Fish Town Brixham, Devon

How do you make a crab roll?'

Brixham is a historic and bustling fishing port at the southern end of Tor Bay, just over 3 miles across the water from Torquay.Getting there takes 30 minutes by ferry from Torquay harbour, an amazingly good value journey on the Western Lady ferry, since fares were slashed to just £3 return a few years ago. The captain doubles as tour guide, providing an interesting commentary on the Bay's history on the way. The 1948 Olympics sailing events were held here; Brunel built the railway along the coast, still used by the steam railway today. Oldway Mansion, home of the Singer family of sewing machine fame, hosted 'at least one' of the captain's wedding ceremonies.A beautifully restored historic trawler, with huge red sails, glides by.

Tor Bay is an almost perfect horseshoe shape, facing east into the English channel, sheltering the resort from all but the worst easterlies, and partly responsible for the year-round mild climate.The captain tells how Torquay, in particular, was formerly most popular as a winter holiday destination and health resort. In fact, it wasn't until well into the 1920's that it became known for summer holidays too, as people began to discover that 'it wasn't too hot'!!

Arriving in Brixham by sea is the best way to appreciate its significance as a major fishing port, still one of the largest in Britain by value of catch. The captain tells us that cuttle fish are now an important market, landed here and exported in large quantities to France and Spain. A giant breakwater stretches almost a mile into the Bay, made of limestone quarried locally, sheltering the inner harbour from the Channel. The ferry passes a large pontoon, now stacked high with trawler nets and other gear. Fishing boats come and go and there is a large marina for private sailing yachts. The town of Brixham rises steeply from the harbour, its hills adorned with brightly painted cottages which in previous times would mostly have belonged to local fishermen.

The ferry docks at a new pier alongside the main harbour for the fishing fleet, a recent development which includes a fish market, where the catch is traded early each morning before being shipped up country or exported around Europe. This is a busy working harbour, so out of bounds for visitors most of the time, but a viewing platform has been built so that the comings and goings and the everyday activities can be witnessed at close hand. Crabbing pots are stacked along the quay in readiness for the next trip out along the coast. The smell of fish, of course, is in the air. Displays along the harbour walls describe the various vessels that work there – the large beam trawlers that spend many days far out at sea, usually working in pairs; crabbers that work more locally, and smaller, multi-purpose boats that adapt their methods to changing seasonal patterns.

The old inner harbour is tidal, compact and surrounded by a fascinating collection of shops, cafes, kiosks, pubs, restaurants, artefacts, art markets and historic miscellany. There is a memorial to the landing of William of Orange in 1688, which led to him being crowned King William III shortly afterwards. Brixham was not his intended destination, but a storm took him and his army many miles off course, but the rest, as they say, is history. A replica of Drake's Golden Hind has been faithfully re-created from an old trawler and offers a glimpse into a hard to imagine world on the high seas in the 16th century.

The kiosks on the harbour offer a mouth-watering array of fresh, local sea food and shell-fish snacks; prawns, mussels, crab and much more. A crab roll at £2.50 seems too good to resist. So, how do you make a crab roll? The lady in the kiosk explains that it has to be fresh crab meat, landed that morning, with a little lime juice, olive oil and pepper in a brown roll .Simple, delicious and great value!

A walkway winds all way round the harbour, past the marina, the life-boat station, more cafes and shops. Display boards tell the full story of Brixham's fascinating fishing history. It was the first port to introduce sailing trawlers, in the late 18th century, replacing fishing lines with nets to catch the bottom living – and biggest , tastiest fish. Within a couple of generations, the fleet had grown to 200 vessels, with their range extending from the south west coast, and Irish Sea, to the North Sea and beyond. Even in those days, the fishermen could be away from home for up to a week all year round. But, as they were mostly Methodists, they would always be back on land by Sunday. Over time, Brixham fishermen helped set up fishing ports along the English east coast to service the North Sea. The sailing fleet lasted well into the 20th century – 39 ships were sunk by submarines in the first world war.

A short walk along the coastline leads to Brixham's other major highlight, Berry Head. A giant limestone headland, it has protected this area since at least the Iron Age, and is the site of an enormous fortress built to protect the coastline from invasion from Napoleon's armies. BerryHead rises 200ft above the Channel, offering spectacular views along the coastline, and back across Tor Bay and beyond, to Dartmoor.Berry Head is also a hugely important nature reserve, home to a huge variety of wildlife – sea birds, bats, butterflies, flowering plants and much more. A viewing post looks out on a colony of over a thousand guillemots, which nest in caves at the foot of the cliffs. These caves also host around 90 rare Great Horseshoe Bats.

Back in the town, there is just time for a beer before the return ferry to Torquay. Most of the pubs along the harbour date back to the 17th century and it is not unusual to find the crew of a fishing vessel in one of them, relaxing after many days at sea. For all its fascinating history, Brixham remains, above all Fish Town.