Friday, 5 August 2011

NCN27 - Barnstaple to Ilfracombe and back

Last Saturday I drove up to Barnstaple, specifically to cycle NCN27 to Ilfracombe and back. I parked up very close to the station, and discovered to my horror that I forgot my cycling shoes! I have clipless pedals on my bike, and without my cycling shoes I cannot attach to the pedals. A quick trip into the Tesco yielded results in the shape of a set if BMX platform pedals, and in no time I had changed pedals over.

When you're used to cycling with clipless pedals, you don't simply push down on the pedals, but you also pull up, as well as push forward or pull backwards. Switching back to platforms was a problem for me, as I found i kept lifting and sliding my feet off the pedals. Not good!

In due course I set off, following the NCN27 markers through the town, while being determined NOT to look at the map. That was mistake number two, as actually NCN27 through Barnstaple is not very clearly signed at all. In addition, it seems Barnstaple believes no bicycle should ever ride on the road, as the signs follow a rather convoluted path, forcing you to only cross by the traffic lights (as opposed to joining the road and simply cycling along it). The signs divert you well out of the way to cross the "Iron Bridge", which is an old, disused railway bridge across the river, and gives no indication that you should cut through a car park to stay on the trail.

When you eventually make it across the iron bridge, you need to swing west again and keep the river on your left. Before long, you will find yourself very close to where you set off, except on the other side of a rather wide bridge, called Long Bridge. Now to be fair, if I was cycling with my 8 y.o. daughter, I wouldn't cycle across this bridge, but would instead opt for the traffic-free Iron Bridge.
However, although I prefer traffic-free routes, I don't consider Long Bridge enough of a deterrent to warrant the detour over the Iron Bridge.
Long Bridge
Once past this point, I lost NCN27 again, and actually ended up on a main road out of Barnstaple, so I turned left, towards the river, and after a while managed to find the path running parallel to the river.

Remember, I've looked at various maps before cycling this route, and was quite prepared for it. I then deliberately set out to try and navigate my way out of town using only NCN27 markers, and I failed miserably. Seriously, Barnstaple, you can do SO much better!

Things settled down when I started cycling out of town, and it was easy going and almost completely flat. My bike was fully loaded with panniers and tent, adding over 25 kg of weight. I carried far more than I needed for such a short trip, but I wanted to see how I would cope with a real heavy load.

The views over the estuary are stunning, even when the tide is out, and I was making good time. The track itself it quite good and not very bumpy, so I could maintain a speed of 15 mph along here, well on my way to Braunton.

Shortly before Braunton, the trail skirts the edge of RAF Chivenor, from where the rescue helicopters fly. I saw a few of the distinct, yellow helicopters while cycling past - a very visual reminder of the lives these crews saved.

Braunton was not hard to navigate, despite an almost complete absence of NCN27 route markers in places. What didn't impress me at all was the many "Cyclists Dismount" signs! For heaven's sake - this is part of the Devon Coast to Coast route, so ditch those signs! As it happens, a "Cyclists Dismount" sign is only an advisory sign and may therefore be completely ignored.

Leaving Braunton, I cycled up a steepish hill on my way to Georgeham. I made several navigational errors in this general area, all directly attributable to the fact that I was still determined to exclusively navigate by following NCN27 route signs. From Georgeham I somehow managed it onto a lovely, long downhill, which by now was quite welcome.

At this point, perhaps I should tell you about my latest firm belief: never descend or ascend without checking a map first!

The lovely, long downhill eventually took me into the village of Moretehoe. Once in the village itself, the road turned steeply downhill, and I went whizzing along, despite braking a fair bit. And then the niggly little voice in the back of my head started up, saying things like "Are you sure this is the way?". Most of the way down to the beach, I pulled over and consulted my official Sustrans NCN27 map (not much use!) and also my GPS navigation software (far better!).

And yes, I was indeed heading the wrong way, and had to cycle back up that steep hill, through Mortehoe, and all the way back to the B3343. That was not exactly my greatest moment!

Shortly before the B3343 there is a large NCN27 marker post and moments later I was back on the traffic-free path, and on my way to Ilfracombe. The trail here again has a decent surface, and is quite wide. A gentle downhill towards Ilfracombe meant that regularly I was cruising at 20 mph, which was also made possible by the fact that there were few people about.
The twin tunnels. The one that is blocked up has access openings on
the far side, for bats to come and go as they please.
Soon I was through the tunnel, and passing both the upper and lower Slade reservoirs, before the traffic-free section ending in Ilfracombe. Annoyingly, just as the trail meets the road, and despite there being a painted cycle lane on the road, some muppet saw fit to mount another of the despised "Cyclists Dismount" signs!
Notice the "Dog Unit" parked in a cycle lane!
From this point is was pretty much downhill, all the way to the harbour. The trail is signed, although not very well, and it is very easy to miss the sign directing you through the church cemetery. At the bottom of the cemetery there are steps (not even a channel for your bike's wheels to slot into) and I dismounted as I didn't want to go bumping down steps whilst carrying the load that I had on the bike.

Not long afterwards I found myself at the tiny little beach in the Ilfracombe harbour.
The trusty steed, fully laden, at Ilfracombe harbour.
Going back was quite straightforward - the route was signed, and Ilfracombe has several on-road bike lanes, including a contraflow one. The only downside was of course that it was all uphill, so I was moving significantly slower than I did while cycling downhill.

At the end of the traffic-free section, I crossed the rather busy B3343, before continuing along the next traffic-free section. This section ends in a little car-park, from where I joined the old B3231.

There are actually three choices in terms of routes here: one option goes along the length of Woolacombe beach, another goes by road to Braunton, while the third is marked as "mountain bikes only". The third option tickled my sense of adventure, and I heading off following it, to see how rough a track it could be.

At first I was managing just fine, even with my road tyres, but after a while cycling uphill meant that I was only getting wheelspin, and I simply had to get off and push. The track isn't very bad, and with my hybrid I've cycled worse, but the mud was creating traction problems for me.

Still, it wasn't too long before the track wasn't as steep, and I could cycle along again. The track became narrower and narrower, and increasingly overgrown. Erosion had worn it out quite deep, so my pedals were scraping on the ground even though I was standing up and keeping the pedals flat. The track turned downhill and I didn't need to do any pedalling at all, but it wasn't enjoyable. After a long while of very slow going, the track widened up an was a great deal better to cycle on.

My advice would be to avoid the mountain bike option altogether, regardless what bike you have. If you wanted to ride off-road tracks, there are far better options available, and technically the track isn't challenging at all. It just isn't a pleasant ride. Besides, unless something is urgently done, I expect that by the end of this summer you'd need a machete to make it through!

Once the mountain bike track ended, it was but a short hop before I was back in Braunton, and not much longer before I cycled back into Barnstaple. I noticed in Braunton there is a section of the old tracks left in place, right next to the police station, and I thought that was a nice touch.

Overall, I'm glad I cycled the route, as I'm now far better prepared for when I cycle all of the Devon Coast to Coast route in September. In September, I will be arriving in Barnstaple by train, and would have to first cycle to Ilfracombe, only to turn around and cycle back to Plymouth.

One thing that has bugged me on this trip, and the subsequent one, is how short a battery life I have on my phone, and how useless GPS navigational apps that rely on a data connection are. I really do need to come up with a few better solutions.