Exeter Cycle Routes: the Exe Estuary Trail

exe estuary

A combination of lockdown and the weather have had me exploring Exeter’s cycle routes more than ever. This marvellous city is the starting point for many a fantastic bike ride.

Growing up on the smidgen of land between the south coast and the New Forest National Park, cycling was a fundamental part of my formative years. We weren’t a car family; we were a bike family. If it could be cycled, we would cycle.

While we went on lengthy rides to Scotland, Wales, Denmark, Spain and more, much of my riding was in Hampshire’s gently undulating landscapes. No, not undulating. Flat.

Not Holland flat. But certainly not what anyone would call ‘hilly’.

So it could be said that, whilst I have more miles under my tires than many people my age, those miles are of a not-too-differing gradient. Fast forward a couple of decades and I’ve become based in Devon. Hell, it’s hardly the Highlands, but stray more than a few miles in any direction and you’re liable to face an arrowed hill. You know, those minor roads with gradient signs and little black arrows on the map. The hills that old cars take in first gear and old cyclists…well, any cyclists, regret immediately.

Exeter, however, lends itself to cycling. A small city where no matter where you are, you can probably see rolling green hills, it’s quick to pedal out of and quick to pedal into.

If you’re a resident of this remarkable, Roman city, then hopping on your bike couldn’t be easier. From hilly trails to pancake flat routes, every cyclist can enjoy themselves here. And it’s a darn sight quieter than Hampshire.

With an abundance of bike shops and bike hire shops too, you don’t even have to have your own stead.

This is the beginning of a series about Exeter’s cycle routes and I’m starting with the easiest: the Exe Estuary Trail

Exeter Ship Canal

The Exe Estuary Trail

This is a trail likely familiar to most two-wheeling residents. It actually stretches from Exmouth on the east coast of the estuary, all the way to Dawlish on the west coast. Exeter lies in the middle of the trail, upriver, allowing you to chose either direction and reach the sea with relative ease.

The magic of this cycle route is that there are three ferries. One between the Canal/Topsham, one between Turf Locks/Topsham and one between Starcross/Exmouth. All allowing bicycles, you can easily do a loop.

Cycling from Exeter to Dawlish

Starting from Exeter Quay (the location of bicycle hire shop, Saddles and Paddles). This part of the trail winds along between the Exeter Ship Canal and the River Exe.

Smooth tarmac for much of the way, this flat, shared trail runs south, crossing Bridge Road and finding itself with both the canal and river to the east. Riding here is fast and pretty, with the lazy canal getting ever more beautiful and moorhens puttering about on the surface.

After 4 miles (6.4 km), you’ll see a little canal bridge, which leads to the Topsham Ferry. If it’s running, you catch take your bike across to Topsham and ride back along the Exe Estuary Trail to Exeter. Don’t feel like you have to stop though, the trail continues seawards.

Not long after, you’ll reach the Turf Locks pub where the canal ends and the river gives way to the Exe Estuary. There’s a privately run ferry here to Topsham, which again, if running will take you and your bicycle across the river. The pub is also a beautiful spot for a rest.

The trails sweeps down, eventually spitting you out onto a lane alongside Powderham Castle. Here, you’ll likely see the resident herd of deer casually munching the grass.

The Exe Estuary trails leads you through Starcross, where a ferry can whisk you across to Exmouth for a return loop, if you wish. Alternatively, keep pedalling on to Dawlish Warren, up a minor hill and then down into Dawlish. If you’re hungry, this is the place to get a bite to eat, with plenty of cafes and the charming Gay’s Creamery on Brunswick Place, which sells pasties and, more importantly, Cheesy Steves.

The return options are:

  • Cycle back the way you came
  • Take the train back (hard with bikes)
  • Cycle back to Starcross/Turf and catch a ferry to the other side (summer only)

Cycling from Exeter to Exmouth

Once again starting from Exeter Quay, this trail begins again between the river and the canal, but crosses over the river to the eastern side after a very short while, at Salmonpool Bridge or, alternatively, at Countess Weir.

This part of the trail follows a section of National Cycle Route 2 – actually, the whole Exe Estuary Trail does, but it’s more important on this side because you’ll actually need to keep an eye out for the signs.

Once on the eastern edge of the river, the trail leads you along the cycle path on Exeter Road, through wonderful Topsham and out the other side, onto a traffic-free trail through Bowling Green Marsh Nature Reserve and down to Exton and Lympstone.

The route from Topsham onwards follows the railway branch line all the way to Exmouth although it’s not a particularly busy line.

You’ll end up at Exmouth train station and it’s a short ride to the marina, where you’ll find the summer ferry to Starcross, or head to the beach, for a coffee/ice cream and a rest.

The return options are:

  • Cycle back the way you came
  • Take the train back (hard with bikes)
  • Catch the ferry to Starcross or from Topsham (summer only)

The Ease of Riding the Exe Estuary Trail

No matter where you start from or end up, this trail is almost entirely flat. For the most part, it’s easy enough to simply start riding and turn around when you feel like it. There are so many wonderful viewpoints and easy stopping places that you can have a shifting goal, depending on how exuberant you’re feeling.

It’s exceptionally easy for a family bike ride as the going is smooth and there’s absolutely minimal road – really only in Starcross and Dawlish, where you’ll also find pavement cycle paths.

With cafes and pubs in plenty of places along the way, you can choose any destination you want and there’s a reasonable chance of sustenance. If you get a puncture and have left behind your tools, someone is also bound to pedal along soon who can help you out.

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