The market town of Newton Abbot is on the River Teign, halfway between the South Devon coast and Dartmoor.
The Teign, which widens into an estuary just after the town, was the export route for Newton Abbot’s ball clay, which is still quarried outside the town and now travels by road to the docks at Teignmouth.
Granite was another big source of income for the region, and would make its way down to the coast from Dartmoor via a tramway and canal.
You can retrace this route on the 18-mile Templer Trail footpath.
There isn’t much evidence today, but Newton Abbot was once a railway town, with 1,000 people employed by the Great Western Railway in the 1930s and 40s.
The town museum recalls this industry, and Brunel’s short-lived Atmospheric Railway between Exeter and Newton Abbot, powered by air pressure instead of steam.
1. Town Trail
The Newton Abbot Museum has set up a short but edifying walking trail, showing you around all of the interesting sights and minor curiosities in the town.
You can buy this for a £1 from the museum, or download an app.
There are more than 20 stops on the route, like Union Street, which was the site of a small riot when Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes came to town in 1908. On Queen Street is the Pharmacy Cafe, in a mostly unchanged former chemist’s shop, with original decor from 1877, while the Globe Inn around the corner was the foremost coaching inn in the South West, receiving guests like the Duke of Wellington and Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia.
As you head back towards Courtenay Park along East Street you’ll find a set of eight almshouses founded in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 1840s.
2. Decoy Country Park
A Green Flag-winning park is close at hand to the south of Newton Abbot.
Decoy Country Park was once on the grounds of Forde House, and its name comes from the wildfowl that would be decoyed here to keep the house’s larder safe.
There’s a pond (a flooded clay quarry) with densely wooded banks offering a haven for waterfowl and threaded with a path.
You can rent a canoe or paddleboard from a jetty on the west bank in summer, where there’s also a nature discovery centre and kiosk for refreshments.
The children’s playground at Decoy Country Park is a cut above, with a small world of climbing equipment, swings and slides, as well as a zip-line and a splashpad that open in summer.
3. Stover Country Park
In 114 acres on what used to be the grounds of Stover House (now a private school), Stover Country Park is a calming tract of woodland around a lake.
The land is owned by the county council and a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its rare species of dragonfly.
That lake at the centre was excavated by James Templer in the 18th century, and has bird hides on its banks, while there are a few other features to keep everyone engaged.
The interpretation reveals the park’s natural life and shows live feeds from cameras, while there’s a 90-metre aerial walkway in the lower canopy beside a pond rediscovered in 2001. In 2006 Carol Hughes, widow of Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, helped plot a poetry trail with Hughes’ poems on nature carved into granite posts and often accompanied by illustrations by Raymond Briggs.
4. Bradley Manor
One of Devon’s most complete Medieval manor houses is an easy walk from the centre of town along the River Lemon.
Bradley Manor is looked after by the National Trust but remains a family home.
Most of the house is from the first decades of the 15th century, and there’s lots to love, like wall paintings, original ceilings, catholes and the fabulous traceried windows on the west facade.
Bradley Manor also has its own detached chapel, a wonderfully dinky building consecrated in 1428. This lost its religious purpose in the Reformation and was put to all kinds of different uses as a barn, billiard room, poultry house and dining room.
The sweet informal garden on Bradley Manor used to be farmland, and here you can ponder the Medieval architecture and the enclosing countryside of riverside meadows and woods.
5. Plant World Gardens
On the way to Torquay, Plant World is a four-acre hilltop garden planted as a botanical map of the world.
So, blessed with distant views of Dartmoor, the River Teign and the rippling Devon hills, you can amble in landscaped gardens representing all ends of the Earth, growing exotic trees, flowers and shrubs that do well in Devon’s mild climate.
These include Africa, America, New Zealand, Australia, the Mediterranean, Siberia, the Himalayas, but also a hot garden for succulents and a typical English cottage garden.
There’s also a scenic cafe for cream teas and a nursery where you can purchase most of the exotic plants at the attraction.
Kids won’t be left out, as they can hunt for “flowerpot men” and characters like a yeti in the Himalayan Garden and a koala hiding among the Australian plants.
6. St Leonard’s Tower
Hard to miss in the pedestrianised centre of Newton Abbot is an embattled Medieval chapel tower.
Looking at the scarring on the back end of St Leonard’s you can see where this structure used to be joined to the rest chapel.
This was founded in 1220 but was pulled down in 1866 to create more space for traffic in the centre of town.
Beside the tower is a plaque marking the spot where William of Orange gave his first declaration on 5 November, 1688, after landing on English soil to take the throne.
The tower is open from May to September on Wednesdays and certain Saturdays from 10:00 to 13:00.
7. Newton Abbot Town Quay
For decades, granite, timber and coal was loaded and unloaded at this historic docking area where the River Lemon joins the Teign.
Dating to 1848, the quay was first restored in the 1980s by the local council, and has been given a fresh revamp in the 2010s.
It’s a peaceful place to come and contemplate the water, with benches, picnic tables, bicycle racks and a little outdoor cafe open from Easter to September.
Also in spring and summer, the boat component specialist Pilkington Marine arranges nature-spotting boat trips along the Teign and local waterways on the Kestrel, a shallow-draught inflatable vessel.
8. Templer Way
At Newton Abbot Town Quay you can pick up an 18-mile trail between the Haytor granite quarries on Dartmoor and Teignmouth on the coast.
This route, named for the powerful granite trading family that lived at Stover House, traces the course of granite from its source to its point of export, via the faint vestiges of the Haytor Granite Tramway (1820-1858) and the Stover Canal.
The journey wends through moorland, woods and riverside idylls on the Teign, alongside historic locks and quays.
Newton Abbot is about two thirds of the way along the route from west to east.
If you start in Haytor it’s an easy downhill walk that can be done in a day if you start early and come prepared.
9. Compton Castle
Hardly 15 minutes south of Newton Abbot is a rare fortified manor house dating to the late Medieval period.
Compton Castle is owned by the National Trust but occupied by the Gilbert family, who have lived here for much of the last 500 years.
One famous Gilbert was Sir Humphrey (1539-1583), who colonised Newfoundland and was the half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh.
The house is compact but filled with delights like the great hall, solar, sub-solar and Medieval kitchen.
The great hall is warmed with an apple wood fire on cool days and has a model of “The Squirrel”, the ship Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed to Newfoundland.
The kitchen was set in a lone-standing building as it posed a fire hazard, and with a high-barrelled ceiling and three-flued chimney, tells us a lot about domestic life in Medieval times.
The gardens are wrapped in defensive walls and have lawns for croquet, lavender borders, a Tudor knot garden and a rose garden with an armillary sphere erected in 1983 to mark the 400th anniversary of Sir Humphrey’s arrival in Newfoundland.
The seaside is only 15 minutes along the Teign Estuary from Newton Abbot, and there are beaches on both sides, at the Georgian resort of Teignmouth on the north bank and Ness Cove at Shaldon on the hilly south side.
Shaldon is also endowed with lots of handsome Georgian architecture, especially fronting the Teign.
Something special about Ness Cove Beach here is the long tunnel you have to negotiate to get down to the water.
This is thought to have been cut by smugglers in the 18th century.
The Shaldon Wildlife Trust looks after some of the world’s most endangered species, while Homeyards Botanical Gardens take in beautiful views of the Teign, Teignmouth and the Coast.
You could also cross over to Teignmouth by ferry and walk the promenade, traced by stuccoed Georgian houses, restaurants and a grassy foreshore.
11. Courtenay Park
This well-tended urban park is across the road from the train station and named for the Courtenay family, which had a presence in Newton Abbot from the 17th century to 1936. Their gabled 17th-century mansion, Forde House, lies just east of Courtenay Park and is used for weddings and conferences.
Awarded a Green Flag, Courtenay Park is on a light slope and has big grassy areas for picnics and ball games.
There’s also a pond, bowling green, sensory garden with tactile signs, and an ornate Edwardian bandstand (1907) for outdoor concerts on summer weekends.
12. Devon Bird of Prey Centre
Off the A38 at Fermoy’s Garden Centre is an attraction where you can handle and fly a variety of birds of prey like eagles, falcons, owls, a caracara and a Harris hawk.
Unlike many attractions in this vein, the Devon Bird of Prey Centre has its own visitor centre so you can show up without booking, any day of the week to see the birds in their aviaries.
There are regular “meet the birds” and feeding sessions, and throughout the day each of the birds will be given its daily exercise so you can watch thrilling flight demonstrations.
In-depth experiences, ranging from an hour-long taster session to half a day, allow you to handle these birds, get to know their different personalities and find out what goes into their care.
13. Newton Abbot Town & GWR Museum
This local museum chronicles the history of the town, as well as its ties with Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway.
You can find out more about the Templers, with pieces rescued from Stover House like a marvellous 16th-century oak overmantle purchased by George Templer (1781-1843), as well as information on other illustrious “Newtonians” like John Lethbridge who invented the first ever underwater diving machine in 1715. There’s an original section of the Brunel’s cutting-edge but unsuccessful Atmospheric Railway and an intact signal box.
When this article was written in early 2019, the Newton Abbot Town & GWR Museum was being relocated to the Newton’s Place community centre on Newfoundland Way and was slated to reopen at the end of the year.
14. Newton Abbot Racecourse
Sheltered in the valley in the countryside north of Newton Abbot is the town’s racecourse, founded in 1866. This is a tight left-handed course for National Hunt racing (jump), with seven rather low fences.
With roughly 20 meets a year, the racing season kicks off around Easter and continues through to the end of October, with a couple of evening jumps in June.
When the course isn’t being used for racing it holds horse shows, antiques & collectibles fairs, toy & train fairs, car boot sales, a Christmas fair in December and the biannual Newton Abbot Wellbeing Show, in June and November.
15. Trago Mills Family Shopping & Leisure Park
Hard to sum up in a paragraph, Trago Mills is a kind of vast department store for gardens, furniture, electricals, DIY, sport and leisure, motoring, clothing and footwear, in a complex with Disney-style castle towers.
In summer you could pay a visit for the “Family Fun Park”, set in 110 acres with views towards Dartmoor and has lots for little ones to get up to.
One of the UK’s largest model railways is here, as well as a miniature steam railway, 2.5 miles long.
At the animal park children can meet ponies and goats, while there are show gardens, a bouncy castle, trampolines, go-karts, bumper boats and adventure golf.