The coast is clear at lovely Budleigh Salterton
Becky Sheaves goes in search of the true identity of East Devon's Budleigh Salterton.
When Jeremy Clarkson popped by Budleigh Salterton to try out a Bentley Continental for Top Gear, he dismissed this seaside town in East Devon as "Britain's most over-priced, dreary place." A bit rich coming from a man who lives in the Home Counties, you might say. But still, does Clarkson have a point?
After all, Budleigh, as it is known to locals, has long been the butt of many a peculiarly English joke. In TV's Blackadder Three, Rowan Atkinson greets the news that he has lost all his money with the words: "I don't believe it! Goodbye Millionaire's Row. Hello Room 12 of the Budleigh Salterton Twilight Rest Home for the Terminally Short of Cash!".
Even back in the 1940s, Noel Coward was mocking the town, saying it was a place for "bores", citing the "potted palms, seven hours of every day on a damp golf-course and a three-piece orchestra playing Merry England."
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Spend some time in Budleigh, however, and the unfairness of its reputation soon becomes apparent. Yes, it's a tranquil place with its fair share of elderly residents, and there is a golf course here (rather a good one). But even though it is sometimes nicknamed "God's waiting room", the average age here is, in fact, 54. What's more, these days town has a vibrant and active social life, all in a stunningly beautiful natural setting.
The pebbly beach here is long and completely unspoilt, with some very charming council-owned wooden beach huts (the waiting list is 15 years, mind you). At the far end is a car park with skate ramp and playground – yes, there are children here – as well as one of the region's prettiest cricket pitches. The wild area around the mouth of the River Otter is an important home to migratory birds.
Locals here defend Budleigh's seafront valiantly against change and many are currently fighting proposals to turn the tiny Longboat Cafe – thought to be sited in one of Nelson's boathouses – into something big, glassy and contemporary.
The leading name in the town's architecture is William Hatchard-Smith, who built an astonishing 50 arts-and-crafts style houses here between the wars. One currently on the market is Watch Hill, pictured below right, built in 1929 for an American millionaire. This eight-bedroomed property has sea views and a commanding appearance – not to mention price tag (£1.895 million). Other Hatchard-Smith homes are smaller and less dramatic in appearance but still go for upwards of £800,000.
The winning combination of sea views and fine architecture can mean premium prices here. However, around the main shopping area of the high street you'll find more affordable terraced Victorian and Edwardian homes. And up on the hills are newer red-brick 1970s and 80s houses, often for around £200,000-£300,000, or less.
As for the "boring" tag, well these days Budleigh has everything from a mad Christmas Day swim to a drama club that produces several shows a year – including, rather generously, an "Evening with Noel Coward" coming up this November.
The town even has its own literary festival every September. Top names on the bill this year include Lynn Truss, Melvyn Bragg and PD James. But the undoubted headline act is none other than Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel, who has recently chosen to relocate to Budleigh Salterton. And surely not even Noel Coward could possibly call a double Booker Prize winning author boring?