SOUTH HAMS: VIGOROUS LEISURE
Steve Dyster amassed an unimpressive week's mileage amidst the beauty of South Devon. Totnes may be the greenest town in England, but the whole of the South Hams is perfect for sitting and staring - with a little effort.
Ever ridden the Dartmoor Classic Sportive? Ever crossed Devon on the way to John O’Groat’s from Land’s End? Ever cycled from Ilfracombe south to the Tarka Trail and onward? Well, you’ll know that the old railway line which the Tarka Trail follows provide many of the few “flat” miles to be had in what is otherwise a more or less rolling county.
We can all get over hills, but sections of Devon provide some of our country's most challenging cycling. Staying in the South Hams area reminded me very quickly just how rolling the roads could be, but also just how few miles one might do and still have a smashing leisure-cycling day or two. Note “leisure”, not “leisurely.” The purpose this time was pure enjoyment, but that enjoyment has to be purchased.
A few years ago, the Dartmoor Classic route in a westerly gale that would have made Drake think twice about playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe, let alone setting out to sea, had been enjoyable - especially when returning to base in Newton Abbot - in the sense that the scenery was glorious, the exercise vigorous and having a pint at the end a conclusive relief. Pedalling on the way to John O’Groat’s had been relatively easy as I’d cycled down from my then home in Northamptonshire, so had many miles in my legs - and I’d been bee-lining a good bit on a lovely broad B road through South Molton. The Tarka Trail and North Devon had seen gales again in beautiful autumn scenery on the west side of Exmoor and down to Great Torrington. Don’t be fooled by the easy gradients one finds on most railway lines. Heavily laden holiday trains used to have to start from cold up the hill from Ilfracombe Station, allegedly the hardest start for any steam locomotive in England. I puffed a bit too, but not so much as when climbing out of Lynmouth - but that’s another tale.
The point is that I did not expect easy cycling - nor do I really want it - but in the South Hams (the area around Totnes, Dartmouth and Kingsbridge) I found a mix of vigorous leg-work and hot days (one of the few periods of continuous hot weather this year), a combination that produced a lot of reasons for idling.
The unhappy discovery that the chain-ring bolts had been loosened or removed was made when attempting to drop into granny gear on the first steep climb out of Slapton. Exactly when this heinous atrocity had been committed and by which particular specimen from the underworld, I could not say, though the only time the bike had not been secure or on the move was during a spell in a motorway service station.
The missing bolts were crucial. Pressure on the chain either hoicked it off or caused it to slip as the middle ring of the triple was pulled out of line. Still, beggars can not be choosers. Totnes or Kingsbridge or Dartmouth for a bike shop? Sticking to Plan A and bodging things together as best a cycle-tourer can, a mix of gentle spinning and frustrating descents - not to mention a route based on keeping height - worked nicely. Navigation in the area is aided by the helpful addition of a location name on many signposts. Hence, I went via Wallaton Cross and Coles Cross, to run down rapidly to Bowcombe Creek. This is the Devon of forgotten holidays, canoes, anglers, the sails of yachts in the Estuary beyond the stone-arched bridge. I leaned against a wall and watched the slow-motion life on the riverside screen. A passer-by asked if I would help throw her husband in. This broke the idyll. By the way, I refused to cooperate, as my wife was canoeing nearby and I was concerned about setting precedents.
Joining a small convoy following a lorry along the twisting main road into Kingsbridge, I dismounted on the promenade that runs along one-side of the narrow estuary. Floral displays on grassy verges, matched by a line of yachts sitting calmly on the dappled water; and an unusual war memorial with the names of sixteen civilians who died during bombing raids in 1943.
Tourist information did not hold out much hope for chain-ring bolts. “There is a shop that sells bikes, but don’t hold out too much hope. The Trading Post, half-way up the hill. You may need to get to Totnes.” Well, the good old Trading Post looked like a toy-cum-seaside-stuff shop. On entering and enquiring about spares however, I was introduced to the mechanic who lead me down to the rear of the shop. A proper bike workshop, with trays of spares. Spot on, job done, I could head for the hills with confidence.
And one needs a bit of confidence when standing into the pedals or grinding up the steepest sections of the way out of Kingsbridge. The road to Loddiswell typically narrows and widens as it feels fit, so a line of vehicles built up behind. Pull-in and let them past? Well, I did, only to find that I could match their speed on the next bit.
Even the claggy-cloud, which set in the further inland one went, could not prevent the countryside form looking picturesque. Lushness is a Devon cliche. The deep-sided sunken lanes provide a glory of spring flowers and, even now, in late summer, were full of ferns and occasional patches of coloured petals.
Turning up the valley of the River Avon - yet another - to climb up to the little village of Moreleigh and head onto Blackawton and, via another ridge road, Strete, the whole ride was glorious. The pace was slow. Not so much the ascents, rather the descents were the cause. Honest. the lanes were narrow and rarely straight, requiring care and sporadic heavy braking as perfunctory motor vehicles appeared around gravel-strewn bends at unbecoming speed.
There was no rush. Stopping at the little churches in Blackawton and Strete, resisting entering the pubs in those places and in Moreleigh, it was really a question of taking in the views be they of hedge-banks, valleys or the sea.
From Strete there is a pseudo-continental descent via some hairpins. At the bottom is the road that runs between Slapton Ley on one hand and the sea on the other. This is possibly, though I am not an expert, the only flat piece of road in the South Hams - very possibly the longest piece of flat road.
At the junction for Slapton stands a memorial. I had heard how, during US rehearsals for the D-Day landings, German torpedo boats had evaded security measures and caused havoc amongst the landing-craft. This memorial though was to the people of the South Hams who had evacuated the area so that the soldiers could train. Erected by the US Army, it stands prominently on the sea-shore. At least the good folk of the South Hams got their land back - unlike those of the Lulworth Ranges.
The memorial to the US dead is actually a tank that was pulled from the sea. It stands back from the beach at Torcross. Tasty ice-creams are on sale, so advantage had to be taken. Time to explore some of the remaining coastal defences and stand, semi-hypnotised by waves that were now crashing in as the wind strengthened. Spray sparkled in the sun; very bad for the bike, very good for the soul.
And that set the theme for the next few days. In Dartmouth, reached by the usual undulations of the none-to-busy A379, I stared at the yachts, the Royal Naval College, the Kingswear Ferry, the steam of the locomotives on the Dart Valley Railway. Next day, a longer ride in land took in Widecombe-in-the-Moor with Uncle Tom Cobleigh and cream teas and tors on the horizon - even a walk to Hound Tor medieval village site. A coastal exploration to Bigbury-on-Sea with a section of tidal road and on to the remote estuary of the River Erme (possibly the most attractive small river estuary I have ever come across). All very wonderful and at the end of all the expeditions I had clocked up an amazingly unimpressive hundred and eighty or so miles.
Years ago, I would have been disappointed. Not now. Don’t mind the odd century, but idling around was order of the week. Perfect.
Visit South Devon - visitsouthdevon.co.uk
OS 1:50000 sheet 202 and a touch of 191
Cafes, pubs and shops - too many to list, but plentiful along the coast (except at the muth of the Erme) and easily found inland.
There are ferries across the Kingsbridge and Avon estuaries. Contact 01548 561196 for the Avon ferry between Bantham and Bigbury-on-Sea. For the boat between East Portlemouth and Salcombe across the Kingsbridge estuary, 01548 842061 or 07769 319375. There is no ferry at the mouth of the Erme.