T.he drama of a drive to southwest England usually goes something like this. Act I: breeze through Friday rush hour on holiday euphoria (“It’s OK, we’re still moving!”). Act II: sullen silence in motorway traffic jams (“Why the blazes aren’t we moving?”). Act III: check in, crotchety, after transit time that could have taken you to a Sicilian beach (“Cancel tomorrow, I’m not moving”).
The error is obvious: too many miles on too many motorways. Enter the South West 660. Inspired by the North Coast 500 in Scotland, the new touring route takes a bunch of back roads and roadside attractions to create a marketable road trip, from the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset via Land’s End in Cornwall and Woolacombe in north Devon to Minehead in Somerset.
Those behind it – three Devon residents with a background in hospitality – aim to provide a four-wheel equivalent to the South West Coast Path and encourage tourism out of season. Mark Godfrey, one of the co-founders and a former managing director of the 15-property Harbor Hotels, says: “I live in Dartmouth – I wouldn’t want to inflict [the summer traffic of] the North Coast 500 on anyone. By going outside July and August there’s a better travel experience for the consumer, and sustained business for the hospitality trade and its staff. “
Mason’s Arms Inn at Branscombe
This being a private venture, there is no official signage. Instead a website sketches your journey in 12 sections of about 50 miles each. It also details sights, activities, restaurants and small hotels along the way, with links to partners including the restaurateur Michael Caines, the Pig hotels and St Austell Brewery.
Pay a £ 15 membership fee and you’ll receive route notes and AA-produced GPS Exchange files for the navigation app Guru Maps, plus hotel discounts, upgrades and perks such as fizz at check-in. By this time next year parallel routes will have been created for cyclists (less traffic) and motorhomes (wider).
I’m taking the first three sections of the South West 660 to Exeter, and hope to rediscover a coastline I know well. A UK equivalent of the Highway One in California, the route tours the much-mythologized region of comely chalk hills, epic surf beaches, fishing harbors and villages with cafés serving cream teas.
The introduction is terrific. At Sandbanks – its glass-walled beach houses more Bondi than Bournemouth – I board the five-minute chain ferry to the Isle of Purbeck. There’s a rumble, a slight sway across Poole Harbor, then the ramp lowers to reveal a white beach and ripe green hills.
It’s lovely, but hardly new, so I seek out a fresh perspective with the activities operator Fore Adventure. From Middle Beach my instructor, Elliot, and I kayak south, past beach huts on wooded shores and around limestone bluffs like ships’ bows. Ahead are Old Harry Rocks, the chalk headland where Dorset stutters out into the sea.
James paddles past Old Harry
We surge on the swell through a gully to bob beneath white cliffs rippling west. Seaward is a fishing boat mobbed by gulls, while on the horizon waves glitter. It’s quite a sight – far more exhilarating than you’d expect from the shore.
A good start, but it’s time to hit the road. From Swanage I head into the idyllic England where Enid Blyton set her di lei Famous Five books. There’s toothy Corfe Castle, Church Knowle village in Farrow & Ballesque shades of stone, and verges of bluebells and cow parsley swooped on by swallows. Lanes bend and drop, while beneath Creech Barrow Hill a patchwork of fields, copses and smaller gorse-shaded hills carries the soft lilt of timeless topographies.
Ministry of Defense maneuvers put Kimmeridge Bay out of bounds, and Lulworth Cove is hardly undiscovered, but route notes suggest the Isle of Portland. Thomas Hardy called this peninsula “the Gibraltar of Wessex”, but more apt is the bumper sticker ahead of me as I arrive: “Keep Portland weird”.
Fishing boats and yachts at Lyme Regis, Dorset
Connected to the mainland by a causeway but with an island mentality, this is a magnificently odd place. At Portland Bill Lighthouse the tide churns past cliffs with stone used to build the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace; they have been the doom of ships since long before the Vikings made landfall here. It feels gloriously edge-of-world and I inhale the briny air as you might a fine wine.
Afterwards are more quiet discoveries. There’s a splendid fish lunch beside Chesil Beach at the Club House in West Bexington – sister to the more famous Hive Beach Café in Burton Bradstock. There’s also a short walk above Abbotsbury, where steel-blue sea fills gaps in the Dorset hills, and medieval St Catherine’s Chapel, marooned on a lonely summit, radiates a numinous beauty; an unseen skylark warbles above – John Betjeman would have loved it.
At Lyme Regis I set out with a fisherman, Harry May, clad in wellies and a tattered jacket as we reel green-gold whiting into his boat a mile offshore. He tells me how the first mackerel of the season is delivered to the town mayor, and of his house di lui behind the harbor that crumbled after a landslip in 1962.
“This whole coast is on the move,” he says. “Always has been.” That’s why the surrounding cliffs are fossil gold – try Monmouth Beach at Lyme Regis and East Beach in Charmouth.
Onwards into Devon, where the landscape broadens, flexing its muscles. Even in brilliant sunshine the seaside village of Beer has the quality of a faded photo – it’s a swirl of Union Jacks and glinting flint façades, a stream gurgling down its high street towards fishing boats stacked on a shingle beach; trousers rolled up, a bloke in a striped deckchair eats an ice cream, eyed by a circling gull.
Dessert at the Salutation, Topsham
In Branscombe the sign of the Masons Arms reads “Now ye toil not” – wise advice when you live in such an improbably lovely village. Cottages twist along a bucolic coomb, a waterwheel clunks and visitors pay for parking by chucking coins in a well.
This subtle beauty sums up east Devon, yet it’s a part of the world routinely bypassed on A roads to the English Riviera or Cornwall – do the same and you’ll miss d’Artagnan and Millie leaning into your hand as they chew daisies in one of the world’s largest donkey sanctuaries, near Sidmouth; zoom past Budleigh Salterton and you’ll never hear beavers chewing reeds in the rewilded River Otter estuary.
I end in Topsham, outside the Passage House Inn. Behind me Georgian red-brick and pastel façades jostle in a small town still zesty from its moment as England’s second-largest port in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ahead, Devonian hills swell beyond the River Exe. Later I eat like a king at the Michelin-endorsed Salutation Inn. You’d imagine that Topsham would be prime holiday territory; instead it has the good fortune to be en route to nowhere special.
And that’s the thing about the South West 660 – if no single sight warrants hours of driving, they combine into a most rewarding whole. It is about pointers, not prescription. Slow down, it suggests, take a look around. That’s what every good road trip is about.
It isn’t coincidence that this is my first time in Topsham despite decades of passing it on the M5. I’d return in a heartbeat, but not for a while – there are nine other sections of the new route to explore first.
James Stewart was a guest of the South West 660 (southwest660.com)
The exterior of the Pig on the Beach, Studland Bay
Three pitstops on the South West 660
1. The Pig on the Beach, Studland Bay
This honey-toned 16th-century manor house, set high on the cliffs, has knockout views of Old Harry Rocks – and all the comforts you’d expect from this wildly popular small chain. The nod-to-nostalgia interiors and charming country gardens are a perfect introduction to bucolic England.
Details B&B doubles from £ 222 (thepighotel.com)
A room at the Alexandra Hotel, Lyme Regis
2. Alexandra Hotel, Lyme Regis
With 25 individually designed rooms, this elegant independent property epitomises the seaside resort’s enduring appeal. Surrounded by manicured lawns, it’s a little set back from the town and has a lovely local-food-focused restaurant.
Details B&B doubles from £ 180 (hotelalexandra.co.uk)
A bathroom at Lympstone Manor, Exmouth
3. Lympstone Manor, Exmouth
This stately pile offers the ultimate country-house experience: a Michelin-starred restaurant run by Michael Caines and a heated outdoor pool, plus a croquet lawn and tennis court, all overlooking the Exe estuary. Don’t miss out on an alfresco cocktail – the sunsets here are sublime.
Details B&B doubles from £ 316 (lympstonemanor.co.uk)