SEVEN DAY CYCLIST
CYCLING, BUT NOT USUALLY RACING
LATEST UPDATE: MARCH 18th
CYCLING THE DEVON C2C
grumpy old men with grumpy old knees
The first tour following the onset of arthritis in one knee and the first ever multi-day tour following knee surgery: hilly old Devon, perfect. Steve Dyster and Richard Bennett, respectively, rode the Devon C2C – in fact Steve rode it twice, but that would be a long digression. In any case one might debate if it is the same route at all, but we won’t go down that line.
The Devon C2C is extremely popular, especially the sections of traffic-free sections which are well-developed and show what investment in cycle-tourism can do for local economies. Equally, the good old Devon hills butt into the gentle progress along old railway gradients there’s sufficient challenge for any cyclist. Good gradients For Grumpy and Grumpier there was no rush, and the scenery is consistently beautiful, the tourist infrastructure very good, industrial archaeology just grand: overall, it is a great ride, morphing the grumpy old geezers in Smiley and Smilier.
It would be great if the whole route was traffic-free, but despite some massive investment – including building a new viaduct and construction of purpose-built cycle routes, things don’t quite all link up. There are plans to further develop the route, but funding is at a premium, partly because central government does not seem to recognise how much cycle tourism can contribute to local economies
That out of the way, Richard had cycled most of the traffic-free sections before, riding in both directions. Although local buses do not carry bikes, they are not badly priced and seemed to be reliable if you wanted to use them to get back to a car.
It would be quite a feat to miss Verity, Damian Hurst’s gift to Ilfracombe. Standing against the storms, surveying the sea and cliffs, I have to remind myself that she is Verity and not Vanessa – a young lady I knew many years ago to whom she bears a strong resemblance, from certain angles. Anyway, you’ll want to weigh anchor and head for Plymouth. Enough idling about.
From the quay in Ilfracombe, a short tour of the town centre eventually brings you up a steepish climb to the old railway station. Here begins a traffic-free section along the old railway line. The heavily-laden trains loaded with holiday-makers started up the climb from a standing start, providing locomotive drivers with what many regarded as the toughest departure anywhere in the UK. The lanes along the hill-tops south of Willingscott give great views, the railway line having headed away inland to follow the valley occupied by the busy A361. You don’t have to follow the lanes; an off-road route is signed, but you’ll want your chunky tyres and low gears.
The decent to Braunton is massive, and if you are heading north, it would be enough to put some un-seasoned cyclists off.
Continuing south, you are just about to embark on miles of flat. Along the riverside, as you’ll often be, the waters will sparkle and the tide ebbs and flows amongst and over the banks and bars of sand. Well, we hope they will. The sun shone for us as the autumn mists cleared away. You’ve been on the Tarka Trail for a while, but this feels like real holiday cycling.
Cross the River Taw by the new bridge or run into the charming town to cross on the old bridge. Barnstaple is a thriving place and there are helpful bike shops. Extra busy on market day, but is far from over-run, it’s been a major centre for many years, once being a major port – sending more ships to deal with the Spanish Armada than did Plymouth. The river silted up, but the railway now offers links to Exeter and, with a change, to Okehampton.
Whichever way you cross the River Taw, you’ve got flat riding along the river all the way to Instow, then up the Torridge past Bideford. You are not always right on the river bank, but the scenery is lovely, the going easy, and there are lots of information boards to pause at and digest. After Bideford, the Torridge, still tidal, becomes less estuarine, and is crossed several times. Both interested in history, the industrial archaeology on the way to the Puffing Billy at Great Torrington fascinated us, but the woodland shade and views across the valley are most attractive, too. The bucolic surroundings were once teeming with activity; we got really excited by the Ridd inclined plane. You may not, but you will enjoy the ride.
At the old Great Torrington Station – a good mile or so below the town – is the Puffing Billy café and a bike hire and maintenance shop. Beyond here, there’s a café at East Yarde, before the route splits.
End of the Tarka Trail, and beyond
On a frosty morning we set up through the deep shade of wooded cuttings to climb up to East Yarde, entering the real sunny uplands of pastures, copses, isolated cottages; there was a shortage of rosy-cheeked yeomen tending cider-presses, but this was all that was missing, and it was far too early for a jug of cider anyway.
At Petrockstowe one either follows the C2C route to climb through the village and on to Sheepwash, Highampton, then to Hatherleigh, or keep on the traffic-free route to reach the A386 just south of Meeth. The A386 is not recommended as a route to Hatherleigh in the guides, and understandably. Narrow, twisting, with steep gradients, it can carry a lot of traffic that wants to get a move on. Probably one for the most confident cyclists. I’ve ridden lots of rural main roads like this without any problem, but I can understand the warnings.
I headed for Sheepwash. The lumpy landscape is typical of Devon and absolutely delightful. Note, arthritic knee felt no pain or strain, but the spirit got a lot of gain. Calling in at the community shop at the corner of the village square gave time for a breather. Sheepwash is a pretty village – once a centre for washing sheep (it did what it says on the village sign) prior to shearing. Picture the scene, hear the bleating, smell the strong scent of fleeces.
It is worth mentioning, I think, to keep an eye out for the age of the guidebook, if you use one (we carried the Sustrans map, but referred to other guides, too). The route officially goes up to Highamton and follows minor roads and a re-opened section of traffic-free former railway line to take one into Hatherleigh. One older guide, written before the new traffic free section was created, recommends turning left immediately after crossing the bridge to the south of Sheepwash, to avoid riding on the A3072. The suggested alternative is an option, but has several really steep sections. In any case, missing the turn for the new traffic-free section, I ended up on the A3072 anyway. Two cars passed me on the way to Hatherleigh, although it may be busier at other times of day and year.
Hatherleigh is another of those pretty places that are well-worth a look around. A chronological hodge-podge of buildings, two pubs, and cafes provide a useful excuse for a breather before heading out of town. The ascent is short but memorable. As I set off a gentleman burst out laughing and wished me good fortune; a little way on as I approached a line of parked cars, a van sped down the hill and I had to stop. Not knowing whether to thank or curse the van driver, with little chance of a successful hill-start, I had to push to the top. Strangely enough, as the lane levels out there’s a monument with benches with which to admire grand views of the northern edge of Dartmoor.
The lanes now dip and rise, often through woodland, all the way to Jacobstowe and, further on, Okehampton. I’ve been to Okehampton many times; the castle is pretty, the pubs and cafes plentiful. The railway station has been reopened, and the yard houses a bike hire business and much else. It is also the start of the Granite Trail – traffic-free cycling all the way to Lydford. Richard fancied trying out an e.bike, but the bike hire was only open to supply a visiting school group.
Granite and Drake Trails
Absolutely smashing the Granite Trail is, too – and not as remote from sustenance as the views of the edge of Dartmoor suggest (one café is also a bike shop, or maybe it is the other way round). I have to say that I absolutely loved this section and felt no guilt at getting so much pleasure with so little effort. I’ve loved cycling over Dartmoor, but the Granite Trail is just a doddle. There is one short section over where the going gets rough. I guess the landowner does not want nature disturbed. This section may be closed on certain days.
It ends at Lydford, where we inspected the castle and should have inspected the inside of the Castle Inn, a woeful omission! As the railway ends, you’ve guessed it, the undulations begin. Even so, the climb to Brent Tor was not too arduous. Hands-up, I’ll admit to being naughty by leaving the C2C route and picking up NCR327 to cut a corner and re-join the C2C just outside Tavistock. I stuck to the C2C on the way back.
Between Brent Tor and Tavistock the official route runs through Mary Tavy and Peter Tavy. All very pretty. There are pubs in both villages. The main road would be an unpleasant cycling experience. To avoid this the C2C route follows a track to cross the little River Tavy. Much of the surface is execrably rocky and is just the sort of thing to make roadies like me huff, puff, and wonder why anyone would regard this as a good idea.
The old railway loops round Tavistock – keep a careful eye-out for signage hidden amongst the foliage – before leaving it to wander through residential and light-industrial areas to head for Grenofen Tunnel. There are two ways through Tavistock. The Goose Fair was on, so the crowds were best avoided. Can do without all that merriment.
Once through the tunnel it is not far to the Gem Bridge, purpose built for cycling and walking on the line of, but lower than, the former Walkham Viaduct. A major bit of infrastructure without which this section if the C2C would be highly problematic. All hail the people who built it and paid for it.
Yelverton has lots of amenities as well as an enormous round-about on the main road. Fortunately, you can avoid the traffic and head down the Plym Trail (now part of the Drake Trail that you have been on since Tavistock – all a bit confusing really) to Plymouth.
Initially you follow the route of the former railway and then run alongside Drake’s Leat. The latter was Plymouth’s first municipal water supply; as part of the contract for building it Francis Drake also got the lease of six mills. Needless to say, the Leat had to pursue a gentle contouring route to run gently down to the city. The cyclist leaves it above Clearwater and, with spectacular views ahead, the rider rolls down to the course of a former railway. If you are unlucky there won’t be stunning views of Dartmoor and the pub will not be open.
The old railway line takes you through tunnels, across viaducts, and through deeply wooded valleys, with occasional glimpses of the distant moor. You can’t go wrong, but expect company on this understandably popular route. Cycling like this is peanuts, but we were impressed by the number of MTB riders and runners heading for the woodland trails. Good luck to them.
The trail ends at Marsh Mills. There’s a choice of routes into the city centre. Our choice was the scenic route through the grounds of Saltram House. Owned by the National Trust, you’ll share the way with walkers and dawdlers and their dogs, all enjoying the shade and, probably with the exception of the dogs, the views across the tidal waters.
The final twisting stretch to Plymouth Hoe is a strange mix of industry, harbours, old defensive works, and views out to sea. The usual mixed end of ride emotions kicked in, especially as the autumn weather was perfect for cycling. So, with a bit of time to spare …. What would you do?
PUBLISHED JANUARY 2023
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