Sunday, 10 April 2011

Devon Coast To Coast - Day One - Ilfracombe to Great Torrington

I say Ilfracombe to Great Torrington but really it was Yatton to Barnstaple, Barnstaple to Ilfracombe, Ilfracombe to Barnstaple and then Barnstaple to Great Torrington.

With the rest of Team Pannier arriving the night before for fish, chips and beer (the diet of true athletes) it was an early start on day one as we headed off to play train roulette. Would they let us on the three different trains we had to catch with our bikes? Would the staff be jobsworths? We were worried and no more so than Neil who'd had a sleepless night having read the leaflet supplied by national rail. It turns out you need to book your bikes on to the trains and I'd neglected to do that, and I'd bought tickets that weren't transferable. Thankfully the team weren't currently pointing the finger at me, yet.

Even with all the rush of getting ready, Jon had somehow found time to ring First Great Western and they had told him in their best West Country, Indian accent that for two legs of the journey we'd be fine but on one section there weren't enough spaces. Eek. Contingency plans were already being mooted including driving to Ilfracombe but we'd see what happened. The first (local) train arrived and we got on fine, despite there being a fair few other bikes on there. The train staff were really friendly and despite the team being separated across the two carriages it passed without incident.

A quick change at Taunton and we were in big train territory. According to the ticket collector we were getting on a HTC and we needed to check the formation it was in. We nodded and grinned a vacant smile and hoped for the best. Turns out it was in reverse formation and the bike section was at the back (thanks to another station worker). It turned out this was the train that didn't have space, we could only fit three bikes in the hold a jobsworth told us. Was it time for the finger pointing? Was I to be left behind? Not with Team Pannier, Rich (AKA Spanners) grabbed his bike and jumped on the main carriage, much against the wishes of the train lady. Anyway we were on, and spending the next 30 minutes next to a toilet door.

With full knowledge of who on the train had a weak bladder we got off at Exeter St Davids and managed to squeeze in a trip to pick up bacon sandwiches and coffee. Soon we were on our last train for the day and our worries disappeared as quick as our food.

Arriving in Barnstaple we quickly booked our bikes on for the return journey. If you're interested you can / need to book your bikes on the national quick trains but you have to take your chances on the local routes. Again the staff were really helpful, hats (helmets?) off to First Great Western, its staff were great.

11.30 and we were off. Well kind of. We were off to ride to the start, eleven miles away. Unlike our last C2C we were soon getting through the miles with very few stops. Seeing a hotel on the way out serving steaks and cream teas in the afternoon, there were some hungry glances expecting to return there soon. In the meantime we had some pedalling to do.

The start of the route is pretty flat, there's a bridge over the estuary but other than that it's a nice flat run all the way to Braughton. That's when you turn left and hit a brick wall. Well a decent sized hill anyway. There were two routes out of Braughton and we chose the route that wasn't for mountain bikes. I hope we chose the right one. Looking it up now it appears that route is for summer only so I'm guessing we did choose the right route. If you've ever cycled the hill up Buckland Cross with panniers on your back you will have shared our pain as we suffered our first climb. From there it was rolling hills all the way with great views of the beaches at Saunton and Woolacombe. By now the conversation had turned to music and The Vaccines went round and round in my head as we climbed a hill, sped down the other side and climbed again. Still it's better than having your daughter's nursery rhymes in your head.

The miles ticked away but then we reached the cross roads at Georgeham and our original mileage estimates were soon found to be a little incorrect. We'd covered 7 miles, yet according to the route sign, we still had 8 miles to go. Our aim of having lunch for one was certainly out of the window and thoughts drifted back to the last C2C where we consistently arrived at our destination after dark. In the more immediate we had to consider our route back, we were going to take the more scenic route back, would we want to do another 4 miles to take in the delights of Woolacombe Bay? That decision could be put on hold as we pushed on to reach the start.

Soon we were hitting trail territory as we hit Trimstone. The trail takes you down the old railway line in to Ilfracombe, it goes through a beautiful valley and as we enjoyed eating up the miles, we all had in the back of our minds that we had to come back up this hill. The run down was really enjoyable as we went through tunnels, down steep roads and in to Ilfracombe. Learning from last time we stopped to check our whereabouts as soon as we felt lost and true enough we'd missed the turning in to the graveyard, silly us, why we didn't consider going through the graveyard I don't know.

We were aided in our map reading this year with not only an OS Tour Map but also an app for my iPhone which locates you on an OS Map using GPS. It didn't have great functionality but it had the cycle routes on it and within a second it could locate us on the map, whether I had a phone signal or not. There was a slight problem with it though and that was the mistrust of the device by my fellow Team Pannier members. They would pore over a map wondering where we were and where we should be going, all the time ignoring my calls saying "we're here" "we need to go this way". 

Arriving in Ilfracombe we were soon at the water front and quicker than you can say "Jon that's a big wave" we had our back wheels in the sea and Jon got a soaking from a big wave. With the mandatory photo taken we were off to find the official start and lunch. Both were a disappointment. As the route is not as popular as the Whitehaven / Sunderland / Newcastle Coast to Coast there isn't any real marker for the start, just no more land and beautiful cliffs alongside the sea.

A lot of places were due to open that weekend for the summer season but not until that evening so we couldn't be picky over where we ate for lunch. Eating disappointing sandwiches we realised we should have been pickier. But fuelled up on food and beer / sugary drinks Neil somehow got Mull of Kintyre in his head, well that was it. Cycling off down the road we'd come in on Team Pannier sang their hearts out to Mull of Kintyre as the local people of Ilfracombe went about their daily business. Thinking, I'm sure, there go some cool bikers.

The hill back out of Ilfracombe wasn't as bad as we'd built it up to be despite a gradient of 1:36. A few miles later we were out of Ilfracombe and back on the hill tops, buffeted by the wind we had a decision to be made. It was already getting on in the day, it was 3pm and did we want to cycle an extra 4 miles to Woolacombe? That's 4 miles on top of the extra 8 miles our roundtrip had already presented us with. I don't think we even blinked as we went straight past the turn off for Woolacombe and battled the rolling hills to Braughton.

By now Neil's legs were starting to give him gip and we stopped for an important top up of Maoam Stripes, the sugar rush doing great and bad things to us. It was at this point we realised we could actually see our breath, having worked hard up the hills we found it hard to believe it could be cold enough. We didn't wait to find out, we pushed on and enjoyed speeding down the hill we'd first been dancing on our pedals all those hours before.

Soon back by the coastline we were not so pleased to find we'd had the benefit on the way out of a tailwind. Now a headwind and on tired legs we ploughed a steady course through the wind, after a battle with the wind we finally passed the cream tea hotel we'd seen earlier that day. I don't think we had the time or inclination to stop for a cream tea but we did enjoy a well earned stop just before going back over the estuary bridge. With an array of snacks and whisky in their bellies Team Pannier set off futher down the Tarka Trail.

The Tarka Trail is of course named after Tarka the Otter who starred in a book by Henry Williamson. The book was first published in 1927, no doubt when the old railways of North Devon were still running and not instead occupied by sugar fuelled cyclists discussing who they fancy more off BBC Morning News, Susanna Reid or Sian Williams.

With the corner turned we were again favoured by the wind and flat trail. Our average speed shot up and there was happy banter all round as we took in the delights of Devon.  The sun slowly started to drop and so did our banter as we were once again buffeted by the wind as we turned to head south. Following the water down towards Bideford we were able to tick off the miles as we went past the old stations, each as a marker on the trail they had signs giving you a count down of miles to the stations further down the line. Our eyes were only on one station, Great Torrington.

A couple hours earlier I'd received a text saying "check your panniers when you're flagging" from my wife. The others joked that she'd put a brick in but as we reached Instow I had greater faith. Sure enough I was pleased to find more supplies of chocolate. By now we were all starting to flag a bit as the time in the saddle took its toll. This was no more apparent than when we reached Bideford station and Rich, tired and pulling to a halt forgot he had his cleats on and toppled right over, taking a picnic bench with him as he went. Once it was clear he was alright there were certainly smiles. Perhaps we'd better check in with the B&B and let them know we're on our way.

With the time nearly at 6 o'clock we chatted to Elaine the B&B owner, she told us it usually took her 1 hour from there. Right the challenge was on, we were going to beat a middle age woman, by one minute. Well that was certainly my aim. She did have one word of warning before we set off on the final section, there was a hill up to Torrington.

As we went up slight incline after slight incline we convinced ourselves that was the hill as we headed for Puffing Billy, the pub and station point for Great Torrington. Arriving at the pub we soon realised that it was us who would be referred to as Puffing Billies after we tackled the hill in front of us. On the main road in to Great Torrington we fought our bikes all the way up the hill, knowing that it was the last of the day and that there was a hot shower at the other end.

Four puffing billies pulled in to Windsor House, a great B&B in Great Torrington. The welcome we got from the couple who own it was just what we needed. They couldn't do enough to help, our bikes were put away for us and we were led to our rooms (I'm guessing they were as keen for us to have a shower as we were). 

So after a pretty quick turnaround we were out the door and heading for a well earned pint at the recommended Black Horse. And a popular pub it certainly seemed to be as it tempted us with steak and ale pie only to find out there was none left. Gutted. Still with a tasty meal in our bellies and a few pints it was back to the B and B to rest up for the next day. Not so easy when you have to share a four poster bed with your brother-in-law.

Day One Finished: 49 miles covered

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