I’d bought my 11-year-old son, Ben, a road bike to mark his transition from small to big school. But, when it arrived, I couldn’t open the box for several weeks, while I weighed up the positives of him experiencing the same wonderful freedom that two-wheeled adventures had brought me throughout my life, with the risks of cycling on the UK’s busy roads. I almost sent the bike back.
EuroVelo was the answer…
That was until I discovered the 100-mile (161 km) Devon Coast to Coast section of EuroVelo 1 - Atlantic Coast Route. It looked the perfect challenge for a pre-teen to undertake; a gently rolling route connecting Devon’s north and south coasts, with around 70 traffic-free miles (112 km) (including the wildly beautiful Dartmoor National Park) and the remainder on quiet country roads. We decided to tackle it in 3 days with my cycling buddy (another Simon) and his 11-year-old daughter for companions, stopping over at prebooked accommodation.
What bikes to take?
A mountain bike would have been ok, but the route was not that gnarly. A gravel bike would have been ideal for the mixed terrain, but I hadn’t yet got mine. And so, I got some wider, armoured tyres for Ben’s aluminum road bike and my titanium Litespeed racer, which had seen many dusty trails in the Alps and Pyrenees and survived.
We decided on light and fast. Or, as it turned out, just light! I’m a minimalist and part of the ride’s appeal was a chance to free ourselves from the material shackles of modern life. Ben and I took one small rucksack between us containing: flip-flops; shorts; underwear and t-shirts; a tiny tube of toothpaste; one shared toothbrush; waterproofs; spare inner tubes; phone charger; map, travel wash and basic first-aid kit. Ben didn’t want to be clipped in, so we both wore trainers. I downloaded a GPS of the route onto my bike computer and had a paper map for backup.
Day 1 – Ilfracombe to Sheepwash
At 44 miles (70 km), our first day was the longest and the toughest of the trip, taking us from the Victorian seaside town of Ilfracombe on Devon’s north coast to the brilliantly named Sheepwash (northwest of Dartmoor National Park). ‘Don’t worry it’s downhill all the way Dad,’ Ben said, holding up our paper map and tracing the route south.
After two blowouts with cheap innertubes outside our B&B to make the guests choke on their croissants, ‘you’re so embarrassing Dad’, we were pedalling through dappled woodland out of town. We took quiet roads to the quaint village of Braunton where we picked up the 32-mile long (51 km) Tarka Trail, an old railway line which skirts the beautiful Taw-Torridge Estuary.
We stopped for a pub lunch, with a view over the estuary (awash with migratory waders), then paused again 20 minutes later at the Puffing Billy Café at Torrington's Tarka Line Station for a cream tea. It soon became apparent that fuel was more important than speed on this tour and we relaxed into a slower pace of life.
Our first stopover was at a farmhouse B&B down a dirt track where we received the kind of welcome you want after a long day on the road. After washing our Lycra in the sink, we took a dip in the outdoor pool, followed by a roast dinner and fruit crumble using produce from the owner’s veggie plot. ‘We just missed the annual puddle jumping competition,’ the other Simon said, looking up from the Sheepwash Times. He sounded genuinely sorry.
Day 2 – Sheepwash to the pub
‘Can we stay another night, Dad? Can we?’ The kids were eyeing up the pool on another azure blue-sky morning but, such is the nature of bikepacking, we were soon meandering along the day’s 30-odd miles (48 km). The first section was hilly and the young ‘uns contested King of the Mountains points, earning their bodyweights in chips, crisps and Coke (the three Cs) in Oakhampton. The route then becomes the Granite Way, another scenic traffic-free section old railway line, for 11 easy miles (18 km) skirting the wild western edge of Dartmoor National Park to Lydford Gorge.
We came off at the mighty Meldon Viaduct for our second stopover, the thatched Bearslake Inn.
While the kids enjoyed a foot spa in the cool stream running through the expansive beer garden backing on to moorland, the Simons kicked back, with a couple of medicinal beers, our Lycra drying in the sun.
Day 3 – Downhill to Plymouth
The final day was the best of the trip. The scenery was stunning, it was downhill overall, ‘Okay Ben, you were right!’, and the young ‘uns still had good legs. We traversed gnarly byways across the moor, the kids ahead of us, wild and free.
We paddled in the babbling Tavy, at a shaded spot just outside of the market town of Tavistock, a cool respite in the heat of the day.
We then followed an old railway line into town. Another cream tea and chocolate milkshakes in the historic Pannier Market prepared us for our final saunter of the trip; the 21-mile-long (33 km) Drake’s Trail (incorporating the National Trust’s Plym Valley Trail) to Plymouth.
We cruised between shaded river valley sections and open moorland, pausing at the National Trust’s Peregrine project at Plymbridge Woods, then tracked the River Plym into the University City I once called home. Having been immersed in nature, the city came as a shock, but the route into the Barbican’s waterside cobbled streets is relatively quiet. We reached Plymouth Hoe just shy of 100 miles (161 km), so we rode around the iconic platform until our computers notched up the century.
‘Of course, The Devon Coast to Coast route also forms part of a much longer ride,’ I said to Simon, looking at the kids, who were tucking into fish and chips overlooking the sea; their faces brown and contented. They’d had some tough moments along the way, but it was a challenge after all, and they were rightly pleased with themselves. ‘It starts in Norway and finishes in Portugal,’ I continued.
‘Give ‘em a couple of years,’ he said.
You can contact Simon to [email protected] if you want more info on his trip or more tips on how to bikepacking with kids.
Author (text and pictures): Simon Felton