Saturday, 9 October 2010

Drake's Trail

I went cycling today, with the aim of cycling along Drake's Trail. For those of you not from these parts, Drake's Trail (combined with the Plym Valley cycle path) is an attempt by Devon County Council to get a decent cycle track linking Tavistock and Plymouth, via Yelverton.

Currently there is a seriously iffy bit where the track crosses the river Walkham - it is signposted with the despised "cyclists dismount" and in this case, unless you're on a decent mountain bike, you'll be ignoring the sign at your peril!
Well, at least on the Yelverton side of the little wooden bridge, anyway. On the other side there is a decent-ish but very steep track that I managed to cycle up on my hybrid, loaded with panniers. Coming down it isn't a problem either, provided you have working brakes.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. The day started quite foggy, with the forecast predicting that by around mid-day the fog would have burned off and the sun would be breaking through the clouds. I don't mind fog, and it would have been a very pleasant ride up the Plym Valley path...except for the wind.

To give you an idea, the tide was in when I left, so the Plym looked more like a lake than a river. And on it's surface there were little white-capped waves, blown up by the wind. Cycling out on Embankment road was hard work and I didn't manage to get past 10 mph as I was cycling right into the wind. Normally I'd get up to at least 15 mph here. Once I reached the Plym Valley path things improved a tad as I was sheltered by the trees.

I stopped to help another cyclist who had a puncture, just on the other side of the tunnel. He had changed inner tube, but didn't have a pump, so I lent him my mini pump and between the two of us we pumped his oversize off-road tyre until he could cycle back to his ship - he was from the Dutch Royal Navy and dressed in Koninklijke Marine cycling kit.

A while later I left the cycle path and followed the road that takes you to a junction above Clearbrook. There's a nasty hill on that road and today it was seriously hard as the wind came racing down like in a wind tunnel. Eventually I made it to Yelverton, to start following Drake's Trail. As with the Plym Valey cycle path, it is part of Sustrans' NCN route 27.

Now here's where the trouble start: NCN 27 from Yelverton can be followed towards Burrator reservoir, or in at least two different ways to Tavistock! Seriously Sustrans, if you're going to have multiple routes leading off in multiple directions, wouldn't it make sense to give them unique route numbers?

The last time I cycled out towards Tavistock I followed the road skirting the edge of RAF Harrowbeer, a WW2 airstrip. Folowing the NCN 27 signs, eventually you go off-road down a steep and slippery rough track that I struggled with while riding my mountain bike with decent knobbly tyres, so I was determined to avoid that NCN 27!

Instead, I wanted to follow Drake's Trail's NCN 27 (confusing, isn't it?) so I followed the signs from Yelverton. Pretty soon I was on a decent tarred track and quite impressed - so much better than the last time. After a while you get to cross a road, then follow another road for a short while. This other road is a cul-de-sac for cars, but there's a rough track (signposted NCN 27) for cyclists to go follow. This leads you up onto open moorland and before long you're faced with multiple "tracks" to choose from - and not a single sign to direct you!

I now realise that Drake's Trail is further down, but at the time I had no idea, so I cycled on. After much cycling along grassy, rough tracks across open moorland, and much changing direction, I knew I wasn't where I was supposed to be. I knew that if I continued on I'd eventually end up at the NCN 27 route I took last time, so I turned around and headed back a slightly different way. Eventually I saw an old train bridge far below and headed off in that general direction. This was a good move, as before long I ended up right next to Drake's Trail, with only a shoulder-height fence separating me from the trail! After a few choice words I managed to lift my bike over the fence, panniers and all, before hopping over myself.

A fairly short while later I encountered the bit where the new viaduct is going to be built. After having walked my bike down the downhill, and having cycled up the very steep opposite side, the track headed downhill again, and was becoming increasingly difficult to follow. Masses of fallen leaves covered the track - it IS autumn, after all - making the track look just like everywhere else. After some minor confusion I found the right way to go, and soon was turning right onto a country lane. A STEEP county lane!

Once over the brow of the hill it was pretty much downhill into Tavistock, and in the town the route was very well signed. I was well impressed by the route in Tavistock - you basically have two options: avoiding town centre and going through the town centre. I chose the route that took me to the town centre and stopped for a spot of lunch in a park, before heading back to Plymouth.

Despite the wind still blowing hard, the return journey was far better: I never managed to stray from Drake's Trail and before long I was in Yelverton. The part of the trail between Tavistock and Horrabridge is gravelled, which isn't the greatest riding surface in the world, but it's not too bad (excepting the bit where the new viaduct is being built). Between Horrabridge and Yelverton it is tarred and in good shape.

From Yelverton to home is typically around a 40-minute ride and I whizzed down the Plym Valley path, not once dropping below 22 mph until I hit some congestion by Plym Bridge.

Overall my impression is that Drake's Trail is really rather good. I'm being forgiving here about the slightly tricky and tiring temporary path to cross the river Walkham, plus of course the route would be so much better if it was tarred throughout. It is however let down significantly by poor signage, especially when leaving the tarred section at Horrabridge. Another let-down is the long and steep hill near the Tavistock end of the trail - definately NOT family friendly!

The signage can be fixed, but I cannot see any realistic way of altering the route to avoid that hill.

Despite these failings, and even without the new viaduct in place, it is still a worthwhile and pleasant route to cycle. Once the viaduct is in place it will be a very good route, with most of it perfectly suited to most cyclists, including children.