To Hartland and Back - a week’s cycle tour in Somerset and Devon

September 1997

This was our first camping trip with our original Greenspeed tandem and a Columbus two-wheeled trailer . Because it was the first one we planned it in easy stages.

Day 1 - Wells to Waterrow. 48.43 miles

We left Wells on a cloudy morning and followed familiar roads across the moors toward Taunton. After a gentle trundle across the mainly flat roads we stopped for the traditional tea and toasted teacakes at a garden centre near Taunton and then proceeded on through the town, where the traffic was not as bad as we had feared. The National Cycleway route seemed rather hilly, so we decided to stay on the B road towards Wiveliscombe for the time being. When we reached Wiveliscombe itself, it became clear that we had underestimated the effort Rob was putting in to compensate for my weight and lack of fitness, as he “bonked” completely. We found a safe place to stop and I went in search of food. A couple of currant buns later he was feeling much more himself and we set off to tackle the hill out of the town. It was hard work, and we needed our little gears, but we got up there - on my solo upright I would have been walking before I got halfway up. We also decided on a policy of stopping every hour we were riding for small snacks to keep our carbohydrate levels up. We stuck loosely to this for the rest of the week, and it seemed to serve its purpose in that neither of us blew up again. After a few more ups and downs, we reached Waterrow, a pretty village at the bottom of a wooded valley, just past which was the first of our possible camp sites for the night. We decided that we’d done enough for one day and went to book the camp site. When we pitched the “green slug”, as we affectionately call our Vaude Hogan, it was the only tent among a field full of caravans, most of which looked derelict, or verging on it. The camp site was basic - facilities consisted of a toilet and a tap - but that was sufficient for us. When we had the tent arranged to our satisfaction, we walked down the hill we’d just ridden up, to the village pub for dinner, which was reasonably priced and good.

Day Two - Waterrow to Barnstaple. 52.04 miles

The long dragging climb from the camp site to the Devon border pretty much set the tone for the morning. We stopped at Brushford for supplies before tackling the worst climb of the day (and probably of the whole trip); a mile and a quarter of 1 in 4 from Dulverton to the edge of Exmoor. Apart from a muddy patch where the rear wheel lost traction and I had to get off and push, we rode all the way up. It took us over an hour, but when we stopped at the top and looked out over Exmoor, we agreed it had been worth it. Having attained the top of this slope we enjoyed a brief respite from climbing, with some flat, or at least rolling terrain for a while, which our legs were very glad of... Around noon we stopped for lemonade at an enormous pub plonked in the middle of nowhere. It seemed an odd place to build a pub, particularly such a big one, but we were glad to see it, and especially its loos. Shortly afterward I was obliged to get off and push for the second and final time of the holiday at a place called Mole’s Chamber - it was a 90 degree bend on to a severely steep slope and we didn’t have sufficient warning to shift gear in time or we could have ridden it. More rolling terrain ensued until we reached our planned campsite for the night. After stocking up on buns and such at the village shop we went to have a look at the site. It looked somewhat insalubrious and in any case we got no response from the site office at all, so we agreed to carry on and head for the Camping and Caravan Club site at Umberleigh. Unfortunately we got lost, a circumstance for which I must take all the available credit, owing to my virtually non-existent map-reading skills. Finally, in desperation we decided to head for Barnstaple, which resulted in an unpleasant dash along a busy A-road in the gathering dusk. We spotted a Bed & Breakfast on the edge of the town centre and hurled ourselves hopefully at it. Luckily there were vacancies (and a stout railing to lock the tandem to) so we thankfully booked a room and had a long shower each. Then we spent what seemed like eternity searching Barnstaple for somewhere that sold vegetarian food, before tracking down a passable Mushroom Stroganoff in a lovely wood-panelled pub dining room.

Day 3 - Barnstaple to Clovelly. 27.78 miles

While people in general seem to treat the GTT with much greater respect and circumspection than they accord to upright bikes, there are always a few silly people who behave in a dangerous manner, and most of them seemed to be gathered in Barnstaple on this particular morning. Eventually we found a nicer road, running parallel to the new main road, so that it had very little traffic on it besides ourselves and we followed this on to Bideford, where we joined the Tarka Trail for a while. Unfortunately, at the point where we’d hoped to leave the trail, there was no exit, so we had to backtrack a short distance and lift the trike and trailer separately over a fence, which was no mean feat. We achieved it, however, and then it was back on the road, another pleasant rolling one as far as Packham and then it was uphill all the way again and a tootle round the backroads until we had to rejoin the main road to reach Clovelly. This was fairly busy, but not as unpleasant as negotiating Barnstaple had been. At Clovelly we spotted the camp site easily at the top of the hill, but Rob thought there might be another one further down so we plunged down the long slope, giving the disc brakes a good workout on the way. There was no other camp site, so we turned around in the car park of the Visitor’s Centre at the bottom and set about getting back up again. Either the previous two days climbing had had an effect or the slope wasn’t as bad as it looked, because although the climb was far from easy, it wasn’t nearly as hard as we’d expected. It hadn’t been apparent on the way down, because we’d been accumulating speed all the way, but the slope was actually a series of slopes, with small plateaux between them, so we got a slight breather every so often, which also helped. Eventually we got booked in at the campsite, which was next to a roundabout on the main road, and so rather noisy, but otherwise perfectly adequate. As it was still early afternoon, after a short rest we walked back down the hill to explore the charming (but steep!) village of Clovelly, which is beautiful, but hard work on the legs. I found the climb back up actually easier than the walk down on the sloping cobbled street, which was a bit vertiginous, although I wouldn’t have missed it. A trio of mishaps occurred at Clovelly .Firstly, our ancient and venerable meths cooker finally gave up the ghost, much to my sorrow as I was actually able to operate it, unlike the new-fangled paraffin burner, which I dubbed ”The Mad Cooker” owing to its rather fierce flames when first ignited. Secondly, we found we’d lost our “chock”, probably in the car park, but neither of us wanted to negotiate the hill again to look for it. Finally, we’d also lost our homemade “Long Vehicle” sign, but this at least we got back - the camp site owner kindly presented us with it the following morning.

Day 4 - Rest Day. 3.76miles

We moved a couple of miles down the road to Hartland for our rest day to another small campsite, this one rather unusual as it was alongside a small factory. However, it was on a much smaller road, so after the factory shut down for the night it was much quieter than the previous night’s lodging. We decided to go walking by way of a change and we toddled about three miles out to Hartland Quay on the rocky and precipitous coastline. It was a warm day and taking our Camelbaks with us was definitely one of our better ideas. There was a pub on the Quay where we partook of refreshments, and a museum, cataloguing the many tragic shipwrecks and heroic rescues the nearby coastline has witnessed. On the way back we stopped to investigate St Nectan’s Church. Apparently founded by Lady Gytha, mother of King Harold (of arrow in the eye fame) to give thanks for her husband’s rescue from a shipwreck, it boasts the tallest spire in North Devon as well as a 400 year old rood screen and some nice gargoyles. It’s well worth a look from anyone interested in church architecture. We also stopped off at Hartland Abbey to tour the gardens, but since the main plantings were rhododendrons and azaleas, we had come at the wrong time of year to see them at their best. We rounded off the day with dinner in one of Hartland’s pubs and contemplation of the journey home.

Day 5 - Hartland to Umberleigh. 29.00 miles

Back to climbing up and down the back roads today until we reached Parkham, where we rejoined the road we’d used out of Bideford two days previously. This provided a pleasant long gentle downhill that was very welcome. Bideford itself was less pleasant, with busy traffic and a vicious climb through East the Water on the far side of the river. at least there were some loos at the top, which provided a good excuse to stop for a brief rest. Then it was back to the undulating country roads. On one of them we met a tractor with a particularly lethal looking implement on the back. Circumstances were such that the best way to pass this behemoth involved lifting the trike over said implement, which is always fun....Parts of this road had been recently resurfaced, and, as seems increasingly common, the loose chippings had not been cleared away properly, so that in places they formed into drifts, where they interfered with braking on the downhills and traction on the uphills. Eventually we reached the Camping and Caravan Club site at Umberleigh, which we’d been aiming for when we ended up in Barnstaple. We were so impressed that we signed up to the club on the spot, and the site warden was so impressed he got his camera out to photograph our equipage. We set up the faithful old green slug and took the opportunity to do some laundry before setting off to explore Umberleigh. The walk down into the village was altogether frightening, with traffic whizzing round blind bends and no pavements. Having survived this ordeal, we were sadly unimpressed with Umberleigh itself, to the extent that we decided to resort to our own cooking rather than eat at the pub there.

Day 6 - Umberleigh to Waterrow. 34.51 miles

A slightly later start than on some days, as the site rules forbade any noise before 7a.m.. It had rained overnight and the tent was rather soggy, but we had no choice but to pack it and hope it would have a chance to dry when we set it up again. As usual we started the day with a stiff climb, but later the route became more rolling again. we made a tea stop in South Molton and stocked up with food at the shop there. A local Mr Helpful informed us loftily that we needed a motor. With great magnanimity, we let him live.... We took the A road out of South Molton, but as it was unpleasantly busy, we took the first of two possible turnings off it. Owing once again to my impeccable navigation, we ended up on another A road into Bampton, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it gave us a gentler approach to the town. Another tea stop ensued, accompanied by what was undoubtedly the best fed dog in Bampton. More undulating roads followed, before a lengthy climb to the Somerset border and a short swoop back to the camp site at Waterrow where we’d spent the first night.

Day 7 - Waterrow to Wells. 50.92 miles

Overnight thunderstorms had done nothing to improve the condition of the tent, but at least they had the decency to stop before we had to get out of it. It’s a measure of how much climbing we’d done in the previous few days that we were glad to get back to Wiveliscombe for some flat road...We took a slightly longer route this time to divert around Taunton, which we felt would be best avoided on a Saturday morning. My map reading must have improved somewhat, as we managed not to get lost this time and toddled back to the garden centre for a well-earned cup of tea. From then on the roads were familiar ones, but some of the well-known hills seemed surprisingly easy on our Devon-conditioned muscles - even Pedwell Hill (between Greinton and Shapwick) was less daunting than before. We took a final tea stop at our regular halt of the Willows tea rooms near Shapwick and then tackled the last few flat miles across the moors. We’d had an excellent, if tiring holiday, but we were glad to get back to a hot shower and clean clothes....