Julie Hinder explains why the lanes are a very special feature of our South Devon landscape
The transition from fast roads to single-tracked lanes is the sign that your holiday has really started! Slow down and embrace the ‘Zen’ experience: take a closer look at our local heritage and the abudant wildlife; enjoy driving through magical tree tunnels and the unexpected views as the sea or the majestic moors reveal themselves; or glimpse picture perfect thatched cottages and vistas of patchwork fields.
One of Devon’s unique features is that it has more mileage of roads than any other county in England and the narrow lanes, specific to Devon, are made up of banks with hedges on top – Devon Banks. These beautiful highways and byways provide a special opportunity to observe the natural wonders of our area. The hedges themselves are of historic interest with the most recently constructed 200 years ago; some even date back to the Bronze Age! And there are over 2,500 miles of hedges in the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty alone!
Many of the lanes have names, and as you drive down on the final leg of your journey to Dittiscombe you will be travelling along ‘Five Mile Lane’ which, as the name suggests, stretches for five miles from the main road (A381) into the historic village of Slapton. Another feature are the crossroads and junctions which are marked by named white painted finger signs. Some of these reveal elements of the area’s social history such as ‘Dead Man’s Cross’ near Dartmouth. You will most commonly see names ending in the Anglo-Saxon suffixes ‘-ton’ (Slapton) which means town/village and ‘-combe’ (Dittiscombe) which means valley, and ‘-ham’ (Stokenham) which means a homestead or farm.
The flora of the lanes is often glorious, especially in Spring and Summer. I love the abundance of wild flowers; swathes of snowdrops and primroses, the red, white and pink of Red Valerian, Stitchwort and Bluebells, lacey Cow Parsley, yummy edible yellow Alexanders, bright green Bracken, and red-berried Holly.
Whatever the season, Devon lanes with their Devon Banks are essential wildlife corridors and if you drive steadily you will hopefully be rewarded by wildlife sightings on most journeys. I have seen many British mammals on my travels: Stoats and Weasels, Voles, Rabbits, Squirrels, Bats, Foxes and Badgers. One of the most surprising was a Mole crossing Five Mile Lane; one of the most magical, a Hare.
There is also an abundance of birdlife. In the Winter around dusk you may see murmurations of Starlings getting ready for bed in the reeds at Slapton Ley. Buzzards are locally very common in the South Hams and can be seen perched on top of wooden telegraph poles all year round or soaring on the thermals in the Summer, sometimes in groups of 12 or more! A bird of prey that literally uses the lanes as a superhighway is the Sparrowhawk; I have followed a male Sparrowhawk flying at 20mph along a lane before it swiftly darted through a field gateway to ambush its prey!
These unpredictable wildlife encounters along with the agricultural heart of the area are in themselves good reasons to drive slower along the lanes – you never know what might be around the next bend, a horse and rider, a rabbit with no road sense, or a massive tractor! The lanes are a working environment all year round and you will inevitably meet tractors, combine harvesters, lorries and sheep!
My 5 top tips for driving in the lanes are:
- Watch out for the regular passing places; make a mental note of the last one you passed in case you have to reverse. Go straight back past the passing place and drive in forwards – much easier than reverse parking!
- Be prepared to reverse for larger vehicles, especially if they are towing a trailer, even if they are closer to a passing place. A bit of sneaky reversing practice for several car lengths made me feel more confident when I returned to the lanes after living in a city for a decade!
- Stopping and waiting for horses, sheep or other livestock to come past you is always appreciated.
- If you feel pushed from behind by someone who wants to drive at breakneck speed, pull into the next wide passing place and let them go by and get on with it so you can drive at a speed where you can be observant, mindful and courteous!
- It is the local custom to thank the person who reversed. In fact, we Devon folk are a pretty cheery lot and usually smile at and acknowledge those we meet on the lanes, especially if they’ve pulled into a passing space to let us through.
As the lanes are a very special feature of our South Devon landscape it would be a shame to miss out on all they have to offer, so take your time, be part of the Slow Holiday movement and leave with some special memories of primrose-clad banks and pensive buzzards. Once you leave the lanes and drive down into the valley you’ll find a peaceful place for your holiday at Dittiscombe Holiday Cottages.