You have to feel sorry for my trusty steed. The poor thing works hard: day after day, mile after mile, back and forth, through wind, rain and cold. It’s not even as if he gets a break when I’m not riding him; no, he just gets slung in the back garden, without any protection from the elements – not even a rain cover. It’s a wonder he doesn’t go on strike.
So I thought it was about time I took him on holiday.
I’d read an article about the Devon coast-to-coast cycle route on the Guardian website a while back. Described as ‘long distance for the laid-back cyclist’, it sounded pretty much perfect. I’d already been to Devon once before, for a friend’s wedding a couple of years ago, and was keen to go back to explore more. Beautiful beaches, rolling hills, quaint villages, cider, cream teas and ice cream – what more could a girl and her bike ask for? So I pumped up the trusty steed’s tyres, cleaned and oiled his chain, packed my panniers and off we went.
The Devon coast-to-coast, or NCN route 27, starts in Ilfracombe in north Devon and finishes in Plymouth on the south coast. In all, the route runs for a little over 100 miles – that is, if you don’t include the extra miles you have to cycle to get to the start of the ride. There’s no train to Ilfracombe and hasn’t been for over 40 years. There’s talk of a ferry service connecting the town to Swansea in Wales, but until that happens the only way to get to Ilfracombe with a bike is to cycle there from Barnstaple. This was slightly frustrating, given then I then had to cycle back through Barnstaple the next day. But it wouldn’t be coast-to-coast if I didn’t start at the coast. And, besides, I knew from my previous trip to Devon how stunning the coastline is – all long sandy beaches and rugged cliffs – and I didn’t want to miss it.
As it turned out, I didn’t want to miss any of the route. I was cycling for four days – one to get to the start, the remaining three to do the ride proper. Much of the route was along disused railway lines, now transformed into traffic-free cycling and walking routes. The longest of these is the Tarka Trail, which runs for 30 miles from Braunton to the village of Petrockstowe. The first part of the trail skirts along the edge of the Taw and Torridge estuaries, before heading inland through lush green woods and river valleys. Here and there were reminders of the trail’s former existence – arched tunnels, old signal boxes, crumbling platforms and the occasional preserved carriage.
Even though it was the middle of the week on an overcast day in June, both the Tarka Trail and the Granite Way, further south between Okehampton and Lydford, were busy with local cyclists and walkers. It was easy to see why – they’re perfect for a safe, easy cycle ride (or walk) in beautiful surroundings. But as much as I appreciated not having to watch out for traffic, after a while I found the ease of it just a little bit monotonous. So I was glad when the route took me out onto country lanes, even though this meant going up a few hills.
Yes, hills. Never again will I complain about the hills in London. They’re not hills – not like the ones in Devon. It’s not as if the hills in Devon are particularly high – the Peak District it is not – but they’re relentless. No sooner had I gone down one that I went up one. I grew to distrust those wonderful freewheeling downhills, as I knew what would be coming next. I had to use gears I’d never known even existed before. On more than one occasion I was in lowest gear and wishing I could go lower.
There were times when I thought I could cycle no more; that the next hill was going to be my last. But I kept on going and, in the end, came to actually enjoy those hills. Through them, I felt connected to my surroundings in a way I would never have done if I’d just gone through it in a car. When I reached my bed every evening – in Ilfracombe, Great Torrington and Lydford – I felt a huge sense of achievement at having made it.
Cycling through those country lanes meant I saw places I wouldn’t have done had I not been on my bike. I stopped in villages I would never otherwise have stopped in, had they not been there when I was hungry, needed the loo or had to refill my water bottle. But most importantly, I felt a sense of peacefulness that I never can in London.
There’s one moment that sticks in my mind. I had stopped on an old viaduct just north of Lydford. The walls either side of the trail were high, too high for me to see over without standing on something. So I got off my trusty steed and clambered onto a bench – and was rewarded with a view over the surrounding countryside that went on for miles and miles. All I could see was fields, woods and moorland, and all I could hear was the sound of sheep bleating and the wind rustling in the trees. I was completely and utterly alone – and it felt wonderful.
But enough about me. This was, after all, meant to be the trusty steed’s holiday as well. What did he think about it? Well, he’s not much of a talker, but I haven’t heard any complaints from him. In fact, I think he’s quite looking forward to the next holiday.