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Cycling Around Devon, March 2009

Our journey is around  Devon, sticking to the perimeter as much as we can. This takes us to the glorious sandy bays of the south coast, along the edge of Dorset, Somerset and Exmoor to the East, around the stunning scenery and long beaches of the North Devon coast and along the edge of Cornwall and the Tamar valley to the West. Such different and interesting terrain in just one county. Much of the route is unbelievably hilly, so this description is broken down into 40 mile chunks. The energetic may wish to add two days together to make 80 mile days, and the less fit to break a day into two. With touring luggage, we found that 40 miles was about right for most days. Also, who wants to dash through some of the most stunning scenery in England? Our journey is in March when holiday traffic is light. Traffic can get very heavy during July and August, particularly in South Devon. Apart from the main trunk roads, North Devon tends to avoid the jams and quiet country lanes are just that.

Map of Devon

Getting to the start

Plymouth and Exeter are both served by a good rail service but cycles do need to be booked. If travelling by train to Plymouth, try to sit on the LHS of the train after Exeter as the train travels along the coast between Dawlish to Plymouth - stunning. To start in North Devon, the Tarka train line runs from Exeter to Barnstaple. This pretty line requires no bookings for cycles.

Devon Ferries

Sticking to the coast on the South Devon route either requires long detours, or ferries. Some of the South Devon ferries are foot ferries but they all take bikes. All ferries run from Easter to around October but some stop for the winter months. Our trip is in March, so many ferries are not running. For ferry timetables, click here or here. Ferries are not required for the North Devon route.

Cream TeasDevon Hills
                             Cream Teas and hills - The best and worst of Devon

Making the route shorter.

Devon is a large county. The total perimeter is around 350 miles. Perhaps time is limited, or you only want to cycle South or North Devon. The following two 'shortcuts' allow the route to be split.

North - South split. Ilfracombe to Plymouth
Devon has a 102 mile coast to coast route (NCN route 27) that is 71 miles, traffic free mainly tracing the route of former railway lines.  The Granite Way in particular, from Oakhampton to Lydford, is stunning and un-missable. For more information see the  Devon CC web site or the sustrans site. Maps for the coast to coast route can be purchased from Sustrans, or parts downloaded free from the Devon CC site.

East West split
Two routes are shown from Holsworthy to Exeter via Oakhampton, or from Tavistock to Exeter via Moretonhampstead.

Holsworthy to Exeter
Click here to see a map of the route, 41 miles, 3400' climb. This route runs along the top of Dartmoor on the old A30 from Oakhampton to Exeter. This is a wide fast road with little traffic, but the road surface can be poor in places.

Tavistock to Exeter
Click here to see a map of the route, 34 miles, 3700' climb. This route across Dartmoor has a short diversion via Princetown. Plan the journey to have a lunchtime stop at the Plume of Feathers pub and a look at Dartmoor Prison. Now imagine being in Princetown on a cold wet drizzly January night - horrible!

Cycle maps of Devon

Although there are many maps of Devon, most cover just parts of the county. Croyde Cycle produces an excellent map of Devon, although it only really covers the North coast, South coast and the middle. East Devon is not mapped, and for West Devon, you have to buy the Cornwall map!  However the 1:100000 scale (approx 1.6 miles = 1") is ideal for cycling and the map shows pubs, food shops and cycle repair shops.
Goldeneye also produce maps of North and South Devon, but these also only have parts of the county. We use the croyde cycles map where we can, supplementing it with a 2.5 mile : 1" AZ Devon map.

Plymouth Barbican harbourBurgh Island Tractor for high tide
           Plymouth's Barbican Harbour                             Passenger transport for Burgh Island

Day 1  Plymouth to Hope Cove, March 17th
32 miles 3500' climbed. The route via the busy A379 is shown here
The summer route via ferry is shown here

Biting easterly wind, otherwise it is warm and sunny.  Not bad for March
Our night in Plymouth is spent at Jewells, a good, cheap and friendly guesthouse - worth a return.
The Plymouth Tourist Information office in the Barbican, our first stop for cycle path information doesn’t seem to be used to cyclists so we make our own way. We follow the same route out as the coastal path, well marked by a large rocket. The views over Plymouth harbour to the right are stunning but advise getting off to look given the large quantities of broken glass and dog droppings. There is a cycle path along side the A379 to Elberton, although this path is also the (un-official) local car-park. After Elberton, the cycle path stops so we take the busy and often narrow A379. There is little chance to avoid this busy road as it is the trunk with small roads off to each side that do not interconnect. Our route is like pleats on a skirt, i.e. very undulating the nearer we get to the coast. When the ferries are running in the summer months, the ferry route should be more pleasant.

First stop is Bigbury Bay and Burgh island via Ringmore and constant hellish hills (2.5mph up, brakes on going down).  This part of Devon, due to hills and inlets has no coast road, just an inland spine (A379)  with ribs going to the sea – tiny roads with few passing places and much more traffic than in North Devon. 

Burgh Island, though small, offers a 13C pub – well worth a visit. The excellent hotel is around £250 per night and requires formal dress for dinner. Not so easy to pack on a cycle.

We overnight in Hope Cove – a gem with another fabulous pub.

Our hotel was comfortable with good food and they willingly went the extra mile to help us sort out ferries for the next day. If you are under 60, you may well be the youngest person there. Be prepared to trip over zimmer frames.

Everyone always asks “how far have you been today?” This is pretty irrelevant given the hills here. With the extra weight of the luggage, the head wind and the Devon hills we are averaging only about 8-9 mph. 

                                           Kingswear, opposite Dartmouth

Day 2  Hope Cove to Paignton
30 miles 3,500ft The route is shown here

Another hilly day. Of course, we should expect hills, living in Devon but South Devon is something else! We seem to be averaging around 100' - 120' climb (and hence descent) for every mile travelled.

First stop Salcombe for coffee whilst we wait for the ferry. The one man and his dog passenger ferry (literally - dog jumps off at each end) runs every half hour to E Portlemouth. Check ferry timetables carefully as the departure point changes according to season. You either love or hate Salcombe. It is scenic but can get very busy and is expensive and full of exclusive clothes shops. East Portlemouth is a different kettle of fish and the coast path we follow up Southpool Creek is quirky. You can’t take this tiny road if the tide is fully in. We scrape through just in time. Much less traffic West of Salcombe

The A379 from Torcross to Dartmouth along Slapton Sands with a howling wind in our face is fabulous and car free. We regret not spending some time in Blackpool Sands, a pretty bay. Hilly as usual!

Dartmouth has two ferries. The North ferry is the main one. The southernmost takes just a few cars and is effectively a floating pontoon towed by a tug. It costs us £1 each including the bikes.  The steering of the tugman alone is good to watch, something the car drivers miss.

On the other side of the River Dart is colourful and quiet Kingswear.

 Brixham is a good example of a working harbour and worth a detour of a couple of miles..

Paignton was probably grand in its heyday but now a bit tacky. The Cosmopolitan Hotel may look ordinary from the outside but is beautifully decorated and has attentive and welcoming owners – highly recommended. You might need ear plugs for the seagulls but they add to the atmosphere. The Thai Gardens restaurant in Palace Avenue, near the theatre should not disappoint.

                          Track besides the railway in Dawlish

Day 3  Paignton to Sidmouth

43 miles  3,000ft. The route is shown here

Torquay is huge, sprawling and busy as expected, even out of season. Coach after coach, so the scenic B roads  to the Teignmouth Bridge are a relief. The friendly, cheap café at Teignmouth Railway Station is very welcome and they even provide pavement tables to soak up the sun.

We follow the A379 coast road to Dawlish then go under the railway line and follow the concrete path between the railway and beach to Dawlish Warren. You have to carry the bike up 10 or 15 steps and may get a  little wet from waves gently breaking over the route but for atmosphere it doesn’t get much better than this. In Dawlish Warren we go back under the railway again onto B roads and look for cycle path #2.

The Starcross Ferry to Exmouth only runs from Easter to October so we divert into Exeter on the cycle track which starts near Starcross and goes to Powderham Castle. From here there is a bumpy, stony cycle path for about 2 miles and then a good surface alongside the  Exeter canal with separate paths for people and bikes in lots of places. This is very enjoyable and flat!

The Exeter Quays are good for swan and people watching and a bite to eat.

Otterton, on the tourist trail, is a stunning village. After a long climb up a back road which seems to be a cut through for every white van in Devon, the descent into Sidmouth is exhilarating. What goes down must also go up but tomorrow is another day!

Lyme Regis
                                                     Lyme Regis beach huts

Day 4  Sidmouth to Churchinford via Lyme Regis
35miles 4,700 feet. The route is here

The hill out of Sidmouth up to the Observatory is nothing short of hell. We miss out Branscombe beach  as it involves a steep downhill detour but the village is very pretty. There is another horrendous hill out of Branscombe into Beer – a charming little bay with beach huts and fishing boats. Thankfully it is less of a climb from Beer to Seaton. This place strikes us such a shame after the other pretty Devon villages. Maybe we miss its charms but it seems to be all 1960s boring buildings and a high concrete sea wall which hides the beach.

Axemouth and the Axe estury is very pleasant and we take a back road as far as we can to Downlands. The walk along the sea front in Lyme is worthwhile, even though we are now 1 mile into Dorset, just to look at the colourful beach huts and be tormented by the smell of fish and chips.

Axminster town is worthy of a stop. It has the second  oldest jail in Devon, now a tea shop  near the T.I.

Churchinford, in the Blackdown hills offers a very good B & B farmstay cottage with a suite of rooms, log burner (very welcome, it’s a bitterly cold night) and cooker. The helpful and charming lady welcomes us with home-made cakes.

A tough day: up and down the whole way, pathetically few miles.

Long sweeping valley at BamptonCliff Railway at Lynton & Lynmouth
         The sweeping valley into Bampton                     Cliff railway connecting Lynton & Lynmouth

Day 5  Churchinford to Lynmouth
The route is shown here
This 60 mile,  6300' climb is very tough, so beware. Some may want to split it into two, perhaps staying around Bampton.
The day starts in the Blackdown hills with fairly flat runs through Hemyock and Culmstock. Once across the M5, the route becomes increasingly hilly. A few miles after the motorway, the road crosses the Grand Western Canal, from Tiverton to Bridgewater. This gives a traffic free cycle track back to Tiverton if required. A wide sweeping valley into Bampton is stunning. Look for the small bakers and cafe on the LHS in Bampton's High Street. This is usually full of cyclists. The route takes the B3227 along the southern side of Exmoor before going up into the moor proper towards Molland. Try to arrive in Molland at lunchtime, and head for the London Inn pub. The toilets are like stepping back 100 years. The hilly route then goes via Simonsbath (excellent cafe) and over the moor again towards Lynton and Lynmouth. Close to Lynton on the RHS is the National Trust cafe at Watersmeet where the rivers Hoar Oak Water and the East Lyn meet.  Lynton and Lynmouth both have many B&Bs. If you don't feel like pushing your bike up from Lynmouth to Lynton, consider taking the cliff railway. This Victorian water powered lift takes people and bikes and was once the only way to move goods from the harbour at Lynmouth to Lynton.  The brasswork and smell of oil and dampness all add to the experience.

Goats at valley of the rocks

Day 6 Lynmouth to Barnstaple
36 miles, 3600' climb, most hills near to Lynton. The route is shown here
We take the road out of Lynmouth towards the valley of the rocks. As the name suggests this dry valley is full of rocks, probably formed during the ice age.  The picturesque valley has its own colony of resident wild goats. Look for the high fences attempting to keep the goats away from the cricket green. The route goes via a short length of toll road next to Lee Abbey (contribution to the church required) before heading up to Woody Bay and onto Hunter's Inn. Stop here for a pint before tackling the hills to Coombe Martin and Ilfracombe. Plenty of B&Bs in Ilfracombe. This Victorian holiday town has an interesting path cut through the rocks to access (entry fee required) The Tunnels beach. Just outside Ilfracombe, a disused railway line has been converted to a cycle path for access towards Woolacombe. This has one of the best beaches in the UK.  Out of Woolacombe, we follow cycle path 27 through a car park parellel to the sea towards Croyde (a surfer's paradise) before picking up the Tarka Trail cycle path just outside Braunton. This takes us to the ancient town of Barnstaple.

The Devon perimeter purist may wish to include the island of Lundy in this route. The National Trust owned Lundy Island  is accessed by a 2-3 hr passenger ferry from either Ilfracombe or Bideford. Although not included in this trip, we have visited Lundy previously, and it is well worth the diversion.

              The old bridge in Bideford                                                  Clovelly main street

Day 7 Barnstaple to Woodford Bridge via Clovelly
41 miles, 2800' climb. Click here to see the route.
A sunny, still day. We take the Tarka Trail, a shared cycle and pedestrian path along side the Rivers Taw and Torridge to Bideford. This former railway is a beautiful route, but watch out for oblivious dreamers ambling along, or dogs on expanding leads. From Bideford the delightful and deserted road alongside the River Yeo goes to Parkham. For such a beautiful day, Clovelly is strangely free of tourists. We learn  here that cycle shoes and cobbles are not good bed-fellows as we slide down Clovelly’s steep, cobbled path to the harbour for an ice cream. There is a pub at the harbour’s edge for the thirsty.
The 350 foot climb out of Clovelly is followed by a half a mile on the A39. After this the route is pleasing. Make the most of its gentle hills. 

The Woodford Bridge Country Club, at £38 is cheap but nothing short of luxurious. Our room is newly and tastefully renovated and huge. The staff could not have been more helpful or charming and the evening meal is excellent. For those thinking of staying here, check whether breakfast is available as it is a long early morning ride to Holdsworthy otherwise.

The Devon Perimeter purist may wish to include Hartland Abbey and Hartland Point on their tour. The Abbey  is well worth the trip.

Morwellham Quay
                                                         Morwellham Quay

Day 8 Woodford Bridge to Plymouth.
40 miles 4,150ft. Click here to see the route

No breakfast available at the hotel so we divert to Holsworthy, taking the A389 because it’s flatter than back roads and are surprised, given it’s rush hour, that there is not too much traffic. From Holsworthy we take back roads. The good news: they are very quiet. The bad news:  steep switchback hills mean either brakes full on or 1st gear. 

We pass signs for Cotehele (good to visit) but have visited before so carry on. Morwellham Quay beckons even though it is a 500ft descent from the main road. As a World Heritage Site set in an area of outstanding natural beauty it does not disappoint and is well worth the diversion.

It is deserted today, perhaps because it is undergoing a major renovation but the copper mine is open for tours (for a small price) and also the friendly pub and trinket shop. You can visit the re-created, original Victorian mining town for free. 

We have heard that the Tamar Valley train line from Plymouth to Gunnislake is stunning so decide to take this rather than play with the traffic heading for Plymouth. We head for Bere Ferrers to take the train - no bookings for bikes required.

Bere  Ferrers is lovely but definitely a one horse town. Its one pub is closed (to be fair it is 5pm) and there is a distinct shortage of shops so we visit the graveyard. A chilling number of graves from 1849 are marked “cholera”.

The train ride along the Tamar Valley is indeed stunning, so we arrive back to our starting point at Plymouth station with much stronger legs but raring to repeat the excursion.

Finally, the only advert you will find on this site:
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