Whilst I am sure the National Trust would disagree, Castle Drogo, the last castle built England, is not really a castle. Finished in 1930, this stately home, with mock medieval and Tudor castle features, was always a bit of a contentious choice as Devon’s representative in our County Castle Caper. We only really choose it so we had an excuse to cross Dartmoor as part of our challenge! Having been forced back off Dartmoor earlier in the day, and after fire-side food, beer and good company in the Warren House Inn (near the bunkhouse we should have walked to rather than getting a lift to) a new plan was needed. Neither myself or Sarah had much inclination to re-attempt our planned Dartmoor crossing the following day – Dartmoor is our regular stomping ground anyway and logistically it would be challenging. There are a few decent castles south of Dartmoor but that would put us much further away from Exmoor – a requirement of our caper thanks to the ‘visit every National Park’ rule. Paul, a resident of Okehampton, suggested his local castle was a ‘proper castle’ – should we return to Lydford on foot then get back on our bikes and rejoin NCN 27 to Okehampton Castle?
What clinched it as a plan B was the Tarka Trail – a trail which traces the journeys of Tarka the Otter. From Okehampton the trail heads north north west to Barnstaple before looping along the coast and over Exmoor. Taking the anti-clockwise direction would get us over Exmoor (tick) and onto the South West Coast Path at Lynmouth. Over 30 mikes of the trail, from Meeth to Braunton (just above Barnstaple) can also be cycled. Perfect. Plan B is a go!
Day 3: Above Peter Tavy returning to Lydford Castle
We parked back at the car park where Paul had rescued us the previous day (now filled with 3 car park hogging school mini buses) with the weather looking a lot more settled than the previous day. Rather than head back up onto the moor, we headed down the hill and into Peter Tavy and joined the NCN 27 as it followed a track down into the valley. Our first stop, and one of the reasons we were able to lure Paul out for the day, was Longtimber Tor. The tor itself was not unimpressive with one outcrop in the field (unfortunately too slippery to climb to the top) and several more outcrops by the river. The highlight for us however was the river itself – where it comes around the bend at the outcrops it has create a fantastic place to swim with a sloping beach into deep water. Even swollen from the storm the day and night before it would have been tempting to go for a swim (if we had packed our swimming gear for this part!).
Swimming spot on River Tavy near Longtimber Tor
We devoured another hot cross bun before rejoining the cycle path. After crossing the river (on a nice stout stone bridge!), we investigated the other river bank from what looked to be an informal BMX course, to see whether there was easy access to a couple of tors further upstream. Definitely potential was Paul’s conclusion. At Mary Tavy we join the West Devon Way which we followed through the village and up onto and around Gibbet Hill. Looking back there was a fantastic view of Dartmoor and some of her tors.
Looking back to Dartmoor from Gibbet Hill
We continued around the hill, enjoying the view of Brent Tor in the distance, before thoughts turned to Was Tor. This tor, which is near the lower Lydford Gorge car park, is on private land, but Paul wanted to see if there was a path from below and whether the landowner could be worked out. There were several candidates with gardens backing onto the relevant area, but no obvious access could be seen. We returned to Lydford following the same path we had cycled two days before along the road to Lydford Castle and the pub.
Lydford Castle, Devon
Day 3: 1 castles, 7.3 miles, -1203 ft descent, 1078 ft uphill, 669 ft min alt, 1069 ft max alt [view map]
Day 4: Lydford to Okehampton via Granite Way
The following morning we once again retraced our steps to Lydford (to be honest I am starting to get a bit tired of this castle!). Our change of plan the day before once again meant we were back on the bikes. We headed out of Lydford on the NCN 27 (The Granite Way) which turns off the road just out of the village and joins an old railway line North towards Okehampton – just under 10 miles of flat cycling (and a big downhill at the end!)
It was a fairly sunny morning, albeit with a fair few clouds loitering the sky. The Granite Way, which is mostly hidden from view of the road that runs nearby in parallel, has some great views up to Dartmoor above, especially of Sourton Tors which you pass just below of, and across the Tamar Valley. Other than a slightly strange and slightly overgrown short section where access is permissive at he whim of the owner, the rest of the route is on well maintained track. Considering the number of hikers, cyclists and runners we saw, it seems odd that some people want to reclaim this fantastic resource and return it back into use as a working railway.
One of the highlights of this short stage was cycling across the Meldon viaduct – water from the storm can clearly be seen (and I seem to remember heard) surging from the reservoir overflow in the distance. It is an amazing sense experience up close when it is like this, but even this far away it was impressive. Unfortunately the cafe was closed, so we continued along the track past the quarry railway depot – I always find these seemingly abandoned industrial sites that are being reclaimed by nature absolutely fascinating.
After passing under the dual-carriage way, we get our first glimpse of Okehampton Castle in the valley below us. The castle, built by the Normans over 500 years ago, sits on a spur of high ground above the valley of River Okement and was a symbol of their power in Devon. We soon reached the still-in-use train station from where we dropped down the steep hill, on road again, into the centre of Okehampton. After leaving our bikes in the second car (and grabbing a quick breakfast) we set off on foot to the castle.
Okehampton Castle is definately my favourite castle so far! The ruins of the keep (from where the photo above was taken), as well as extensive parts of the guest lodgings, great hall, kitchens and chapel still remain and can be explored. It is certainly worth a visit if you are visiting this part of Devon. After exploring the castle we retraced our steps back into town to end our caper… for now.
Day 4: 1 castle, 9.4 miles, -1012 ft downhill, 771 ft uphill, 659 ft min alt, 1134 ft max alt (excluding walk to and from Okehampton Castle which was 1.8 miles) [view map]