CYCLING IN NORTH DEVON: PART ONE

TAUNTON (SOMERSET) - EXMOOR - BARNSTAPLE - ILFRACOMBE - LYNMOUTH

If you don’t know north Devon, it is where Exmoor meets the sea in a series of high cliffs, and deep combes, but it is also where the Tarka Trail offers traffic free cycling on the grand scale. Along these railway lines thousands of ordinary folk arrived in this spectacular landscape for their annual holiday. One information board had a picture of a train from Wolverhampton hauling itself up to Willingcott before descending to Ilfracombe. On its return journey it faced one of the stiffest standing starts on the entire railway system. This cyclist empathises - well Steve Dyster does.

Braunton is the northern terminus of the Tarka Trail (NCR27 continues to Ilfracombe). The southern section follows the railway line south from Barnstaple to Great Torrington and on to Meeth. The last section was mainly used for transporting ball clay and the men who quarried it.

The Tarka Trail: is valuable for getting about and for those who don’t want anything overly vigorous. However, if you fancy some stiff hills, long descents, and getting the most out of a cream tea, then bring your granny gear and a good dose of stoicism.

The first day and half of this jaunt's route is on our pages at  RouteYou.

I had arrived in Barnstaple on a brilliantly sunny evening after a grand ride over from Taunton. There is a connection to Barnstaple, along the Taw valley line (inevitably tagged the Tarka Line) at Exeter, but why not cycle when you have the time?

Keep one eye on the weather. The moor is an exposed place to be when rain and wind blast across. Initially, I followed the B3227 towards Milverton. This is the direct route and was still shown on my antiquated 1:50000 OS map as the A361. Given the age of some of my maps it is a surprise that it wasn’t marked as “Turnpike” or “Ye Shepherdis Trodde”. However, it remains a good road through attractive countryside and well-spaced villages with pubs and cafes. To the south cloud lay along the Blackdown Hills, to the north grey-purple storm clouds came over the Brendon Hills, the outcome was inevitable and arrived shortly after Milverton in the form of hail that rattled the frame of the bike and rain that rapidly soaked the feet of the rider. The deluge had passed by Wiveliscombe and it was a slightly less than sodden rider that dripped into Whelan’s café for a mug of tea. 

The view back was an April mix of sun and shower; the Quantock Hills a dark lump to the north-east. Ahead it looked better, at least for a while. A rattling descent lead to Waterrow , a logically named spot on the rushing River Tone, filled to the brim by recent downpours. And the hills rolled on through the pastures, with extensive The hills get tougher after Wiveliscombe, beginning with a steep climb immediately after the village. views to further hills. I noted the former Bible Christian Chapel at Petton, but my next objective was Bampton. 

There, Toucan café covers all sorts of budgets. For me it was coffee with coffee and walnut cake. I have to say that it was the moistest slice of cake I have had in many a year and certainly the finest coffee and walnut cake I have ever had. 

Whilst savouring these delights, I decided that I’d divert from the main drag and climb on to Exmoor. After crossing of the River Exe, a shower blew in, but I pursued the plan of turning off for East Anstey and climbing onto the moor.

Whilst the shower turned out to be of the extended variety, the route worked well; the climb onto the moor was steady rather than steep. As the rain that droppeth from Heaven did its stuff, I took to admiring the hedge-banks of the sunken lanes. Were it not for the rain there would not be the galaxy of wildflowers that lit my way. What are neon lights compared to this? Banks of primroses, bluebells, wood anemones and more.

I joined NCR3 at Five Cross Ways and ran gently upward along a tree-lined avenue, passing ancient burial mounds and being leap-frogged by a police car that twice overtook and then halted at parking spots a little further on. Emerging onto the open moor as the rain became lighter, by the time I reached Round Hill, puddles dazzled in the sun.

So, on I went, eventually reaching 483 metres near Hangley Cleave. Away to the west were lines of lower hills, the estuary of Taw and Torridge and, in shadowy outline, what I guessed to be Hartland Point. In the far distance I could make out Yes Tor and High Willhays on the northern edge of Dartmoor, near Okehampton. There is little more joyous than riding over open moorland in bright sunshine after rain, but add distant sea views and things are even better.

I was tempted by afternoon tea at the Poltimore Arms, and would have given in had ascent not been resumed. The general trend was, however, downward. After Holewater, where, with Devonian typicality, there was a kick in the tail, I took the sharp climb and soon rattled down to Brayford.

From Brayford, a steady chug amongst desultory rush hour traffic led to another rollercoaster descent through Gunn and Goodleigh. The valleys broadened and narrowed by turns. “Verdant” was coined for such a place. All the way to Barnstaple was joyful pedalling.

Barnstaple was once a major port, but the estuary began silting up in the 1840s. It remains a large town, so I stocked up and headed for my self-catering cottage at Muddlebridge, near Fremington. I followed the Tarka Trail as it curved along the Taw bank. It was full of people enjoying the best sunshine of the day. Wildfowl stood on the mud and sand banks. The river seemed motionless. I turned off just after the café at the old Fremington station and went to meet my hosts.

They said, “We get a good few cyclists here, mainly tourers. Really we are ideally placed for the coast and for Exmoor.” To prove this, my first full-day consisted of a tour of the coast and Exmoor.

Even that began with a trip up the Tarka Trail as far as Braunton. Good design allows one to cross the bridge that carries the Barnstaple bypass over the river Taw rather than going all the way into town. It was a pretty cloudy day and, despite promise of better, the line of brightness to the north failed to advance. The trail passes the Royal Marine barracks at Chivenor and the RAF Search and Rescue base just beyond. There are views across Braunton Burrows nature reserve, the route to which is signposted from the centre of Braunton.

The Tarka Trail, as far as cyclists are concerned, ends at Braunton, but NCR27, a Devonian Coast to Coast continues to Ilfracombe. There are alternative routes: one is described as a Mountain Bike route and the other a road route. Beyond Georgeham there is a coastal option which adds a few miles but passes Woolacombe Sands and goes close to Mortehoe Point. The signage was not always clear. In hilly country, such as this, the inland route has less climbing, but all things are relative.

Georgeham, was the home of Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, for three years. A blue plaque marks the thatched house where he lived. There are a couple of pubs in the village, but it was too early to try out either. I rolled down the hill to Croyde, itself an attractive spot, but seen at the cost of regaining all the height lost. There followed a rolling ride through pastures, emerging at Willingcott and the start of a traffic free run down Slade Bank. There were a handful of cyclists coming up and plenty of dog-walkers and ramblers. The path, like all of the traffic free trails hereabouts was easily wide enough to avoid conflict, whilst there were frequent signs reminding all users of their responsibilities to others.

When the traffic free section came to an end, there was still a good way to go before reaching sea level. Eagle-eyed navigation was required to pick the way through the churchyard and onward. Eventually I gave up and followed the main road down to the famous harbour. The gusty wind and iron-grey sea were not how I remember this resort. Whilst there is more than enough to occupy a few hours here, the chill of the descent made a warm drink and some refreshment my greatest need. After that, I was keen to push on to Combe Martin.

Coastal travel is rarely flat. Climb and dip, climb and dip are the order of the day. Each cove would be a temptation to rest, on a sunny day, but the cold northeast wind slowed progress but made stopping for a breather less enticing. It would be possible to avoid the coast road and go by Berrynarbor, but there was little traffic on the main drag and the sea views were good. Combe Martin has a beach and is full of cafes and touristy shops. Time for more tea. Once a Royal Borough that grew up around the church, it merged with a settlement near the sea and, confined in a high-sided valley, it became legendary for its immensely long main street. It is the sort of place where you don’t want to forget your shopping and have to go back for it.

Route 51, which continues around the coast from Ilfracombe where NCR27 leaves off, climbs up the valley side in Combe Martin and makes its way through the wonderful scenery around Hunter’s Inn and Heddon’s Mouth. Having walked in this area the prospect of a visit to the inn was enticing, but I knew the gradients and the unavoidably frequent big climbs. Thus I decided to stick to the main road. There was little traffic and the long climb was steep enough, with stretches having sheer drops to the left. My aim was to get to Blackmoor Gate, an ancient cross road, and then follow the A39 to Lynmouth. This would avoid the constant need to climb and descend. In areas like this once height is gained it should not lightly be lost. Thus I carry the 1:50000 map to get a clear idea of the contours. In truth, there was little traffic, though this might be very different in the high season or on a sunnier day.

Blackmoor Gate was named such to avoid any connection with the Blackmore family. This is the edge of Lorna Doone country and RD Blackmore, author of the novel, spent time in the area with her grandfather, who was rector of Combe Martin. There are display boards, public toilets and an inn; an Exmoor service station, in all but name, and a good place for a snack after what seemed like an interminable climb. Tea in Combe Martin seemed many miles back.

The A39 used to run through Parracombe, but now skirts it, losing height, but not requiring much of a climb. Unusually, Parracombe has two churches, including the ancient Saint Petroc’s, a rare dedication, east of the Tamar, to a Cornish saint. There is an old inn, too, the owner of which managed to delay the building of the railway for some years, as it was a threat to the lucrative business he made from travellers in the area.

Having sped around the top of the combe, I saw smoke rising amongst the trees. I’d forgotten that a short stretch of the narrow gauge railway has been restored. A steam engine: time for a stop and ice-cream. I was just in time, as the little engine pulled out of the station on its four mile round trip. I should love to have seen an engine like this steam up to Blackmoor Gate on a stormy night. As it was, I got an ice-cream from the café.

“Not sold many today,” the lady volunteer who was serving said.  She expected that cycling was warm work. I agreed, though was surprised when she added that, “it’s brave cycling on a day like today.” She meant that it was chilly in the wind and dull. Is it brave? Surely if we wait for perfect weather in the UK one would get very few miles in. On my way out, I noted that, for a small fee, one could ride on the footplate.

From this unusual little station high in the hills, it was a stunningly long descent into Lynmouth. I knew I’d laboured up to a good height, but surely not that much. The tree-lined gorge can be sunless at the best of times, but the dark clouds added to the sombre light. I headed for Lynmouth, rather than Lynton, noting the three run-off escape routes as I went down the 1:4 descent. 

The rims were hot as I pulled into the side of the road close to Lynmouth Memorial Hall. This building commemorates the shocking flood that killed thirty-four people and wrecked much of the village. The rivers are now deeply encased in broad channels. Even so, they united and raced to the sea. Much of the land here is in the ownership of the National Trust’s Watersmeet Estate. It could barely be more aptly named. Watersmeet House, a visitor centre and café, stands at the confluence of the West Lyn River and the Farley Water. The East Lyn joins the West in the village centre. It is these short, powerful rivers that have forged the gorges and demonstrate so well the massive power of water. Lynmouth has a number of shops and eating places, as one would expect for a tourist hot-spot.

Whilst the Doone-mongers make something of the fictional heroes and heroines of the novel, there is surprisingly little made of the heroics of the Lynmouth lifeboat crew, who, with volunteers from the village, famously dragged their vessel up the fearsome Countisbury Hill and all the way to Porlock, on a stormy night in the winter of 1899. Stand at the bottom of the hill and remember that it carries on in much the same fashion until it gets to well over 1000 feet.

And there we leave our “hero” at the bottom of the gorge …. with an energy bar, a hot pasty, a pint of shandy ... and a map full of contour lines.

For tourist information visit https://www.visitdevon.co.uk/northdevon/

Details of the Tarka Trail are at https://www.tarkatrail.org.uk/the-tarka-trail/

I recommend the use of 1:50000 maps, or similar with details of contours, in areas such as this. OS sheets 180, 181, 191, 192 were in my panniers, but not all were used.

REVISED & PUBLISHED JUNE 2020

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