I was recently reading Barry’s story of riding the northern section of the Tree to Sea Loop and I couldn’t help but see many parallels between his experience and my own while cycling in England last summer. We had initially headed over to England so my wife could join some friends in Iceland on a three-week bike tour, while the kids and I stayed with my parents in the Oxfordshire countryside. However, like Barry, my wife’s plans got cancelled as we had both caught Covid for the first time. So my wife and I needed to pivot, choosing an adventurous and shorter route closer to my parents’ home. As we were on a two-month summer vacation in England with our two young children, we needed to get even more creative with our planning.
In order to strike a balance between family time (and responsibilities) and cycle touring, we landed on the plan to try flashpacking the East Devon Trail. To make the route even flashier, my parents kindly agreed to drive our kids along a similar route, meeting us each evening at our accommodation and looking after the kids during the day. Perfect.
The East Devon Trail
Brainchild of Katherine Moore, the East Devon Trail is a 180km bikepacking route on the picturesque south coast of England. While the suggested riding time is five days, to strike a compromise between slow travel and enjoyment of the region, we planned for four days of riding. This was to be my wife’s first cycle tour and by flashpacking our intention was to maximise fun, while retaining enough challenge to push some limits and break out of our comfort zones. As previously mentioned, flashpacking also meant my parents could ferry our children between locations and enjoy the more civilised parts of the adventure with us.
Day 1: Exeter to Otterton
Day one began at my parent’s house in rural Oxfordshire. Beginning early, we waved goodbye to the kids and pedalled 15km or so to Reading Station. Our kids, aged two and seven, were very happy to wave us off, with the prospect of watching cartoons in the car, being treated to ice creams and meeting us at the beach later in the day. After rolling through country lanes to the train station, we loaded our bicycles onto the train and journeyed a couple of hours by rail to the start of the trail at Exeter. Living in Australia, we very rarely catch the train, so these initial hours already felt like a holiday treat—even more so because we could read our books quietly on the train without needing to entertain our kids.
Arriving at Exeter station, we began our journey cycling alongside the River Exe. However, it was barely a few kilometres of cycling later that our thoughts turned to lunch and we stopped at a typically cute British pub for hot chips and sandwiches. Happily fueled, we resisted the urge to stop here for the day and remounted our bicycles to journey the 40km to our actual destination (and our waiting children).
Blue skies and warm temperatures followed us along the river and for the rest of the day as we navigated quiet country roads, nature reserves, open heathland and winding wooded singletrack. The distance may have been relatively short, but a combination of the heat and some punchy, bumpy climbing made us sweaty and tired by the time we rolled into the cute seaside town of Budleigh Salterton.
As we rolled down the hill into Budleigh, we saw my parents pulling into a beachside car park and congratulated ourselves on such perfect timing. With another 5km left to ride, we stopped for a quick swim and a play on the pebbled beach, before hopping back on the bikes for the final push to another cute English pub in Otterton. Here we enjoyed an above average pub dinner before it was time for the kids to go to bed. As there was still a little light left in the day, I arranged to camp at a nearby site while my wife kindly stayed with the kids, and then I pedalled a few extra kilometres to make camp before sunset.
Day 2: Otterton to Beer
An early wake up in the tent, followed by a swift pack, had me back at the pub before breakfast, in time to take over kid duties for a moment and get some food into them before handing them back to my parents for the day. It had been a rough night for my wife and the kids in a rather hot pub hotel room, so I felt a little guilty that I’d had such a lovely time camping by myself.
Today’s route was another short 30km and we’d planned to meet Katherine (the route’s creator) for lunch towards the latter half. The great thing about bikepacking with a cycle touring mindset (in my opinion) is planning to take a slow approach. Especially along the East Devon Trail and in England in general, there are so many quaint towns to stop in, beaches to visit and views to enjoy, that racing through just does not appeal to me.
With this in mind, our morning saw us ride along some beautiful, but very bumpy and overgrown bridleways that were definitely more suited to horses than humans, making it a pleasure to stop early on for ice creams at Sidmouth Beach. We then continued along some pleasant cycle paths, more challenging bridleways and quiet country lanes before descending to the almost hidden Branscombe Beach. Some of the bridleways were so overgrown that packing a lawnmower to mow through the brambles wouldn’t have been a bad idea.
It was here at Branscombe Beach that we were stopping for lunch and meeting Katherine whom I’d chatted to several times online and had kindly offered to meet us. We had a lovely lunch at the beach kiosk, followed by another cooling swim in the ocean. With such warm weather, I’d happily have spent another hour or so dipping in and out of the cold ocean water. Branscombe is another pebbled beach and my Australian wife doesn’t believe me when I assure her that England does actually have sandy beaches too. Feeling totally energised by our swim, we dried off and were met by another friend that had ridden all the way from Exeter that morning and was joining us for the rest of the East Devon Trail.
Once Alison had arrived, in style as they bombed the hill and took a tumble through a shallow water crossing at high speed. They somehow bounced right back up again full of smiles. We continued to Beer via a very steep hike-a-bike followed by riding across a beautiful open headland, descending then to the harbour at Beer. Once more we met my parents and kids for another 'unrestful' night. This time we stayed at the youth hostel, which seemed like a good idea when booking, but we would probably have been happier sticking to our flashier approach—lesson learnt! My parents fared much better as we’d booked them into a nice little pub for the night, away from us and from our children. Hot tip: the pub overlooking the harbour in Beer is an excellent spot for a few sundowners.
Day 3: Beer to Wilmington
Waking up in the hostel, we shared a continental breakfast with the kids before they were again kindly collected by my parents for another day of beaches and ice cream. At 50km and over 1000m of climbing, this was to be our biggest day so far, it was also probably the hottest. There wasn’t a lot of shade during the first half of the day as we cycled between farmers fields, across golf courses and country lanes. Just before lunch we cycled past the impressive Cannington Viaduct looming across the vista.
Following a theme for the trip, we rolled into our lunch spot of Lyme Regis, a popular coastal town, hot, sweaty and ready for a swim. Rolling our bikes onto the beach (a mix of stones and sand this time) we spotted my parents and our kids near the ocean. We quickly stripped off for a cooling dip in the water, before getting caught up in sandcastles and beach games. It was so nice being able to adapt our ride in this way to make the best of everything: quiet time on the bikes by ourselves, mixed with a beach holiday with my parents and our kids.
Lunch followed before we pedalled back into the heat, via a traditional sweet shop and a mechanical interlude, and got stuck straight into a long climb up and away from the distant memory of that cool swim. Thankfully the afternoon’s route included some more shady spots, but it also included a few more mechanicals, with Alison’s bike shedding teeth from its sprocket. Eventually, after scooting the bike down hill, my wife flagged down a lift from a local and took Alison’s bike and herself ahead to our destination - happy to finish early and see the kids, and to sneak some quiet time for herself.
Alison and I continued, along some extra rough bridleways, stopping for another quick dip in a river, followed by some hike-a-bikes and crossings over farmer’s fields. We arrived at another cute country pub at the end of the day ready for dinner and kids’ bedtimes.
Day 4: Wilmington to Exeter
With 64km ahead of us, a not particularly restful night with the kids behind us and entering our fourth day of riding, my wife decided that she was about done with the cycle tour. So with that decision, she joined us for the first 6km of the day to the nearest train station, before catching a train home to Reading. It had been great sharing the majority of the ride together and definitely gave us a taste for future cycle tours together.
Alison and I stopped for coffee in Honiton, then continued along some winding, climbing, country roads away from the coast. In the hills above Otterton St Mary we enjoyed some long dirt sections of the trail, before dropping down to Tipton St John for lunch under the trees beside the river. Missing our lunchtime swim, we continued for a fairly fast and uninterrupted 20km across the country.
At around the 40km mark the East Devon Trail takes riders for a loop of the National Trust property of Killerton. This section is mostly gravel trails and navigates through a mix of forest and farmland, with plenty of bovine spectators watching as we rode past. A small river nearly tempted us in, but with return train times looming we settled for dipping our shirts and hats in the water and carrying along.
The final stretch of the ride saw us desperately searching out a shop to replenish our water followed by a long climb up past Beacon Hill for some excellent cross-country views. Traversing the hilltop was a final hurrah before zooming down through the city to the train station.
As an Englishmen living abroad, this East Devon Trail was a real treat as every stretch is almost iconically British in many different ways. Think traditional pubs, fishing villages, coastal holiday towns, pebbly beaches and endless quiet country roads. I love the way Katherine promotes the route as a slow and enjoyable cycle, although people do race through it as per personal preference.
My personal highlights were the daily swims and seeing my wife enjoying the challenges and joys of cycle touring. At the end of the ride she was already talking about the next one, and if that’s not a glowing recommendation, then I don’t know what is. Although, just quietly, it will be nice to do it when the kids are a bit older and we can leave them with my parents so my wife and I can enjoy quiet evenings together as well as the quiet riding.