On Saturday I went cycling with the specific plan to go and see for myself how Gem Bridge is coming along. Various things impacted on my plans, resulting in my only leaving home after 2 pm. As per usual, I was prepared with a large flask of coffee, tools, rain coat and a few other bits and bobs in my panniers. For good measure I also chucked in my winters gloves.
Before long I had cycled through Saltram Estate, and past Plym Bridge. As is expected at this time of year, the peregrine falcon spotters were out on Cann viaduct, so I slowed right down when riding over the viaduct, but was soon making good progress again.
On Bickleigh viaduct I cycled past a stationary touring cyclist, whose bike was heavily laden. He was was wearing a hi-viz vest with "Germany" written on it. I turned around and asked him how far he was going, and the answer I got was simply "North".
We chatted for while, but I wanted to get a move on as I still had to get to Gem Bridge, and the weather wasn't looking too good. We set off together and was soon in Clearbrook. Mark, as I learnt he was called, had a route loaded into his GPS that pointed him in the direction of Dousland, but I explained to him that the route through Tavistock is a better option, with fewer hills.
It was during this conversation that three other cyclists came by - two men and a woman. We'd passed them earlier at the entrance to the Shaugh tunnel where they were panting like Olympic spinters after a race. As the wobble past, one of the men shouted something along the lines of "Belgium's that way, so just keep f*cking pedalling!" The said gentleman was of the variety that firmly believes his masculinity is measured by the size of his beer gut - you know the type. Personally I view the very existence of people like that as proof conclusive that Darwin hadn't quite figured out his theory of evolution yet.
Anyway, Mark decided that Tavistock offered better options for overnight accommodation, and he liked the idea of fewer hills. So, to follow the route with fewer hills, we set off uphill from Clearbrook, towards Yelverton.
If you've ever cycled this part of Drake's Trail, part of NCN27, before, you'd know it is but a hop, a skip and a jump from Clearbrook to Yelverton. We didn't stop in Yelverton, but continued on towards Horabridge. Based on what I've been told recently, it seemed as if it might be possible to cycle over Gem Bridge, and we decided to go and have a look. Our fall-back plan would have been to cycle along the Whitchurch road from Horabridge to Tavistock.
By now it was raining a fair bit, and the temperature had plummeted. We stopped and both put on winters gloves and rain coats. As it happens, when we got to the point where the path has been blocked off, we could see cycle tracks in the mud indicating others had been through. Indeed, the wire fence panel wasn't secured at all, which was a surprise, and so we swung it open a bit and cycled on.
The path from The Old Station at Horabridge up to this point had been freshly scraped, presumably in preparation for the path being resurfaced. A short stretch after the make-shift gates had already been resurfaced with the waste material scraped from roads, prior to resurfacing the roads. I don't know about the long-term durability of the surface, but for the moment I was well impressed!
A short while later we had to walk our bikes, as the path was in various stages of disrepair, but it wasn't long before we got to Gem Bridge itself. And what a bridge it is!
Again, there were make-shift barriers, in the shape of wire fence panels, but these had been moved apart and we simply cycled through, and onto the bridge. Gem Bridge has a distinct slope to it, so cycling towards Tavistock was downhill for us. At the far end of the bridge again the barriers were open, although a drop of around 50cm meant we had to lift our bikes down there.
From this point onwards there were various pieces of machinery parked all over, and we walked our bikes, squeezing through a narrow gap left between the wooden railings at the side of the path and an enormous granite slab - a leftover from Brunel's viaduct - which was placed directly on the path. The next (and final) "gate" was left wide open, so we simply cycled on from there. I carried on with Mark until shortly before Tavistock, then turned around and went back the way I came.
Having just cycled over Gem Bridge, what I'm about to say may make me sound like a hypocrite, but I was severely unimpressed by whomever had opened the various "gates" and left them open. As a result, I closed them as best I could behind me. The gates would never stop anybody determined to get onto the site, but they may help keep out some kids, who otherwise might get injured on the site. Remember, this is still a construction site, with plenty of opportunities for getting injured.
I cycled most of the way to Plymouth in the rain, with the temperature dropping to 4 C along the way.
And did I leave a good impression on the German cyclist? Well, this is my translation of the Google translation of what he wrote about the revised route I suggested to him: "Unfortunately it's not so easy, with a lot of gates, lots of dirt paths, gradients and a cordoned-off bridge, which we overcame together."
Well, I tried! :-)
Worryingly, although he's only done about half of it, he keeps saying how NCN 27 is confusing, poorly signed and hard to follow. Remember, we're talking about an experienced long distance cyclist who often does tours of several thousand miles, through many countries! AND he had a GPS to help him.
Surely if somebody like that says NCN 27 isn't up to standard then we should take notice and do something about it? His feelings about the route has implication for the success of the Cycle West Velodessey route as it incorporates the Devon Coast to Coast route.
On the bright side, I suppose that simply means there is a higher likelihood of more Devon Coast to Coast cycle holiday cycle-guiding business for me!