Named after Tarka the Otter – the celebrated children’s book that was written in the area – the Tarka Trail is a great way of exploring Devon’s beautiful countryside. It covers around 180 miles of paths and flat, disused railway lines, with an accessible route that starts only a short drive away from the Tunnels Beaches – a unique coastal attraction at Ilfracombe.
This accessible and picturesque section of the Tarka Trail runs for six miles between the Royal Marines Base at Chivenor and Barnstaple. Park by the access roundabout at Chivenor (which is signed Married Quarters) just outside Braunton, from where there is flat access to the trail. Head southeast towards Barnstaple along the former railway line, passing the wide expanses of the Taw river estuary. The area is rich in flora and fauna, all described on small information posts that work in tandem with an excellent audio guide (link for downloads listed below). At low tide, look out for curlews, dunlin and the occasional spoonbill. The path is particularly popular with cyclists, and bike rental is available from Otter Cycle Hire, The Old Pottery, Station Road, Braunton (Mar–Nov only, 01271 813339), or from Tarka Trail Cycle Hire at Barnstaple Railway Station (01271 324202).
Just ten miles north from Chivenor, at charming Ilfracombe, it is slightly surreal to enter the series of tunnels and exit onto a wild Devon bay of craggy rocks backed by cliffs and a grey sand and shingle beach. Formed when Welsh miners tunnelled through to Crewkhorne Cove in 1823, the beach was originally popular with visiting Victorians, complete with separate bathing pools for “Gentlemen” and “Ladies”. Today, in summer the tidal bathing pools are a riot of youngsters in inflatables. At low tide, the surrounding crags and rocky pinnacles make this one of the UK’s best places for rock-pooling, with a rich array of crustaceans, sea corals and anemones – and hammerhead sharks, though admittedly the last one to be found here was in 1865. There is a pay-and-display car park opposite the entrance, with level access to the ticket office, but no dedicated disabled bays. The tunnels themselves are flat but the route through to the beach does get progressively steeper, so wheelchair users may need assistance. Assistance may also be required with the forty yards of sand between the bottom of the paved path and the tidal pools – as well as the pools themselves. There is a beach shop just above the sands, and a soft play area and pirate ship for smaller children by the entrance (£2.50 extra entry fee).
Food & drink: Just ten minutes’ walk up the trail from Chivenor, the castellated Tarka Inn has a great garden, cosy interior and fantastic pub food with a kids’ menu. There is sloped access to a drinks terrace but steps to the main building. By the entrance at Tunnels Beaches, the Café Blue Bar has indoor and outdoor seating around an attractive courtyard, with its own pirate ship (open daily from 9am–6pm). It serves good value snacks and mains such as scampi and chips, plus kids’ menus.