It is a cold morning with a heavy frost on the ground as I make an early start to get to Barnstaple. This is because being the winter it will get dark early and this is (for me at the time), a long walk. At the time I was living in Exeter so have a walk down to Exeter St Davids station and take the train from there to Barnstaple. The train takes around 1 hour.
Barnstaple station marks the start of my walk today as the South West Coast Path shares the route of the Tarka trail here, which follows the route of the former Barnstaple to Bideford railway line for it’s length. Barnstaple station was once a hub of rail services in North Devon (and was called Barnstaple Junction), but today only the line south to Exeter remains, which I have just travelled on. That said a train did travel from Barnstaple to Bideford back in 2011, but it might not be what you think!
The Tarka Trail over these old railway lines is also a popular cycle route and a cycle hire facility operates from Barnstaple station. I have to go just next to the railway station and I am now on the route, which follows the old railway line. The road network around here has changed since this walk was done, but as far as I know you can still walk the route without needing to cross any major roads.
I am using a film camera on this walk, as it was a long time ago. Unfortunately, after starting the walk I noticed that I don’t have many photos left to take on the roll of film and don’t have a spare. This means I take only a few photos of this walk so as to avoid running out. It is a pleasant surprise to be able to start this walk directly from the railway station.
The coast path and Tarka Trail run right alongside the river initially with a good view back to Barnstaple but also the industry alongside the town centre. Soon there is an area of saltmarsh beside the river, a sign things are becoming more rural. There is also some marshy land to my left and a line of trees between the path and the houses beyond, so Barnstaple is largely our of sight. After around a mile there is a grassy promonotary sticking out into the river, Penhill Point. The coast path does not go out to this though and it looks to be only fields so I don’t bother either, although there is a bridlepath marked on the map that goes near to the end of this little spit.
Rounding the corner I am soon crossing Fremington Pill, a muddy inlet of the river. This crosses the river on the old railway bridge. Looking upstream it is muddy but I expect at high tide and with the sun out it would be very beautiful. Once over the stream the path continues on the old railway line with Fremington and Fremington Camp away to the left, but largely hidden by trees. Soon to the right there is another area of fields and marsh to the right of the path, Home Farm Marsh but as before the path does not go out around it’s edge and neither do I (and in this case there isn’t a footpath to it either).
Soon the fields on the right end and there is a saltmarsh once more, Isley Marsh. I suspect the fields I had been passing on my right are re-claimed land and this is what most of the river side would look like if nature was left to take it’s course. At the end of this marsh the South West Coast Path leaves the Tarka trail for a short while to go around a scrubby area of land, East Yelland Marsh. This land was formerly developed and is not very inviting. I soon pass a large jetty possibly still in use.
Soon this industry ends and the path continues, away from the Tarka Trail around the edge of fields on the left with marshes to the right. I pass another jetty and am now heading south along the mouth of the River Torrington which I follow into Bideford. There is a bit of a sandy beach here on the left although being this close to the river estuary I am sure it turns muddy at lower tide.
The path briefly leaves the coast again to go around the back of a cricket ground and then returns to the river mouth once more. Again there is a sandy beach here, but this one looks better and has a surprisingly large dune system behind it. A hint that I am nearing the coast once more although not for long as I continue south to Bideford, heading back inland along the estuary.
After this sandy beach the coast path joins the coastal road, Marine Parade which runs right alongside the estuary. On the other bank of the river I can see Appledore.
It is a lovely view, despite the grey and overcast weather and Appledore looks equally pleasant.
Soon I reach Instow quay and there is a ferry from here to Appledore and this makes me wonder why the South West Coast Path does not use it, given that it on many other parts of the South West coast the path crosses via the first ferry, rather than walking around to the first bridge. It seems an odd ommision. Not that there is anything wrong with Bideford but it does not seem worth making a special diversion to. Perhaps it was uncertainty over the ferry, as the service did cease around 2007 but was re-started by volunteers in 2011. It seems to have been a big success, as it proved so popular a second boat was introduced in 2013. I consider taking the ferry, but decide to continue with the walk into Bideford. I continue along Marine Parade, enjoying the view over the estuary to my right, which despite the grey and overcast weather is still beautiful. I continue along Marine Parade to the route of the old railway line.
Here I am surprised to see that what was obviously once a level crossing still has it’s signal box and sign beautifully preserved. There is a sign here saying it has been restored and is sometimes open to the public. I would like to have a look around but sadly today is not one of the days it is open. Instead I pass it and re-join the Tarka Trail which the South West Coast Path follows from here for the rest of the way. I am also surprised to see a small stretch of track still in existence here. Ahead I can see an old signal and the platform of the old Instow Station, also still intact. Having followed this route it really does seem it would take little more than re-laying of the track to re-open it. I wonder if it will ever happen?
After the old station the track and footpath return to the river edge, with a boat yard on the right. I’m sure this must have been a very scenic rail route when it was opening, running right along the rivers edge. For the rest of the walk the Tarka trail runs alongside the B3233 road which means there is some traffic noise although the railway being surrounded by trees for much of the route shields this a bit.
Soon the trees end and I am treated to an un-interrupted view back over the river again to the edge of Appledore and it’s shipyard. I remember at the time the shipyard was in the news as it was in financial trouble. Thankfully it was saved and continues to operate. Soon I come to another slipway, this time surrounded by barbed wire and warning notices, as is the building to my left. I am not sure what this is but suspect it has military connections.
The next mile or so of the walk is very simple, just keeping to the railway line right along the rivers edge, as I can see the start of Bideford on the other bank and the road crossing over the river here. I had wondered why the coast path did not cross on the A39 bridge rather than go into the town centre but now I am here I can soon see why – the bridge is much higher than I had expected, and really towers over the river here. The B3233 has to go through quite a complex junction to gain enough height to to reach the A39 above (I notice on modern maps the road south of here is now the A386, but on my map it is the B3233).
Although I am nearing Bideford the path remains quite rural with salt marsh to my right and woodland to my left for much of the time. To my left the road (the A386) is busy and the traffic noise is starting to intrude. Ahead I can see the Long Bridge in Bideford. This is an attractive stone bridge, dating from 1474. The arches of the bridge are all different width and it is said this is because of the different organisations that contributed to it’s funding – the width said to be proportional to the amount of money given.
Soon I reach the edge of Bideford with the river views to my right replaced with white painted blocks of flats. The path soon passes under the bridge carrying the A386. Under this little tunnel the path is a pleasant green corridor through the town. I continue and soon reach the old railway station, with the platforms still in place but no track. To my right is the Royal Hotel which I suspect was once the old station building. What I am surprised to see a little ahead is a railway carriage. I continue ahead to take a look around and find that on what I presume is the old sidings area a little station has been set up along with a short stretch of track. Train rides are apparantly available here in the summer.
I have a quick look in the carriage which is open and houses a small shop. Once I’ve had a look around I take the path down to the road and cross the bridge. I am actually in a place called East-the-Water rather than Bideford itself, with the main town being across the river. I cross the river in search of the bus back to Barnstaple.I can see a bus station marked on the map just over the river. I go here and find the right bus stop for the bus back to Barnstaple. I don’t have long to wait and am soon on a bus back to Barnstaple. This drops me at the bus station in Barnstaple. From here I walk back to the station for the train back to Exeter.
I am waiting at the station for the train, which has only a few minutes to turn around here. After the time the train was meant to arrive comes and goes I become concerned. A few minutes late the train does arrive, although it is only a single carriage so not sure if it really qualifies as a train! I get on and it quickly becomes apparant there is a problem – the lights are all off and it is now dark and it is cold inside. The guard quickly comes around to explain that the train suffered an electrical fault on the way to Barnstaple. As a result there are no lights working either inside or outside and the heating has broken too. About the only things working are the engine and the doors. He explains that as a result of the train having no lights, we will be limited to 25mph on the way back to Exeter. I am surprised the train is not cancelled (I suspect with all the Health and Safety today it would be today), but since the line from Barnstaple to Eggesford is single track anyway they would have to get this train to Eggesford (where there are 2 tracks) before another train could reach Barnstaple.
We therefore have a slow and dark journey back to Eggesford, the mid-way point on the line. Because of the delay we now have to wait for the train coming from Exeter which is occupying the single track line from here to Crediton. We were meant to pass at Crediton further south down the line, but because of the delay to our train the train from Exeter is already on it’s way to Eggesford so we must pass here. However there is some better news in that the train crew contacted Exeter and the train is carrying an oil lamp (oil? really? I amazed such things are still used) which can be attached to the front of the train, enabling it to continue at full speed to Exeter. Thankfully this is the case and oil-lamp fitted we can now run at full speed for the rest of the journey back to Exeter. Although the train was due to continue to Exmouth it is soon announced that owing to the problems with the train it will terminate at Exeter St Davids. We arrive around an hour late and very cold, due to the lack of heating. It was certainly an eventful journey!
Here is details of the public transport needed for this walk.
Stagecoach Devon 21 : Westward Ho! or Appledore – Northam – Bideford – East-the-Water – Fremington – Bickington – Barnstaple – Braunton and Ilfracombe