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The Best Free Things to Do With Kids in Devon

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Smugglers, wildlife sanctuaries, parks, dark skies, quirky museums, and the Bigbury Tractor – Devon has plenty to keep the whole family busy and entertained. The county is known for its warm, pleasant climate and glorious coastline. If you prefer a more urban landscape, then the two main cities, Exeter and Plymouth, have plenty of fun on offer too.

Exeter made its money from wool, back in the day, although it dates from at least Roman times. There’s usually lots going on in the High Street or around the Cathedral Close area or there are plenty of pleasant green spaces to enjoy.

Plymouth is much more industrial than Exeter, and is one of the UK homes of the Royal Navy. There’s often a carnival or two to be seen in summer, as well as enjoyable options for things to do down by the Hoe. Smaller towns in the county also often hold special events – just keep your eyes peeled!

Table of Contents

Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth

The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth

What it is: This lovely Sanctuary is known for the loving care it gives to its rescued donkeys, who enjoy a natural life with excellent grazing and shelter. The centre is also involved with donkey-assisted therapy for adults and children with additional needs, outreach programmes, and donkey welfare education around the world. It’s set in a lovely part of Devon, mostly within the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. (Yes, it really is as nice as it sounds.) There are nature trails plus pleasant walkways and plenty of opportunities to interact with the donkeys. This is a working farm, so visitors are advised to wear sensible shoes – no glass slippers or fancy high heels, please!

Why we liked it: The sanctuary has improved the lives of so many donkeys – and people! – since Dr Elisabeth Svendsen bought the first donkey, “Naughty Face”, back in 1969. You can also watch the donkeys on the webcam or take a virtual tour. It isn’t just donkeys on site either – look out for dormice, butterflies, bees, and at least 11 different bat species. The Sanctuary has been part of Natural England’s Higher Level Stewardship Scheme since 2013 (due to end in 2023). Plus, the lovely resort of Sidmouth is just down the road – what more could you ask for?

More information about the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth

Address: Slade House Farm, Sidmouth, EX10 0NU

Opening hours: Every day except Christmas Day from 9am – 5pm. Last entry to the car park is at 4.30pm.

House of Marbles, Bovey Tracey

The House of Marbles in Bovey Tracey

What it is: The small but perfectly formed town of Bovey Tracey on the edge of Dartmoor is probably the last place you’d expect to find a marble museum, but here it is, packed with fun facts and things to look at, play with, and learn. There’s a giant marble run. There’s a marbles museum, a games museum, and a pottery museum. (That’s right, three museums in one.) There’s also a gallery where you can watch glassmakers at work. The exhibits include glass eyes, retro toys, and ‘Snooki 2000’ – which just might be the biggest permanent marble run in the whole of the UK. The courtyard garden has climbing frames and giant games, and the site also has fairground mirrors, animated animals, a penny press, and a giant floating marble.

Why we liked it: It’s colourful, quirky, and there’s loads of free parking. Marbles aren’t new, as a game. Did you know the Romans played a marble-like sort of game with nuts? We don’t think they were very long-lasting, though, somehow….Marbles were later made from clay and stone, until the industry finally settled on glass. We liked it because you can set the interactive marble runs going at any time, and because it just keeps winning awards for being a welcoming if slightly unlikely attraction. Oh and don’t forget to keep an eye out for secret doors and snoring bears…

More information about the House of Marbles in Bovey Tracey

Address: House of Marbles, The Old Pottery, Pottery Road, Bovey Tracey, Devon, TQ13 9DS

Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm, Sunday 10am to 5pm (check Bank Holidays).

Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Exeter

Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter

What it is: RAMM is the main museum in Exeter, one of the two largest cities in the county. Mummies. Giraffes. It’s home to over 8,000 artefacts including insects, birds, and exotic animals, historical displays, and items from different cultures around the world. There are always different exhibitions and events going on, looking at different aspects of history and culture. For 2022 one of the exhibits is a brick history of Exeter made out of those small but sturdy Danish plastic bricks (you know the ones we mean). You’ll never look at togas the same way again…

Why we liked it: It’s super easy to get to, just a short walk from Exeter’s High Street, it’s a stunningly lovely building, airy and well-laid out, and the staff are great. There are always plenty of interactive exhibits and things to push and play with, and it’s a great place for the whole family to spend the day. Make your own Roman mosaic, play with the exhibitions, admire the gorgeous costumes from days gone by, and draw your own museum mascot. (It’s Gerald the Giraffe, in case you’re wondering.)

More information about the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter

Address: Queen St, Exeter, EX4 3RX

Opening hours: Most days except Bank Holidays, 10am to 5pm

Rockpooling at Wembury Beach

Rockpooling on Wembury Beach

What it is: We’ve singled out Wembury, but the whole of Devon is famous for its stunning seaside. You can hang out on a pebbly beach or take a relaxing stroll along Sandy Bay in Exmouth. There’s a Marine Centre at Wembury with plenty of interactive displays – you can even go on organised rockpool safaris with the staff. And you never know what you’re going to see in the water – you might see a squat lobster, a Montagu’s crab, a long-spined sea scorpion, or a shanny. (If you’re wondering what a shanny is, it’s a type of blenny. Which is a family of fish.)

Why we liked it: There are so many different types of beaches in Devon great for rockpoling that you’re spoiled for choice; many are popular with divers, surfers, locals, and visitors alike. We decided on Wembury because of its additional features but if it doesn’t appeal, just decide what type of beach and backdrop suits you best. Dare you venture through the smugglers’ tunnels at Ness Cove near Shaldon to get to the beach? Or would you rather admire the pretty beach huts and go paddling at Broadsands near Paignton, or rockpool near the stunning limestone cliffs at Beer?

More information about Rockpooling at Wembury Beach

Address: Wembury, Plymouth PL9 0HR

Opening hours: 24 hours, all year round

Decoy Country Park, Newton Abbot

Decoy Country Park in Newton Abbot

What it is: Once upon a time, this former clay quarry at the edge of Newton Abbot supplied the raw materials for bricks, pipes, and even the likes of Wedgwood tea sets. When the pit was closed in 1966, it was redesignated as a park and there are now areas of fen, heath woodland, ponds, streams, and wet woodland. It’s a great place to spot wildlife, including cormorants, kingfishers, great crested grebe, and swans down by the lake. Parts of the park are now either a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or a County Wildlife Site (CWS).

Why we liked it: This attractively laid out park is definitely aimed at the whole family, there’s really good flat access in many areas for those with pushchairs or wheelchairs. There are plenty of picnic benches, and a poetry trail. You’ll also find BMX tracks, adventure equipment, and a large fenced play area with slides, sports pitches, swings, water play area during the summer months, and a zip line. The play equipment was replaced in 2021 and there’s a seasonal wildlife discovery centre. There is a small charge for parking at this site.

More information about Decoy Country Park in Newton Abbott

Address: Decoy Rd, Newton Abbot TQ12 1EB

Opening hours: 24 hours, all year round

Bigbury Tractor

What it is: The first time you see this device, you might not be able to work it out if it’s a car, a flying machine, or something out of a science fiction movie. It was a pioneering engineer, Robert Jackson, who came up with this fascinating device in 1969. The purpose of the Burgh Island Sea Tractor ferries guests over the sands to the Burgh Island Hotel, but it’s great fun to watch it, as it’s absolutely one-of-a-kind. Jackson designed it in exchange for a case of champagne. There is a cost if you want to ride the tractor, but you can watch it go about its business for free.

Why we liked it: It’s just so quirky, kind of like a moon or Mars rover that’s somehow lost its way or a giant meccano set come to life. Burgh Island is only 250 metres away from the town of Bigbury-on-Sea in Devon, and at low tide you can just walk across. However…when the tide starts rising (and it really does rise quickly), the causeway is obviously closed. Which is where the Bigbury Tractor comes in. Also, the beach is really super family friendly – just remember to keep an eye on the tides.

More information about Bigbury Tractor

Address: Bigbury-on-Sea, Kingsbridge, Devon, TQ7 4BG

Opening hours: 365 days a year, times may vary due to tide and weather variations

Exmoor Dark Skies Reserve

What it is: Okay, we’re cheating very slightly on this one, as Exmoor straddles both Devon and Somerset. If you live in a built up area like a town or city, you might not realise just how many stars you can see in the night sky when all that light pollution is removed. In 2011 the International Dark Sky Association designated Exmoor as an International Dark Sky

Reserve, the first to be named in Europe. Wrap up warm, fill up the flasks with coffee, chocolate, or hot blackcurrant juice, and follow the two mile self-directed route over the open moors to see some of the best views of the night sky in Britain.

Why we liked it: Sometimes, when things are getting a bit crazy, just looking up at the stars can help put everything in perspective. We liked it as it helped us develop an ability to observe as well as improving our knowledge of the world we live in – there are masses of apps you can download. There’s an annual festival each autumn with lots of events; and while you can stargaze all year round, this is one of those experiences that are best in winter.

More information about Exmoor Dark Skies Reserve

Address: 7-9 Fore St, Dulverton TA22 9EX (Exmoor Visitor Centre)

Opening hours: 24 hours, although obviously best after dark!

Plymouth Hoe

What it is: Plymouth is the largest city in Devon, and its historic heart is the Hoe. There are fabulous views over Plymouth Sound, or you can wander along to the steps on the site that once led down to the Mayflower. There’s also plenty of space to enjoy a stroll on the green where Sir Francis Drake (allegedly) finished his game of bowls in 1588 when the Spanish Armada was spotted out at sea. And the red and white stripes of restored Eddystone Lighthouse, Smeaton’s Tower, make a distinctive landmark.

Why we liked it: Although locals know this is a great place to go for a walk, a picnic, or a trip back in time, it’s a little bit undersung as a tourist attraction. The views are stunning, the history is amazing, and throughout the year there are all kinds of events that take place, including the British Firework Championships and the Plymouth Armed Forces Day. The military has been an important feature of Plymouth life for centuries and the Citadel still has a garrison attached.

More information about Plymouth Hoe

Address: The Hoe, Plymouth, PL1 2PA

Opening Hours: 24 hour access all year round; restrictions may be put in place for special events.

The Box, Plymouth

What it is: Thought all the woolly mammoths had disappeared from the world? Think again and head over to the Box in Plymouth. One of the newest museums in the South West, it combines an art gallery, archive, and museum. There are tons of digital displays and interactive exhibits, and if you’ve ever felt like finding out the truth behind all those romantic voyages in history, you can also dig into the biggest media archive in the UK.

Why we liked it: It has bits of everything and gives a great insight into Plymouth through its art, media, photography, and maritime heritage. You get a great welcome from 14 gloriously colourful figureheads floating above you as you arrive, and you’ll see Queen Victoria as you’ve never seen her before, and look out for ‘King Billy’ from the HMS Royal William. Carved in 1833, it’s 13 feet tall. It’s easy to get to by public transport or there are car parks a short walk away. Oh, and that woolly mammoth? Its fur was made by the same people who made Chewbacca’s pelt in Star Wars…

More information about The Box in Plymouth

Opening hours: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday all year round and Bank Holidays (except the Christmas Bank Holidays).

Valley of the Rocks

What it is: In a county full of glorious, unique landscapes, the Valley of the Rocks stands out, like something out of a science fiction novel. It’s a great place to just spend the day with a picnic, but if you’re looking for fossils, it’s even more fun to keep an eye out for grey rocks with a gritty texture. The middle part of the Lynton Formation is exposed here too – you get to see the oldest rocks in Devon. There is a charge to park nearby between 10am to 6pm; 2022 prices are from £1 for an hour to £5 for 24 hours.

Why we liked it: There are plenty of fossils to be found in the loose scree – a lot of the paths run alongside the main footpaths and you’re not allowed to chip away at the bedrock. You do need to keep your wits about you though, as it’s a little steep at times and there are some sudden drops – it’s quite an adventure just walking down towards the sea, so advice is often to stick with paths that are at an angle lower than 45 degrees. Also, it’s part of the Tarka Trail that covers over 180 miles of glorious sites around Devon coast and country.

More information about the Valley of the Rocks

Address: S W Coast Path, Lynton EX35 6JH
Opening hours: 24 hours

Written by
David Prior

David Prior is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and the editor of Big Family Breaks. He is also a father of five and an experienced traveller, especially with kids.

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