Home TravelEurope An Elegant Edwardian Stay at the Watersmeet Hotel, North Devon

An Elegant Edwardian Stay at the Watersmeet Hotel, North Devon

by Mike Cranmer

‘Location, Location, Location’ sums up The Watersmeet Hotel and Restaurant in Woolacombe, North Devon. Nestling below a dramatic cliff with south-facing views of the World Surfing Reserve beaches of Woolacombe and Croyde, with steps to an elegant private sandy beach and its rock pools, Watersmeet has the elegance and easy living of the Edwardian age brought up to date.

Elegant Sundowners

It’s the sea which dominates every aspect of the hotel and restaurant. Each of the 28 rooms has exceptional views of the rolling surf beaches and romantic Lundy Island, a dozen miles out to sea.

The lounge is where to dream and sip a Sundowner cocktail before eating in the circular split-level restaurant while watching the sun go down.

Lounging About

The stylishness of the 117-year-old building has been sensitively retained during the recent refurbishment: beautiful belle-époque stained-glass windows, period mirrors, sweeping staircases, with tiered grassy terraces and gardens that trap catch the sun.

Our first-floor suite opened out to a large balcony with wicker loungers…just the place to pop the bottle of champagne thoughtfully provided and drink in the bubbly and breathtaking view of the North Devon coast.

Maybe it was the champagne or the drowsiness from the journey, but lying on the recliner turned my thoughts to Shakespeare and his exquisite lines from Richard 11:  This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,…This England, bound in with the triumphant sea, Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege of watery Neptune’.

Stormy Weather

The ‘siege of watery Neptune’ was certainly underway as Storm Katherine battered in from the Atlantic, huge surf pounding the rocks below. Enough lounging. It’s time to explore and breathe in some ozone.

Private steps from the hotel’s gardens led down to Combesgate Beach, the high tide now making rock-pooling or bathing a no-no as we bent against the 40-mph wind. Further round the cliff top we looked down on more inlets, roils of spent surf whipped into huge ripples of seafoam like a living being.

The South West Coast Path passes by the hotel, all 630 miles of it, from Minehead in Somerset, along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall to Poole Harbour in Dorset, or vice versa. On many a bucket list, some do it in one go, some in sections, some ‘sea-on-left’, some ‘sea-on-right’. Or, like us on this occasion, half a mile or so and back for a proper Devon Cream Tea.

Tea for Two

No hotel stay is complete without High Tea’s delightful, decadent, indulgent delight, on the dot at 4.00 p.m. The Watersmeet did not disappoint. Finger sandwiches, homemade cake, scones, clotted cream, jam, tea, and a glass of fizz (why not!). A discreet look around at other patrons revealed those In The Know.

I refer, of course, to Devon v Cornwall cream tea aficionados. Is it cream or jam on top? (Answer at the end). I was always taught never to swim after eating. Wait half an hour or you’ll drown. Baloney. A dip in the indoor pool and spell in the steam room would surely burn off those extra calories. Or maybe not…

She Had a Dream

The corridors of the hotel have many reminders of the fascinating history of the Watersmeet. In 1907 Adelaide Huxtable married a gentleman farmer, John Chugg, whose business was failing. Canny Adelaide spotted a wonderful south-facing spot at the bottom of Mortehoe Hill, sold the farm and had the hotel built. 

Her dream prospered in the twenties and thirties, extra rooms and a sprung-floor ballroom were added. Then Hitler put the kibosh on her dream. During the Second World War, the hotel was requisitioned and a girl’s school from Kent moved in for the duration.

The young ladies enjoyed an idyllic life far from the Blitz, but, in 1943, everything changed. The Americans arrived. They set up their Assault Training Centre Headquarters and used Woolacombe for amphibious infantry landing practice – the long flat beach and the surrounding landscape resembling the D-Day beaches.

The Yanks had everything: chewing gum, cigarettes, doughnuts, chocolate and Nylons – making them very popular with the evacuated pupils and staff of Bartrum Gables School for Girls. “Overpaid, oversexed and over here!” One can only imagine.

Award-Winning Food

Hanging in the hotel is a framed black-and-white photograph of a white-jacketed waiter serving martinis to a glamorous couple in the Watersmeet Hotel bar. By way of a ‘nod’ to that elegant past the hotel encourages pre-dinner cocktails. I, of course, needed no encouragement.

The sinking sun shone seductively through the glass of my Dirty Dry Vodka Martini as Storm Katherine still blustered, now ineffectually, at the windows of the Rocks Restaurant with its 180 ͦ panorama sweeping from Morte Point to Baggy Point, the great two-mile stretch of sand that is Woolacombe Beach, now at low tide, separating them like bookends.

We delayed ordering while we waited for that magical green flash as the sun dipped over the horizon. Any great restaurant builds its menu with fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, simply cooked. For those of the carnivorous persuasion, there was Exmoor venison, beef and lamb from nearby; for me, a pescatarian (if I’m satisfied by the food’s strict traceability/sustainability credentials) a choice from the very ocean we were sitting looking at. 

I chose local scallops (hand-dived), roasted celeriac puree, hazelnut butter, and red vein sorrel; followed by Brixham sole, shallots, new potatoes, seasonal greens, brown shrimps, samphire butter, charred lemon. That little lot was paired with a bottle of I Castelli Pinot Grigio delle Venezie D.O.C.  It was superb and one of the finest meals I’ve had this year.  But don’t just take my word: Condé Nast Johansens Awards 2024, voted the Watersmeet Hotel and Restaurant the ‘Best Waterside Hotel’.

Surf’s Up!

By the next morning, Kathleen had lost some of her power and the surf was up. Woolacombe, and neighbouring Croyde, Saunton and Lynmouth produce some of the UK’s most iconic breaks.

The North Devon World Surfing Reserve covers a world-class surf zone stretching across 18 miles of coastline sharing the designation with such hotspots as Malibu and Santa Cruz, in California, Gold Coast, Noosa and Manly Beach in Australia; the first of its kind in the UK.

Having a Butcher at Barnstaple

The minor coast road from Woolacombe, via Putsborough and Saunton, is stunning, with plenty of viewpoints to soak up the extraordinary coast.  We headed for Barnstaple for some sightseeing, pottering, and lunch.  The first stop was the museum, right by the River Taw.

Friendly staff, rooms jam-packed with ephemera, artefacts, industrial heritage and social history exhibits, and an elephant, or rather the 120,000-year-old remains of an extinct Palaeoloxodon antiquus. At 4 metres and weighing 12 tonnes it might cause a traffic jam in today’s historic narrow streets of the town.

The Pannier Market isn’t quite so old, only going back 150 years. It’s a huge, covered space, spanned by cast iron beams reminiscent of the great railway stations in London, and packed with stalls of every description. Parallel to it runs the self-explanatory Butcher’s Row, with delis, cafés, fishmongers, and butchers.

Just Desserts

Happy and a little weary from shopping, etc., it’s time to head back for another sunset and the delights of the restaurant, with just enough time for a swim. Indoors, not in the outdoor pool, which looked inviting but a tad chilly for early evening. No cream tea tonight, decided to leave room for dessert. Incidentally, Devon Cream Tea… cream first, then jam on top!

The Watersmeet Hotel
Woolacombe
North Devon
EX34 7EB
United Kingdom

Author

  • Mike Cranmer

    Michael is passionate about many things: skiing, music (anything that moves him, but especially the blues, Stax, Motown, and gospel), Dirty Dry Vodka Martinis, good pals, and living ‘in the moment’. One-time international photographer turned Picture Editor, he eventually saw the light and became a ski-instructor and travel writer. His stories are “about the extraordinary people I meet along the way”.

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