Micki Beck is a writer, cyclist, sailor, wife and mum from Cornwall.
She and her family love to explore by boat and bicycle. Last October they cycled the Devon Coast to Coast route into the headwinds of Storm Brian with their daughters (Ella, 1, in a trailer and Holly, 4, on a bike with a trail gaiter).
In this blog, Micki tells us about her experiences pedalling for four fun-packed days from Barnstable to Plymouth.
As time passes the years merge into a pool of memories, some vivid, some distant. The small things fade but it seems the adventures stay vibrant and clear, and the greater the effort the more firmly they’re fixed in the memory.
Life has a sneaky habbit of zipping by in a whirl of daily routine- the school run, food shopping, cleaning, cooking, work, on and on it goes. School also imposes unfortunate restrictions on the freedom to nip off on an adventure.
To stem that flow and mark the years with milestones of fun we’ve pledged to plan a variety of annual family antics, and October half-term is biking week. My husband Tim and I are keen (but to be honest pretty out of practice) mountain bikers. Our aspirations are to someday do some longer off-road camping rides with the girls.
The potential for cold, wet autumnal days in October steered our planning to look for a gentler introduction to bike touring for the two little ones. Living near Plymouth, the Devon Coast to Coast seemed like a great option, with the added bonus of starting with a train ride and cycling home.
The kit for a family cycling adventure
We carried all our kit in panniers- rear for me, front and rear for Tim. As the forecast was dire, we double bagged everything in ziplock bags and bin-liners. We packed the panniers so that everything we’d need during the day was in one place and we wouldn’t have to open the other bags in the rain.
Tim, in a moment of last-minute inspiration, bought a shower cap to cover Holly’s helmet and some clear safety glasses that kept the rain and wind out of her eyes. In combination with wellies, waterproof dungarees, coat, gloves, buff, hood and helmet our little trooper stayed warm and dry.
Ella had the relative luxury of the trailer. As it was previously untested we coated it in many a layer of waterproofing spray. In another moment of last-minute genius by Tim, we added the buggy rain cover over the whole trailer and Ella stayed perfectly dry, albeit a little steamy at times.
Bad weather beckoned
Scrolling through a news feed the night before we set-off brought word of an unwelcome addition to our party- Brian, Storm Brian that is! The Dawlish train line was closed due to high winds and it looked unlikely we’d even make it to the start in Barnstaple.
But with a new day brought new hope. The rain continued but the trains were running, and we loaded our three bikes, a trailer and two kids.
Transferring our load between trains and platforms was a real logistical operation. Thankfully the helping hands of fellow passengers and the wonderful station staff made light work of it.
Travelling’s a wonderful way to prove the generosity of human nature and this trip proved no exception.
The full route of the coast to coast starts in Ilfracombe. Not wanting to bite off more than we could chew we joined the trail heading south where the train line ends in Barnstaple. In short, skipping the first section.
The first day of our adventure
As we discharged from the train at Barnstaple, the glimmers of sun lasted long enough to get our rig on the road before the force of Brian hit us.
The flat open expanse of the Taw estuary left us exposed to the battering headwinds. They slowed us to a snail’s pace and shocked our legs into a burning, turning cycle of effort.
Our smaller crew picked the pit stops along our ride, of which there were many as we all got used to life on the road. The playground at Fremington proved excellent shelter for our first picnic lunch.
Ella vocally announced another stop was required near Bideford. She shouted full volume to get out of the trailer until we happened upon a pub serving cream teas in front of a roaring fire.
Spirits revived, the wooded Torridge valley gave a welcome respite from the wind.
It’s a great long traffic-free stretch, in fact it was pretty people free too as most sensible folk appeared to have made a drier plan for the half term. Aside from dodging the odd fallen branch on the path, Storm Brian did little to halt progress.
After a few navigational consultations, we turned off the track a little past Great Torrington. We cursed tired legs and heavy loads, but every puff and push were worth it for our overnight stop. We had reached our first stop-off at the Week Manor, where we were hosted by the lovely Lucy.
After the initial surprise that we hadn’t cancelled, we were greeted with wonderfully warming hospitality. It was wonderful to see and hear the enthusiasm and support for our silly venture. Praise and respect from people outside the family brings a new level of pride and confidence in little ones and it’s great to see them glow with their achievements. It was the best possible way to end a long and at times challenging day.
The rest of the journey
Another day, another round of wind and rain. Restored from our comfortable night's rest, we hit the Devon hills, rolling up and down the quiet lanes as we approached the edge of the moor.
The weighty tow behind each bike challenged our untrained legs and put us out of our comfort zone. We kept the distances short enough to be manageable and enjoyable.
The girls settled into life on the road quickly. Ella happily playing, snoozing and watching the world go by from her fug-filled trailer. Holly kept entertained by her electric horn (emitting an eclectic assortment of noises, from sirens to belly dancing music, neighing to buzzing bees).
By day three, Storm Brian was starting to fade. His feisty forcefulness diminished, leaving just a tail of soggy showers in his wake. The Granite way started our third leg with a refreshingly flat cruise.
There’s nothing like having two ticking time-bombs on the back with fuses of unknown length to keep the legs going. A bit of a balance is needed between pressing on while the going’s good but still making time to stop, explore and enjoy the sights on the way.
After the first day settling into the routine both girls amazed us with their stamina, patience and perseverance. We made sure they were dry, warm and well fed which proved enough to keep spirits up and the wheels rolling.
Sightseeing along the way
A castle is always excellent entertainment for the little ones, and the Saxon fortifications at Lydford were met with suitable enthusiasm.
The cake at the National Trust café nearby was met with equal enthusiasm on what was the most leisurely day of the trip.
The rolling lanes past the iconic church in South Brent delivered us to Tavistock in time to see the ducks on the canal and rumble on the playground before pub dinner- a winner all round.
The home stretch
Our last day started with a full English breakfast in the pub that set us up for the home run to Plymouth. Knowing this bit of trail well, we were surprised to find the up-hill to Yelverton easier than we remembered. Those three days on steep Devon lanes had obviously had some beneficial effect. We cruised down the Plym Valley, free-wheels clicking satisfyingly as our legs rested.
Our legs may have arrived in Plymouth rested, but our minds were unprepared for the shock of returning to civilisation.
After the tranquil beauty of four days of off-road riding, deserted lanes, wooded valleys and open moorland, landing into the urban rush of Plymouth hit our senses for six.
I love my cycle commute into Plymouth for work, but I can’t say that the last five miles home through the busy streets with tired legs and kids in tow after days of peaceful solitude was a pleasant experience.
We made it home without incident and what a feeling of achievement as we crossed the Tamar Bridge back into Cornwall, our journey complete. We did about 110 miles in total over four days and definitely achieved our aim of an amazing family adventure with memories that will last a lifetime.
Onto future adventures
I found the emotional effort of ensuring everyone else was happy, warm, dry and fed as great a challenge as the physical effort. But that’s a part of adventuring with a family and brings its own rewards.
The people we met were a total highlight of the trip, cycle touring gives an instant conversation starter and opens a world of kindness. I hope people know the value of their kindness that shapes us and our futures.
We could have happily kept going - so roll on next October half term. Hopefully, the adventures will grow with the years and one day Holly and Ella will be encouraging us to keep up as they set the route over hill and dale.