Wellington, Melbourne … Falmouth… Newton Abbot…????

Devon’s best kept secret


Yes. We have moved to Newton Abbot. Do you know it? It is a busy little market town at the head of the Teign estuary in South Devon, and this blog has been created in response to all the quizzical stares and shakes of the head that I have encountered recently when telling people about the move.

As you might guess from the title, it is not like we have always lived in this bit of Devon, or have never lived anywhere particularly beautiful or exciting before. But we have chosen to base ourselves in this particular neck of the woods for a few good reasons that I would like to share, in case anyone else is considering relocating to this area.

So this is our particular neck of the woods. Well, it is about 5 minutes walk away from where we live and one of the reasons that we chose to live here. This town is … green. You might not realise it when driving by, but a quick glance upwards will tell you that there are wooded slopes and hillsides in more or less every direction – even the pedestrianised shopping precinct in the centre of the town has a line of trees running up the middle. From every window in our house what you see is mostly trees. So don’t move here if you prefer things that don’t change with the seasons, don’t support wildlife and don’t provide you with kindling, I guess.


Walk for another ten minutes through the woods and you get to Milber Down, an Iron Age hill fort that is illustrated in the photo at the head of this post. The town is tucked away in the valley and ringed around with other forts on other hilltops between here and Dartmoor, about seven miles distant.

If you walk out of the wood for about ten minutes, along the busy stretch of road that connects the town centre to the new South Devon Highway and the flyover that has solved the old congestion at the Penn Inn roundabout, you will find yourself in Courtenay Park, opposite a main line railway station. Three hours one way by train and you will arrive at Paddington. Three hours in the other direction and you will be in Penzance. So another big thing that attracted us to the town is its location. The place also supports a growing number of cycle tracks, linking the town to the moors. We are only 5 miles from Shaldon and the sea, 20 minutes by car from seriously groovy places like Totnes.

Ah haahhh… say people sagely, so you only like it because of how easy it is to get away to other places?.? Well, no, actually..

Let’s cut to the chase…  for some reason, which I, frankly, struggle to understand,  the town has acquired a really bad image. There is a lot of local prejudice in the area which styles the place as some kind of disaster zone. People mockingly refer to it as Newton Armpit or Newton Scabbot. Seriously?? Where do these critics actually live, what experience have they had of living in other places and, crucially,  why have they decided to think about the town in such a negative way? There are things that need improving. The local council is strapped for cash like others the length of the land, nevertheless it would be nice if the  underpass below the flyover could be given some TLC with a high pressure hose. It would be easier to encourage people to make short journeys on foot instead of by car if the footpaths were not quite so grubby. Pretty chocolate box dormitory Devon village it ain’t. Cultured, university town it ain’t. The nearest beach is five miles away. So what makes it such a great place to live?

Number one: affordability

A quick squizz through one of the property finding sites will show you a broad range of property options from new build semi-detached on one of the estates springing up at the periphery, to period loveliness overlooking the country park. It is possible to buy a 2 bed first home terrace, with a little garden, walking distance from the town centre, for £150,000.  You may prefer to base yourself in the South Hams or in one of the outlying villages and risk the wrath of a retired wing commander who objects to the colour you have painted your front door. Or you could decide to live in Totnes or Chagford and be permanently out-grooved by a wannabe shaman or Druid. But if you decide to buy in Newton Abbot your money will literally go twice as far. This means that the local population is diverse. Yes there is poverty here. There are people who appear to have issues with drug and alcohol dependency, but certainly not more obviously than in other towns of similar size. More importantly there are young families, middle aged people with older children as well as retired couples out and about and shopping locally.

Number two: liveliness

This is a town where people are busy. The transport networks that converge on the town, at the first crossing  point over the river Teign, mean that many  businesses choose to be based on the trading estates near the by-pass. Joiners, glaziers, car mechanics, roofers, plumbers, landscape gardeners, kitchen designers, electricians, gas engineers are employed locally. It is an artisan culture rather than an intellectual culture. People have practical skills. Walk up Queen Street from the station to the centre of town and you will pass sewing machine repairers and curtain and soft furnishing makers in addition to butchers, bakers, fishmongers, hairdressers, health food stores and a wealth of restaurants and cafes. It feels authentic and sustainable – a bit like somewhere in London on the edge of a more desirable postcode, ripe for gentrification. There may not be an abundance of smarter gift shops like the retail outlets in Totnes, but how many dream-catchers do you actually need?

Number three: individuality

Newton Abbot has, possibly uniquely, a race course that you can walk to from the town centre, a dedicated cider bar – one of about four in the entire country – a cattle market, covered market and regular farmers’ market. It has its own brewery. It has a country park with a small lake where you can learn to sail and wind surf. It has a museum dedcated to the history of the Great Western Railway. I could go on..

Number four: friendliness

Spend an afternoon strolling through the town centre. Notice that there is a saddler’s as well as a proper old fashioned department store and a swap and exchange stall for jigsaw puzzles in the covered market. Chat to people in  whole food outlets and cafes. Everyone will be uniformly kind and helpful, to whoever you are and wherever you are from. Hipster beards are not compulsory in coffee shops. People in general are not particularly judgmental. Like everywhere there might be exceptions, but mostly the atmosphere that prevails is live and let live.

Time out/no driving

So it was a dull day weather wise. Cold and wet and grey. It was tempting to jump in the car and drive about, looking for somewhere to have coffee and to be cheered by the company of fellow cafe customers. But I was still feeling the ghost of January resolutions and one of these had been to get more exercise. So that’s why I ended up dressing for the weather with winter boots and waterproofs and walking  –  yes actually walking into town.

 Courtenay park in January, bare trees, empty bandstand and, at 11 in the morning on a weekday, no kids in the playground. But it is a quieter route to the town centre, away from traffic. Walking, in spite of the weather, felt good. I could feel myself starting to relax. It made a change to wander without any particular agenda. When I drive into town I am usually on a mission to find something and invariably disappointed. I get stressed by other people’s inconsiderate driving or the lack of parking spaces. But this felt OK. The walk was an end in itself. Even if nothing particularly interesting happened.and when you walk you notice details that you miss in a car, like the way that the town seemed to have been built on a grid system, with the Avenue, St Paul’s Rd and Devon Square focussing attention on St Paul’s church. One of the strengths of this  town is the way that residential areas are so close to the shopping areas. It would be perfectly possible to manage without a car at all. Keeping two cars, I decided, was plain ridiculous and I made a mental note to get rid of the one that these days sits on the drive more often than not. Then I walked out on to Queen Street. Decent hairdressers and health food shop. The model shop. But lots of less than pretty street architecture.The visual pollution of crazy signage and then.. .opposite Bearnes Primary School a little Italian place I had not noticed before. I will describe it in more detail next time.but suffice to say that I returned from the walk having drunk the best coffee in Devon, lunched on the nicest pasta possibly anywhere, with a metre of linen, two bars of posh soap, narcissus in a pot and  some lilac coloured broom – Cytisus purpureus, according to the woman in the florist’s – that I had not seen before. I also bought samphire and fresh fish pieces for a fish pie to cook for supper.  All in all, really unexpectedly, a really lovely morning…