Spanning 102 miles from Ilfracombe in the north to Plymouth in the south, the Devon Coast to Coast makes an ideal weekend cycling challenge. Well, assuming your bike chain doesn’t break, that is
With flaming June living up to all my wildest expectations, I hopped on a crowded train heading west. After an ‘all change’ at Birmingham New Street, we ventured south west towards Barnstaple, arriving in baking heat on a train jam-packed with fellow cyclists, holiday makers and a chap who fed his faithful sheep dog sausage from a Tupperware box (before sharing same box of sausage with fellow travellers).
Barnstaple is a lovely old station and also rather conveniently located slap bang on the National Cycle Route three – the Tarka Trail. I set off northwards for my self-imposed ‘start’ at the seaside resort of Ilfracombe. Heading in the direction of Croyde and Woolacombe and its three-mile beach, it’s already a lovely ride and with my Koga bike purring along we quickly find a campsite just out side Ilfracombe town centre.
I pull my borrowed super light Terra-Nova Photon 2 tent from my panniers. Pitching is slightly more tricky than anticipated due to the very firm ground and the tiny titanium pegs. After some gentle persuasion of peg into sod, home is soon established – very small and very green. I feel dwarfed by my grander neighbours, but am soon tucking into a warm stately home-sized Cornish pasty, bought hot from a little bakery back down the road. Outside I hear the chuckles of children saying, “Daddy look at that tiny tent!”
Next morning I wake early. The sun has already dried the dew off the fly sheet – it’s going to be a scorcher! I decide to pack my kit and get cracking, having breakfast on the trail. Eager to leave the crowded campsite behind I follow the road out and uphill and eventually join the Tarka Trail south. Retracing my journey from Barnstaple station the last evening the going is eventually flat and traffic-free. It’s utterly blissful. I smile at cheery dog-walkers and joggers, exchanging good mornings. I’m already loving the feeling of freedom and the wind in my hair.
Following the Atlantic and Taw estuary past Chivenor for five miles, I eventually bid goodbye to the north coast at Instow signal box and the North Devon Yacht Club, its marina filled with dozens of Dart catamarans, and start heading south, inland.
Sustrans route three (the Tarka Trail) follows a disused railway and is punctuated by the renovated remains of old rail stations offering snacks, ice cream, bike hire and sculpted benches made from old rail sleepers. At Fremington station picnic area I stop for breakfast – a fresh coffee bag (like a teabag, only coffee) and a Nature Valley maple syrup oaty bar. Hardly a full English, but it tastes great in the fresh air.
Following this new, inland trajectory, I fly through a couple of long, dimly lit tunnels. I can’t help shrieking to test the echoes as I whizz along. By now the route is thronging with cyclists of all ages enjoying the car-free ride. Suddenly there’s a ‘traffic jam’ up ahead – a herd of Friesians! These ladies are in no hurry and luckily, neither am I.
The trail gets quieter the further south I go, till eventually I reach East Yarde and the Yarde Orchard Café and Bunkhouse. With the midday sun baking down, I sit in the shady orchard between a yurt and a Vango Force Ten. The climate is more Mediterranean than Devonshire, so I opt for a Greek salad and a Fentimans fizzy orange – delicious.
At Petrockstowe station I leave the trail and head out onto Devonshire lanes toward Okehampton. For the past 30 miles I’ve been under the illusion that Devon is flat, but now discover that it is indeed a hilly county. Although a fully paid-up member of the ‘light brigade’ – I start to curse the weight of my kit. Do I really need that family pack of custard creams loitering in my pannier?
The route alternates between quiet lane and off-road sections, including narrow rock tracks and river valleys, before joining the road again. I descend into Okehampton without seeing a campsite anywhere and then I spot the Fountain Inn in the distance –looming like a shimmering oasis! I walk into the bar and ask the barman if he has a room for the night – or indeed a broom cupboard: either would do. Luckily, he has one room left.
There’s only one way out of Okehampton on any side of town, and that’s up. I find the Granite Way adjacent to the station and pedal off along the disused railway towards Meldon Viaduct and Lydford. The lofty viaduct affords stunning views towards Dartmoor, before plunging down into the valley.
Lydford is well worth a stop, to visit the castle (a former prison) and famous gorge. Owned by the National Trust, Lydford Gorge is probably very nice indeed, but I’m afraid I don’t know, because I’m stopping with just one thing in mind.
At the gorge kiosk the lady asks me which walk I would like to do. She looks a little baffled when I tell her: “Oh no, I’m not walking. I’m on my bike. I’ve just come for a cream tea.” In my view it’s simply not an option to pass a National Trust tea shop without partaking.
Climbing up to Hatherleigh Moor there are extensive views of Dartmoor. The route is starting to remind me of the time I cycled across Cuba… It’s hot (28ºC) with a strong headwind.
I come across the detour I’d been warned about. The sign says: ‘The temporary route includes very steep sections with a loose and rocky surface and cyclists are advised to dismount’. Undeterred I carry on, looking for a split in the route, reckoning I’ll take the easier option if I’m given an option.
I pick my way round the edge of Tavistock, up another climb and out of town across a bridge. Arriving at said ‘detour’, it’s not an obvious one as I stand on loose rock surrounded by steep hills on all sides. I ask a walker, hoping he’s a local, and he tells me “It’s very steep, and gets steeper. It’s about 10-15 minutes to the top of Dartmoor, but you’ll have to walk it.”
It is indeed unrideable, but not as arduous as my walker-friend made out. I reach the top and Yelverton, busy with wild ponies grazing and families picnicking.
Then, disaster! My gears make a grating sound, the chain jumps off the sprocket and snaps. On inspection it’s twisted and bent and although I have a multi-tool, I don’t see a gadget that looks like I can fix this piece of bent metal.
I pick-up the broken chain and put it into a plastic bag. Reckoning I have about 12 miles to go to Plymouth and cursing my luck, I suddenly feel very disappointed that I may not finish my trip. Then a man climbs out of a Land Rover and asks if all is okay.
I explain about the chain and not having a tool to fix it. He says he thinks he can repair it enough to get me to Plymouth (because “it’s downhill all the way”) and with that he dives into the back of his Landy and produces a pair of pliers. He prises the two halves of the oily chain back together. I thank my good Samaritan (Martin) for his kindness and off he goes.
I gingerly pedal away and aim for the main road, just in case it goes again and I need to hop on a bus. Martin was right, it’s mostly downhill for the next 12 miles and I sail into Plymouth at seven-ish on Saturday evening. It’s later than I’d planned. I see signs for Plymouth railway station and head straight for it in the hope of catching a train north. Elated – I cycle straight through the electric doors and into the deserted ticket office. The departures board reveals no trains are heading north tonight. I’ll have to stay over another night. I see the Copthorne Hotel next to the station.
As I walk in there’s a champagne reception going on… How did they know? Unfortunately, the bubbly is laid on not for me but for Hayley and Steve’s wedding. I feel under-dressed in my tight, greasy lycra, wheeling a bike up to the front desk! The receptionist says they only have an ‘accessible room’ left, with wide doors. “That’s perfect,” I tell her.
“I’ve got a bike”.