- Quaint tunnels, bridges and greenery make way for huge flat expanses of wetland
- The 71-hectare wetland habitat of Home Farm Marsh
- You can take your own bikes on the trail of course
Named after the eponymous otter in Henry Williamson’s popular watery tale, the 180 mile Tarka Trail connects many of the locations described in the book. Some 30 miles of the route follows the track of the old north Devon railway, built in the mid-late 1800’s and closed during the Beeching cuts of 1965.
You can walk or run the trail (or even ride a horse on sections around Torrington and Petrockstowe). If you do take to two wheels then do make sure you have a bell – it’s invaluable for warning slower moving pedestrians and dog walkers of your imminent arrival! If you’d told me at the beginning of the day I was going to complete a 15 mile bike ride I would have laughed in disbelief. But there’s something about this flat, traffic-free route through tranquil Tarka country that keeps the legs moving and the spirit fresh: the perfect antidote to holiday over-indulgence.
We decide to follow the route north along the Torridge estuary. Keeping the river to our left we soon pass by the Long Bridge whose 24 arches are each of a different span, each said to represent the individual parishes that had made a contribution towards its construction. The A39 Torridge Bridge dominates the view beyond. Past that you soon reach the small town of Instow. The old station here hosts a number of old trains and carriages – including a set that has been repurposed as a cafe. Instow signal box, built in 1861, is a listed building and the only one of its kind still remaining in South West England. Instow itself is a pretty little place that’s well worth a visit during your stay.
A little further along there’s a community micro-orchard, planted by local enthusiasts to establish fruit and nut trees to complement others that have already been established along the trail. It’s the little curios that make this part of the trail so interesting. Cycling past ramshackle farm buildings with corrugated iron roofs, shelters made out of the hulls of old boats, through ancient woodland and via old tunnels hewn through the landscape, there’s something new and interesting at every section. Although Williamson’s book was written over 90 years ago, one thing that really strikes any reader is the beauty of the language and the accuracy in his description of the Devon countryside. You’re also struck by how little the landscape of this area seems to have changed, despite the march of time.
Yelland Power Station is new since Tarka’s time, as are the grey portacabin-style MOD buildings and associated metal fencing. The latter manage a hint of the exotic when you read the notices marking them as home to amphibious training squads operating from a metal jetty. Even the name – Zeta Berth – briefly makes you feel like you’re in a spy novel. Tapeley Gardens are also near here – they’re closed in winter but their formal terraces are well worth a visit if you’re holidaying here between May and October.
The section from Yelland to Fremington is not, for me, the most picturesque part of the ride. Quaint tunnels, bridges and greenery make way for huge flat expanses of wetland, mudflat and marsh. But if you love birds then you’re in for a treat. For this is twitcher country – a paradise for anyone who loves to spot our feathery friends. As we ride we marvel at murmurations of starlings, thousands of them gamboling on the thermals on this bright winter’s day, resting only briefly on telegraph wires.
The 71-hectare wetland habitat of Home Farm Marsh is home to wildfowl and waders including the redshank, golden plover and oystercatcher, as well as dragonflies and a host of wildflowers. Look hard enough and you might even spy a heron or even an otter, slinking onto the bank. Formerly an intensive dairy farm, this area is now managed by the Gaia Trust who are enhancing its biodiversity through conservation management. The farm is open to the public, with bike racks provided to leave your wheeled chariot before you enter. Wellies are recommended at most times of year as this is a wetland environment right at the edge of the estuary.
Fremington proves a wonderful opportunity to take a break and revive flagging energies with a spot of lunch at the Fremington Quay Café. Grateful of the lock we were provided with at the start of our adventure by Vince, we rest the bikes on one of the racks and enjoy some fine West Country food and drink. We barely have time to scratch the surface of the delights at the attached Visitor Centre. Here you'll find a wealth of information about the history of Fremington as the most important port between Bristol and Land’s End, bringing lime and coal from South Wales and exporting clay and local pottery. Make time to see a panoramic view of how the old quay would have looked, pull the signal box levers that used to switch the railway tracks and meet Harold, the old stationmaster. You can also find out what a pinchgut and a puzzle jug were.
The route changes with the seasons – our winter ride takes us through nature that is stripped back to showcase the views beyond. It’s still green, but less verdant than during the summer months when the lime-rich soils here support a variety of flowers and the sheltered cuttings are suntraps for lizards and butterflies including the speckled wood, ringlet and meadow brown. January often brings early flowering primroses and the common lizard can be seen as early as February. Autumn brings an array of russet, orange and golden brown leaves that crunch under feet and tyres. Whatever time of year you visit, hitting the Tarka Trail on two legs, four legs, or on two wheels, is a brilliant way to explore the nooks and crannies of the idyllic Devon countryside.
Keeping the river to our left we soon pass by the Long Bridge whose 24 arches are each of a different span
Getting onto two wheels on a Sunday in late December, the last thing we expected to find was a cycle shop that was open. How wrong we were. Granted, there was only one, but Bideford Bikes, just across the bridge from Bideford town, did not disappoint as it’s open 7 days a week, most weeks throughout the year. Run by friendly chaps Vince and Jeremy, the company also hires out surfboards, bodyboards and wetsuits (keep them for 24 hours) and kayaks should you prefer to take to the water. For today, we’re staying on dry land and are presented with two hybrid bikes, offering a mix of touring comfort and mountain bike performance. There are also a selection of bikes for children and a range of tag-a-longs and buggies as well as tandems, trikes and even a wheelchair tandem. Don’t forget to take along a driving licence, bankcard or passport as proof of identification and to act as your deposit.
You can take your own bikes on the trail of course, there are lots of laybys to park in along the A39, which runs alongside parts of the trail, or you’ll find spots along the route including around Yelland Power Station. Alternatively, you can park at Bideford Cycles for a £3 fee even if you’re not hiring from them.
Find out more about the Tarka Trail before you visit by downloading a series of audio guides here – you can listen to them before you go, or match them up to markers along the trail to learn more during your visit.
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