Leave the village heading down East Street and give Simon a wave as you pass Elmcourt. With the wind in your hair and gathering speed, fly down the hill, squeezing the brakes before the turn up towards Gilbert’s Farm. Watch out here as there is sometimes a deep, brown, oily slick covering the road surface and you really don’t want to part company with your bike and join it!
On the pedals again, follow the road, tackling the odd, short climb and enjoy glimpses of the river and local buzzard population.
Turn right at the T-junction at Patchill, then right again at the next junction a little further along at Ash Hill. Swoop down and back up, past the windmill, and you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful view towards Dartmoor. Stay on this road and eventually you’ll reach the main A386. Turn left here and coast down the hill towards Meeth.
Pass the sign for Meeth, then immediately after the first row of houses on the left, and just before the road curves to the right, the Tarka Trail has its unassuming start. Look out for a small path between a five-bar gate and a road sign warning of the road narrowing. You’ll soon spot the little station building & platform of Meeth Halt just beyond it.
Zip through the gap, past the station, and cut right on to the quarry road. This is not the official route, which runs to the left directly alongside the fields, but it is often the dry one – and minus the skin-shredding, clawing brambles.
About 400 yards later, on the left, you’ll see another five-bar gate and a sign indicating the concrete track of the Tarka Trail. No need to dismount, just nip through the gap next to the gate and you’re rolling down the Trail through green fields and high hedges.
Bump and splash over the two drains and continue through the tunnel of trees. Onwards and over a couple of little wooden bridges, then get into your stride. Cross another quarry access road and power onwards. The trail twists and turns through mature woodland, dressing the route with pretty, dappled sunshine and it’s magical to glide through it while rhythmically turning the pedals.
When Petrockstowe finally comes into view on the hill to the left, the outside world intrudes again and the spell is broken. But pause for a few minutes and enjoy the peace: where the trail crosses a small, shady brook, you’ll see a short section of fencing, an ideal spot on which to lean the bike and refuel with your beverage of choice.
About 100 yards further down the track, the trail forks. Take the left hander up onto the old platform and leave the trail through the gate. It’s worth noting that you can park here and save yourself all the hills. There’s also an information board which will tell you how far you’ve just cycled from Meeth (about 3 miles) and how far it is to Instow (about 16 miles) and all the other stations along the Trail. What it doesn’t tell you is that it is mostly downhill to Barnstaple and a surprising climb back. However, there are a number of purveyors of refreshments en route to encourage you in your endeavours if you do get the uncommon urge to press further north. To extend the route, just cross the road and rejoin the Trail alongside the animal feed supplier.
The first of these hostelries is the venerable Yarde Cafe. And it’s often worth the extra three or so miles to sit on the little deck here or under one of the apple trees in the garden, drinking tea, eating cake, and generally looking into the middle distance. Once you run out of excuses for staying any longer, jump back on the saddle and retrace your route along the Trail back to Petrockstow.
Coming off the Trail from Meeth without this extension, however, turn left out of the gate and hit the road to Petrockstowe, girding your loins for the steep climb up to the crossroads. Watch out for traffic as you cross here and continue up the hill. Keep pressing the pedals, going onwards and upwards with your lungs heaving and your thighs burning – and remind yourself how many calories you are shedding with each revolution. Without the detour to the cafe, you’ll burn at least 700 calories on this route – that’s almost four pints of Doombar!
Once you’ve crested the top, keep putting the tarmac under your tyres. Every so often you’ll catch a glimpse of Dartmoor through gaps in the hedge on the left, and there are some lovely country views to your right which often go unnoticed from a car window.
Eventually you’ll reach the T-junction where you turn left and which then takes you sailing past Svend’s pottery and on the home run back into the folds of our own dear Sheepwash. If it’s a warm, sunny day, you might want to reward yourself with a pint sat outside the Half Moon, looking smug!
April 2012 (Spring issue)