It would be a rather stony heart that wasn’t even a little taken with the Devonian town of Topsham. Combine the riverside location, historic port, thousand-year-old church and Dutch architecture with the indie shops, restaurants and pubs that line the streets and you’ve got serious staycation potential. Dutch brick (which was brought over as ballast on the ships orchestrating the wool and cotton trade between England and The Netherlands) was one of the many discoveries that Amelia and Tom Williams-Hawkes made during their two-year renovation project of Topsham’s Salutation Inn. When they got their hands on the neglected Grade II* listed Punch Tavern site in 2010, they found its history tattooed throughout. Take the huge, 300-year-old wooden door, which Tom spent an age picking decades’ worth of paint off only to uncover apotropaic circles, carved into the wood as part of a ritual to ward off evil spirits.
Chef Tom and manager Amelia have notable histories of their own, both having grown up in the industry with publican parents and worked in hospitality for their whole careers. Tom has cooked with the likes Marcus Wareing at Petrus and Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park, but going back further, his family ran the famous Deller’s café in Exeter – advertisements for its themed New Years Eve parties from the ’30s are on display in the lounge.
Enough history: let’s skip forward to the present day, where The Salutation Inn is a well-respected restaurant with rooms (its days of hosting wrestling matches and indoor showjumping are – for better or worse – well over). During the day, its Glasshouse Café (situated in the former courtyard with a glass ceiling) serves lunches and afternoon teas, too.
Dinner usually begins in the lounge with drinks (check out the Devon-inspired cocktail menu), amuse-bouches and some decision making. There are three ever-evolving menus: a four-course (£45) with a choice of dishes (what we end up choosing) or set tasting menus of either six or eight courses (£75 and £85 respectively).
Pre-starters, you may well find yourself in receipt of a little snack – say, eel, caught on the River Exe by Andy Chadwick (the only local licensed for such pursuits) and smoked by third-generation smokers and fishmongers Jacksons in Newton Abbot, with super delicate, white flesh and subtle flavour. You know, just for instance.
Lyme Bay mackerel – served raw, ceviche-style – comes with burnt apple purée and tiny cuttings of tangy grapefruit, while across the table a heap of heritage tomatoes conceal some local Vulscombe goat’s cheese and are peppered with fresh leaves of basil. A pair of stylish, fresh-tasting starters.
The pea and mint arancino takes the form of a large cylinder, golden crumbed and full of plump rice with bursts of pea and mint. It sits on a pile of fresh, vivid green peas and beans and is finished with soft basil leaves and a light, silky pea velouté. A lovely jumble of fresh, green summer flavours.
The well-cooked Brixham pollock has a sticky glaze (reduced ketchup, interestingly – and deliciously) and comes with potato vinaigrette. A fancy and imaginative take on the classic seaside supper of fish and chips.
Cool, smooth apricot and dark chocolate parfait with basil, and a plate of decadent white chocolate with tangy raspberry sorbet, precede mint tea, petit fours and a much-needed recline on one of the lounge’s sofas.
Should I be able to peel myself off said soft furnishing (and the next morning find the willpower to clamber out of the Topsham-crafted bed, which emanates what I can only imagine is the feeling of sleeping inside a giant marshmallow) there’s plenty to reward myself within this pretty town. Like, perhaps, something sweet from patisserie and café Sara’s Petite Cuisine, or a visit to The Passage House Inn with its gorgeous views onto the estuary. There are plenty of great pubs here too – the famous ‘Topsham Ten’ might have slightly dwindled in number over recent years, but at least this makes completion of the long-standing pub crawl slightly more attainable.
Otherwise, there’s the Pebblebed Cellar for wine and light meals just around the corner, and food destination Darts Farm less than 20 minutes away by foot. And when I’m finally full, the well-known Goat Walk, I’ve heard, will get my eyes in front of the best of the town’s views and landmarks while hopefully helping me to digest that mountainous feast.
Just outside of Exeter’s centre, Topsham is a spoton waterside destination with a thriving independent scene where you could easily fill a long weekend (and then some) with great food, drink and fresh air. And The Salutation Inn is an ideal base.