Devon a walk on mild side

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If Cornwall is the wild side of the West Country, Devon is the mild. The more sheltered side of the region is closer to London, and its rolling hills, the South Hams, are classic British countryside.

This coast's naval history goes back to the age of Walter Raleigh, whose family estates overlook the Dart River Valley. Still the home of the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth was also the staging point for American troops preparing for the D-Day invasion; thousands were bivouacked in villages along the coast, from Plymouth to Torquay.

U.S. Coast Guard officers were lucky. They spent part of the war at Greenway, Agatha Christie's grand hilltop estate. Reopened to the public last February by the National Trust, it was an immediate success. More than 70,000 visitors -- twice the expected number -- have toured her house and gardens, savoring the artworks that she collected while accompanying her husband to archaeological digs worldwide.

A few guests can stay overnight; Greenway is one of the publicly owned properties that operate as a B&B. An annual festival and a seaside Agatha Christie walk in her birthplace, Torquay, accent her lifelong connection to Devon.

Riverford Farm, in Buckfastleigh, grows and promotes some of the country's best organic produce, meats and cheeses. Riverford's "box schemes" deliver fresh local produce to homes throughout the country, creating a reputation for high-quality, sustainable farming. I can vouch for the delicious results after lunch at the farm's Riverford Field Kitchen, where family-style dining met high style. Among the dishes created by chef Jane Baxter, who used to run London's famous River Cafe, were roasted fennel, duck leg confit, and warm chocolate pudding. Another fine local gastro pub is The Cary Arms, a tiny hotel overlooking Babbacombe Beach.

Although highways serve Devon better than Cornwall, the most scenic way to reach the "English Riviera" is by train. The London route (from Paddington Station) skirts farmland on its way to Tor Bay, offering wide vistas of the south Devon coast. From Paignton, a short cab ride from Newquay, an authentic steam railway carries passengers to Dartmouth. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot used the line on various occasions in "The ABC Murders" and "Dead Man's Folly," so its murder mystery dinner trips are completely appropriate.


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