Family Touring day 2 – Tarka, trains and tumble

So let’s just get this out of the way first. We hit the tarmac. I’d like to say it wasn’t my fault, but I’d be lying. We were cycling along quite merrily, Emmy was chatting away on the back of my bike, Matty was in the bike seat on David’s. We passed a turning off the main trail and immediately began to doubt if we’d gone the right way. I braked without warning, thinking that David was also stopping, and he went straight into the back of me. Glancing the handlebars off Emmy’s head, David’s bike went over with Matty on board – thank goodness for helmets and a protective bike seat. Emmy barely noticed she’d been hit, Matty’s head didn’t touch the floor. Everyone was fine but it reminded us just how quickly things can change in a split second. And the importance of communication! When we lived in Copenhagen they held up their hand to signal that they were slowing down. We have whole heartedly adopted this approach now!

Prior to that incident we’d had a lovely morning, rising early and packing up the tent, we armed the kids with a few fistfuls of dry cheerios each and headed off for Fremington Quay, a half hour ride away. Set on the disused railway line of the Tarka trail, opposite the River Taw, there is a fabulous family run cafe which serves up equally fabulous breakfasts. Sausage, bacon, beans, eggs – we all tucked in! They also have a great heritage centre exhibiting the industrial history of Fremington Quay’s past. The kids loved pulling the signal box levers, hearing the train noises and it was a great way of bringing it all to life for them.

The Tarka trail is a stunning ride. It is one of the country’s longest continuous traffic-free walking and cycling paths and takes it name from the fictional Tarka the otter. We followed the Taw and Torridge rivers, pedalling alongside estuary mudflats, salt marshes and oak woodland. The ground is a combination of tarmac alongside the estuaries and smooth trail in the woodland.

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The disused railway path is lovely to ride on and we enjoyed seeing the old platforms as we pedalled along and tried to explain to Emmy that this was once a railway line.

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At a similar time we began telling stories. Emmy loves stories and as the weight allowance didn’t permit a book, we took to making them up ourselves. In fact, we got a bit carried away and ended up with a trilogy based around Rosie the Robin and Nasty Witch Freeze-a-lot. We’re unlikely to rival JK Rowling any time soon but it was a fun way to keep Emmy entertained as we bashed through the miles.

Mid morning we mistimed one of Matty’s naps and he woke up hungry on the trail. Normally we would have just pulled to one side but the route had narrowed and we didn’t fancy trying to contain our one year old amongst stinging nettles and foxgloves. We decided to hang on for the signposted Puffing Billy Cafe, which promised hot coffee and an area to play. It didn’t disappoint. After the twentieth rendition of “Wheels on the Bus” and every animal on earth featuring in “Old MacDonald”, we managed to string Matty out to reach our destination and were so glad we had. It’s a fabulous cafe at the former Torrington railway station. The restored waiting room serves as a restaurant with toys for the kids, plus lots of picnic tables outside. Great coffee and they didn’t mind us eating our own food.

We knew that our campsite for the evening had a swimming pool and were therefore keen to arrive while it was still relatively warm. Fuelled by lunch, Emmy decided it was time to prove to us how fast she could run. She set off along the raised footpath of the viaduct yelling at Daddy to pedal faster to catch her! It was just so lovely to have a completely traffic free route.

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We very quickly reached the turning for our campsite and set off down through the forested area towards our pitch. It was at that point we repeated our error from night one… to think we were home and dry! Quite the opposite. No hills this time but instead a ridiculously narrow bridge. Frustrating doesn’t come close! Emmy thought this was the perfect opportunity for Pooh sticks.  We set about detaching the trailer. By removing a wheel we managed to rather precariously edge our way across the bridge with Matty staying asleep inside. Parent skills!

We had a fabulous afternoon at the campsite. Pitching our tent right next to the pool in a sheltered garden, it didn’t take long for Emmy to pull on her wetsuit and jump in. She quickly made a friend and the two of them had lots of fun splashing around and sending David to retrieve the ball from the deep end. Having braved the perishing temperature (minus a wetsuit!) for over an hour, David eventually managed to coax Emmy out before they were both hypothermic! There was also a lovely adventure playground which kept both kids amused and had a nice balance of equipment to challenge both young and older children.

Unfortunately what we hadn’t quite realised was the complete lack of food options nearby. The reception only opened for half an hour in the afternoon, and when it did we were given a takeaway phone number which had sadly finishing serving takeaway two years ago. Cue David setting off on a fish and chip bike mission and me trying to shower and put the kids to bed solo. We have debated for a while how we could have avoided this. I suppose the easiest option would have been to get a hot meal at the lunch stop, but you don’t really feel like this when you know you’ve got more riding to do. The other option is to take a small stove and backup meal but obviously it’s more weight to carry. We’re undecided. What we did discover is that a dinner of weetabix and cheerios did the kids no harm and they still slept soundly all night.

The next morning the food situation perked up for the kids, as Daddy’s late night raid had brought back croissants for breakfast! Roll on day 3, which promises the biggest hills of the entire route…

 

For those who’d like to see the route overview and elevation profile see map below. I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried touring in the past to know how you do mealtimes? Perhaps we need to carry more ourselves. As always, any thoughts, comments, suggestions very welcome – we’d love to hear what you think!

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Family Touring day 1 – pancakes, puncture and puff!

First day of our Devon coast to coast, the rain is drizzling but it won’t dampen our spirits, we can do this! Pull on the waterproof trousers, jumpers, jackets. Raring to go. Wave goodbye to the pretty seaside town of Ilfracombe and come face to face with the mother of all hills. Seriously. Who put bricks in the panniers?

Emmy finds it hilarious. “Pedal faster mummy! Daddy is beating us, come on!” I push as hard as I can, stopping 100m from the top, and promptly take off the afore mentioned jumper and waterproof. Who am I kidding, surely it’s better to get wet than pass out from heat exhaustion.

More than one flicker of doubt crosses my mind. What the hell are we doing? I am so unfit. I’d have struggled to get up this hill before having two kids let alone now…and then Emmy pipes up, “We’re going on an adventure aren’t we Mummy, this is incredible!” Incredible is a word she repeats a lot over the next few days, I start to wonder if she’s just trying to convince herself of this fact, but one glance at her expectant face and it’s enough to push on and claim those glorious views from the top. Matty, tucked up in the trailer, oblivious to the first hurdle having occurred less than 10mins into day one, is already fast asleep.

The ride from Ilfracome to Woolacombe is beautiful. Coastal paths, fields for miles and although descending in a rain storm to Woolacombe beach was more than a little hair-raising, we took it gently and arrived to find the rain stopping and an amazing feast of pancakes in the little beach side cafe. Really relieved we’d brought the kids all in ones we headed to the beach, flying the kite and running along the wet sand. Children make it fun. They have this innate ability to live in the moment. There’s me thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if it was sunny, while Emmy and Matty are busy tearing around the wet sand, chasing the kite, loving life. Time to take a leaf out of their book.

At this point it becomes quite clear to us that nothing is going to get Emmy off her bike. Not wind, not rain and certainly not tiredness! Like many toddlers she sees a daytime nap as the ultimate defeat. She’s back on board and we are just pulling off when David shouts for our attention. The trailer has a puncture. Ah.

Everyone off the bikes again. A bonus of the trailer is that the wheels can be easily removed, so we were able to retreat with the wheel to the warmth of the pancake cafe. David set about mending the puncture and quickly discovered that a massive thorn had lodged itself into the tyre. A tip for all of you thinking of cycle touring with or without kids – bring a pair of tweezers. Thankfully our medical kit contained just that, and after bribing the kids with gingerbread biscuits so that we could dedicate two adult pairs of hands to the repair, we were able to pull out the thorn and David performed a textbook patch to get us back on the road.

Our first play park stop of the trip was in the lovely town of Braunton. For those who are looking to do a similar route I thoroughly recommend Wild Thyme cafe – absolutely delicious lunch stop!

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Finally it’s time to be tough with Emmy. She really must have a rest. She’s already ridden 15km, up some epic hills, and the weather has been pretty rough. With a lot of persuasion she eventually agrees to sitting on the bike seat and we’re barely out of Braunton before they’ve both fallen asleep…

Our other tip for anyone cycle touring is look out for library stops. It may sound bizarre, but when the weather is dodgy and you’re going through small towns, a library is actually a fantastic place to take a break. Cosy, warm and child friendly. We enjoyed a lovely hour in Barnstaple library children’s area, reading books and colouring pictures to give them a break from the weather.

With an M&S picnic dinner purchased, we head for the campsite only 5 miles away. Just when we were sure that day one was in the bag, we round the corner to a 12% incline. If we thought the morning’s gradient was the mother of all hills, this was the grandfather. David bravely powered on, hauling the trailer and all it’s contents up, with Matty cheerfully riding in the bike seat. I had to admit defeat. For the first time Emmy and I climbed off the bike and started to push. I looked back at my little three year old daughter, pushing her bike up the hill, determined to do her bit, determined to be “just like you mummy” and I felt absolute wonder. Maybe it was the fresh air. Maybe it was us treating her like an adult. Maybe it was the sheer exhaustion that was making me totally emotional. But Emmy had undoubtedly loved today and that made it all worth it.

While we pitched our tent and got the picnic stuff out, Emmy and Matty made friends with some fellow campers. Kicking a football, balancing on logs, playing with the resident dog and excitedly trading stories about the day. We’d ridden 36.5km and made it up 487m elevation. We all bundled into the tent, it certainly was a ‘squash and a squeeze’, but we were that tired that it didn’t matter.

“What are we doing tomorrow Mummy?” “Another adventure Emmy, just wait and see…”

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I hope that the above made for an interesting read, do let me know if we should cover more or less detail? Has anyone got their own tips to share? If you have questions about the specifics of the route and where we stopped for food, just send me a message, very happy to help. We’ve included the route overview and elevation profile below…

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Touring with Toddlers

Where to begin? Our next adventure. We love cycling, the kids love cycling. We love camping, the kids love camping. We want an adventure, the kids think they do….

Is it possible to take a one year old and a three year old camping and cycling for several days? Let’s find out.

Our Rules

  • It had to be an A to B route – I have an irrational hatred of retracing my steps!
  • Carry our own gear – We like to be self sufficient
  • Off road / Quiet roads – Safety is paramount
  • Slow and steady – Short distances each day and lots of planned child friendly stops
  • Pre-booked campsites – With kids we need to know where we’re staying the night

The Route

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We chose the Devon coast to coast. 99miles Ilfracombe to Plymouth. It ticked a lot of boxes; beautiful scenery, disused railway lines converted to bike paths, lots of campsites to chose from. The downside? The hills. But how bad could it be? Slow and steady right? We’d be fine.

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We planned to cover the distance in five days, c.20miles a day. Three nights under canvas. One night in a camping pod. Cycling when Matty was due a nap.

The Setup

Matty will generally go with the flow (#second child). We opted for a bike seat on David’s bike when awake, two seated trailer when asleep. (The trailer really deserves it’s own post but suffice to say it’s a Croozer Kid Plus for 2 and we love it!)

We quickly realised that Emmy was unlikely to sit still and be a passive passenger for several hours a day. It was time to break out the Follow-Me Tandem and get her cycling too. When she got tired she could either go in the bike seat or into the trailer.  The unanswered question was how long would she be able to cope on her bike each day.

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This left the back of the trailer, two panniers and the remaining seat (either on the bike or in the trailer) to carry the tent, sleeping bags, camping mats and clothes. Time for some minimalism!

The Gear

For those interested, I’ll post our full packing list on a separate blog shortly with lessons learnt. For those looking for the highlights… A tent with two broken poles somewhat hinders your ability to sleep. If you all smell, your nose stops noticing. Convincing your three year old to take their smallest teddy remains one of the biggest challenges of the holiday. Snacks are mission critical.

Getting to the start

One of the challenges of a linear route is where to leave the car. We opted for an AirBnB in Exeter where we could park the car for the week and get the train the following morning. We were a bit nervous about getting all of our gear on the train (there are only 2 spaces which you can’t reserve in advance) so we deliberately opted for one after 9am and it was remarkably empty. There ended up being about 4 bikes on in the end but the guard didn’t seem to mind.

The train goes as far as Barnstaple, 12miles south of Ilfracombe, but this was solved when we found a brilliant cycling shop in Barnstaple – Carb Cycles –  who were willing to give us a lift. Mike met us at Barnstaple Station and through sheer wizardry managed to get us and all of our gear in the back of his van. Top bloke.

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This all had a big advantage of giving us a full day in Ilfracombe before beginning the tour. The kids loved Tunnels Beaches, a network of tunnels leading to a lovely sheltered beach and Victorian bathing pool. They paddled, went rock pooling and Emmy even had a go at body boarding. The perfect start to our holiday. We went to bed nervous but excited about what the first day of our adventure would bring.

If you have any questions about how we planned for the trip I’m more than happy to share more detail of gear / logistics / route / etc. Watch this space for a round up of our daily escapades!

 

“FollowMe” Emmy!

On Sunday we tried a new combination, Emmy on her own bike attached to mine. It’s a contraption called a “FollowMe Tandem” and we bought one a week ago after seeing a friend’s four year old pedalling happily behind his mother without a wobble in sight.

As you’ll see from the pics, Emmy loved it. She’s just turned three and as far as she’s concerned, this makes her a big girl and she wants to ride her own bike. All very well in theory, but in true Emmy style, she can pedal like hell, balance no problem but doesn’t really believe in using the brakes. Hence David pegging it after her at full pelt anytime she’s let loose! So far the FollowMe is a great solution.

The first ride we did was short. Just under a mile to a local fete, we are lucky enough to have shared use paths pretty much all the way, but it was enough to give us all confidence. Thanks to the face painter, we had a little pussy cat cycling home with us!

The Pros

  • Independence – Emmy feels as though she’s really contributing to the ride
  • Turbo boost – certainly useful, especially uphill, I could tell when she was pedalling
  • Stability – There was no lateral movement, it felt very stable
  • Mount/Dismount – Emmy could get on and off herself without a problem
  • Flexible – If she rides solo you can hook it up very easily
  • Additional luggage – You can carry panniers on your rear rack which isn’t possible with our bike seats.

The Cons

  • Weight – quite heavy when you’ve not got the child’s bike attached. It weighs 4kg
  • Cost – a pretty price tag, we paid £189.95.
  • Nerves – There’s a real temptation to keep looking back at her, just to check how she’s getting on. It’s ok when there’s two of you but when solo I might consider using a rear view mirror.

We found it very straight forward to attach and separate Emmy’s bike from mine, taking less than a minute each time. The FollowMe clamps onto the bottom tube of the child’s bike and attaches to the front wheel. When the child’s bike is not attached you can hook up the FollowMe using a strap with a carabiner on the end.

We also found that the FollowMe can be removed from the adults bike with relative ease. When connecting it for the first time you replace your standard wheel skewer with the Follow-Me quick release one. It means that you can take it on and off by releasing it from the skewer – ideal when i’m using the same bike to commute to work and don’t want to carry the extra weight.

Next week we’ll be taking it on a ride coast to coast across Devon (Ilfracombe to Plymouth) enjoying the Tarka Trail, so we’ll be able to let you know how she gets on with it on longer distances.

We bought our FollowMe tandem direct from the manufacturers Follow Me Tandem Online Shop