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Great British Drives: a gourmet tour of Devon in a Citroen C4 Cactus 

Family next to Citroën C4 Cactus Flair.
Testing the Citroën C4 Cactus Flair out whilst on a culinary driving tour of the South-West.

What better way to fuel our day exploring the newly-designed Exeter Food and Drink Trail than with a hearty meal. Sat in The Kitchen, the family-friendly restaurant at The Donkey Sanctuary, near Sidmouth, we tuck in to a cooked breakfast while glancing out of the expansive windows down across rolling hills towards the sea, shimmering in the early morning sun.

Admiring the lushness of this corner of Devon is far from our son’s mind. Peter, our youngest, is more interested in devouring his breakfast so he can get out and see the donkeys. Soon we’re wandering around the 134-acre farm – home to hundreds of donkeys and mules rescued from mistreatment or relinquished into the charity’s care – and meeting the likes of Ashley, Bonnie and the rest of the gang.

The popular annual car show held at The Donkey Sanctuary’s glorious East Devon countryside headquarters will be held on July 7 this year and promises a great mixture of motors from all eras on display. Visitors will also get the chance to meet the sanctuary’s resident friendly donkeys, as well as enjoy the delicious food and refreshments on offer at the event.

The Donkey Sanctuary's annual car show takes place on 7 July this year. 

Before long, we’re jumping into our pearlescent Citroën C4 Cactus Flair to begin the trail in earnest. Snaking our way along country lanes is a breeze in this stylish hatch, which has undergone a recent makeover.

The manufacturer built a reputation for thinking out of the box with its quirky designs, and the initial Cactus didn’t disappoint, with its distinctive AirBumps adorning the sides and front/rear bumpers. These air-filled panels were designed to provide padding and, thereby, minimise bodywork damage in the event of low-speed collisions, and helped the Cactus stand out from the rest in this over-crowded corner of the car market.

Sadly, the stylish panels have reduced significantly on the latest model, and in doing so the car has lost a degree of individuality. That said, it remains an eye-catching beauty and is a real pleasure to drive, especially in terms of comfort. For this, we can thank, in part, Citroën’s Progressive Hydraulic Cushions, the new suspension system designed to filter out the affects of bumps and dips in the road, complemented by comfy seating.

In fact, we sink into our seats as we journey towards our next port of call, where the Cactus’s light, responsive steering comes to the fore on reversing into a rather small parking space in Sidmouth. Despite the children’s protestations, I decline the chance to test out the City Park system devised to assist with parking manoeuvres; instead, I like to rely on my own eyes rather than let the car have too much control – call me old fashioned, if you like.

The regency town of Sidmouth has been a popular resort for over 200 years. Flanked by towering sandstone cliffs and backed by verdant countryside, the town nestles in a bay and has seduced its fair share of royalty, gentry and authors. Beatrix Potter came in 1902 to paint, while early royal visitors included, in 1819, Duke and Duchess of Kent with Princess Victoria, their infant daughter.

The coastal town of Sidmouth was a favoured spot with Royals in the past. Credit: JAY WILLIAMS 

We decide to follow in the rich and famous’ footsteps and stretch our legs along the promenade to Connaught Gardens, opened in 1934 by Queen Victoria’s third son, Duke of Connaught. The gardens occupy a seemingly precarious spot on the cliff edge, but command a wide view of the promenade and red cliffs stretching for miles. On the other side are the sheltered Western Beach and Jacob’s Ladder, which is said to have inspired H. G. Wells to write his short story, The Sea Raiders.

Back in the Cactus, we continue our way along the Food Trail. With the aim of placing Exeter and the surrounding area on the map as a major foodie destination, over 40 of the region’s finest food and drink producers, retailers and restaurateurs have been gathered and featured on the self-guided trail. Everything from Pebblebed Vineyards and Winery to Exeter Cathedral Café are included.

Exeter is a hot spot on the Food Trail, with so many culinary delights to be discovered and sampled.  Credit: Christopher Jones

Next on our agenda is Otterton Mill, and the twists and turns leading to this picturesque village afford me the chance to test out the Cactus’ road handling. Despite sharp bends and uneven surfaces, the car’s 17-inch Diamond Cut cross alloy wheels and electric power steering make for an easy and pleasurable drive.

Otterton, with its thatched roofs and quaint cob and brick cottages, is also home to one of the UK’s oldest working water mills. After a brief stop, we’re back on the trail admiring the luxuriant landscapes of undulating fields and acres of heathland at Woodbury Common.

Thanks to the window sizes and seat positioning, we’re able to appreciate the scenery, although the kids grumble a little about the hinged rear windows normally associated with smaller cars; my only moan presently relates to the digital controls. While the lion’s share can be used with ease, ventilation and heating controls are found on the touchscreen display, meaning they’re harder to use on the move. That aside, the car’s smart interior satisfies us, especially the generous supply of pockets and storage space, handy when you’re travelling as a family.

After stopping at Dart’s Farm, crowned the UK’s best large farm shop in 2016, we arrive at Topsham, once a busy port and shipbuilding centre edging the Exe Estuary. Feeling peckish, we pop in to The Boathouse, a French-inspired crêperie-cum-café and the town’s newest addition to the food scene. Their delicious sweet crêpes go down a treat and fill a gap before we stroll along Goat Walk, taking us beside the estuary, passing 17th century buildings and the town’s fabled Dutch houses, constructed using bricks imported from Holland.

Topsham sits between Exeter and Exmouth, and is a perfect stop along the trail we followed for some crêpe refreshment.  Credit: Christopher Jones 

Back in the car, we glance at the colourful food trail map, a useful resource for anyone embarking on this journey of culinary discovery. We’re Exeter-bound but detour to Quicke’s, where we’re shown how they’ve been crafting their beautiful cheese since the 1970s.

Our foodie experience ends in Exeter. The Cactus’ rear parking sensors and colour reversing camera help me reverse into another tight space before we check in at the Mercure Rougemont Hotel, centrally located and just a stone’s throw from The Flat, where pizza and pasta recipes are influenced by planet-friendly veggie and vegan living.

Thinking planet-friendly, Citroen are doing their bit as well with the Cactus’ low CO2 emissions, an impressive vehicle which has been a pleasure to drive along the intriguing food and drink trail.        

exeterfoodanddrinktrail.co.uk; visitexeter.com; mercure.com; citroen.co.uk.

The annual Donkey Sanctuary car show takes place on 7 July 2019.  

THE FACTS

Citroen C4 Cactus Flair

PRICE from £21,465

ENGINE 1,199cc four-cylinder petrol

POWER 128bhp

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 8.1sec

FUEL ECONOMY 58.9mpg (EU Combined)

TOP SPEED 129mph

The Kitchen- https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/visit-us/sidmouth/eat-here  

Dart’s Farm- http://www.dartsfarm.co.uk/

The Boathouse- https://www.boathousetopsham.com/

Quicke’s House- https://www.quickes.co.uk/

The Flat- https://www.theflatexeter.co.uk/

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