Walk - Torridge Tarka Trail
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2019. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From Instow's quay, with your back to the sea, turn right and walk to the station, crossing the line and turning right to walk along the old platform.
The 48-mile River Torridge rises near Hartland and flows in a loop through the lush pastureland and ancient woodland surrounding Bideford and Torrington. It joins the River Taw a short distance downstream from Instow, and the Taw-Torridge estuary is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) for its wading birds, wildfowl and other wildlife. The Torridge is also home to salmon, sea trout and brown trout, as well as one of the country's biggest otter populations. Henry Williamson's 1927 novel, 'Tarka the Otter', tells of the adventures of a local otter, and the 163-mile figure-of-eight pedestrian and cycleway, the Tarka Trail, travels through the landscape that Williamson described. 31 miles of the trail follows the old railway from Braunton to Meeth.
Across the river, the picturesque village of Appledore has a centuries-old history of fishing, and its fishermen's cottages front onto cobbled streets. A ferry runs between the two villages for two hours either side of high tide, and pushchairs, bikes and dogs are all welcome on it.
During the Second World War, a pillbox was built by the quay, and Instow and Appledore were both sites for emergency coastal batteries, part of Southern Command's coastal defences. Instow's battery, built of concrete and mounting two 4-inch naval guns, was manned by 398 Coast Battery of the Royal Artillery. The beach was also an important training area for the Normandy Landings, being tidal but sheltered from the Atlantic breakers, and with dunes alongside. American troops were billeted in the big houses along the seafront in 1943, and the same year they also built Fremington Training Camp as a hospital and rehabilitation centre. For two or three decades after the war, the amphibious military vehicles known as DUKWs were a familiar sight on both sides of the estuary as the Training Camp became the HQ of various Royal Army Service Corps/Royal Corps of Transport amphibious squadrons. The camp later became known as Arromanches Camp, in honour of the small fishing village on the Normandy 'Gold Coast' which saw much of the D-Day action after it was chosen as one of two sites for Mulberry Harbours. These concrete landing stages were built in sections on England's south coast and towed across the Channel where they were used for landing troops. Today Instow is twinned with Arromanche.
The Royal Marines 11 (Amphibious Trials and Training) Squadron, 1 Assault Group, still use four of the wartime DUKWs for training on the beach. The terrain offers an opportunity to train in extreme conditions of sea and surf, enabling marines to carry out training drills for boat work for the landing craft ranks, and wading drills for drivers from the Landing Craft Utility.
TV's 'Top Gear' programme also took advantage of the amphibious training facilities, when Jeremy Clarkson stormed ashore in a souped-up Ford Fiesta, pitting himself against simultaneous helicopter-borne assaults launched using two 847 Squadron Lynx Mark 7 aircraft. Screened in December 2008, the programme featured some 30 Royal Marines from 40 Commando RM, 539 Assault Squadron RM and 1 Assault Group RM, providing a valuable opportunity for 847 Squadron’s pilots and door gunners to practice tactical landings and trooping drills prior to being deployed in Afghanistan.
The railway arrived in Instow in 1855. Built to link Bideford with Barnstaple, it was part of the London and South Western Railway. Passenger services ended in 1965, as part of the infamous 'Beeching cuts', but milk trains from Torrington continued along the line until 1979, and ball clay trains from Meeth until 1982.
- Carry on out of the station as the platform gives way to the tarmac path running alongside the river between here and Bideford.
To your right shortly after you have left the station, a small path leads to one of the river's lime kilns. These were used for burning limestone and coal brought by boat from South Wales, to make lime for fertiliser. There is another beside the track as you approach Bideford.
To your left along here, there was a clay pit at South Yeo, where clay would be loaded onto barges. The district was renowned for its high-grade, stone-free boulder clay, thought to have been formed in association with an ice deposit here during the last ice age. This has long puzzled geologists, who believe that glaciation did not extend this far south. One likely theory is that a breakaway mass of ice drifted across the Bristol Channel, carrying the boulder clay with it.
Across the river, Appledore shipyard was founded in 1855, and its Richmond Dry Dock was built a year later by local businessman William Yeo. He named the dock after Richmond Bay in Canada's Prince Edward Island, where his family's shipping fleet was based. The area's shipbuilding tradition goes back many centuries, with the earliest recorded vessel being a 250-ton ship built by Bideford shipwrights in 1566 for an Exeter merchant. Appledore's ships were in much demand throughout both world wars and afterwards when the Torridge was seen as an ideal place for the testing of top-secret weapons and equipment (see the Torridge Ships & Shipbuilding Walk). The Appledore Shipbuilders company was founded in 1965, housed in Europe's largest covered yard, built over a massive dry dock. In the next four decades, nearly 200 registered vessels were built here, including tankers, container ships, ocean survey ships and tugs.
On your left, after you have passed the jetty, the ornamental woodland beside the path marks the boundary of Tapeley Park, an ancient manor listed in the 1086 Domesday Book as Tapelia. Today it is the country seat of environmental activist Hector Christie, whose website declares it to be 'The sustainable stately home in the making'. Christie's family have owned Tapeley for the last three centuries, as well as having once owned Lundy Island. He is the eldest son of Sir George and Lady Mary Christie, who run Glyndebourne opera, and his great-grandmother was Lady Rosamund Christie, the daughter of the Earl of Portsmouth from Eggesford House and the granddaughter of Earl Fortescue.
When Lady Rosamund arrived at Tapeley in the mid-1880s, the house was in a state of disrepair and she called in John Belcher, the leading Queen Anne architect of the day, to help her restore it. It was a costly enterprise, and she saved a little money each year to spend on it, finding other ways of cutting costs too. One long flight of steps was made from reject slabs originally intended as gravestones for the war cemeteries. A local builder approached her to ask her to use married men from Bideford to do the general building work, pointing out the high rate of unemployment in the town, and it proved to be an economical way of getting the work done while also providing for the men's families. She splashed out on the furnishings, however, using the services of William Morris and other leading lights of the Arts and Crafts movement.
She also established extensive formal gardens within Tapeley's eighteenth-century landscape park and woodland, which today are open to the public. They also feature a permaculture garden, a legacy of Tapeley's former days as a hippy commune, under Hector's direction. The permaculture garden uses the principles of companion planting, cultivating mostly perennial vegetables and herbs in a natural way. Tapeley is open throughout the summer season, and dogs are welcome on leads. See the Tapeley Gardens website for more information.
- Just after Tapeley a path on the left links the cycleway to the main road. Ignore it, carrying on ahead alongside the river.
On the hillside above is Westleigh, a village that dates back to Saxon times. Traditionally an agricultural village, there are also records of coal mining, and it has been designated a conservation area.
- A small path leads up to the road as you approach the high bridge. Ignore this path too, continuing beneath the bridge as you head towards Bideford.
Bideford’s New Torridge Bridge was opened to the public on May 20th 1987, easing the burden of traffic on Bideford's medieval Long Bridge (see below). Because this is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the designers of the 2,132-foot bridge opted for a structure which crossed the valley in eight approximately equal spans, instead of the traditional form of one long arch and a number of smaller approach arches. It is made of 251 precast concrete box units, each of which is nine feet long, and it was the overall winner in The Concrete Society's 1988 awards competition.
- After the bridge, the Tarka Trail enters a wooded area, part of the Colley Moor Plantation. Carry on past two paths linking the cycleway to the main road (which lead to a residential area and an industrial estate respectively) and another on the right. Follow the path under a couple of low railway bridges, continuing ahead through the East-the-Water area of Bideford. After passing between two platforms you cross a bridge to arrive at the old station.
East-the-Water dates back to the fourteenth century when the bridge was first built. In a small park on the hillside above as you walk towards the station is Chudleigh Fort, a civil war fortification erected by Parliamentary forces in 1642. Substantially rebuilt in the nineteenth century, it is a five-sided platform with a parapet with openings for 14 cannon. Today it contains seven old cannons on wooden gun carriages.
The old Bideford Station is now home to the Bideford Railway Heritage Centre, and refreshments are available here during the summer season.
- Leave the station by descending the slope from the platform on the right, taking the steps down to the Long Bridge and turning right on the far side of the bridge to walk to Bideford Quay.
A listed building, Bideford's Long Bridge dates from 1286 and has 24 pointed arches whose spans range from 12 feet to 25 feet. The different sizes were decided by the lengths of the timbers used for the original arch lintels. The timber bridge needed continual repair, and between 1460 and 1500 a masonry bridge was built around it. It was widened between 1792 and 1810. In 1864-66 footways were added to the bridge, with decorative cast iron parapets, and in 1925 it was widened again. In 1968 floodwater caused the western arch to collapse, requiring extensive repair work. The construction of the new bridge reduced the volume of traffic over the Long Bridge, and a weight limit of 3 tonnes was imposed; but a further £2m of repair work was still needed by 2008, at a cost of £2m. This was designed to preserve the bridge for another 60 years. There is a detailed scale model of Bideford Bridge through the ages in the Burton Art Gallery, in the town's Victoria Park.
Torridgeside has a maritime history going back through many centuries. Sixteenth-century Devon adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh was said to have landed his first consignment of tobacco at Bideford. His distant cousin, Richard Grenville, was Lord of the Manor of Bideford and admiral of the Elizabethan fleet responsible for establishing a military colony off the coast of North Carolina in 1585. Building on the 1272 town charter granted to his ancestor, also Richard Grenville, he created the Port of Bideford in 1575, transforming it from a quiet fishing town to a major trading centre.
Instow (pub and shops); East-the-Water (pub and shops); Bideford (all facilities).