North Devon - Memory Lane
by Norman Hodghton
Way back in 1958, while I was still lived in London, three of us rode down to the West Country for a short tour. One day we crossed Exmoor and arrived at a bed and breakfast in the tiny village of Martinhoe, west of Lynmouth. In the evening the somewhat eccentric lady of the house insisted that we walk the coastal path to Hunter's Inn. So insistent was she that we wondered if she would post spies to make sure we did it. We never regretted taking her advice, as it was a wonderful evening walk around a part of that spectacular coastline.
47 years later, I decided it was time I did that track again, this time with the bike. And it was just as fine as I remembered it.
It was a glorious September day when I left the car at Simonsbath (GR 773394) and rode northwards over Prayway Head towards Lynmouth.
My original plan had been to ride to Martinhoe by way of the Valley of Rocks and Lee Abbey. That road is extremely hilly, so by the time I'd dropped down to Hillsford Bridge the plan was abandoned. Instead I rode towards Martinhoe through Barbrook and Martinhoe Common. Just short of the village, at GR671486, a narrow track descended through ferns and brambles to the start of the coast track. If I'd studied the map more carefully I would have seen that there is a tarmac road to that point, which would have saved me an uninteresting scramble down a steep muddy path.
Once on the track I found that most of it was ridable. The early section was through the trees so that the sea could only be glimpsed occasionally through the gaps, but a bit further on I was out in the open and the views were spectacular. The track is very wide, suggesting that long ago it had been a road. From the edge of the track the land drops away very steeply to the sea 198 metres (about 650 foot) below.
Knowing I had a long way to go to get back to the car, and it was now early afternoon, I tore myself away from the view and got back on the bike. The track was ridable, although a few times I walked because concentrating on watching for loose stones meant that I couldn't look at the views.
As the track swung southwards along the Heddon Valley it started to descend and entered a wooded area with moss coated trees growing down the hillside to the river. It was almost disappointing to arrive at Hunter's Inn, (GR 655482), with its cars and crowds. 2¾ miles had taken almost two hours, but that did include a leisurely lunch stop.
The number of cars at Hunter's Inn surprised me as the only access is by extremely narrow lanes with gradients of 25%, definitely not somewhere I would fancy driving. From here I intended to go up to the main road and then take a short cut across the hills back to Simonsbath. Of course these short cuts are usually short in distance only, not in time!
From Hunter's Inn I took the lane southwards beside the River Heddon. After a short way the gradient was such that there was no way I could ride, and sometimes I had to squeeze myself against the bank to let cars go past.
On the busy A39 I turned left and rode for about a mile before turning right at GR686464 and along the rough lane towards Woolhanger. Amongst the farm buildings is a large ecclesiastical looking building. Known as the Music Room it was built in the 1890's to house a large pipe organ. The organ has now gone and the Music Room is in a rather poor state of repair.
There was no time to see if I could have a closer look (I don't even think that is possible) as I wanted to get back to the car before dark. Beyond Woolhanger there was a small muddy ford with a wooden bridge, and from there the track was clear, if not always ridable. The field gates had blue way-marks on them, but when I reached the second gate I found myself looking at a field with no sign of a path at all. I decided that if I kept going in the same direction I should arrive at Thornworthy, (GR710458), where I could pick up the track south over towards Simonsbath.
If I had looked more carefully at the map, and if I'd brought my compass, I would have realised that this was not the way to go.
After blundering around in gorse bushes, I saw the roof of a house, which I presumed to be Thornworthy, but which seemed to be impossible to reach. Finally I found a gate marked "Private" which led to a good track. As there appeared to be no other possible route I ignored the sign and went through. Emerging at the farm-house I discovered I was at Shallowford, south of Thornworthy, and on my route across the moor. Turning south the track climbed steadily, sometimes ridable, at other times fairly easy walking. At Saddle Gate the terrain changed to much softer ground and a very indistinct path. Fortunately Wood Barrow (GR716425) was clear on the skyline so I could head for that. This section would be very boggy after wet weather, but I reached Woodbarrow Gate with dry feet; obviously not proper rough-stuff!
I was now at the highest point of my day at 480 metres (1460 feet), with wild moorland spreading out on all sides. There were few sounds beside the occasional sheep, and the wind ruffling the pale grass. It was down hill from here for the last mile to the road, two miles back to the car with the setting sun at my back, and then the long drive home.
A wonderful day out; highly recommended.
I was using OS 1:25,000 Outdoor Leisure sheet 9.