A gentle ride from Great Torrington to Bideford, along the broad banks of the River Torridge
Minimum time 2h30
Distance 11 miles (17.7km)
Suggested map OS Explorer 126 Clovelly & Hartland
Start/finish car park on Great Torrington Common, grid ref: SS 485193
Trails/tracks level former railway track, now smooth tarmac
Landscape woodland, river and estuary, saltmarsh, townscape
Public toilets near Bideford station
Tourist information Bideford, tel 01237 477676
Bike hire Torridge Cycle Hire, Station Yard, tel 01805 622633; Bideford Cycle Hire, East-the-Water, tel 01237 4241123
Recommended pub The Puffing Billy, Great Torrington
© Automobile Association 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
From Great Torrington take the A386 Bideford road across Great Torrington Common. Use the car park on the common opposite the junction with the B3227.
1 Turn right along the A386 and descend to pick up the Tarka Trail on the right before Rolle Bridge. It runs between The Puffing Billy - the old station building - and cycle hire in the goods yard opposite. Turn left along the trail to pass the pub and garden (cycle racks) on the left. The railway reached Bideford (from Barnstaple) in 1855; the extension (under the London and South Western Railway) from Bideford to Torrington opened July 1872, and closed in the mid 1960s. The 'Atlantic Coast Express' ran from here all the way to London Waterloo. Cycle over the River Torridge as it loops its way towards the sea.
2 Pause at the next river crossing to look at Beam Weir; as you cross the river for the third time look left towards Beam Aqueduct. Part of the railway utilised the bed of the former Rolle Canal, involved in a scheme to link with the Bude Canal in north Cornwall; only a 6-mile (9.7km) section was completed, in 1827. Lime and coal were carried inland from the coast to Torrington, and agricultural produce exported. Pass a picnic area left, and continue between the A386 and the Torridge (right). Look right through the trees towards Weare Giffard, with its 14th-century church and 15th-century manor house. Pass Weare Giffard Cross (left).
3 Where the Torridge takes a wide loop east cycle through Landcross Tunnel (lit), then through a cutting by Landcross Bridge. Now with the River Yeo on the left, cycle on to meet the old iron railway bridge over the Torridge.
4 The whole feel of the route changes here: the river is wide and slow, with large expanses of saltmarsh and reedbed - home to sedge warbler and reed bunting - and beautiful views. The bridge overlooks the 'Pool of the Six Herons' (mentioned in Tarka) - look out for herons, lapwing, redshank and curlew. Saltmarsh plants (specially adapted to seawater inundations) and reedbeds protect the river banks from erosion, and the mudflats support millions of invertebrates, food for wading birds. Limestone was shipped in from south Wales for burning in the limekiln left of the bridge; local woodland supplied timber for charcoal.
5 Continue along the right bank of the Torridge, with increasingly good views of Bideford, a significant port in medieval times, today a busy market town and working port. Its 24-arched stone bridge recalls the town's early prosperity - it is said that each arch was funded by a local parish, and the size of the arch reflects their respective wealth! The 19th-century novelist Charles Kingsley (who lived at Clovelly during his childhood) described Bideford as 'the Little White Town that slopes upward from its broad river tide': little has changed.
6 Turn-around is old Bideford Station - 220.5 miles (355km) from Waterloo! The Tarka Trail goes on to Instow. Refreshments are available from the Railway Carriage Visitor Centre. If you have time when you finish the ride, take a look around Great Torrington, noted for the Battle of Great Torrington in 1646, the end of Royalist resistance in the West Country in the Civil War.
The Tarka Trail is named after the hero of north Devon, author Henry Williamson's famous novel Tarka the Otter, published in 1927. Williamson moved to Georgeham, near Braunton in 1921, having visited the area in 1914, at which time he became captivated by this remote part of north Devon. He came here both to recover from the horrors of active service in World War One and also to write, and between 1921 and 1972 almost 50 works were published. His best known is the tale of Tarka the Otter, much of which is based around the River Torridge, which flows northwest for 9 miles (14.5km) from its source to its junction with the River Taw just beyond Appledore. Tarka was born just below Canal Bridge, downstream from Torrington, and met his end on the River Torridge too. The story was made into a film and, by strange coincidence, Williamson died on the same day as the filming of Tarka's death scene, in 1977. It seems fitting that today, after many years of decline, otters are returning to Devon's rivers as a result of deliberate policy to improve habitat and water quality.
The Tarka Trail, a 180-mile (290km) cycleway and footpath, offers great opportunities for exploring north Devon. The trail opened in May 1992, and those sections along former railway lines make great cycling routes. This ride from Great Torrington to Bideford, along the broad banks of the River Torridge, is one of three options, and can easily be linked to the route from Instow to Barnstaple.