 10 minutes’ drive outside the town you’ll find Woodlands, an amusement park which is pretty much perfection for the under-10s. With nothing too scary (a medium-size pirate ship being the most white-knuckle attraction), Woodlands offers genuine family fun and, unusually, something for all ages. My 20-month old son had a ball on flying carousels, swing chairs and the mini-big wheel, whilst my eldest two loved the assault course and toboggan run (as did my wife and I). With plenty of soft play areas and covered rides, even rain won’t dampen the fun.
Whilst Wells doesn’t have an amusement park on the scale of Woodlands, it has just enough of the seaside tat to give you comfort you’re on a proper beach holiday in Britain. There’s an arcade and a small soft play area by the quay, plus plenty of shops selling inflatables. Closer to the beach you’ll find the wonderfully-named Abraham’s Bosom, a lake with activities including pedal boats, trampoline and mini golf. Charming, old-fashioned fun.
Kids moan about them but they are not getting out of them: family walks are cheap, healthy and – with some careful planning – wonderful ways to pass a morning or afternoon. Both Dartmouth and Wells offer glorious strolls with coastal views. At Dartmouth, an effortless option is to take the ferry from the town quay to Dartmouth castle; you can take time to explore (there’s just enough stairs, turrets and cannons to keep kids busy), before grabbing lunch at the wonderful café (save room for pudding, the cakes are abundant and delicious). Then you can head off along the coast path for a short circuit with views all the way; just be prepared for some up-and-down (my wife had a real workout with our son on her back). Another lovely walk is to take the ‘lower’ ferry to Kingswear and then follow the railway tracks to the ‘upper’ ferry, which takes you back across the river. Time it so you have some stream trains arriving and departing and you have built-in entertainment.
At Wells, the walks are more blustery and beachy. Just head to the beach and keep going – the swirling sands and huge skies present a sense of freedom simply not found in day-to-day urban life. If the wind really is howling, you can take shelter in the pine forests. An alternative option is to the take the little harbour train one way and walk back into town; the path is buggy-able and short enough to prevent serious whingeing, plus there’s the incentive of an ice cream on the quay at the end. The views over the marshes and boats are inspiring.
Winner: Dartmouth (just) – because of the Castle Café!
This is a tough one as both places excel in the crabbing department. Dartmouth presents a couple of options. You can crab right off quay in the town and there are rich pickings; the only disadvantage is the long haul up from the water – you need a net to grab the crabs before they fall off. The alternative – and for extra fun – is to take a little ferry up the river to Dittisham. Here you can crab directly off a low pontoon. You’re so low, in fact, that even the littlest ones can dangle their feet in the water. In our experience, supply of crabs was plentiful; pity the freezing cold wind that drove us off the pontoon and into the seafood restaurant next door.
Crabbing at Wells is a renowned pastime and everyone is at it. There’s a jovial atmosphere on the quay and even a seafood van if you fancy tucking into some edible crab whilst you’re at it. Like in Dartmouth, the quay is high so you’ll definitely need a ‘catching net’; plus beware of the tide times – come at low-tide and you’ll be out of luck, the crabs have scarpered.
Winner: Wells, for the atmosphere
I’m not a big shopper but some good places to pick up tasty food and knick-knacks can really make a difference to a holiday. I was impressed with Dartmouth’s collection of independent shops – there are nice galleries plus a kids’ toy and book shop. The place definitely invites exploration. But critically, it’s not all la-de-dah boutiques – it’s a real town with useful stuff too, like an M&S Food and a Boots. Plus on the outskirts there’s a giant Sainsbury’s right opposite a Lidl, the perfect middle-class austerity combo.
Wells has no big supermarkets, you have to make do with a Spar. But the cute high street has everything you need – a butchers (useful for scraps of bacon for crabbing), a grocers, a bakers – and it’s refreshing to shop locally. There’s also a pleasing selection of souvenir shops and none too many ridiculously overpriced trinket and fashion boutiques, making it a breath of fresh air on the chi-chi North Norfolk Coast. Don’t miss the deli on the quay for your picnic bits.
Winner: Wells, for being defiantly local and eschewing the chains
Hmm. Tough one. Dartmouth has become something of a foodie mecca in recent years and Fish and Chips have had the full gastro-makeover, courtesy of local chef Mitch Tonks. His restaurant Rockfish is very, very good and a must-go when in the town. It’s incredibly kid-friendly (the complimentary activity packs are a cut-above any I’ve ever seen before) and the food is delicious; there’s a good selection of well-cooked fish and – wait for it – bottomless chips. Best of all, it didn’t feel greasy or heavy. You pay for this sort of quality, but it’s worth it.
Fish and chips at Wells is decidedly less chic; it’s all about drenching them with vinegar and eating them out of paper on the quay, avoiding the seagulls. French’s is the place – it always has a queue and is reliably good. No activity packs here – kids have to make their own entertainment with the chip forks and ketchup.
Winner: Dartmouth, for the grease-free bottomless chips
Overall: Ahhh! Don’t make me choose! I can’t bear it. Dartmouth is definitely bigger and chicer; but Wells has a refreshing, low-key charm. Go to either, you’ll have a wonderful time.
Tempted? Here’s where to stay
Dartmouth: We booked the wonderful Glasshouse at Barrington House. Possibly the best holiday rental we’ve ever stayed in, this architect-designed pad is seriously stylish and will leave you questioning your own interiors at home. With floor-to-ceiling views over the town to the estuary and Dartmouth Castle beyond, a garden with a trampoline, and Sarah, the owner, on hand to give you all the help, advice and kiddy paraphenelia you need, this is a first class choice.
Wells: There are many charming holiday cottages to choose from in the town, but a great choice (particularly for a short break) is The Crown Hotel. The family rooms work perfectly: the kids get a little bunk room off the main bedroom, meaning there’s plenty of space for everyone. Food is good, there’s a beer garden and you’re opposite the Green for the kids to let off steam and play evening games of hide and seek as you have a well-earned sundowner.