Day 1 - Totnes to Polperro - Home from Home - CycleBlaze

October 1, 2022

Day 1 - Totnes to Polperro

South Devon the stupid way

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It continued to rain like Billy-O all through Friday night, so I was somewhat relieved to see a clear (if still somewhat blowy) scene when I emerged slightly blearily at about 8 o'clock the following morning.

After saying goodbye to my mother, grabbing some very random snacks (multiple tangerines?) and applying some, er, sunflower oil to my chain I was off down the very steep hill across the river to Totnes proper. Despite my amateurish maintenance, the Shift felt really good, and the new brake pads stopped me effectively before I re-enacted my Dad's experience with his camper van last week (he didn't fully engage the handbrake and it, um, rolled into someone's wall).

I had loaded my route into my shiny new GPS watch - expensive, but is proving ridiculously useful as it basically gives me a detailed off-road map everywhere I go while staying 100% offline. But I spent the first 18 years of my life in this area so it certainly wasn't necessary following the river Dart between Totnes and Dartington. From here I knew the only practical route to the east moor was the A road towards Buckfast. The only real change from when I was growing up is they've now extended the cycleway a full mile (wahoo!) up the hill - it took them 18 years to do this. Actually, I shouldn't be sarcastic, it's genuinely useful to get off the road there as it's a sharp 50m climb. But nothing compared with what was to come.

Funny round green South Devon hills
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Scott AndersonHooray! Posts in color again!
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Jon AylingTo Scott AndersonIt definitely brightens things up! I really need to get my camera sorted out - the hope of fixing it has dissuaded me from getting a new one, but I never get round to mending it either...
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I then bombed down the A384, which crosses the river over an ancient and narrow stone bridge that has repeatedly lost part of its parapet due to clumsy drivers almost ending up in the river. This road is quite hairy actually, with rollercoaster bends, rises and falls, while carrying quite a lot of traffic. My school bus was once written off here after hitting black ice (and indeed we aquaplaned quite badly and almost came a cropper at the exact same spot this Christmas) so it's not my favourite spot. My heart was going like billy-o >170bpm the whole way, and it wasn't really do to with the riding.

Thankful not to have been squashed I pulled off the main road and crossed the wide river Dart near the tourist steam railway. My plan was to follow the Dart - less some meanders - almost up to its source in the middle of Dartmoor. Some very quiet back roads through Holne would allow this, albeit climbing to higher than 400m in the centre of the moor. This would be the highest altitude I'd ridden the bike in England for over ten years!

I quickly passed through Buckfastleigh, only narrowly avoiding being witness to a nasty accident between a lorry and car pulling out without looking. Buckfast is a strange place, being home to both a very large functioning Benedictine abbey, which also happens to be the site of manufacture of Buckfast Tonic Wine. Originally intended as a sort of cure-all, it has now become notorious for those that want to get blasted off their heads by its 15% alcohol-by-volume and caffeine content, and has been blamed as the primary cause of alcoholic social problems in some parts of Scotland. The monks still make millions selling it, and indeed so much is produced you can see it being transported out of Devon in a tanker.

Bucky tanker leaving Devon. Image: wikipedia.
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Past the abbey I elected not to try the wine, and pulled up into the very quiet backroads that would take me towards Scorriton and Holne, villages right on the edge of the moor. The climbing wasn't too bad, generally less than 10% and I felt pretty strong. The rain fell in a light mist and it was nice and cool. My strongest memory here is of a farmer out of sight in a field behind the hedge shouting at his sheep that they were "fucking idiots", which made me LOL.

Near Scorriton (100m ASL) I had originally plotted an off-road route that would take me directly up the hill to Holne at 150m, but one look at the slippery, muddy way and I decided to the slightly elaborate dog-leg on the road would be preferable. It was a stiff old climb, well over 15% even over the longer distance, so likely I would have slipped all the way back down on the mud.

Holne is right on the edge of the moor - the welcome official sign is just beyond the village - and it was all uphill from here, albeit on a reasonably steady 10% gradient. The landscape almost immediately opened out and instead of wooded valleys I was travelling through the open, dunn-coloured, vast tussocked expanse - dotted with high granite chimneys of the tors - characteristic of Dartmoor. To my delight the sun came out and I had some really spectacular views as I pulled up to Venford Reservoir at 300m ASL over the moorland plateau, which is undulates around this height. Shame I didn't have a camera!

Best I can do with streetview. Interestingly this is much greener than when I climbed this stretch - the very dry summer must have had an effect. It was sunny though!
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After crossing the small dam at the head of the reservoir - nearly all the water feeding Devon is collected on the moor, which given the quantity of precipitation is a no-brainer - I pulled over this plateau, the deep cutting and wooded bottom of the course of the Dart falling away to my right. I passed a chap in walking gear, who let me know "I'd done that far too fast!" - I grinned back as I was pretty happy with my pace, especially given my dodgy back.

The road passed Combestone Tor closely, which was surrounded by holidaymakers, some riding ponies - Dartmoor is the home of many semi-wild ponies, and is also a popular venue for horse riding as you can roam about almost the complete area with no obstruction. After that, I had almost 100m of descent to Hexworthy where I could try out my new brake pads (good!) but also curse that I would need to climb back up.

Hexworthy is miniscule - a hamlet really, with a pub and not much else - but it marks a bridge over the West Dart, so I could cross here and begin my climb to the "main" road, the B3357 that crosses the moor east-west. Climbing up was fairly tiring, but I didn't look as exhausted as a bunch of schoolkids doing "Duke of Edinburgh" training (this is an activity course that many school children in the UK do. As well as various community activities, there is inevitably some soggy hiking and camping involved). I managed to pass them with some effort, and resisted the urge to call them slowcoaches as I puffed on ahead.

Once on the B road I had some serious riding to do to climb up to 400m ASL - made trickier by the wind, which was now pretty insistent from the west. It was however far better than yesterday (which would have been unridable), and some wind on top of Dartmoor is pretty inescapable. After crossing the Dart again at the isolated pub at Two Bridges, I joined the broader road for the last few kilometers to Princetown. This was really gruelling, and I had to stop and down some of my tangerines. I was repeatedly overtaken by people on mountain bikes - it was only when they passed I realised these were e-bikes. Got quite a impressed look from them as they passed!

Princetown prison (credit wikipedia)
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Princetown is the only really settlement of any size on the moor, and exists almost wholly for the purposes of the big, forboding Victorian prison which dominates the town. The prison is built out of the very granite that forms the moor, and was notoriously difficult to escape from - it's commonly believed to be a high-security institution, but in fact is rather low category these days (for "those that are unlikely to escape"). The town is pretty much run by the Duchy of Cornwall, the Duke now our present King - hence the "Prince".

I couldn't actually be bothered to stop in Princetown - I was making great progress, and I'd actually planned an off-road finale that would take me all the way off the moor. While there was a B road that essentially led the same way, there was a well-established bridleway south-west all the way to Burrator reservoir on the west side of the moor. It would also mean I could turn south and get out of the cursed wind - which I thankfully did as I picked up the (initially) metaled road to Whiteworks.

After reaching Whiteworks and the high point of the day at 440m ASL, I would pick up the open and stony track that would lead me west around Cramber tor and over open moorland down to the reservoir. I avoided the route that leads out towards Nun's cross and Childe's tombe - this marks the entrance of Foxtor Mire, a notorious expanse of marsh that was made famous in The Hound of the Baskervilles which was set on Dartmoor - which would swallow me and the Blue Shift whole.

The track was fine, rideable, all downhill but extremely bumpy. I'd say it was marginally tolerable downhill on a loaded touring bike with no suspension, but would have been a trial in the other direction. For several miles I had the trail to myself, and was only passed later by a couple of kitted-out mountain bikers and a Dad and his son, with which I had a friendly chat. Again, beautiful scenery.

The same track, on a rather duller day. Photo credit: Grzegorz Bandalewicz
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I was quite relieved to reach Burrator without mishap. Here the trails become much more gentle, as this is a well established place for family outings and cycle routes. I sat and had a bite more to eat, and then circumnavigated the larger reservoir, marvelling at the sudden crowds of visitors.

From Burrator it's a simple ride to the village of Meavy, which is by the river of the same name, a tributary of the Plym. From here you can pick up Drake's trail, an amazing cycleway following the old railway up to Tavistock which follows the course of the river. Dead straight, the cycleway crosses the frequent valleys over really impressive viaducts, meaning there is barely any gradient and I found myself flying along towards Plymouth at over 20kph for the first time in the way.

The amazing Drake's trail crosses some impressive viaducts meaning you don't have to climb the hills. Image: Sustrans.
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Plymouth is the biggest city in the whole of the Devon and Cornwall, and - unless I wanted to head considerably north to the next bridging point of the river - was somewhere I had to travel through to cross the Tamar and hence enter Cornwall. Plymouth has both a (very impressive, Brunel-constructed) bridge over this huge estuary and a free ferry service, which I would take. While not a very cycle-friendly city - after being flattened during the war it was rebuilt with the main highway, the A38, right through it - fortunately the cycleway meant I could avoid much of the town through the large nature reserve of Saltram on the Plym estuary. 

I crossed under the highway, much amused by the giant graffiti someone had written visible to the roundabout above: "Fuck you Mum and Dad!" and crossed over the mouth of the Plym (joining the Tamar). I was quite relieved to find this was possible, as the geography was quite confusing and I couldn't see how else to get over the half-mile of water and reach the town. I then had a hilly ride through the industrial docks of Cattedown, including passing a gigantic smelly fish-processor, oh joy.

But straight out of Cattedown is the historical docks and waterfront of the city - famous as the launching point of the Mayflower, and surprisingly well-preserved. This is the Barbican fortress and the Plymouth Hoe, which forms the impressive park, promenade and marina of the city seafront. And no, I didn't find "the Plymouth Hoe" amusing until I was well out of secondary school - that's just what growing up in Devon was like...

Plymouth Hoe. Image: BBC, from this very funny article:
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From this salubrious district I proceeded west to Devonport. Devonport is the home of a very large Royal Navy dockyard - but despite this major source of employment is rather down-at-heel and deprived in places. I passed a number of sad looking characters and when I stopped the bike to go into a corner shop (to buy snacks and a ridiculous amount of sweets) I locked it up, which I normally don't bother to do.

Signs to the Torpoint ferry were obvious though and I quickly made my way to its docks. The ferry is an odd, shallow-drawing chain-linked thing, and cyclists and pedestrians can cross for free. A nice guy on a mountain bike beckoned me over to the right place to board, and soon we were clanking across the Tamar. I was back in Cornwall!

Torpoint on the other side is sadly also someone run down, but I was soon pulling out of town and up onto the Rame peninsular, which forms a "jaw" of south-east Cornwall. Though it was still afternoon and I was feeling good, I had to contend with the predominant geography of the region, which consists of steep-sided north-south valleys heading to the sea that I had to cross. The first ones, such as near the amusingly-named Crafthole, were good fun, and I managed to top 62kph on a particular clear and steep descent - pretty hairy considering how slowly I'd been crawling on rough terrain most of the day.

As I neared what I thought would my my last, at Millendreath, I approached through an off-road section (bizarrely past a howler monkey sanctuary) along the coast footpath, which was sandy and a little precarious. At the beach though, it soon became clear that I couldn't just continue on to Looe - the way was barred by cliffs and steep steps that were just impassable. Cursing, I resigned myself to another 100m pull up the hill to the main road entering Looe.

But it did have a silver lining - on the main road was a sign promsing "the best fish and chips in Cornwall", and nearby was The Coddy Shack. This huge barn of a place was essentially a fish-and-chips restaurant, and would serve me chips and cheese with Cornish beer I could eat at leisure. I should emphasize how unusual this sort of place is - fish and chip shops are nearly always small takeaways in the middle of towns. So I felt quite lucky as I enjoyed my calorific meal.

Unfortunately it was now dark and raining with increasing heaviness, and I had a good 10km to go to climb to the back of Polperro where the campsite was. I turned on all my lights, and bombed down into town. Crossing the Looe was fine, but then the only road out of town was the busy A387 which was pretty sketchy. It carried all the traffic out the town, struggling to get past me in the dark and poor visibility. The drivers were really careful and safe, full credit to them, but it wasn't much fun and I was glad to leave the road at the strangely named Barcelona. Then I was onto pitch dark single lanes with grass growing in the middle and struggling to see. It was also steep - an absolute punishing 19% gradient had me off and pushing, while a local oddball stood outside their house and shone their torch at me (what did they think I was doing?).

It was getting on for 7pm now and I hoped I'd be ok checking into the campsite. I was camping at Great Kellow farm, which is superb if you're going that way (really nice facilities, quiet and most importantly not crazy expensive - I paid under £10 - for just a tent). I arrived at the farm soaking wet and puddled about in the dark for a while, until I noticed the welcome sign and gave them a ring. The friendly proprietor let me know I could camp anywhere in the field, so I rather soggily pushed to behind the lee of an unoccupied caravan and got the tent up. Naturally it started raining as I was doing this - heavily in fact - and the inside of the tent got quite wet. Man, I was exhausted.

Next stop was a shower in the washblock. And they really are excellent people - free hot water and beautiful spacious and clean facilities. I got off my awful wet clothes, washed and warmed up and put on dry gear. My shoes were soaked, but couldn't do anything about that. Then I got a bit of hand-role and pretty effectively went and dried my tent (it wasn't too bad in fact).

For some reason I was determined to go into Polperro for a pint after that - it was still before 9, so why not? Down a very steep hill, I found the town was deserted. Finally I found a cozy looking pub, only to find I was the only customer other than the barkeeper's friend. Had a slightly weird couple of drinks while I read my book and eventually one other customer appeared, a Polish (?) lady. 

I called it a night and made my way back through the sleeping town, passing this lady and giving her a quick smile. "Someone is thinking of you!" she told me - I'm still not entirely sure what she meant!

It was a toil to get back up the hill to the campsite, but I fell into the sleeping bag and felt pretty good, even as the rain came down. My leg and back weren't really hurting and I slept well.

Cycling Time: 9hr 53
Calories burnt: 3,700 (replenished at least 1,000 of these with chips,  cheese and beer)
Distance: 109km
Climb: 2132m

Today's ride: 108 km (67 miles)
Total: 108 km (67 miles)

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