South West 660: The new coastal route for South West England

    south west 660
    The privately-owned ancient fishing village of Clovelly in Devon. Credit: 4Corners Images. Frank Lukasseck.

    The South West 660, a new tourism route, offers up some real coastal gems, from Dorset to Somerset via Cornwall and Devon, writes Simon Heptinstall

    As part of our South West April/May 2023 special issue we’re taking an off-the-beaten-track coastal tour on the South West 660.

    Down in hidden sandy coves, you can explore ancient smugglers’ tunnels carved through the cliffs. Later that same day you could stroll through giant dunes to a huge beach where enormous transatlantic breakers arrive in Europe with a foamy crash.

    south west 660
    Dunster Castle, Somerset. Credit: robertharding / Alamy

    From Britain’s longest beach – the extraordinary 18-mile Chesil Beach comprising an estimated 180 billion pebbles –to England’s biggest sand dunes at the Braunton Burrows UNESCO Biosphere site, any journey on the coastline of Britain’s South West peninsula demonstrates it is one of the most varied in the world.

    Your day can easily involve old harbours lined with pastel-painted cottages, steep wooded inlets bobbing with fishing boats, and wide tidal estuaries teeming with spectacular flocks of seabirds. Perhaps you’ll end your day savouring freshly caught seafood in a thatched harbourside pub – then fall asleep to the sound of the waves in a bedroom upstairs.

    Visitors find the shoreline of these most southwestern counties – Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, and Dorset – is a sequence of classic British seascapes. Locals call this region ‘The Westcountry’ in their typical relaxed drawling accent. (They affectionately dub any outsiders ‘grockels’ and describe anything good as a ‘proper job’).

    south west 660
    Pretty Hope Cove in South Devon. Andrew Roland / Alamy

    Their welcoming ice creams and cream teas may have helped the South West become Britain’s prime holiday area over the decades – but it’s the coast that people really come to see.

    The good news is that there’s lots of it. All those wiggles on the map translate to almost a thousand miles of inlets, islands, cliffs, headlands, estuaries and, of course, beaches between Bristol and Bournemouth.

    south west 660
    Thatched cottages in the
    village of Inner Hope, Hope Cove. Credit: Justin Foulkes/4Corners Images.

    There’s certainly more than enough to go round. Despite some beaches being hotspots, it’s quite possible to have a beach to yourself, an empty clifftop picnic spot with your own glorious view, and to slowly potter along winding waterside lanes free of any other traffic.

    South West 660: The ultimate South West road trip

    That’s one of the main reasons a group of South West businessmen launched a new road trip route round the peninsula. The aim of the South West 660 is to show off the best coastal parts of this long finger of land, many of which aren’t on the normal tourist route.

    The South West 660 covers 660 miles between Watchet Harbour on the Bristol Channel in Somerset, which inspired Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, to Poole in Dorset, often judged Britain’s sunniest spot.

    south west 660
    Chef Mark Hix’s restaurant The Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis.

    In some ways, this seaside South West 660 may be the UK’s answer to the famous Route 66 road trip in America. It’s sure to attract visitors from all over the world, but the South West 660 offers a very different sort of journey.

    Yes, those 660 miles can be done as a single once-in-a-lifetime motoring marathon – but they are also carefully split into 12 different 50-mile sections. Each of these makes a perfect leisurely day trip.

    What to see on the South West 660

    The South West of England is a region usually characterised by its thatched cottages, ‘scrumpy’ cider, hot pasties (a traditional steak and vegetable pie for tin miners), rich clotted cream, and a gentle pace of life.

    Torcross and Slapton Sands Credit: Gary Holpin Photography

    But there’s a lot more to discover when you drive off the beaten track.The coast is encrusted with hundreds of memorable nautical sights, like barnacles on one of the old wrecks in its waters. Visitors can see where the swashbuckling Tudor Sir Francis Drake calmly played bowls on Plymouth Hoe as the Spanish Armada appeared on the horizon. And it’s easy to visit pubs where Tudor explorer Sir Walter Raleigh was a regular, like Exeter’s Ship Inn.

    This salty seafaring heritage is easy to unearth along the SW660, with a long list of little-visited treasures like Teignmouth’s smugglers’ tunnels and the beautiful Gothic fortress in trees overlooking the sea at Dunster.

    sputh west 660
    Spring comes to Budleigh Salterton Beach. Credit: Peter / Alamy

    Your road trip could include quietly pottering through villages like Lympstone, with its remarkable pink sand beach, and browsing nearby Topsham’s enticing antique and craft shops, or it could involve tackling the little known wild and rugged northwest corner of Devon.

    Here you’ll find on the wall of the remote pub above Hartland’s storm-smashed stone harbour, a long list of the names of ships that have been lost on the rocks there over the centuries.

    south west 660
    The Tudor Bayard’s Cove Fort in Dartmouth. Credit: Gary Holpin Photography

    Must-see SW660 sights include the steep cobbled path that winds down through the quaint whitewashed, flower-bedecked cottages of Clovelly. A sweet team of friendly donkeys used to haul people and goods up this incline, now their main job seems to be posing for photos at the picturesque old harbourside.

    Most visitors stream down the always-busy M5 motorway, which skewers straight down the centre of the peninsula with hardly a glimpse of the sea. Crowds head for big resorts like Newquay and Torquay.

    The South West 660 route instead concentrates on smaller, quieter roads and avoids honey-pot resorts. In the Dorset section, for example, try walking down a grassy path through dunes to find The Hive Beach Café near Burton Bradstock. It’s just a wooden shed really – but its signature dish is a delicious sandwich bulging with fresh local crabmeat.

    south west 660
    Ilfracombe in North Devon is home to the famous Tunnels Beaches. Credit: Gary Holpin Photography

    The wooden Longboat Café on the coast path at Budleigh Salterton in East Devon goes one better: the colourful bandana-wearing chef brings out scallop and bacon baps to people sitting on the beach.

    Perhaps best of all is celebrity chef Mark Hix’s little Oyster & Fish House in the fossil-hunter’s haunt of Lyme Regis. His speciality – fried ‘Portland Pearls’ with scotch bonnet mayo – is best enjoyed on the clifftop tables overlooking the historic curved harbour wall far below.

    Like driving? You’ll feel you’re in a car commercial if you take the stretch of the route along the middle of the South Devon coast. Cruising for two miles along a straight causeway at Slapton you’ll have a long freshwater lake sparkling a few feet on your right, while the sea crashes against pebbles a few feet away on your left.

    south west 660
    The coastal path from Portreath to Perranporth in Cornwall. Credit: Gary Holpin Photography

    Conversely, the main tourist road through the middle of Cornwall is rather dull. Its most memorable sight will be traffic jams. Instead, the South West 660 leads close to the winding North Cornwall coast, passing relics of historic mine workings that stretch out under the waves. They’re so special they’ve been declared a World Heritage Site.

    On the south coast of Devon, skip the motorway again, and try South West 660’s route along the Jurassic Coast’s miles of unique coloured cliffs, red sandstone sea stacks and fossilfilled sandy beaches. They’re another unspoiled World Heritage Site.

    Helston Flora day annual spring festival. Seen here the 7am morning dance, which was originally for workers and servants to take part in before they had to attend to their duties.. Credit Simon Maycock / Alamy Live News.

    And from the autumnal drama of running through Ottery St Mary carrying burning barrels, to the elegant Furry Dance of Helston’s Flora Day celebration each spring, this route gets you close to real local customs.

    Some will use British touring specialists like Adventure Tours to organise an itinerary, while others will make their own way.

    South West 660
    The Masons Arms, Branscombe. Credit: David Hunter / Alamy

    Whichever you decide, it’s easy to eat and stay in local pubs, like The Hope & Anchor in tiny Hope Cove – a pub where captured sailors from the Spanish Armada were once held – or The Masons Arms in leafy Branscombe, part of the St Austell brewery family of pubs, where locals still often arrive on horseback.

    Others may use luxury hotels officially linked to the route, like the bohemian ‘Pig-on the Beach’ in Dorset’s beautiful Studland Bay or the elegant Dart Marina hotel on the waterfront in Dartmouth’s historic harbour.

    south west 660
    The Greenhouse Restaurant at The Pig-on the beach hotel, Studland Bay

    A DIY driving holiday is less about ticking off the sights, and more about travelling slowly and appreciating the journey. That’s why the South West 660 is the perfect way to journey around this fascinating coastline.

    By the way, are you wondering how I know so much about this part of England? Well, I’m a west country-based former BBC Top Gear writer who has spent his career driving and writing about these roads. In fact, I know them so well, that I was asked to compile the entire route of the SW660. So, in some ways it’s my road trip gift to you – I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

    To find out more about the South West 660 route and for inspiration on exploring individual sections, go to

    This extract is part of our South West special in the April/May 2023 issue of Discover Britain, which will be on sale from 3 March. Get your copy here.

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