North Devon is closely associated with Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (1927), which relates the travels and travails of a young otter, and is one of the finest pieces of nature writing in the English language. With parts of the book set in the Taw valley, it was perhaps inevitable that the Exeter to Barnstaple rail route – which follows the Taw for half of its length – should be dubbed the Tarka Line. Barnstaple itself forms the centre of the figure-of-eight traced by the Tarka Trail, which tracks the otter’s wanderings for a distance of more than 180 miles. To the north, the trail penetrates Exmoor then follows the coast back, passing through Williamson’s home village of Georgeham on its return to Barnstaple. South, the path takes in Bideford, and continues as far as Okehampton.
Twenty-three miles of the trail follow a former rail line that’s ideally suited to bicycles, and there are bike rental shops at Barnstaple and Bideford. You can pick up a Tarka Trail booklet and free leaflets on individual sections of the trail from tourist offices.