Typical Duration: 4-5 hours
Trail: Level tarmac, woodland and gritty disused railway track
Route: National Cycle Route 3 and 27
An ideal introduction to cycling for families and novices, the Tarka Trail prides itself in being England’s longest continuous traffic free cycle path. Stretching from Braunton to Barnstaple, then to Instow, Bideford, Great Torrington and on to Meeth, the Tarka Trail subtly harmonises cycling and nature as it is entirely off-road. The route can be broken up into easily managed sections and is punctuated with tranquil countryside, wooded river valleys, rugged moorland and dramatic coast.
Tarka Trail Route sections
Braunton to Barnstaple
Route distance: 6 miles
Leaving Braunton, the cycle path gently journeys along the banks of the Rivers Taw and Torridge, offering marvellous views across the estuary and tidal creeks before following the River Torridge inland. The route is flat and easy and is signposted (NCN 27) from the Tourist Information Centre in Braunton.
The hummocks of the dramatic dunescape of Braunton Burrows is the first sight to greet you when cycling from Braunton. The rarity and diversity of the flora and fauna in and around the estuary, has led to this amazing place being designated as an International Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. The burrows cover over 6km along the shore and some 2km inland, making them one of the largest sand dune systems in the United Kingdom. Fortunately, this breathtaking dunescape is easy to explore on a bike and is well worth the detour.
Moving further along, the trail leads you to the dramatic yet secluded estuary beach of Crow Point. The delicacy of the loaded sand barges and the wind blown estuary is well worth exploring so chain your bike to the racks in the Crow Point carpark and take time to enjoy the colours and textures of nature at its best.
The thriving market town of Barnstaple marks the end of the first section of the Tarka Trail. The newly opened Yeo Swing Bridge allows cyclists to enjoy a new traffic free approach to the town. With its partly pedestrianised centre and traditional Pannier Market, Barnstaple is a fantastic watering hole and resting point.
Barnstaple to Bideford
Route distance: 9 miles
Leaving Barnstaple, the cycle route continues along its traffic free path and makes its way toward Bideford via Instow. This section of the Tarka Trail forms part of the spectacular Devon Coast to Coast cycle route and largely traces the course of the former railway line. The path itself is flat and well surfaced making for an easy ride.
Aside from the spectacular views across the mouth of the Taw estuary, the cycle route is dotted with a number of unusual and intriguing artworks. Decorative cast iron waymarkers, granite and bronze posts and a range of wooden and mosaic sculptures can be spotted along the way.
Although there are many historical relics providing insight into the industries which once occurred along the estuary, it is perhaps the restored signal box standing guard over the old railway crossing in Instow that is the most noteworthy. If you have the time, a short detour to the right will lead you to the very popular Instow Sands which is a long sandy beach flanked by shoreline shops and restaurants serving up seasonal delights.
From Instow, the trail follows the course of the river to Bideford and passes under the impressive Bideford road bridge. Bideford is a busy harbour town with plenty to see and do. If you have the time, jump on the ferry to the unspoilt Lundy Island off the coast of Devon. Be warned, the ferry is pretty pricey but is nonetheless a fantastic experience that will stay with you for life. Don’t worry about lugging your bike around with you as there are loads of secure bicycle stands at the visitor centre.
Bideford to Meeth via Great Torrington
Route distance: 16 miles
The cycle ride from Bideford to Torrington and on towards Meeth is again entirely traffic free and continues along the old railway bed. Although this section of the trail is also flat and easy to navigate, it is extremely varied as it takes you along causeways and through cuttings, through tunnels and across bridges in the mellow North Devon countryside.
One of the early highlights of this section is perhaps the old iron railway bridge over the River Torridge. The bridge overlooks the ‘Pool of the Six Herons’ which is home to herons, lapwing, redshank and curlew. The route then takes you to the great tunnel near Landcross which is illuminated for traffic. It is the longest tunnel yet and offers the perfect opportunity to holler and echo into its great expanse. On the other side of the tunnel, you rejoin the banks of the River Torridge and if you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of an otter or spot the turquoise flash of a Kingfisher. (This usually happens in the very early morning).
The cycle route then gently climbs towards the old Torrington Station which is now a pub called “Puffing Billy Inn”. The Puffing Billy serves a modern British menu with top notch gastro pub fare – I highly recommend the duck. Leaving the Puffing Billy, the rest of the cycle path is perhaps the least well known but the most peaceful and tranquil part. The pathway here is quite wide and is flanked by festoons of wild flowers all straining to catch the sunlight through the dense canopy of oaks, elms and limes that spread overhead.
Moving further along, the trail yet again crosses the River Torridge, this time on a high level viaduct, offering good views along the river, before heading south west towards Meeth, passing Pencleave Woods and Watergate Halt. Ahead of you, there are some fantastic views of the wild heathland of Dartmoor National Park.
The last section from Petrockstowe Old Station to Meeth is a real treat as it winds its way through the edge of mixed woodland passing the Meeth Clay Pit. The last few metres leading up to Meeth Halt will you really earn that drink at the Bull & Dragon Inn in Meeth itself.
Necessary information for the Tarka Trail
The Tarka Trail is signposted as both ‘The Tarka Trail’ and National Cycle Network Route 3 and 27. The cycle route is well signposted with the standard blue, red and white National Cycle Network signs.
Bike hire is available in Braunton, at Barnstaple station, Fremington Quay, Bideford Old Station (East-the-Water) and at Torrington Old Station.
Getting to and from the Tarka Trail is a bit tricky as Barnstaple is the nearest railway station. We caught a train from Paddington Station in London to Barnstaple. Because the distance from Barnstaple to Braunton is only 6 miles, we cycled up to Braunton and back, following the length of the Tarka Trail. Transport in Meeth is a difficult one as although Stagecoach runs a Monday-Saturday Bus Service (51A) from the Bull & Dragon Inn in Meeth to Barnstaple, you are not able to take your bike on board unless you have a folding bike (which is no good on this trail) or if the bus has bike racks (which is not that often). The bus runs every 10 minutes until about 19:30 and takes approximately an hour to get to Barnstaple but is generally not the most practical solution. We ended up staying in a lovely bed & breakfast near Meeth and cycled the trail back to Barnstaple the following day.