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Devon TRF Coast 2 Coast 2016

Prologue


Another year, wow they come round quick don't they? After last year's success we decided to return to Yeatheridge Farm in central Devon as our base camp for the Coast 2 Coast weekend. Well with fresh meat from the farm, washed down with Otter's Amber on tap, and accompanied by top quality banter what more would you want? Oh yeah brilliant lanes that would help! Well we're in Devon, so no problem there. The principle of the weekend is simple - ride to the north coast one day and the south coast the next; simples! That entails having a leader with a grand plan and the enthusiasm to sit in the saddle for over 100 miles each day. On Saturday there were 7 riders in each group and as I was leading south on Sunday; I on my Serow, teamed up with Boz (TTR Yamaha), Steve (TTR Yamaha), Roger (XR250), Andre (XR250) and Jim our leader on a new fangled water cooled (oo eerr!) WR 400cc+ something Yamaha. It was great to be out with folk I'd not ridden with before, having only been out with Andre once before on his previous bike a Shineray, when he managed to get a puncture, but now having replaced it with a 75,000 mile Honda XR250, an interesting choice! But he'd ridden in Wales a few weeks earlier successfully and had a meaty new knobbly tyre on the back and a trigger happy right wrist - so bring on the slippery shale of North Devon! Before we set off he did note to me a couple of interesting 'farkles' on the venerable XR. A cunning and easily accessible small nic nac storage area around the gearbox output shaft, just room between the somewhat worn shaft and the gear lever to store a drill bit and nail..... hmmm very handy! Though the looseness of the lever suggested he could have also accommodated some mole grips, an adjustable spanner and may be his lunch.....

The off!
Around ten o’clock and the early morning drizzle had moved away to leave overcast but dry conditions, with a damp road under tyre. Yeatheridge Farm near Chawleigh is nice and central, but lanes are a bit thin on the ground within a 10 mile radius so we put in a bit of roadwork to travel north east towards the A361 North Devon Link road, 'link' meaning linking one traffic jam to the next.... The first lane at Ash Moor was a nice loosener, a bit of mud, shale and a gentle climb up from a farm. No dramas, rabbits scurrying and squirrels darting along at the side of the lane kept us company and reminding us that the season of mellow fruitfulness was upon us, with turning leaves indicating that harvest was upon us. We proceeded north. My biggest problem was the Serow's rather squirrely rear end not providing much grip on the damp tarmac, Boz noting my rather tiptoe style approach to tight bends. Just up the road we came to Batsworthy, a lovely lane down through a copse of deciduous hazel and oak to a drop into a water splash, up the muddy bank the other side, up along the edge of a slippery field, then through a farm at the end. I missed it, but apparently a little old lady was shaking her fist at him for riding an albeit legal lane. That or maybe she was inviting the hirsute, raffish young Rog in for a cuppa, with her come hither eyes…. who knows…. 

A nice loose, stony lane at Westacott brought us across the rare and now protected Culm grasslands of Beaples Moor and a run down to Bish Mill just outside of South Molton. So far, so good, but all straightforward lanes. We crossed the river Mole on a lovely lane leading into North Molton which has a rocky run down to the river, across a bridge, replacing an old ford and then a steady climb to the end. Here we had the first glimpse of the Devonian period metamorphic grey shales, generating greasy steps, something we'd need to get used to, as we'd be encountering it for the next few hours. At the end of the lane, we found out that Andre's handy mutlipurpose output shaft/nic nac pouch may not be patentable as he’d hoped, as his drill bit and nail had disappeared and the gear stick now flopped helplessly on the smooth peg that once was a splined shaft.

Hmmm, Roger said he had some small mole grips which could be used as a get you home solution, but I noted that JJ Garage was open and surely they could spot weld the gear lever on the stump for him so he could ride for the rest of the day. He rode the bike over in 3rd gear and threw himself on their mercy. Jim accompanied him to translate his Afrikaans twang, we were after all in mid Devon. We all had some refreshment and made our way across to see if he'd persuaded them to help. Well their website has a testimonial saying "friendly, honest and reliable" and they were right as they welded the gear stick a good'en, minding to keep plenty of water and a damp rag around the output seal to avoid it melting and spilling the contents of the engine on the floor. Mind you, most of the oil, we noted, was coming out of the exhaust in the form of acrid blue smoke. Though Andre was quite aware of this and had an engine out-strip down planned to both rectify the output shaft and sort out the piston rings/valves or whatever were allowing oil to escape into the combustion chamber. That assuming he could get the venerable Honda back to camp, that is. 

 

The going gets more technical
After that amusing interlude, we said our goodbyes to our new found buddies in JJ Garage and set off to do the very pleasant and quite technical lanes around Popham in the Bray Valley. The lanes provide everything typical of Devon, a muddy lane, dense grey green tufts of marram grass signifying the damp nature of the terrain. Dropping into the valley brought us to Newtown Bridge and a technical climb up what is almost a stream, tumbling down the cleave in the valley, a few steps, a tight turn , then into a lose rock and odd stepped lane to the top at Walcott Farm for a well-earned fag break. I'd only ever been down it and considered Jim a bit of a masochist or sadist could be either I guess, taking us up it. But in between drags on his much needed fag and as he exhaled smoke into the pristine Devon air, wisps dancing in the air before drifting across the valley of patchwork fields and up into the clearing skies, he cleared his throat and shared a few words of wisdom with me. "At least travelling uphill you have control of your own destiny, if you've grip, throttle control and a modicum of balance then there's nothing to stop you. Coming down once gravity takes control and you lock up your back brake then you've little control left." hmmm, wise words indeed. You never stop learning with folk like Jim and Roger out on a ride with you. They're not what you'd call athletes in the strict sense of the word….., but they are both trail fit and technically accomplished. Both ride in a similar manner really, rarely standing up but rarely putting a foot down.   
Speaking of modicum of balance....  I think this may have been the first lane Andre came to grief, the nobbly tyres not aiding progress on wet, off cambered rock. After befriending the farm dogs and having a drink we carried on to an extension of the lane, fairly easy and down through a managed coniferous woodland onto the A399 and back to Newtown Bridge to do 'carnage lane'. Never a title to offer much succour to cowardly folk such as I and a nervous looking Andre. Roger regaled us with yarns about the Bristol TRF coming to grief on the rocky ascent, trying to decide on the best line, "yeh but, no but, yeah but, no but, those rock steps are well 'ard, like that time Brad got a stiffy behind the bike sheds....you Devon boys must be totally mental if you fink we can ride up there" I guess they must have muttered in a Vicky Pollaresque way amongst themselves.  

Anyway, in the event it rode OK, Jim disappeared into the distance, Steve let me pass him as he switched on his video camera, the swine... but with a steady throttle opening on the Serow up I went with no drama. That Serow may be a girl’s bike but boy she can climb. In the event, there were few dramas, I think Andre may have had a lie down, but it happened so frequently they all blur into one :-) (it's all banter till someone cries....). Further north skirting the edge of Exmoor we took in the rather lovely lanes around Bratton Fleming, the first a slow descent into a copse area with rocks and gullies, then back up to the town on an easy, but rocky ascent. The lane north of the village is a peach, over a mile long, with a long stony climb, graded to a degree a few years ago, when it was a real technical climb, but still requiring you to hang on, gun it up the rocky slope through the mixed deciduous and conifer wood, and out into a field. Logging operations had cut things up a bit to make it a bit more interesting. A brilliant lane and one where you begin to feel your arms at the end of it. Up past Arlington Court, a National Trust house busy at the back end of the season, some event on I guess, and onto another open lane leading to a stream splash brought us up to Berry Down. 
Refueling in Ilfracombe and stocking up on sausage rolls and pasties was next on the agenda. The lads being amused that the girl in the bakery was using a calculator to compute simple maths she should have done in her head, only to have the calculator seemingly generating the wrong answers - their first time in 'Combe, obviously…. This was the moment the sun broke through, illuminating Ilfracombe in all of its faded Victorian grandeur, the rustling of polyester accompanying the last of the late summer's tourists wandering aimlessly along the High Street. Such a pretty place, surrounded by an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but somehow seems to have struggled to recover ever since the train line closed in 1970. Even Damien Hirst's influence has only led to a slow recovery of the harbour area, Verity providing a talking point if nothing else.  

Still up over the Torrs and onto the coastal path and we lunched at one of the best, or at least most beautiful lanes in the county, overlooking the Severn Estuary across to Wales and the Gower to the north, Lundy Island to the west and Ilfracombe nestling in a cleft in the cliffs below us. The ride up from Langleigh Lane was a little slippery and rocky, meaning that Andre took his obligatory closer look at the geology, bending his footpeg a bit. We ate our lunch, staring contemplatively out to sea, the view crisp across the 10's of miles of Welsh coast, Port Talbot, Swansea, Gower and beyond, we were very luck to catch it at its best. Digesting Yum Yums from the bakery - pecan and cinnamon variety – yuuummmy; folk took the opportunity to carry out a little bike fettling. Steve tightened the chain on his TTR whilst continuing to berate Andre about his lack of maintenance before we set off down the hill, Andre searched for a large rock to hit his XR with, but to no avail, only cow pats and gorse on top of the Torrs I told him. This required him to set off bumping the XR down the track as the kick start was now catching on the peg and we pootled through the picture postcard Lee Bay and out through the village over the hill and down a grassy lane into the back of Woolacombe, a lane I'd not done before so was happy to tick another of the 1000+ Devon lanes off my list. A pleasant run down through Woolacombe and across the back of the beach, which for the start of September was still bustling, the warm weather we've been experiencing luring them out before the autumn sets in with brisk souwesterlies and copious rain no doubt. Up over the hill covered with bracken just turning russet and along the edge of a field at Little Roadway farm, before ducking into a slightly overgrown high hedged lane full of brambles, hazel and ferns brought us up to Oxford Cross. Here was once the home of Henry Williamson, famous for writing the classic Devon biography of Tarka, the Otter published in 1927, now much exploited by marketing folk in Devon to advertise long distance paths, tennis centres, radio stations, pottery, all the way through to selling curries - the Tarka Curry - a bit like a normal curry, but a little 'otter.......
                     
Another new lane for me brought us into the back of the Manor in Croyde and a piping hot cuppa and cake fresh from the oven, welcomed us at Jim's gaff, kindly supplied by his wife. Judicious use of a jemmy on Andre's peg, bent it back to clear the kickstarter, it bent with surprising ease actually..... We lounged around for a while enjoying the sun and chatting before noting that it was mid afternoon and we'd completed about half the run; the easier half! All day folk, well Roger and Steve really, had been needling Andre about the bike and rider breaking lane at Snapper and you could see his anxiety levels rising when the name was mentioned. So they took great delight in noting how close we were getting to the inevitable. 
Tighty Whities
Before the challenges of Snapper and Goodleigh, we looped around the delightful lanes of my home village of Braunton. First up was a rocky climb then sharp left into a very tight wooded lane, full of small shrubs, holly, squeezing between trees, ducking brambles before we popped out after a few hundred yards onto tarmac once more, Boz cursing such lanes, much preferring more open, flowing ones. Jim pointed out that the lane continued on the other side of the road, but at first glance you would not know it, as it looked impenetrable. No one fancied it, but Steve, never shirking a challenge and it only being a few hundred yards long (I've switched from using metres post Brexit...) disappeared into the undergrowth and was quickly swallowed, vanishing to an uncertain fate. We rode the road around and initially passed the other end without noticing it, but doubled back and waited, and waited, 5 or 10 minutes passed and we began to hear a revving TTR in the distance, revving hard, stopping, a pause, starting, revving hard, stopping. This carried on for some time whilst Boz made some fairly uncomplimentary remarks about Steve and his decision to ride it - watch the video! Eventually the revving got louder and there was shaking of the brush a few yards out and out popped Steve's head above the brambles and one last push and out he burst - pushing the bloody bike - boy did he get ragged for that!

The lane at Nethercott is one of my favourites, difficult to say why, but it typifies Devon lanes really; a loose rock climb, fun, rather than gnarly, then a narrow slightly rutted grassy run above a copse and below the old Iron Age fort of Knowle Hill Castle (nothing much left bar the faint outline of the fortification) and on down across the old railway line and quaint stone bridge across pretty river Caen. We crossed the busy A361 and up Silver Street to another rocky, but straightforward climb up past Chapel Hill. Here there’s another fascinating piece of history as to why the chapel was abandoned in favour of St Brannocks at the bottom of the hill in a pig field beside the sparkling waters of the river Caen. At the top of the hill we turned left down Jenny Wrens a steep wet, grassy, then rocky lane running back down to the main road and to what was once the cafe called Jenny Wrens. I locked up the rear drum brake on the Serow and slewed down the steep bit, just keeping control, trying to mimic an ABS brake clamping it on and off to keep control. We all made it down safely and it here that I began to realize and note that a lot of folk much prefer riding up knarly climbs relying on their own skill rather than be at the mercy of gravity coming down. Jim noted this on the technical climb near Brayford where I'd only ever ridden down being too scared to ride up. Having said that, I've fallen there once on the rocks and nearly binned it every time I've ridden it, so may be there is some method in what appears to be their madness.
Wet Whoops
Yet another narrow, rather excellent rocky climb brought us off the A361 and up to Winsham Down before riding a farm track with big whoops. The rain of Friday had filled them to an alarming depth for short arsed Serow riders! Still I (for once) selected the least worst option and the left hand rut was deep but the Serow pushed an impressive bow wave and we made it through moist but motor running. Looking back Steve had stalled and seemed to have partially drowned his bike and Roger being a decent sort of chap, sought to finish the drowning process by blasting past on the opposite rut. Only problem was as it was now warm and sunny so he'd left his jacket open! He pulled up beside me dripping wet and squeezing litres, sorry gallons of water out of his gloves. Steve's TTR spluttered into life and he waded out of the water and stopped to drain water out of the airbox. Rather hilariously after berating Andre for poor maintenance, the air filter of the TTR looked like it hadn't been cleaned for years, black and claggy, Steve quickly closed the box before I could take photographic evidence of his shoddy maintenance regime! 


 
A quick blast across Fullabrook Down past the impressively large wind turbines which now dominate the skyline across N Devon and indeed the SW in general brought us down to Muddiford and a broken tarmac lane into the Bradiford Water valley just north of Barnstaple. I knew the next lane, pretty much the only one linking across from Barnstaple to the Goodleigh area, and my recollection was that it was pretty muddy at the bottom with a greasy, rocky climb onto the A39. But that's the thing with lanes, seasons, council intervention, TRF maintenance, 4x4 'action', farmer flailing, climate change, water erosion, they change and some tidying up by the council apparently had nicely drained the low lying bottom end and we breezed through without a second thought. Even Andre stayed right side up (it's all banter till someone cries....)…. 
Snapper and bike breaker
Straight across the A39 and I could tell Andre's sphincter was twitching as he enquired to Jim as to when Snapper lane was coming and Jim replied "one after next". A mile or so took us up a byway into Goodleigh past an affable chap leading a cobby horse down the lane to the aforementioned 'notorious' Snapper lane which really is a Goodleigh lane as Snapper is located down below in the Yeo Valley. I know the area well because as kids we used to ferret under rocks for bull heads, or Miller's Thumbs as they are also known, either way, ugly fish, much easier to catch than trout...   It was here I remembered 'Snapper' as I've rode it a few times coming down to visit my parents in Braunton and the last time, almost lost the front end of the DR as it tried to wash out on the slippery stone steps. A couple of local lads on noisy 2 smokes kindly had to stop to let me totter down past then. Poor buggers - there’s no way they'd get going again, though I guess being young and mental they probably turned around, dropped back to the bottom and hooned up the steps once more. As Jim had noted early on - may be riding up horribly technical lanes is better than skidding down them, though as we all successfully reached the top, including Andre, I wondered if he too now had skid marks... (it's all banter till someone cries....). Still we made it, and Steve thanked me copiously for not stopping/stalling in front of him on the way up! But I'd grown in confidence over the course of the day and was unfazed by the climb, simply pointed the Serow uphill, selected 1st gear, steady throttle opening and hang on! Simples! 
The great thing about the Goodleigh area is that, there are loads of steep trails/byways out of the valley, so we dropped back to the river through a bit of a forest, again loose at times, locking up the back wheel here and there but no dramas. Back down the road and up back up another byway again, rocky, loose but steady and then moved onto the lovely long lane out through to Stoke Rivers. Another favourite of mine, it goes on and on, first with great views across Bideford/Barnstaple Bay if you look behind you, then dropping into a tributary of the Yeo, splashing across the stream before rising again, avoiding the holly bushes and wash out to the hamlet at the top. In summer the top end is full of foxgloves in the open areas, but they'd gone over and what was left was green foliage beginning to tinge red with the onset of autumn.  


Time was wandering on and Jim took us up towards Swimbridge via a long slow descent down to Riverton fishery. The lane is not particularly exciting, but was made more interesting by the dense foliage now occupying the track, Not much traffic had obviously come through this was for a while and we were 'pioneering' a new track through the dense undergrowth, it went a bit like this, hazel branches poking at the side of your body, holly scraped across your arm, brambles as thick as your thumb dangling down from overhead meaning you had to duck and dive and like submarines passing through a mine field, carefully scraping past, hoping not to hang yourself up in one, then some nettles, a bit of bracken, more hazel, then more brambles, it was a game of Russian roulette that only had one outcome. Eventually, you 'hooked' into a bramble, and even though we were travelling at less than walking pace, we were still carrying a fair amount of momentum when you add say 120kg of bike, 70 odd Kg rider and gravity pulling you downhill. Inevitably once hooked, the bramble slowly but inexorably ripped your face apart until it ran out of length and flicked over your head awaiting the next victim. Boz, I thought must be loving this lane, bumping down the rocks up ahead. Near the bottom, I got caught and felt the thick thorn slice the top of my nose and a warm trickle of blood run down my chin and drip on my tank. Just in front of me Andre caught a large rock with his front wheel and down he went. This time with the lane being narrow and us now being in a bit of a gully, he was trapped under the bike, so rather than filming him (wow - I must be going soft in my old age...) I hopped off the Serow and wedged myself into the bank behind the XR and tried to get a grip on the Honda, noticing blood running off his fork boot - my blood! I heaved it up only to have it fall over on the other side! oops I don't know my own strength, that or as I lost balance I had 2 options, (i) step forward and grab the bike, with the sprawled Andre and his groin being just about the place where my lunging foot would fall or (ii) let it go over, I think I made the right decision for all of us...   Yet again this latest excursion to the ground bent his peg towards the kickstarter. To add insult to injury as he free wheeled down the hill he also caught a bramble in the face. At the bottom of the lane we took stock, Boz, Andre and I were all bloodied but unbowed and having been photographed for posterity, wore our wounds with pride. Andre managed to stamp the footpeg back into place, a bit easier to bend this time than the last..... 


A pleasant climb brought us to the top of the valley via a couple of switchbacks and along few hard bottomed wide tracks up to the lovely view point at Codden Hill, sadly you can no longer reach the top of the hill by bike, but instead we ate the last of our rations and had a refreshing sip of water in the car park, with views across the rolling Devon countryside. "One more lane" Jim urged us on to the UCR at Heaton, commonly known as 'bike breaker lane' hmmmm, poor Andre battered but unbowed pointed the XR into the lane which started off wide down to a brook, but which turned rather nasty travelling up the other side through deep wash outs, stones, and rock. I remembered the lane as one Newbie Jim refused to go up a couple of years ago when we saw the severity. Andre's a game lad though and pinned his ears back and aimed the XR uphill, trying to keep to the high ground above the gully, I dropped in and bounced my way along, the headlight now beginning to illuminate the verdant green moss and ferns growing in the shaded and enclosed lane. One of the many squirrels we'd seen all day scurried along in front of me preparing for winter, the horse chestnuts now disgorging their beautifully patterned, shiny conkers, onto the ground for them to gather and store for the winter. 


Ahead of me still Andre clung to the bank above the washout, until he came to a holly bush, hesitated and put out his left foot down to steady himself. Unfortunately as he was teetering 18 inches above the gully putting out a foot out only found thin air and then gravity took over and he toppled into the gully as it swallowed him up. This time he was not pinned under his bike and did not require my 'help' with extricating himself. The foot rest was now quite floppy and bendable by hand, then it dawned on us what the problem was - the frame had snapped either side of the footpeg mount, rust and 75,000+ miles finally taking their toll. Andre gingerly rode out of the lane out onto the road taking in a challenging step with the front end of the XR pawing the sky but thankfully not looping out. At that point with doubts about the rigidity of Andre's frame, and that of the bike.... a hot shower and cold beer straight from the Otter barrel was calling us, so we pinned our ears back and bombed down he Taw valley on the old Exeter road then cut up through Chawleigh and back to camp. The shadows lengthening and the clearing sky giving way to a chilly breeze I was not upset to get back and get stuck into the BBQ! Whilst flipping burgers and supping on copious Otter Amber supplied by the pint by my 'runner' Nick, I finally sussed out why Andre had made so many excursions into the undergrowth, he must have been emulating the squirrels and trying to bury his nuts! 

By Sean Comber
September 2016