The Tarka Trail is a recreational route opened in May 1992 which describes a figure of eight, centred on Barnstaple, through the beautiful countryside of North Devon. It extends for 180 miles (290 km) and different parts of the trail can be covered by rail (the Barnstaple to Eggesford section of the Tarka Line), on foot or by bicycle.
The part of the Tarka Trail that is nearest to Torrington follows the route of the old railway line which opened in 1872 but fell to Beeching’s axe in 1965, although freight continued to be transported until 1982. About a mile out of town on the A386 towards Bideford is the old Torrington railway station which, since 1984, has been a pub, restaurant and café called the Puffing Billy. Nearby is Torrington Cycle Hire and families can often be seen cycling along the trail at weekends and holidays. A group of railway enthusiasts are hoping to return a railway to Torrington.
Going in a southerly direction, you can walk or cycle via Watergate Bridge, East Yarde and Petrockstowe to Meeth Halt (11.4 miles/18.3 km). In the other, northerly, direction the trail crosses over the River Torridge several times as it winds through the meadows and woods. It passes the village of Weare Giffard on the far side of the river, goes through an echoing tunnel and then crosses the river via an iron bridge and continues alongside the Torridge estuary to Bideford. (Torrington to Bideford is 5.3 miles/8.5 km).
Beyond Bideford is Instow, which overlooks the Taw and Torridge estuary, and Fremington, once an important port, and then the trail goes alongside the River Taw – at a distance – to Barnstaple. The cycle track crosses the river and, on the other side, leads on to Braunton which marks the end of the stretch where it is possible to cycle. Beyond Braunton to Croyde, Woolacombe, Ilfracombe, Combe Martin, Lynton and Lynmouth the trail is for walking only and is partly along the South West Coast Path. You can then follow an inland route back to Barnstaple.
From Torrington, in the southerly direction, it is possible to cycle as far as Meeth but, before Meeth, the trail continues, for walkers only, to Dolton, Iddesleigh, Hatherleigh, Jacobstowe to Okehampton and on to Belstone, Sticklepath and South Tawton on Dartmoor and then, via North Tawton and Bondleigh, to Eggesford where you can catch the train back to Barnstaple.
The Tarka Project was set up in 1989 with the aim of protecting and preserving the environment which led to the creation of the Tarka Trail. Its name was inspired by Henry Williamson’s classic novel, ‘Tarka the Otter’ (1927) and takes the traveller through the contrasting landscapes of ‘Tarka Country’ described in the book: peaceful countryside, wooded river valleys, rugged moorland and dramatic coast. Tarka was born and died near Torrington so, in one sense, this is the beginning and end of the trail.