CYCLING IN NORTH DEVON:PART TWO
LYNMOUTH - SIMONSBATH - CHALLACOMBE - BRATTON FLEMING - BARNSTAPLE - AND THE TARKA TRAIL
With several thousand turns of the pedals, Steve Dyster liberates himself from the Lyn gorge and sets sail for more magnificent North Devon miles. Based in a B&B near Barnstaple, cycling traffic free along the coast and estuaries, and the hills of Exmoor. At the end of Part One, he was having a late lunch and looking up the infamous Countisbury Hill (which, fortunately for him, climbed away in the wrong direction).
View the route on RouteYou.
My chosen route was to make the long and steady climb from Lynmouth up onto Exmoor and over to Simonsbath. Incidentally, this is the route suggested to heavy goods vehicles, motorhomes and caravans, as part of the recommendation not to use Countisbury Hill. The climb begins immediately and continues steadily. I had hoped that the wind would be behind me, but it swirled and funnelled itself down from the moor. I plodded on amongst the crags, rising high above the river, but never being far from the sound of crashing water.
A quick zig-zag brought me clear of the trees, and took me onto the moor, still climbing, but with the wind becoming a blast from the side and then from the left-rear quarter. The moor appeared lifeless beneath a grey ceiling of cloud. Patches of brown stood out from the yellow tussocks. Yet it was so quiet and there was not one car to disturb the silence.
Simonsbath is one of those places with a significance that far outweighs its size. In a beautiful, desolate valley, at a junction of roads, and with Boevey’s Tea-room and The Exmoor Forest Inn. It is a place to eat and seek shelter. Boevey’s did me proud with soup, tea and cakes. A ramble asked if I was doing LeJog. I replied that I was just out for a weekend. He said that a group he knew were coming that way the next day. The forecast weather was awful, with the strong north-east wind getting stronger and torrential rain forecast. I sympathised with them. When I did LeJog a wet and windy day was promised as I came through Devon. I told him that I had changed plan and taken the route through South Molton and Bampton. I suggested they do the same, but, apparently, they were wedded to a specific route.
A tail-wind took over after Simonsbath making the ride through Challacombe a merry romp amongst upland pastures. I’d obviously strayed into Somerset, as I came across a “Devon” county sign.
A short trip down the A399 took me to the turning for Bratton Fleming and a long ride downhill. Bratton Fleming is a large village, but could easily be missed. Coming up the hill it would, doubtless seem a much larger place. Do take care on descents like this. Seemingly endless, it eventually brought me to the Yeo Valley. There are many Yeo rivers in the west-country. Few can have valleys as delightful as this. The river twists though meadows and pastures set between wooded slopes that rise precipitously on either side. At my B&B, my host told me that his club frequently use this stretch for their hill trials. Up, that is. He said that he hated these events, “A few minutes of gasping!” Few?
This had been an impressive day out, with such a variety of scenery and so many cafes that there had barely been time to visit many of the other attractions. One can’t blame Devon – or a little bit of Somerset – for the lack of sun. I’d only have complained that it was too hot.
In any case, by comparison to the forecast for Sunday, the dull weather was a blessing. The next dawn was grey, belting with rain driven by winds gusting at fifty miles per hour. So, a good day for a bike ride and I set off along the Tarka Trail, with the aim of being blown to Meeth, some twenty-three miles, and chugging back, also twenty-three miles but likely to feel double.
With the wind behind me, and occasionally from the side, I rapidly reached Instow. The last time I had been here had been on a sunny July day. The views across to Appledore were exceptional; then because of the sun-flecked river, now because of the white-horses that cantered madly over the sandbanks. Rigging clanked as boats pulled hard at their moorings.
At the former Bideford Station I reflected on what a shame it was that there was not a train back to Fremington. However, I plunged on, admiring my waterproofs integrity and greeting the determined ramblers and joggers that occasionally appeared on the route. After Bideford the river Torridge loses the feeling of an estuary and takes on that of a river in its lower course.
The trail crosses and re-crosses the river several times, even popping through a short tunnel to emerge with the Torridge just below. As usual, views from the line are often diminished by trees. I appreciated the cover they gave from the wind and rain, but regretted their obscuring the buildings that made Weare Gifford look so attractive a cross the meadows. I also deplored the trees’ failure to hold on to twigs and sticks.
This was turning into quite an adventurous ride. The Torridge was swollen to its limits and it could not be many hours before it broke-out across the fields. The water ran like lava in an endless flow, the wind blasted across the meadows. Being out and about and getting wet in these circumstances is awe-inspiring and brings unique pleasures.
A little way after carrying my bike under a fallen tree, I arrived at the old Torrington station, now housing the appropriately named Puffing Billy public house. Great Torrington is high on the hill to the east. It is an attractive and ancient town, with strong links to the glass industry. I decided not to visit on this occasion, as it was still relatively early on Sunday morning and there was no sign that the weather would leave off. Better in the valley I thought.
When the railway was running, the line above Torrington was used for transporting clay from the quarries at Marland and Meeth. I rode onto Watergate. The Tarka Trail leaves the Torridge at Torrington, the gradient steepens and one enters a wonderful world of primroses amongst pine trees, wild-flowers and light scrub. The stream seemed to be running as it pleased amongst the trees. It doubtless had a bed to run in, but was so swollen that its course seemed random. I wondered f the trail would flood? Probably not.
A Watergate the tarmac ended. Crossing the road to pick up the rougher track beyond, a loud crack rent the air and a branch crashed to the ground immediately in front of me. Time to retreat, I thought.
The ride back was very different to the outward journey. The storm was rising and a steady turn of the pedal in a gear usually resrved for Exmoor climbs. I met a cyclist in shorts who had come as far as Torrington and was heading back. He raced past me and disappeared into the distance. Maybe it was just me.
I stopped to shop in Instow. The man who served me apologised for the windy and wet weather, but pointed out that it had been forecast. I agreed, saying that, the forecast was usually correct and that it wasn’t so bad here as it was past Great Torrington. “Always grim up there,” he stated, “adding that there wasn’t an Instow Tourist Board spokes-person, but that, if he were, he would probably take that line on most things. I felt that I should ride back to Great Torrington to get the view there, but the interests of balance were defeated by a growing feeling that I wanted to get out of the elements. I expect the Torringtonians would dispute Instowite claims.
As for “it” being “better”? Well, it was between instow and Fremington, where the river Taw and Torridge meet, that I had to get off and push, leaning into the wind, just to keep moving and the bike under any degree of control. Away to the west I could just make out the tip of Northam Burrows, where the sea begins. It did not raise the spirits, and I regretted that I would probably not find time to go there on this trip.
The café at Fremington is set up to deal with people arriving by car, bike, on foot and so on, and in all kinds of weather. It is in the distinctive station building at the quay. This was once a scene of lime kilns, pottery manufacture, trains and so on. There are displays in the café about local life and industry. Of at least equal interest, on this day, was a cream tea. The scones were freshly baked, the jam and cream came in hearty proportions.
Then I noticed that it had stopped raining. I went out and the rain had stopped and the wind seemed to have dropped. In the latter I was mistaken. It had merely hidden round the bend in the river. I pushed on and met a welcome sight in the town centre in Barnstaple; my shadow. I accompanied it along the Tarka Trail, retracing my tracks of the previous day to Braunton. I followed it back, too. The contrast brought about by a touch of sunlight, actually forecast-defying glory, brought rainbows and confirmed that it is well-worth cycling the same route in different weathers and in both directions.
Sadly, this was the last of the sun. The next day saw flooding and a return of stronger winds. The prospect of a ride into the teeth of a gale and driving rain did not inspire. I did not feel guilty about sitting on a train home.
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