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Review: Exploring the dramatic scenery of Dartmoor during a family weekend away in Devon

Picking our activities for the weekend over breakfast

Picking our activities for the weekend over breakfast


Weekends have a tendency to disappear in a blur of swimming lessons, household chores and football matches, and it is not until you escape for a mini-break that you realise just what you can do in 48 hours.

The Ilsington Country House Hotel is set on the edge of Dartmoor and is surrounded by open fieldsThe Ilsington Country House Hotel is set on the edge of Dartmoor and is surrounded by open fields

Using the Hotel Ilsington Country House Hotel as our base for the weekend, we made it our mission to explore Dartmoor in two days.

Our whistle-stop tour started with a trip to Pennywell Farm where visitors are encouraged to get up close with the animals. There are pony rides, talks on hedgehogs and the opportunity to feed goats and sheep. You can try pond dipping, ride on the red rocket tractor or cuddle up to mice, rabbits and Guinea pigs in the petting area.

Many of the trails around the farm are concreted over, stopping it getting too boggy over the winter months, and the café’s warming tomato and lentil soup comes highly recommended on a damp day at the farm.

The indoor theatre offered shelter from the worst of the rain and between showers our nine-year-old loved the ponds where she could delve into the mirky water in search of mini beasts.

Meeting the residents at Pennywell FarmMeeting the residents at Pennywell Farm

Back at the hotel we took advantage of the modern swimming pool and spa area.

This was the part of the trip I was most looking forward to, relaxing in the hot tub and sauna, braving the ice bucket and swimming with our four-month-old baby. It was heavenly, so much so, that on Sunday morning while daddy was entertaining the baby and catching up on the Spurs’ result, we snuck down for a second helping of relaxation - I have earned it after several months of broken sleep!

The Ilsington is family-run and the owners are working hard to cater more for children with a low-key dining area in the bar, family rooms and garden games all adding to the family atmosphere.

We were particularly impressed with the croquet set up on the front lawn,

The view from the hotel during our autumnal breakThe view from the hotel during our autumnal break

Our room had a separate sleeping area for the children, giving us some space and helping ensure everyone got a good night’s sleep.

Breakfast is served in the very traditional-looking dining room, which is also used in the evenings for those opting for more formal dining.

As well as the usual full English, croissants and cereals, there was salmon and kippers on the menu. The eggs are laid on site by the hotel’s own chickens, and they were oozing freshness.

We ate in the bar area on Saturday evening and in contrast to the rest of the hotel, which is every bit the country hotel, it has a more rustic feel.

The pool and spa area at the IlsingtonThe pool and spa area at the Ilsington

The menu is simpler than the main evening menu and is targeted at locals and families staying at the hotel. Children are offered the standard choice of pasta, chicken goujons or fish but each option is freshly prepared and made using quality ingredients.

The chicken goujons were made of chicken breast and were served with chunky hand-made chips, a dish most adults would be happy to be served.

As well as having its own chickens, the hotel also has a smokehouse and after smelling the rich oak scent we were compelled to try the smoked meat platter as a starter,

The meats were delicious, with a real richness of flavour. The fresh breads served with them were still warm, heavenly.

The terrace at the Ilsington Country House HotelThe terrace at the Ilsington Country House Hotel

The Ilsington is very much the rural country hotel right on the edge of Dartmoor, so don’t expect a super-speedy service, instead, sit back and savour the food, order a gin (the hotel specialises in gins and artisan tonics, and I am returning to sample some when I can drink again) and enjoy having time to sit and talk as a family

Main courses on offer include root vegetable and chickpea cassoulet, steak and pork and leek meatballs and prices range from £10 to £26.

The sea bream, served on a smoked haddock risotto, was beautifully presented, stacked in a tower and served with roasted veg that added a warm splash of colour to the dish. Filling and flavoursome, the fish element was well seasoned and cooked with a crispy skin, The risotto was a little stickier than I would have chosen, but a minor issue with a generally tasty dish.

By the time desserts were served it was getting late so instead of a heavy marquise or sickly sweet posset, I went for the intriguing-sounding lavender ice cream with a scoop of honeycomb as well.

The Ilsington Country House Hotel is full of charm but is welcoming to guests of all agesThe Ilsington Country House Hotel is full of charm but is welcoming to guests of all ages

Presentation really is everything when it comes to dessert and the Ilsington nailed it, serving my ice cream on a narrow platter with crumbled dark chocolate soil and a wisp of meringue. The ice cream, itself was refreshing and less floral than anticipated, a surprising flavour and one worth trying.

On Sunday morning we stopped in at the House of Marbles, an unassuming attraction we had accidentally stumbled upon earlier in the weekend.

Entry is free and you can see glass blowers at work even on the day of rest. These skilled craftsmen seem unperturbed by the added pressure of an audience and went about their business producing bespoke glassware for sale in the on-site shop.

We were captivated by their talents and the raging fires, precise movements and brightly-coloured glass held the attention of the younger visitors.

The marble runs on display are mesmerising to watch, the engineering that goes into them turns these twisted metal structures into fascinating works of art.

The place is well worth a visit whatever the weather but was particularly busy on this damp morning.

From there we set off for another hidden gem, Lord Exmouth’s Canonteign Falls. This is the UK’s highest waterfall and was created by the Victorian’s to channel water to the mill below and despite being regular visitors to Devon, we had never heard of it. The walk up takes about an hour and is far from buggy friendly – we were prepared with our own baby carrier but the shop hires them out for £2 if you don’t have one.

On the way up boards point out some of the natural and man-made features, and you can count the original, crumbling Victorian steps.

It may have been a little rugged in parts and a challenge for little legs but we all agreed it was worth the ramble when we reached the top and looked down at the jagged cliff edge.

Once back down, you can walk around the lakes, zoom down the zip wire or sneak into the café for a well deserved slice of home-made cake.

On a summer’s day, you could take a picnic and make the most of it but in winter it is simply an opportunity to stretch the legs, see some glorious scenery and get some fresh air.

The trip back up the M5 and along the M4 is much quicker during the autumn months than it is during the busy summer months thankfully and we were soon hom reflecting on an action-packed family weekend. Well worth the drive,

A night’s stay for two adults and two children in a family room costs from £220 per night with breakfast. Visit the Ilsington Country House Hotel website or call 01364 661452.

Looking for an even more adventurous family trip? Try a family ski holiday in Sestriere here

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