Cycle the Tarka Trail

Catch the Tarka Line train from Exeter for a day cycle along an old railway line and discover the tranquility of North Devon

By Tor McIntosh

The trail meanders through mixed woodland to the village of Meeth

The trail meanders through mixed woodland to the village of Meeth

Within minutes of leaving Exeter St David’s station the train chugs past fields of cows and the distinct whiff of the countryside filters through the open carriage windows; city living is swiftly forgotten as I relax into the hour-long train ride to Barnstaple, which journeys through the unspoiled Devon landscape described by Henry Williamson in his classic novel Tarka the Otter (1927). It’s no surprise to learn that the rail route is called the Tarka Line and it’s transporting me to Tarka Bikes where I’ll hire a bike to explore part of the Tarka Trail cycle path — Williamson’s eponymous young otter has clearly made an impression in North Devon.

With Tarka Bikes conveniently located on the station platform at Barnstaple it’s not long before I’m pedaling westwards along the Tarka Trail towards Bideford (9 miles). The 26-mile traffic-free cycle path between Barnstaple and Meeth is part of a disused railway line that starts in Braunton (an alternative two-wheeled destination from Barnstaple). The route — easily completed in 3 hours at a leisurely pace — is simple to follow and I clock up miles quickly and effortlessly, making the Tarka Trail ideal for cyclists who prefer the safety and ease of flat, traffic-free riding. Pedalling towards Bideford I’m offered superb views on my right of the extensive Taw-Torridge Estuary with its saltmarshes and, at low tide, mudflats that entice a smorgasbord of overwintering and migratory wading birds.

From Bideford the trail continues southwards towards Great Torrington (6 miles) along the old railway bed that once carried clay from the quarries at Meeth to Bideford Quay. Along this less popular but more tranquil part of the Tarka Trail I leave the open estuary behind as the route heads inland across bridges and through tunnels, crossing the River Torridge numerous times before reaching Puffing Billy, one of a number of old railway buildings that have been converted into cafés along the trail.

Between Great Torrington and Meeth (11 miles) the surface of the trail becomes rugged meaning it is less suitable for bikes fitted with skinny ‘road-only’ tyres. It’s here that the trail gradually rises for a few miles to Yarde Orchard organic café, a perfect place to stop for a bite to eat or an overnight stay in one of their yurts or bell tents. There’s an option to continue south for a further 7 miles as the trail meanders through mixed woodland to the village of Meeth. As for me, after much-needed sustenance at Yarde Orchard I slowly pedal back to Barnstaple to catch the Tarka Line train back through the Devonshire countryside to the hustle and bustle of the city.

Yarde Orchard Café
East Yarde, Peters Marland, Torrington, Devon EX38 8QA; 01805 601778
Awarded a gold Green Tourism badge, Yarde Orchard is a family- and cyclist-friendly organic café conveniently located on the Tarka Trail at East Yarde (4 miles from Great Torrington) offering eco-accommodation in the form of yurts, bell tents and bunkrooms. Closed Mondays (except Bank Holidays).

This feature was originally published in the Freedom Express: Great Days Out section of BBC Countryfile Magazine, September 2015.

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