Peaceful and rural, Tiverton is in Mid Devon on the River Exe.
The older part of town is on high ground on the east bank of the river, where you can visit Tiverton Castle, which has lots of Medieval vestiges, and St Peter’s Church, known for its richly ornamented south front.
At the start of the 19th century Tiverton was hooked up to the Great Western Canal to boost the region’s quicklime industry.
The canal is one of the few waterways in the UK that still has horse-drawn barges, and more than 11 miles are protected as a country park.
There’s lots of history to immerse yourself in at the National Trust’s Knightshayes Court, and the moated Bickleigh Castle.
You could also lace up your walking boots and hike the Exe Valley Way, venturing north to Exmoor or south to Exeter and the coast.
1. Knightshayes Court
Completed in the early 1870s, Knightshayes Court is a Gothic Revival country house designed by the famed William Burges.
The architect fell out with his client, Sir John Heathcoat-Amory, and was sacked before work was completed, so the house ended up being less theatrical than many of Burges’ works.
Since Knightshayes Court was taken over by the National Trust in the 1970s, many of the original features have been recovered, including in the drawing room where an elaborate ceiling was discovered in 1981. Fittings have also been brought in from other Burges properties, like the fireplace, also in the drawing room, and the bookcase in the great hall.
There are Gothic-style carvings throughout, including the Seven Deadly Sins, and strange grotesques and gargoyles in the great hall where the cinquefoil minstrels’ gallery is a romantic touch.
2. Knightshayes Gardens
The landscape architect Edward Kemp, who designed parks all over Victorian Britain, was hired for Knightshayes’ gardens.
The walled kitchen garden is a marvel here, and was also designed by William Burges, as you’ll be able to tell from the castle-like corner turrets.
This space wasn’t always as beautiful as it is now, as it spent most of the 20th century overgrown and used for grazing, until a restoration in the early 2000s.
The garden is now very productive, supplying the menu at the house’s Stables Café and selling extra produce at the Pannier Market in Tiverton for up to seven months a year.
Take time to peruse the sequoias in the Arboretum, as well as the sunny South Garden, the Garden in the Wood, the Fox and Hounds topiary, the stately Pool Garden, Paved Garden, Formal Garden, and something that has almost disappeared from other properties, a preserved stické court (a 19th-century indoor racquet sport).
3. Tiverton Museum of Mid Devon Life
This excellent local museum takes a peek at life and work in Mid Devon down the years.
The Authers Gallery is a treat, and is built around a 1400 Class Great Western Railway steam engine.
Nicknamed “Tivvy Bumper” this locomotive was in service from 1934 to 1965 and is joined by other transport artefacts like signalling equipment, a mini and bicycles.
One of the traditional industries represented at the museum is lace-making, which stemmed from the arrival of entrepreneur John Heathcoat at Tiverton in the 1810s.
You can see one of Heathcoat’s patented lace frames here.
Added to all this are historic farm tools in the Agricultural Hall, Medieval cloth seals in the Wool Trade Gallery and captivating archaeology in the Britton Gallery.
4. Tiverton Castle
Starting out as a Norman motte-and-bailey fortress over the Exe in the early 12th century, Tiverton Castle was altered over the following centuries when it was the seat of the Courtenay Earls of Devon.
The only time the castle was involved in fighting was in the Civil War in the 17th century, when a lucky shot by the besieging Parliamentarians snapped the drawbridge chain and enabled a swift capture.
Tiverton Castle today is a private home, but opens its doors from Easter Sunday to the end of October.
You can browse the ruins of the Medieval perimeter walls and the haunting remnants of the Solar Tower, put up in the early 14th century by Hugh de Courtenay.
There are also Medieval garderobes, secret passages, delightful walled gardens, as well as collections relating to the Civil War, Devon’s gold and silver industries, the First World War and the Napoleonic period.
5. Devon Railway Centre
Something for young railway fanatics, this attraction in the nearby village of Bickleigh is based at the closed Cadeleigh Station, once on GWR’s Exe Valley Railway.
The centre has the largest collection of narrow gauge locomotives and artefacts in the South West, including “Rebecca” a German-built O&K steam engine, which carries you off to a riverside picnic area.
There’s also a 7¼” miniature railway on a half-mile track through a “Magic Wood” populated by gnomes, as well as the Exe Vale model village, evoking a country setting in the Edwardian period at the start of the 20th century.
You can push buttons to set the trains in motion and turn the windmill and beam engines.
Inside is an impressive model railway exhibition, with 14 layouts and 40 trains scuttling along the tracks at one time.
6. Grand Western Canal Country Park
Started in the 1810s, the Great Western Canal was conceived as a coal and limestone link between the Bristol Channel and the English Channel before the days of rail travel.
The intention was to put an end to the long and hazardous voyages around Land’s End required for to make quicklime.
The canal ran between Tiverton, where it joined the River Exe, and Taunton, 20 miles away in Somerset but went into sharp decline in the 20th century.
Although the Somerset stretch has practically disappeared, 11.25 miles of the Devon canal reopened as a country park in the 1970s.
You can visit for a flat, easy walk or bike ride through the countryside, passing under no fewer than 24 bridges, and pausing at cafes for tea and cake.
7. Tiverton Canal Co.
One of the last horse-drawn barges in the country operates on the Grand Western Canal in Tiverton.
The Tiverton Canal Co. schedules trips on this 75-seater narrowboat pulled by a powerful shire horse, from the start of April to the end of October.
The company’s most popular excursion is a 2.5-hour return to East Manley, during which you’ll find out lots of interesting trivia about the waterway and the industry it supported.
At East Manley the horse, “Prince”, is given a break and you’ll be able to get out for a stroll to look at the aqueduct designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s engineers.
The company also hires out rowboats and canoes if you want to make your own voyage on the canal
8. St Peter’s Church
On a low cliff over the River Exe beside Tiverton Castle is the Grade I parish church, which dates from the 11th century and was given an exuberant restoration and extension in the mid-19th century.
Approaching the south front through the churchyard you’ll be greeted by rich Perpendicular Revival carvings in the shape of tall pinnacles, openwork battlements, corbel tables, elaborate window tracery and outsized gargoyles.
Inside, look for the memorials in the Chancel, like the Gothic chest tomb for a local merchant on the south side, and a Renaissance tomb on the north wall, dating to the start of the 17th century and embellished with cartouches and caryatids.
The church’s stained glass is Victorian and Edwardian, by the famous workshops of William Wailes and Hardman & Co., while the organ was first installed in 1696.
9. Devon Badger Watch
Even though badgers are synonymous with the English countryside they are very reclusive animals and rarely sighted.
Devon Badger Watch, based close to Tiverton in Stoodleigh, arranges badger-spotting evenings in a tract of peaceful woodland.
A typical Badger Watch Experience entails a chat about these creatures with an experienced guide at the visitor centre and a wander through woods bedded with bluebells in spring.
You’ll then take shelter in a purpose-built hide to see the badgers emerge from their sett a few metres away.
If you stay quiet you should get to see badgers within minutes, feeding and playing
10. Bickleigh Castle
This moated Medieval manor house, owned for hundreds of years by the Courtenay and Carew families, is right on the River Exe and rented out as a wedding venue.
On the website you can also enquire about a “show-round”, which will last an hour and is well worth doing.
The fortified manor house on the west range was razed during the Civil War, but the rest of the courtyard complex, including the chapel, gatehouse, moat cottage and old magistrates’ court go back well before.
The gatehouse is Grade I listed, first built in the early 1100s and altered in the 14th century, while the chapel could be the oldest intact building in Devon, and has an Anglo-Saxon sanctuary mentioned in the 9th century, but probably older.
The north range is 17th-century, but has a 16th-century overmantle in the left end room, saved from the demolished west range and carved with scenes from the Exeter Conspiracy of 1539 when Henry Courtenay and Sir Nicholas Carew were hanged at the Tower of London.
11. Coldharbour Mill Museum
East of Tiverton, on the way to the Blackdown Hills, is one the UK’s oldest woollen mills, operating since 1797. Set up by the Fox Brothers, which is still in business and at one point employed 5,000 people, the mill processed imported fleece into textiles, cloth and yarn.
At one of the best-preserved textile mill complexes in the UK, you can experience the sights, sounds and smells of a factory floor in the Industrial Revolution, and see skilled craftsmen and women producing hand-woven rugs, stair-runners, textiles and yarn.
There’s a collection of spinning frames for the worsted process, and working Hattersley looms for rugs, tartan cloth and yarn.
The 19th-century steam engines and boilers can be viewed in situ, and are fired up on special Steam Days, while the breast shot waterwheel from 1821 has been restored to working order.
12. Diggerland Devon
Just the ticket for kids obsessed with construction machinery, Diggerland Devon is a whole day out based on JCBs and diggers.
Diggerland lets children get hands-on, operating a heavy-duty digger in a sand pit, and even taking the wheel in a police SUV, tractor, dumper truck or JCB in a safe environment.
There are also lots of rides adapted from construction machinery, on the Groundshuttle, Skyshuttle and the Dig-a-Round, which is powered by a JCB and has seats inside excavator buckets.
13. Exe Valley Way
From the source of the Exe River on Exmoor to its estuary at the English Channel, the Exe Valley Way is a signposted walking path that follows the course of the river for 50 miles.
The path passes through Tiverton, which is roughly halfway, so you could test yourself on the strenuous climbs into Exmoor or amble down to the coast.
The route is broken down into ten sections, each of which can be completed at a leisurely pace in half a day, and both the south and northbound directions are waymarked.
Just north of Tiverton and on Exmoor the river has steep, wooded banks and sharp drops in elevation while further south there’s more of a gentle meander as it enters quiet villages on the way to Exeter.
14. Pannier Market
In the 2000s Tiverton’s Pannier Market hall on Fore Street was remodelled at a cost of £3 million.
People have been trading at this spot for up to 700 years, and it can be reassuring to know that the market is still going strong, trading produce that is usually sourced locally.
Tuesday, Friday and Saturday are the main market days, when you can shop for artisan cheese from the West Country, freshly baked bread and pastries, eggs straight from the farm, locally reared meat, as well as fruit and vegetables, some of which have been grown at Knightshayes’ walled garden.
Also traded on these days are exotic foods like salamis and olives, as well as books, yarn, fabrics, clothing, stationery and a lot more.
On Mondays there’s an antiques and flea market here, trading from 09:00 to 14:00.
15. Mid Devon Show
A one-day agricultural extravaganza, the Mid Devon Show is a family event taking place on the last Saturday of July.
From 09:00 to 17:30 there’s non-stop activity on the grounds of Knightshayes, with live entertainment, horticultural displays, a livestock show and farm equipment.
In the main ring you’ll see stunt shows on horseback, scurry racing, a vintage tractor parade and a display of heavy horses.
The livestock area is one of the largest in the country, allowing you and children to get up close to prized cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, heavy horses and pygmy goats.
Shopping and eating are a big part of the experience, and there are hundreds of stalls, trade stands and food and drink sellers from across the South West.