After yesterday’s gorgeous ride in sunshine from the wild Atlantic coast in Newquay, across the rolling and at times steep hills of Cornwall and over the River Tamar into Devon, I was now faced with the relatively straightforward task of riding onwards and downwards to the opposite coast at Torquay. The weather was due to close in again; but not before dusk. By then I planned to be on a train heading home. So, by the standards of most of this adventure, it would be quite a short ride. But for short, do not read easy. Having attained a significant height onto the Dartmoor plateau yesterday, my first couple of miles today took me right back down again into a deep but very beautiful valley and over a small stone bridge at a tiny village called Mavey. And then immediately all the way back up again at a punishing gradient. I met a car coming down the narrow road as I was panting my way up. The driver slowed and wound down his window. As we passed, he said to me “Much respect!”, to which I managed to raise a breathless smile. It was rather a test this early in the day. Did I mention that I am not a morning person?
Still, it was absolutely worth it. The morning was clear and crisp and there had been an overnight frost, probably my first of the trip. By now, the ground and the bracken was still white only in the shadowy pockets that the sun was yet to reach, while everywhere around was the brightest of colours. At this time of year, especially in these upland areas, you get incredible contrasts and today there was the bluest of skies meeting the greenest of grassy moorland, interspersed with the richest golden bronze of the dying bracken all around. Dartmoor ponies raised their shaggy heads as I made my way past, and there were a few other cyclists out, threading their way up and across the moor from the south. On a couple of occasions the solitary road I was following crossed streams that were winding their way rapidly down from their headwaters up on the lonely, sponge-like dome that is Dartmoor. There are rivers that flow down in every direction from the highest, most remote reaches and if you followed the wrong one you could easily end up many miles from where you wanted to be. But my road was staying high for a while longer. It was the most glorious, golden morning and as I came over a small rise, the land ahead suddenly fell away in the most dramatic fashion to reveal the sea far beneath me. A large bay spread itself out on the horizon. Torbay? No, surely too soon. Salcombe? I tried to imagine a mental map of south Devon. And then it struck me. I was looking straight over Plymouth. The city was just about visible on the low hills. Plymouth Sound, the wonderful natural harbour that is the reason for its existence, was unmistakeable. Now it all made sense and I suddenly understood this aerial map laid out beneath me. My destination, a whole OS map away, was off to my left and out of sight. I followed the edge of the moor for several more miles, sticking more or less to the national park boundary. Then, finally, my road decided enough was enough and made a sudden lurch to the right and downhill, taking me through a long descent and into the small town of Ivybridge. Here I was not only lower down, I was back among people and close to the main railway and dual carriageway between Exeter and Plymouth. It was busy again.
Ivybridge was nice enough. It had the usual town centre one way system that I always seem to arrive at from the wrong side, wherever I am approaching from. A combination of cycle paths and the old main road got me a few miles beyond it and back into smaller lanes. From there it was a handful of rolling miles to the genteel town of Totnes, which this morning was busy with people shopping and generally enjoying the weather.
Totnes sits at the highest navigable and bridgeable point on the broad and very beautiful Dart Estuary, many miles inland from Dartmouth, the point where it reaches the open sea through a narrow opening between high cliffs. In between is a broad expanse of tidal water that provides a haven for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sailing boats and other craft. On a summer’s evening, when the tide is in, it is a fabulous place to paddle around in a kayak, as we did on our post-lockdown staycation in September 2020. The tide was similarly high today when I arrived in Totnes, making the journey by boat right up to the old wharves possible.
It was time for a refreshment stop. Organic bakeries and cafes had tables outside in the sunshine, and I bought a locally made pasty and a latte and pretended for a short time that I was just kicking around in my own back yard. Before I left town, I made the journey up the hilly, narrow high street as far as the iconic archway that spans the road, adorned on either side with a clock. After the obligatory photo, with the old buildings leaning out over the street above the heads of the many passers by, I returned downhill, crossed the River Dart, and began the long climb up the other side of the valley towards Torquay, now only 10 miles away.
The rest of the ride was fine; but mostly fairly forgettable until the steep descent to the seafront in Torbay. This is the English Riviera, a series of large seaside towns that spread contiguously around the broad expanse of Torbay. The biggest place, Torquay, does the best impression of somewhere in the south of France, nestled inside the curling arm of the eastern most headland, its tall apartment buildings and hotels stacked in terraces above the mast-filled harbour. There were waterfront parks with fountains lining the sea front promenade and people strolling along in the sea air. On a sunny day, you just might be fooled into feeling continental, at least until you got close enough to see the shops fronts.
The harbour itself was full of yachts and it had a modern footbridge linking either side that swung open to let boats in and out. There were good refreshment choices and I went for a place called Below Decks, right next to the harbourmaster’s office and across from the large boat ramp. They had a fancy glass box by the water where you could sit at indoor tables and watch the aquatic comings and goings. This, I decided, was an ideal spot to celebrate another coast to coast ride, my 25th of 26. I nearly tripped on the door frame as I carried my tea tray across the threshold; but then so did the waitress a minute later, which made me feel a little less stupid.
I decided I rather liked Torquay. Despite many a trip to Devon over my lifetime, I had never quite made it here before. I would certainly come back. It isn’t the best thing about Devon, not by far, because Devon is a wonderful county that offers many delights. But I previously knew Torquay only as the location for the classic British TV sitcom Fawlty Towers, where dysfunctional and mainly elderly people came to holiday, or see out their years. As Basil Fawlty himself pointed out, the sea is over there between the land and the sky. But I think that any view of Torbay from a hotel on one of its surrounding hills would offer a great deal more than that. It did very nicely for me today. And there was still plenty of time and daylight for a quick ride to Newton Abbot and a pint of the Railway Inn’s own stout, brewed on the premises, before catching a direct train home. And all of that left me with just two remaining OS maps to cycle, tantalisingly far away from my home and at the mercy of the Atlantic November weather.