The thing about riding a bike is that once you learn, you never forget. Well, sort of. Having not ridden a bike for over a decade there was a considerable amount of fiddling around with the gear settings and getting used to being back on two wheels again before we finally set off along the Tarka Trail, a cycling and walking route that winds its way through over 30 miles of Devon’s countryside.
As I wobbled out of the bike-hire centre, Eric van der Horst, Director of EOS Cycling Holidays and all-round cycling guru, imparted sage advice in my direction as I tried to avoid capsizing into a hedge and wondered whether asking for stabilisers would seem inappropriate. But even after 10 years or so of abstaining from cycling, I soon rediscovered my balance and started to wonder why I hadn’t got back behind the handlebars sooner.
“This is a nice, easy trail to do,” Eric informed me. “It’s paved for almost all of the way, which is rare as a lot of cycle trails are made up of gravel paths. It means the trail is perfect for family bike rides as even younger children can manage it and it doesn’t involve going on the road either.”
The Tarka Trail opened in 1992 and forms part of a wider chain of trails which make up the more extensive Devon Coast to Coast cycle route which runs from Ilfracombe to Plymouth. The Tarka Trail itself spans from Braunton in the north to Meeth in the south and is the longest of the four trails that make up the Devon Coast to Coast network. The trail was named after Henry Williamson’s famous 1927 novel, Tarka the Otter, as many of the locations mentioned within the book can be viewed along its path.
From areas of oak woodland to salt marshes and mud flats, the trail passes a range of wonderful habitats for a variety of local wildlife that can often be spotted en route. During our excursion we chose to cycle a 16-mile route from the Torrington Cycle Hire centre to Instow and back again where the trail weaves it’s way between rows of trees along a disused railway line before opening out across bridges that sweep across the rivers Taw and Torridge. We also passed through the town of Bideford where you’ll find other bike-hire centres and local cafes where you can stop off and recharge your batteries. “You can even exchange your bike for a kayak here and continue along the river instead. You’ll get a real Tarka view of the area then!” Eric exclaimed.
We chose to stick to pedal power and continued along the trail, past Bideford and alongside the sandy stretch of shore that traces the Torridge estuary with wonderful views of Instow and Appledore across the water, the white buildings of the two villages glinting in the sunlight along with the rippling ribbon of water separating them.
As we cycled into Instow by way of its old railway station we were met by the village’s name emblazoned on the front of the old signal box, informing us of our arrival. This is the UK’s first listed signal box; dating from 1873, it has since been restored and is open to visitors on Sundays and bank holidays.
Here, we deviated from the trail in order to cycle around Instow’s shore and stop off for a well deserved break, a warming hot chocolate and something suitably unhealthy to keep us going on the way back to Great Torrington.
On the ride back, Eric imparted some of his encyclopaedic knowledge of different cycling routes and told me about his experiences of cycling in various locations across the country and around the world, but this part of Devon seemed to be among his favourite cycling locations.
“I find the Tarka Trail from Instow south to Torrington absolutely world-class,” Eric said. “Over a very short distance, you can witness the transformation of the Torridge river from a wide estuary to a tranquil river stream, deeply hidden in the surrounding countryside. Every other kilometre, there is something different to see, with nature being the overwhelming factor while various bridges and tunnels only add to the sense of adventure!”
As we continued along the estuary on the way back from Instow we had our own close encounter with the local wildlife as a heron crossed our path overhead on its way to wade in the nearby water. Although my experience of cycling doesn’t come anywhere close to Eric’s, I can definitely see what draws him to cycling in this part of the country and thoroughly enjoyed passing through the beautiful countryside at a leisurely pace, making time to enjoy the sights along the way.