Some of you may find it hard to believe, but I find commuting on my bike around these parts an absolute privilege. The last time I felt this way I was living on my old boat, Tabitha, in Bristol Marina and commuting by kayak to the Severnshed; then a boatbuilding project for young people, now a trendy restaurant. It was truly a pleasure to cut across the docks, out on the open water, whilst Bristol’s rush hour spun its frenetic web of jarring, jostling jams around the periphery. Then, in 1990, I sailed Tabitha down the Bristol Channel, around Land’s End and East along the South coast before heading North and up into the Exe Estuary where I wintered on the Ship Canal and fell in love with the area. Twenty-three years later I’m back – and loving it.
Most of the spots I work at are in Exeter, which is a thirteen mile ride from my home in Dawlish. On a good day, with a tail wind, it takes about an hour and a quarter; an hour and a half with a headwind. The scenery is always fabulous and the wildlife a constant pleasure.
The first part of the ride, on the short section of track connecting Dawlish to the Warren, is usually peppered with rabbits that often run along the path ahead of me until I’ve almost caught up with them before diving off into the hedges. But I’ve never yet managed to get my camera out in time to snap a picture. The poppies are still pretty though.
Then, on the next section, between the Warren and Cockwood, there are the lazy-grazy Devon cattle. There’s something about the relaxed and gentle way that they move around that always reminds me that there’s no rush. In fact, I’m sometimes envious of them. They’ve got a great place to live, plenty to eat and nothing much to worry about. For the last week or so they’ve just been lying in the shade of the oak trees trying to keep cool. They lie in small groups of five or six just waiting for late afternoon when the Sun isn’t quite so fierce before staggering to their feet and ambling off for another nibble.
After crossing the road to the seaward side there are the ducks and the geese that paddle about in the pools between the cycle-path and the railway line. There are a couple of new batches of chicks finding their way in the world and, even amidst all the gloom and drama about climate change, they’re a charming reminder that life goes on just as it should.
Swinging through Cockwood, the wildlife mainly consists of decedents of African bipedal apes sitting along the wall outside The Ship and The Anchor, sunning themselves and clutching glasses of golden-brown coloured intoxicating liquids. Many are on their summer migration from the rain-swept urban wastelands of the North. Some even drag little temporary homes with them all the way here. Others flock together in groups and live in neat rows of hutches down by the shore in the Warren. Locally, they call them Grockles.
Once through the bottleneck that is Starcross, it’s back to the idyllic back-road alongside the Powderham Estate with the shy and skittish deer roaming the park, ever alert and watchful. They too are herders. If just one member feels even the slightest bit afraid and moves away from the road, all the others will follow – just to be on the safe side.
Then comes my favourite bit: the track along the sea wall from Powderham Church to the Turf Hotel. A lot of cyclists, particularly the lycra-clad, carbon-fibre mounted racer types, don’t like this bit. It’s stony and bumpy and you have to keep stopping for gates and to let pedestrians pass. But the scenery out across the estuary to Lympstone Commando more than compensates for the rough ride. The vista is ever-changing with the tides. At low tide it’s acres of brown mud-flats with wading birds foraging for sandworm and other morsels. At high tide it’s an expanse of blue and rippled water which, when the sailing club are out to play, is speckled with brightly coloured sails.
The Turf marks the half-way point and the return to a metalled surface. You can’t really get here by car without special permission, so everyone who comes here has to make some effort and that results in a fine clientele of sporty types, leisure cyclists, walkers, birdwatchers and sailors. It’s a great place for a party with no neighbours to upset and, if you don’t fancy the walk home, you can always camp. But be warned, if you do do the unthinkable and drive here and park, there’s a sadistic little council man-in-a-van who delights in fining you sixty quid for being so lazy.
On the next section up to Topsham Lock Cottage it’s the birds which fascinate. Last week I saw a goldfinch for the first time in years. Just like the rabbits, it flew along the path in front of me for fifty yards of so before darting off. There are hawks and heron, thrush and starling and many other species I don’t know. People come for miles to see them.
Past the disused lock, the path runs right alongside the canal. Today I stopped to watch hundreds of tiny, iridescent blue dragonflies skimming over the surface of the oozy-green weed. No more than three centimetres long, they skip and dance just millimetres above the surface – almost impossible to photograph with a phone. But it was good to catch sight of a couple of butterflies basking in the warm sun.
Then it’s across the main road at Countess Wear and the sounds and smells of the nearby city start to make themselves known. But it’s been a good ride today: the wildlife has reminded me yet again of what life is really about – just living it. How was your drive to work?
If Exeter’s gentle riverside paths are a little on the tame side for you, have a look at some extreme rides here.