Exploring the Past in Devon

Straddling the southwest peninsula between the Celtic Sea to the north and the English Channel to the south, Devon’s two coastlines are known for quaint, historic seaside villages, sandy beaches and dramatic cliffs. The two national parks, Exmoor and Dartmoor, have prehistoric stone circles in remote, evocative settings. In the early 1900s fossil hunters found the earliest human remains in England, while builders constructed Castle Drogo, England’s youngest castle.

Discover Exeter

The capital city of Devon in the south west of England is both vibrant and modern, but still has many fascinating places of interest from 2,000 years of history from the Romans to World War 2. A world-class museum provides an engaging introduction to Exeter and its surroundings, for visitors of all ages. There are many fascinating attractions around this beautiful city, including Medieval underground passages unlike any in other cities of England, a magnificent catherdal with the longest, single stretch of vaulting, a Roman and Medieval wall, and a historic quayside that has served the city since Roman times. Visit Exeter >>

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Map of Historical Places to Visit in Devon

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Use our interactive map to find archaeology sites and other historical places to visit in Devon. As of October 2021, we have pin-pointed over 165 sites and museums and other historical landmarks. And adding more daily. Various features allow you to perform different searches for planning your trip to Devon. Add the map to your mobile device’s home-screen and then use your current location in Devon to find places to visit there and then, or to see how close you are to other nearby attractions. Go to the interactive map >>

Join English Heritage and/or the National Trust

Many attractions listed on this page are managed by English Heritage or the National Trust. Besides supporting their work, joining these organisations offers you many benefits. Read about the benefits of joining English Heritage and/or the National Trust. For non-residents of England, you could benefit from a Pass for Overseas Visitors.
15% Off at English Heritage Membership - Discount Code: EHAFF2023

Must See Archaeology & History Sites in Devon

Devon has millions of years of the earth’s past for you to explore. From the UNESCO listed Jurassic Park on East Devon’s coast to many prehistoric sites and historic settlements scattered throughout the county. The oldest remains of an anatomically modern human, from about 45,000 years ago, were found in Kents Cavern, one of the most popular attractions in Devon for people of all ages. At the other end of the timescale, Devon also boasts England’s newest castle. Castle Drogo was designed by Edwin Lutyens and completed in 1930, open to the public thanks to the work of National Trust.

Prehistoric Sites in Devon

Dartmoor is well known for its concentration of megalithic stone circles, many of which are associated with other features including rows of standing stones and funerary cairns. And throughout the county many Iron Age hill forts still dominate the landscape today. Many of these are popular walking spots, particularly in the spring when the bluebells are in bloom.

Blackbury Camp
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Located within an area of outstanding natural beauty, the Iron Age hill fort at Blackbury Camp in East Devon combines archaeology with scenic woodland. Originally constructed in the 4th century BC, the sizeable ramparts and single entrance are still visible today in the form of earthworks. This site is oval shaped with its defensive embankment standing 3 metres tall and 10 metres wide. Excavation in the 1950s also revealed a large triangular feature in front of the entrance. A visit here in spring during the bluebell season is worth experiencing.

Cow Castle Hillfort
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This univallate hillfort in Exmoor National Park may be small, but its archaeological features are wonderfully visible. Located in the River Barle Valley, the single circular rampart can be accessed by foot. It is thought that the fortification was used to defend the community here, or as a place to protect cattle during the nights. The internal area of the enclosure is 1.2 hectares, and the original entrance gap is situated on the south west side. Remaining pieces of the retaining wall still survive. Photograph © Exmoor National Park Authority [Website]

Dumpdon Hillfort
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Not far from Honiton, the National Trust site of Dumpdon Hillfort and its surrounding woodland are well worth a visit. Although not as well-known as the neighbouring fort at Hembury, these earthworks are still impressive. Dating back to the Iron Age, it is triangular in shape with a flattened top, and has defensive ramparts and ditches. The single entrance lies to the north east, and is the only known point of access. A fairly steep walk up to the summit is rewarded with superb views over the beautiful Otter Valley.

Hembury Fort
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The Iron Age hillfort at Hembury is a scheduled monument overlooking the picturesque Otter River valley. This multivallate structure overlies a Neolithic causeway with evidence of a settlement from around 4000 BC. It was also reoccupied during Roman times making Hembury an important multi-period site. The later-phase earthworks are still visible in the form of multiple ramparts and ditches, and with a straightened bank to the east. In 2015/16, a major preservation project took place to help maintain the extensive archaeology here. [Website]

Milber Down Camp
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Milber Down Camp can be found in the pretty coastal village of Watcombe, near Newton Abbot. The site is an Iron Age sloping hillfort. Consisting of four approximately concentric ramparts with outer ditches, the fortification has produced rare finds during archaeological excavation. Three Late Iron Age figurines depicting a stag, bird, and duck which were recovered are on display at Torquay Museum. Roman coins and pottery from the Medieval Period have also been found, suggesting there was later settlement activity here. Photograph © Devon County Council

Kent’s Cavern
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Kent’s Cavern is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, for both its archaeology and geology. The Cavern is in fact a large cave system created some two million years ago. Excavations for artefacts and fossils began in the early 1800s. The most celebrated find is a fossil fragment of the UK’s oldest anatomically modern human. Today the caves are one of the top visitor attractions in Torbay, and one that is especially liked by children. A guided tour shows visitors the geological highlights as well as the findspot of the human remains. [Website]

Merrivale Prehistoric Settlement

The settlement and ritual complex at Merrivale is one of the finest examples on Dartmouth Moor, and as the site is close to the road it is easily accessible from a makeshift carpark. The site was occupied from the Neolithic through to the middle of the Bronze Age, dating from about 2500 BC to 1000 BC. There are various, relatively well preserved archaeological features, including a cluster of typical Bronze Age round houses, a small stone circle, and two double-stone rows, each with over 150 stones all under a metre high.

Scorhill Stone Circle

Described as one of Devon’s finest stone circles, at 27 metres in diameter Scorhill Stone Circle is also one of the biggest and most intact. Today the circle comprises 23 standing stones and 11 that are recumbent, there were once between 51 and 70 standing stones. Although a number of the stones show signs of vandalism, the monument has not been restored but is none the less evocative for this. Artefacts recovered from the area around the stone circle on Gidleigh common, some dating back to the Mesolithic, can be seen at the Torquay Museum.

Martinhoe Roman Fortlet
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This early Roman fortlet dates from around 58-75 AD. Situated in the scenic coastal village of Martinhoe in North Devon, the fortification was used to as a look-out over the Bristol Channel and South Wales. Archaeological investigation has revealed evidence of a wooden barracks here, which would have been capable of holding 65-80 Roman soldiers. According to documentation, the fortification was abandoned in the year 75 AD. Today, the site is visible as  two earthwork enclosures. Photograph © Exmoor National Park Authority.

Old Burrow Roman Fortlet
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The setting of this 1st century Roman Fortlet in Countisbury provides views of North Devon’s stunning coastline. It is believed this defensive structure (once a combination of earth and timber) was used to observe tribes in South Wales. Today, the site is only visible as earthworks, consisting of an outer square enclosure with a circular enclosure within. The main rampart is around 4 metres wide and 1.5 metres tall with a land-facing entrance, while the inner entrance faces out to sea. Archaeological excavation has also revealed the existence of post holes. [Website]

Roman Exeter – Isca
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Although Exeter was founded by the Romans, very little remains of the Roman settlement for visitors to see today. Archaeologists have excavated many features, such as a public bath-house beneath Cathedral Green, but these have been covered over. Remains of a wall, heavily modified during the Medieval, period are the most substantial remains accessible, and make for an interesting city walk. Otherwise, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery has a good collection of Roman artefacts found in the city.

Medieval Sites in Devon

Little is known about Devon in the period immediately following the departure of the Romans. Going on place names, local historians believe that many of the fields, hedges, lanes, churches, settlements and Parish boundaries we see today date to the time of the Saxons. By the end of the Medieval Exeter has become a very important port city. Perhaps the most visible sign of this the Gothic cathedral. The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter at Exeter has the longest continuous Medieval stone vault.

Bradley Manor
Late 16th century statue of Queen Elizabeth I

Visiting Bradley Manor in Newton Abbott is like taking a step back in time. The charismatic medieval manor house is still lived in today and the rooms retain many period features. There is the panelled room with its intricately detailed ceiling patterns, an original concrete floor in the buttery, and even medieval cat holes to discover. The chapel here was first licensed in 1428 AD, though archaeological finds of flint blades suggest that there has been a settlement at Bradley since the Stone Age. There was also an Iron Age hillfort nearby. [Website]

Compton Castle
Late 16th century statue of Queen Elizabeth I

Often described as the ‘most romantic’ castle in Devon, this dramatic fortified medieval manor house is a must-see. It can be found in the beautiful village of Marldon, near Paignton, and has been home to the Gilbert family for almost 600 years. The most famous resident to live here was Sir Humphrey Gilbert who was the half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh. As well as the beautiful surroundings, visitors can explore the castle’s interior – the great hall, medieval kitchen, and solar. There are also activities for kids including period costume dress up. [Website]

Exeter’s Underground Passages
Late 16th century statue of Queen Elizabeth I

Beneath the streets of Exeter are the remains of a network of medieval tunnels built to supply the city with fresh water. A few hundred years later they had fallen in to disrepair and were all but forgotten, until opening as a tourist attraction in the early 20th century. No other city in the United Kingdom has a tunnel system of this kind. Now restored and safe as well as lit throughout, visitors can take a guided tour and find out more about the story behind and myths associated this rare Medieval attraction … Read More >>

Kirkham House
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This charming Late Medieval house can be found in the seaside town of Paignton. The building is a prime example of vernacular architecture, constructed from local stone. The interior layout is characteristic of 15th century rural planning, with separate rooms being used for different domestic functions. These consist of a downstairs hall and parlour, with three upper floor chambers. The house shows off original features (with some 16th century and modern additions) including a medieval screen passage and traditional hooded fireplaces.

Okehampton Castle
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Set in a beautiful location on the edge of Dartmoor, is the remains of Devon’s largest castle. Beautiful woodland and countryside surround this Norman motte and bailey castle and stone keep. It became a high status residence in the 14th century, before gradually falling in to disrepair from the mid-1500s. The motte ditch, originally measuring 4 metres in depth, has since been filled in but can be explored on foot. Much of the castle still survives including the keep walls and barbican gatehouse. The River Okement is nearby.

Totnes Castle
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There was a timber structure here prior to the stone keep at Totnes in Devon. What stands now is a medieval motte and bailey castle, typically stylistic of fortifications following the Norman Conquest in England. Built around 1300 AD, its walls are now an empty shell, which would have once housed stables and an array of timber buildings. One of the largest in the country, views from the motte summit offers picturesque views across the River Dart. WWII graffiti survives on a tree within the bailey.

Early Modern Sites in Devon

Bayard’s Cove Fort
Late 16th century statue of Queen Elizabeth I

In the idyllic setting of Dartmouth Quay, can be found Bayard’s Cove Fort. Built at the beginning of the 16th century, the stone fort served an important purpose during the Tudor Period. It held a position of strategic military significance overlooking the harbour entrance, and was armed with heavy guns. The main function was to defend against an attack from enemy ships crossing from the channel, although the artillery never saw naval action during its placement. The overall structure and high wall remain, as well as the original gun ports.

Exeter Cathedral
The rose window from inside Exeter Cathedral.

Although the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Exeter is often said to be one of the most impressive examples of Medieval architecture, what we see today is in fact the product of various additions and changes over the centuries. A Norman cathedral was replaced with a Gothic Cathedral between 1270 and 1340. There are many fascinating features inside: a clock said to be that of the children’s song Hickory Dickory Dock, the oldest representation of an elephant in England, an unique minstrels’ gallery. Read More >>

Museums in Devon

Devon has a rich record of its prehistoric past, and many local museums have interesting displays of artefacts from the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic to the Bronze and Iron Ages. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter is a world class institution with extraordinary collections from all around the globe, as well as Exeter and east Devon. See our Guide to Museums in Devon.