A cycle ride in North Devon – but no ‘forest of masts’?

On Friday, we cycled, mostly into the wind and intermittent light rain, from Barnstaple to Okehampton – 40 miles through the rolling hills of North Devon.

The first section was straightforward, along the old railway line now known as the Tarka Trail. The tide was out.

The trail follows the river Taw, then up the river Torridge, leading through Instow, where the view is across the water to Appledore . . .



and on to East-of-the-Water, looking across to Bideford . . .



It’s what you don’t see as much as what you do see in these images that stands out.

These two towns are ports that in the days of sail not only pursued a strong coastal trade but traded across the world. These quays would have been lined with sailing ships – a forest of masts.

Depending on a particular period in the eighteenth, nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, you could have stood on one of those quays intending to board one these vessels.

Perhaps it is spring and you are waiting to join a vessel working the Newfoundland trade, taking supplies, equipment and labour for the fishing trade, returning with salt cod to southern Europe and back to North Devon in the autumn with wine and fruit. Or maybe you are checking your import of Canadian lumber, or your vessel is involved in the Irish trade – or even the coastal London trade.

If it belongs to the coastal trade, perhaps you have imported coal, or culm (small, hard lumps of Anthracite to be delivered to the limekilns upriver). Or general goods down the Channel from Bristol. Or maybe a load of Delabole slate.

Perhaps you are part of a shipbuilding gang bound for the shipyards on Prince Edward Island; maybe in your managerial capacity you know James Yeo whose success in that business is demonstrated by the large house on the hill in the top image. Maybe you are worth much more than this and the vessel you are looking at was built in Prince Edward Island and you are proposing to share ownership with a group of investors. Or maybe it is a locally-built vessel.

The North American trade is opening up, goods are being sent to the north eastern seaboard, and a cargo of tobacco brought back from Virginia further south.

Suddenly, the quay is awash with fellow passengers, ready to embark for New York, plus friends and relations to say farewell. Another vessel is foreign-bound for Portugal and Spain; yet another is headed for Brazil.

There again, maybe you are joining a locally-built vessel completed for Welsh owners and bound for the cooper ore trade from South America to Swansea.

I have jumbled the periods and the cargoes. They weren’t all contemporary but they were there at various times over those years. I do not wish to make it sound romantic. This was a hard life – (98% hard life, 2% romance!). And these ships virtually all disappeared with the rise of the steamship. No more forest  of masts.

This is what I was looking at when we paused briefly on our bike ride and gazed across the water. This is what I see in the above images.

Nevertheless, the ship-building industry has not completely disappeared . . .


There is still an important shipbuilding base in Appledore bringing much needed income to the local economy . . .


. . . currently involved in one element of our lives today that seems destined to be with us for ever.


Once we left the trail, the hills proved a challenge for this rider.  We completed our trip a half hour later than expected, reaching the Half Moon Inn at Sheepwash, soaking wet, with four minutes to spare before they stopped serving meals! That would have been a tragedy. The food was excellent. With aching thighs on my part, we passed through Hatherleigh and Jacobstowe and, one puncture later, sailed down the final steep hill into Okehampton. My gratitude is due to a son who took me on in the first place and then held back for the old man!



Duffey et al, A New Maritime History of Devon Vol.2, London, Conway 1994

Bouquet M., Westcountry Sail, Merchant Shipping 1840-1960. David and Charles 1971

(Images by Bill Whateley)