Jhe drama of a journey to the South West of England usually looks like this. Act I: getting through the Friday rush hour in the euphoria of the holidays (“It’s good, we’re still on the move!”). Act II: brooding silence in the traffic jams (“Why aren’t the fires moving?”). Act III: recording, grumpy, after a transit time that could have taken you to a Sicilian beach (“Cancel tomorrow, I’m not moving”).
The error is obvious: too many kilometers on too many highways. Enter the South West 660. Inspired by Scotland’s North Coast 500, the new tourist route takes in a host of back roads and roadside attractions to create a marketable road trip, from the Isle of Purbeck to Dorset via Land’s End in Cornwall and Woolacombe in North Devon in Minehead in Somerset.
Those behind it – three Devon residents with a hospitality background – aim to provide a four-wheel drive equivalent of the South West Coast Path and encourage off-season tourism. Mark Godfrey, one of the co-founders and former general manager of the 15 Harbor Hotels properties, says, “I live in Dartmouth — I wouldn’t want to inflict [the summer traffic of] the north coast 500 on anyone. Outside the months of July and August, there is a better travel experience for the consumer and sustained activity for the hotel industry and its staff.
Mason’s Arms Inn in Branscombe
This being a private company, there is no official signage. Instead, one website describes your trip in 12 sections of about 50 miles each. It also details sights, activities, restaurants and small hotels along the route, with links to partners such as restaurateur Michael Caines, Pig Hotels and St Austell Brewery.
Pay a £15 membership fee and you’ll receive route notes and AA-produced GPS Exchange files for the Guru Maps navigation app, plus hotel discounts, upgrades and perks such as the fizz at the ‘registration. By this time next year, parallel routes will have been created for cyclists (less traffic) and motorhomes (wider).
I take the first three sections of the South West 660 to Exeter, and I hope to rediscover a coastline that I know well. The British equivalent of California’s Highway One, the route winds through the mythical region of inviting chalk hills, epic surf beaches, fishing ports and villages with cafes serving cream teas.
The intro is great. At Sandbanks – its glass-walled beach is home to more Bondi than Bournemouth – I board the five-minute chain ferry for the Isle of Purbeck. There’s a rumble, a slight sway over Poole Harbour, then the ramp lowers to reveal a white beach and green hills.
It’s beautiful, but not new, so I’m looking for a new perspective with the activity operator Fore Adventure. From Middle Beach, my instructor, Elliot, and I kayak south, past beach huts on wooded shores and around limestone cliffs like the prows of ships. Ahead of you are Old Harry Rocks, the chalky promontory where Dorset stutters into the sea.
James paddles past Old Harry
We fly over the swell through a ravine to float under undulating white cliffs to the west. Out to sea is a fishing boat beset by gulls, while on the horizon the waves glisten. It’s quite a sight – far more exhilarating than you’d expect from the shore.
A good start, but it’s time to hit the road. From Swanage, I head to idyllic England where Enid Blyton has set up her Famous Five books. There’s toothy Corfe Castle, the village of Church Knowle in the stone tones of Farrow & Ballesque, and edges of bluebells and cow parsley washed away by swallows. Lanes curve and drop, while beneath Creech Barrow Hill, a patchwork of fields, groves and low gorse-shaded hills carry the gentle cadence of timeless topographies.
MoD maneuvers have put Kimmeridge Bay out of bounds and Lulworth Cove is barely discovered, but route notes suggest the Isle of Portland. Thomas Hardy called this peninsula “the Gibraltar of Wessex”, but more appropriately is the sticker in front of me when I arrived: “Keep Portland weird”.
Fishing boats and yachts at Lyme Regis, Dorset
Connected to the mainland by a causeway but with an island mentality, it’s a beautifully eerie place. At Portland Bill Lighthouse, the tide washes past the cliffs with the stone used to build the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace; they were the ruin of ships long before the Vikings landed here. It feels gloriously edge of the world and I inhale the brackish air like you might fine wine.
Then there are quieter discoveries. There’s a splendid fish lunch next to Chesil Beach at the Club House in West Bexington – sister to the more famous Hive Beach Café in Burton Bradstock. There’s also a short walk above Abbotsbury, where the steely blue sea fills in the voids in the Dorset hills, and medieval St. Catherine’s Chapel, locked on a solitary peak, radiates numinous beauty; an invisible lark chirps above – John Betjeman would have loved that.
● The most luxurious hotels in Devon
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At Lyme Regis, I set off with a fisherman, Harry May, dressed in rubber boots and a tattered jacket, as we paddle green-gold whiting in his boat a mile offshore. He tells me how the first mackerel of the season is delivered to the town mayor, and from his house behind the harbor which collapsed after a landslide in 1962.
“This whole coast is in motion,” he says. “Has always been.” That’s why the surrounding cliffs are fossil gold – try Monmouth Beach in Lyme Regis and East Beach in Charmouth.
Forward into Devon, where the landscape widens, flexing its muscles. Even in bright sunshine, the seaside village of Beer has faded photo quality – it’s a swirl of Union Jacks and glittering flint facades, a gurgling stream down its main street towards stacked fishing boats on a pebble beach; pants rolled up, a guy in a striped deckchair eats an ice cream, watched by a seagull going around in circles.
Dessert at the Salutation, Topsham
In Branscombe, the sign of the Masons’ Arms reads ‘Now you toil not’ – sound advice when you live in such an incredibly charming village. The cottages twist along a bucolic coomb, a water wheel resounds and visitors pay for their parking by throwing coins into a well.
This subtle beauty sums up East Devon, but it’s a part of the world regularly bypassed on the A roads to the English Riviera or Cornwall – do the same and you’ll miss d’Artagnan and Millie leaning into your hand as ‘They chew on daisies at one of the largest donkey sanctuaries in the world, near Sidmouth; Drive past Budleigh Salterton and you’ll never hear the beavers chewing reeds in the revived River Otter estuary.
I finish in Topsham, in front of the Passage House Inn. Behind me, pastel red brick Georgian facades jostle in a small town still alive since it was England’s second largest port in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ahead of us the Devonian Hills swell beyond the River Exe. Later, I eat like a king at the Michelin-approved Salutation Inn. You imagine Topsham would be prime holiday territory; instead, he’s lucky to be on his way to nowhere special.
And that’s the thing about the South West 660 – if no views justify hours of riding, they combine into a most rewarding package. These are pointers, not prescriptions. Slow down, he suggests, take a look around. This is the goal of any good road trip.
It’s no coincidence that this is my first time at Topsham despite decades of being on the M5. I’d be back in a heartbeat, but not for a while – there are nine more sections of the new route to explore first.
James Stewart was a guest on South West 660 (southwest660.com)
The exterior of the pig on the beach, Studland Bay
Three aid stations on the South West 660
1. Pig on the Beach, Studland Bay
This honey-toned 16th-century mansion, perched on the cliffs, offers stunning views of Old Harry Rocks – and all the comforts you’d expect from this hugely popular little chain. The nostalgic interiors and charming country gardens are the perfect introduction to bucolic England.
Details B&B doubles from £222 (thepighotel.com)
A bedroom at the Alexandra Hotel, Lyme Regis
2. Hotel Alexandra, Lyme Regis
With 25 individually designed rooms, this stylish, self-contained property epitomizes the enduring appeal of the resort. Surrounded by manicured lawns, it’s set back from town and has a lovely restaurant focused on local cuisine.
Details B&B doubles from £180 (hotelalexandra.fr)
A bathroom at Lympstone Manor, Exmouth
3. Lympstone Manor, Exmouth
This majestic stack offers the ultimate country house experience: a Michelin-starred restaurant run by Michael Caines and a heated outdoor pool, plus a croquet lawn and tennis court, all overlooking the estuary of the Exe. Don’t miss an alfresco cocktail – the sunsets here are sublime.
Details B&B doubles from £316 (Lympstonemanor.co.uk)