In any good adventure there’s a moment of no return; a point beyond which the only way is forward to deal with the consequences of the choices already made. Today, the first day of our journey, there are two. The first is when I lower my cargo-carrying packraft into the surging tidal current of the mighty Tamar river, the inflatable dinghy piled high with two bikes, a bike trailer and enough gear for a week of wild camping.
The current immediately snatches the dinghy out of my reach - it floats tantalisingly at the end of the tied-off towing line. I stand on the Saltash Quay jetty, Brunel’s towering Tamar bridge high above us, watching to see if it’s going to sink - there’s wasn’t much current in the paddling pool I tested it in at home the night before. Miraculously, it floats.
The second moment is when my eight-year-old son Daniel joins me in the second inflatable canoe that I’ve tied to the first and we cast off, the tide speeding us away from the safety of the jetty and into the wide estuary. We’ve passed the point of no return - we’re committed to the journey.
The best-laid plans
The original plan for our week’s dadventure was simple. Daniel and I would catch two days’ worth of incoming tidal surges as far inland as possible up the Tamar, wild camping along the way. Then we’d pack the boats onto the bikes and ride up onto Dartmoor for a few days, before riding and wild camping back down to Plymouth on the traffic-free Drake’s Trail, a walking and cycling route running between Tavistock and Plymouth.
Dodgy paddling pool testing aside, my planning has been meticulous: poring over tide timetables and canoeing forums, checking maps and talking to local canoeing tour operators for launching and landing advice on the Tamar – the mighty, historic river forming the border between Devon and Cornwall. But an hour later, as we happily settle into paddling north, gasping at the shoals of fish breaking the surface near us and enjoying the simple pleasure of being - and not sinking - on the water, it seems the river has other plans for us.
It’s clear that towing a heavy, flat-bottomed dinghy with another rather slow inflatable canoe will be slow going. The Tamar is over 900 metres wide here, and at least three times that if you count Kingsmill and Tamerton lakes, which branch out either side of it like shirtsleeves – and now there’s a westerly wind starting to blow across its full width.
The net result is that instead of heading north into the narrowing mouth of the Tamar as planned, we’re being pushed north-east, towards the mouth of the Tavy, and the intimidating currents around the pilings of its railway bridge. Maybe we could dig in, beat the elements and stick to the plan. But then what? Face several more hours of tired and hungry paddling? Instead, I decide that we will go with the flow – literally. So what if we change the plan? Surely that’s where the true adventure really starts?
No longer fighting the current, we aim for the middle of one of the gaps between the pilings and find ourselves propelled into the suddenly more peaceful, glassy waters of the Tavy on the other side, the late afternoon sun adding a rosy tinge to our literally uncharted waters.
With the tide still lending us a helping hand we paddle peacefully up river, the reed-covered shoreline to our left rustling with wildfowl, a patchwork of farmland rising from both banks.
Looking at a map later, I see that we could have followed the Tavy a few miles further to the weir at Lopwell, just short of the National Trust’s Buckland Abbey, once home to another more famous sea dog, Sir Frances Drake. But instead we spot an isolated, flat, grassy stretch on the otherwise muddy riverbank and decide it’s the perfect place to pitch our tent.
Following the unofficial rules of unofficial wild camping, we delay pitching our tent until the safe cover of nightfall, instead unloading the boats, skipping stones and cooking up our new staple diet of noodles and hot chocolate on the stove. The tiny, translucent river shrimps that we manage to catch in the water turn pink in the pot and are an unexpected bonus.
During our al fresco riverside dinner we watch the occasional canoe paddle past and pull up at what Google Maps confirms is the nearby village of Bere Ferrers – where there is, of course, a perfect little Devonshire pub. It’s still too light to put up our tent, so we pull the boats high up the bank and set off to explore. The evening ritual of a beer, a ginger ale and game of pub chess that follows will become an oft-repeated and fond refrain of the rest of our paddling adventure.
Later that night, back in the tent back at our little cove, I’m woken by the gentle gloops and gurgles of the tide topping out just a few feet from our tent. I hastily recheck the tide times, but all that pre-journey research pays off, and we stay dry.
The next morning’s porridge – and yet more hot chocolate – brings with it a beautiful sunrise and a vast expanse of Devon’s finest estuary mud as far as the eye can see. Indeed, the only sign of the once-expansive Tavy are the bobbing masts of a few little boats hiding in a deep-dredged channel far beyond the shore.
Eager to move on, we break camp and deflate the boats, packing everything into the little bike trailer I’ve brought in order to allow Daniel weight-free riding. Naturally he fills his bar bag up with souvenir river stones before we pick our way back across the seaweed and mud to the village and saddle up.Our mission for the day is to cycle to Tavistock, some nine miles north on the edge of Dartmoor and, inevitably, almost entirely uphill. But I don’t tell Daniel that.
As it turns out, it isn’t Daniel who struggles but me. With a load weighing well north of 30kg on my trailer and more on my rear rack and bars, plus a bike with standard double-chainring gearing, there is simply no way I can pedal up anything steep.
So while I push through the rain, Daniel discovers the joys of dancing on the pedals and dropping his dad, heedless to the torrent running down the high-hedged lane and under our wheels. Soon enough the road flattens out, with views stretching behind us down to the estuary. The rain stops too, leaving an almost tangible freshness in the air, flavoured by the distinctive peppery smell of moorland bracken.
The last few kilometres into Tavistock are a joyous downhill blast, if somewhat tainted by the squealing of my tired cantilever brakes, followed by a celebratory chocolate flapjack next to the rushing waters of the river Tavy.
One last climb out of town and onto the edge of Dartmoor lies between us and a cosy camping pod at Langstone Manor Holiday Park. I’m looking forward to a break from wild camping, and the climb to get to comfort is worth the effort – the last houses give way to stunning rolling moorland, broken up by loitering sheep, bracken, gorse and discarded piles of grey, mossy granite.
Buoyed by two days of what we’ve taken to calling ‘boat-packing bike-touring’, we set off north again the next day, heading for a night of wild camping on the moor itself via the National Trust’s Lydford Gorge and a Devonshire cream tea.
Leaving the boat-laden trailer behind for a couple of days, we both get to enjoy classic Devonshire riding, threading our way through little lanes and villages around the edge of the moor. We follow the River Tavy, pedalling through the villages of Peter Tavy and Mary Tavy, crossing and recrossing the river, which this far north is a delightful, rock-strewn stream. Daniel and I pause to skip stones across its shadowy rock pools, green-tinted sunlight filtering through the trees above.
Beyond Mary Tavy, the road strikes out across a patch of moorland to Lydford Gorge, a hidden gem. The three-mile long circular walk here is a highlight of the trip, taking us high above the densely wooded gorge and then deep down to the bottom of the mesmerising, 30 metre-high White Lady waterfall. The second half is almost like a gentle, mossy via ferrata - we follow a path of slippery slabs and metal rails beside the River Lyd’s churning waters.
After another balanced meal of instant noodles, rice pudding and hot chocolate in the small stone keep of Lydford Castle we treat ourselves to another evening of chess and chat in the Castle Inn and wait for nightfall. Then we pedal out under the vast, silent, starry sky until all signs of civilisation disappear behind us.
We pick our spot and pitch camp among the gorse and bracken. It’s the perfect night, with a strong breeze keeping away the midges, so we lie on our backs with heads sticking out of the tent, counting shooting stars in the blackness.
The morning dawns windy, with threateningly dark clouds gathering above the 582 metre summit of Great Links Tor. We pack up fast and get ready to flee. Nothing happens – save for a few drops of rain, we’re spared. You simply cannot predict the weather on Dartmoor.
Determined not to simply ride back the way we came, we bump and splash across ancient paths and drover’s trails along the edge of the moor back towards Tavistock and our second night of camping pod luxury.
Still fully laden, with no suspension and only touring tyres for an air cushion, my progress is noisy and bumpy, while Daniel mucks about, building his trail riding confidence. It’s a long day’s ride again, with ups and down both in geography and morale, but the promise of ginger beer, sticky toffee pudding and a good night’s sleep keep the pedals turning.
A comfortable night’s sleep behind us, we squeal back down off the moor to Tavistock to join the Drake’s Trail cycle path. Well-signed, flat and car-free, this lovely 21 mile trail follows the route of the old railway line from Tavistock on the edge of the moor and all the way back to Plymouth harbour.
Even hucking 40kg of gear, this paved trail is a joy to ride, taking us on a skyline route above villages and over deep valleys. With the warming midday sun overhead we stop on a lookout above the spectacular 200 metre Gem Bridge viaduct and its wooded valley; the River Walkham peacefully meandering below.
By mid afternoon, our gentle trail cruising gets us as far as a delightful little stone bridge, with the moor all around and the little village of Clearbrook below. We’ve got a good rhythm going now - find a lovely pub, scout out a good wild moorland camping spot a short ride away, cook up some dinner. Tomorrow we’ll cycle back to Plymouth Harbour and real life, but there’s still time for one more ginger beer. Scenic pedalling by day, a cosy pub in the evening and sleeping out under Dartmoor’s vast canopy of stars at night. This is the life…
Pick of the Packrafts
Our two inflatable crafts were the Nortik packraft and the Sevylor Riviera. The Nortick, from packrafting-store.de, costs £613 and comes as a kit which
includes a four-piece paddle, buoyancy aid and inflation bag and weighs in at a total of 4.2kg. The Sevylor Riviera, which weighs 8.8k, costs about £120 new on eBay with seats and a paddle. Leaving the heavy pump at home, we inflated both with the Nortik’s innovative flyweight inflation bag – using a technique that looks like a cross between closing a roll-top dry bag and playing the bagpipes! The flat bottom of the Nortik makes it highly stable and we protected it from the bikes it was carrying with a pair of foam sleeping mats, holding the cargo in place with luggage ties and a cycling cargo net.
Health & safety
Life vests for both children and adults are an essential, as is meticulous research of tide times and ranges. When towing another boat, be sure to tie it on with a quick-release knot, in case you need to ditch it in an emergency.
What to pack
Midge repellent for moorland camping, sunscreen, padded cycling shorts, bike lights, helmets, hot chocolate!
Neil was hosted by Visit Dartmoor at Langstone Manor’s camping pods
The New Continental Hotel
The Duke of Cornwall Hotel
Find more places to stay at visitdartmoor.co.uk
Exeter Aiport is the closest to Dartmoor National Park, and Exeter and Newton Abbot train stations both serve the park.
Driving your own car or hiring one is the easiest way to get around on the moors.
Food and drink
Great pubs abound in Devon – we recommend filling up on local grub (and trying locally-brewed Dartmoor IPA) at:
The Old Plough Inn, Bere Ferrers
The Langtstone Bar, Moortown, Tavistock
The Skylark Inn, Clearbrook
The Lydford Gorge Tea Rooms, Lydford