Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Devon Coast 2 Coast - in the bag, as they say!

No, this isn't going to be a long, detailed write-up telling you about every little pebble along the way, but rather on overview.

As you may know, I cycled the Devon Coast 2 Coast route (NCN 27) from lfracombe to Plymouth, over two days, to fundraise for Myeloma UK. They're a charity that focuses exclusively on myeloma, which is an incurable cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow.
I set a target of £500, but sadly I didn't raise enough sponsorship to hit my target. Incidentally, if you were so inclined you could still sponsor me here: www.justgiving.com/williamc2c. I'd be well pleased if you did!

A friend of mine offered to drive me up to Ilfracombe, which was rather excellent as it meant I didn't have to worry about missing my connecting train at Exeter, and I didn't have to first cycle from Barnstaple (where the train journey ends) to Ilfracombe.

I didn't see much of Ilfracombe as I cycled out of there as soon as I could, and before long I was on the traffic-free path leading most of the way to Braunton. There is a stint of cycling on the road, but the roads were very quiet.

The one problem I found was the wind! I was cycling into a headwind, and the tent, panniers, sleeping bag and camping mat I was carrying all seemed to do their utmost to act like sails, catch the wind and push me back. At times it was very slow going as North Devon had gusts of over 40 mph!

Before long I was through Braunton and Barnstaple (which seems like a really nice town!) and on my way to Bideford. Cycling along the estuary meant I was getting hammered by the wind. Occasionally there was drizzle, but never enough to warrant putting on my rain coat.

The Tarka Trail, which I was cycling on, is fantastic, and there are all sorts of things that make the trail more interesting. These range from remnants of the railway, like the occasional signal, to some weird and wonderful shelters, as well as benches. In fact, there are loads of benches around!

What really impressed me (and I regret not having known about it beforehand) is the Tarka Audio Trail. These are downloadable MP3s, with corresponding markers being found all over. The idea is that you listen to the MP3 relating to a specific marker, when you get to the marker, and so are told more information.

The absolute WORST part of the entire route is the section between Meeth and Okehampton! Signage is a massive problem there - there's precious little of it! I was prepared and used a brilliant Android app called OsmAnd (Open Street Map Android - get it?). OsmAnd has this really nifty feature that allows you to load a pre-saved or pre-prepared GPX file, and it will guide you to follow the trail as detailed by the GPX.
I most certainly would've gone well off the route had I not been using this app.

To add oil to the fire, as from Meeth the route no longer follows the path of old railway lines, and suddenly you're faced a hill after hill. Route confusion is the last thing you need here. After the excellence of the Tarka Trail, it is shameful of Devon County Council (and Sustrans!) to allow such a sorry state of affairs to continue.

From Okehampton almost to Lydford, the path is back on a disused railway line, the Granite Way. I've blogged about the Granite Way before, and I still like it very much. The section between Lydford and Tavistock has a few uphills, too, and although an on-road part, the roads tend to be quiet and often very pleasant to cycle along.

From Tavistock it is but a hop, skip and a jump to Yelverton, and from Yelverton to Plymouth is an almost entirely traffic-free downhill.

I've learnt some lessons from the trip, and if I had to do it again, I'd overnight before Okehampton. In fact, I'd probably pick a spot not too far out of Hatherleigh, certainly no further than Meeth. Had I done this, it would have ensured several nasty hills were left for the start of the second day, when my legs would have been fresh after a night's rest. After having overcome the hills, I would have had the Granite Way's mostly level and smooth surface to take things easy on before tackling the hills out of Lydford.

The camp site I stayed in on the Saturday night is called Bundu, and access to it is directly from the Granite Way. The forecast was for heavy wind, so as the site wasn't very full at all, they kindly suggested I pitch my tent on one of the completely flat pitches normally used by caravans. Hedges separate pitches, and I was able to pitch my tent right up close to one, and in the lee of the hedge.

Overall the site isn't bad, but I was woken up many times in the night by traffic noise - the A30 was about 100 meters away from where I camped! I suppose there is some compensation in the shape of the pub right next door, the Prewley Moor Arms, but only if you're into pubs.  If I was cycling along here, and in need of a camp site, I might choose to use it again, but I won't go out of my way to stay there.

The Devon Coast to Coast route is well worth cycling, but some sections still need work. The new Gem bridge over the Walkham valley is making progress, and should be open in a few short months. It promises to be spectacular!
The route through Grenofen tunnel should be open around July 2012, thereby avoiding that nasty hill leading up towards Grenofen, as well as a few other hills.
Apparently, the section of the Granite Way diverting through Bridestowe may be an optional extra in a 2 to 3 years, as it appears that the last section of old track bed may soon be purchased by Devon County Council.

There are frustrating things about the route, too: In Bideford, for example, there is NO way to cross the river into the town itself without cycling on the carriageway on the bridge. That is a busy route, carrying heavy trucks and isn't what I would consider a pleasurable experience. Despite this, the town council decided NOT to convert the pavement on one side of the bridge to a cycle path. The end result is shops are closing down in town, and cycle tourists are almost actively discouraged from entering town to spend some money! Shortsighted, or what?

Various towns, villages and hamlets exist either side of the Devon Coast 2 Coast route, seemingly disconnected from it. I don't know how many journeys are made across the length of the route, but a counter near Bideford puts the number of cyclists at around 140 000 per annum on that stretch of the route. That is a lot of cyclist spending power to turn your back on!

I'm not advocating that the length of NCN 27 be turned into effectively one enormous shop of some sort, but many places in Devon are missing out on a good opportunity! Cycle tourism is a growth industry, even in these troubled economic times (or perhaps because of it?) and to not take advantage of it is plain stupid.

Above all else, I realise how spoilt I am to be living in an area with such a spectacular route, especially knowing how much is still being planned to improve it further.