Drake’s Trail is a 20-mile long cycling (and walking) route, mostly on traffic-free disused railways, linking Plymouth with Tavistock, and incorporates the Plym Valley Trail.
Feel free to use this page as a resource, should you find it useful, but please don’t copy anything from it without asking first.
Also, this guide gets a lot of visits. I’m glad, as when I first started exploring by bike, this would have been exactly the resource I was looking for. As there was nothing like it out there, I created the guide I would have liked to have. It will always be a work in progress, which means I have to cycle the route often.
The route described below is 20 miles each way, and at a leisurely 10 mph pace should take around 2 hours each way, excluding any breaks. Overall, you will do some 1 200 feet (400 metres) of climbing, with the steepest gradient being a short stint at just over 6%, which for Devon isn’t steep at all. Some experienced cyclists who regularly ride far longer distances at faster speeds may choose not to have breaks at all, but I would go as far as to say in doing so they’d be missing out on so much this stunning route has to offer.
With a route like Drake’s Trail, the destination isn’t important, but instead it is all about the journey. My advice therefore would be to stop frequently, take in the views and absorb everything you can from this ride.
I will ignore all of the debate and suggest you start on The Hoe, then follow the NCN27 route markers through the Barbican (do divert for a snack past Cap’n Jaspers – they’re world famous for good food!), over the swing bridge and past the National Marine Aquarium. (Officially, NCN 27 actually starts, or ends, at Millbay docks, but this guide is for Drake’s Trail, which includes the Plym Valley Trail.)
|Silver fish in the paving stones outside the Marine Aquarium|
After a nice downhill run, you will again find yourself on a road shared with other traffic, in an industrial area. Generally traffic is light here, but do be alert as you may be sharing the road with large articulated lorries. Incidentally, you are now very close to the caves where they found remains that came to be known as Cattedown Man.
Simply follow the road, and after a while (right on a 90-degree bend to the left) you will need to turn right into an industrial/office park. Almost immediately after having turned right, the road will turn 90 degrees to the left. Simply follow it straight, going past the booms that may or may not be down. The last building on the right will be the Theatre Royal’s TR2, and you will cycle past the huge TR2 letters. Just keep following the path as it turns left, then right, to meet Finnigan Road.
The old path used to have very sharp bends on the corners, but that has now been sorted, though it still forces you to yield to every side road. Because of these reasons I tend to cycle on the road, which is fairly wide, but you may feel different.
When you get to the traffic lights, you have a few options. You can cross Laira Bridge road to the far side, then continue along the dedicated cycle path that starts on the opposite side, or you can turn right at the lights and cross the bridge. The pavement is a shared use path and you’re allowed to cycle on it. My advice is to follow the route described in Laira Option B below..
Laira Option A: This option isn’t officially part of the Plym Valley part of Drake’s Trail, as apparently it is on the wrong side of the river. Even so, I’ve included it, as you will still be following the course of the Plym.
If you’ve crossed Laira Bridge road then continue along dedicated off-road cycle path that eventually connects with Embankment road. From there, simply follow Embankment road all the way until you get to the Sainsbury’s at Marsh Mills roundabout. Stay on the pavement shared path until you get to the traffic lights at Sainsbury’s, then simply follow the pointers to Plym Bridge.
Here’s a map – the numbers show mileage:
When safe to do so, turn right and cycle across the old Laira Rail Bridge. When Laira Rail Bridge ends, continue over the new bridge over The Ride. Once you’ve crossed The Ride, take the ramp on your right down to the road.
When you meet the road, cross directly to the opposite side, then turn right along the rather scenic, segregated cycle path. Follow this path until it finally passes by a small car park, then continue along the tarred path that runs between the river and the road.
Follow the path right up to the end, where you should be careful as the surface will no longer be tarred. You will be cycling along a slight slope, on a path shared with pedestrians, right by the water’s edge. No, I have no idea which brain surgeon decided it was a good idea to not tar the path right where a decent tarred surface was most need.
Here is a map – the route shown is exactly one mile:
End of Laira Options
Once past the mini beach to your left, you will be on the Saltram House estate and you have two options: either take the river-side path, which isn’t sealed, or take the other path that is tarred.
Saltram Option A: The official route follows the river-side path and is far more scenic. There is a pleasant grassy area with some benches in front of the folly, a fine picnic spot with superb views over the Plym estuary.
|The Saltram folly, shortly after a rock fall. It’s all been cleared now.|
There is also a rather nice hide from where you often can observe many different types of bird. Shortly after the hide, the path will head downhill, then effectively split into three: the right-most path leads back to Saltram House (and the restaurant!) via a short but steep uphill. The other two paths both join the same path you’ll need to turn onto, but the left-most one can be a tad rough. I therefore suggest you proceed up the middle path, but do be careful: the gravelly surface can be tricky to ride on especially when very dry. Cycle up the gravelly path until you meet another path at the top, then turn left.
Here’s the map:
The path will then go downhill, passing through a wooden gate. At the bottom of the downhill, the path splits – keep going straight, up the little hill.
Here’s the map:
Follow the path over the brow and down the hill and across the train bridge.
Apparently some train drivers have a sense of humour, and have been known to blow the train’s very loud horn just by the bridge. Believe me, if you weren’t expecting it, it is enough to make you jump a mile, so do yourself a favour and look for trains! After the bridge the path is again of good quality, if a little narrow and often covered in gravel.
A word of advice here – the entire area around the train bridge is covered in graffiti, and some people feel very ill at ease here. I’ve cycled through here many times per week, at all sorts of times of day including after 23h00, and I have never felt any need to be alarmed. Well, aside from having been frightened out of my skin by a train driver!
Before long the path will join Plymouth road, where you can turn left, or right.
Incidentally, whichever way you came, you are very close to Sainsbury’s. In terms of cycling kit they are extremely poor, but if you want to stock up on snacks and drinks then a visit will be a good idea as the next supermarket is the Co-op in Yelverton. The petrol station also has free air, in case you want to inflate your tyres.
And here’s the map:
End of Laira Bridge Options
Whichever route you’ve chosen back at Laira Bridge, you should now be in the same spot.
Plymouth Road Option A: Turn Left
If you turn left, then the pavement is a shared-use path, so stick to it until you get to the toucan crossing, where you can safely cross Plymouth road.
Option A-1: I suggest the Plymouth road option, and if you don’t want to cycle it you can easily walk your bike along the narrow pavement for 70 metres or so, before cutting through the McDonalds. You may want a snack or a cold drink, as this is the last place to get something for some time. Follow the road to the parking exit, turn left and keep going straight.
Option A-2: Please note this option isn’t available, as the old weighbridge over the river has been closed. If you avoided Plymouth road, you’d be going down Longbridge road for a very short stint, before crossing the Plym using the old weigh bridge. Annoyingly, there are huge steps each side of the bridge, meaning you’d have to lift your bike twice – not fun with laden panniers on the bike!
The path can be very muddy and in poor shape here, as well as overgrown with stinging nettles, but before long you’re back on the road, where you need to turn left.Plymouth Road Option B: Turn Right
The official route tells you to turn right and continue along a rather narrow pavement, marked as shared use. At the bottom, you need to leave the pavement when you get to the train tracks, and continue along the road, passing under the bridge as you do so.
Be careful here: effectively you will be crossing train tracks diagonally, on a blind corner!
Shortly you will see a B&Q to your right, and the road will do a hairpin bend, crossing the tracks in the middle of the bend. You need to turn right just after having crossed the tracks.
End of Plymouth Road Options
From this point on all options join up again. The road will disappear into what is the yard of Princess Yachts, but the cycle path entrance is just to the right of their entrance. Sadly the start of the off-road path isn’t signed. The path initially is fairly narrow, and at times can be quite busy.
Just before this point, in the corner of the Park and Ride car park, you will see the small building of Plymouth Bike Hire. As the name suggests, you can hire bikes from them, but they also sell coffee and other drinks, and are usually happy to let you borrow their pump.
Do bear in mind that pedestrians have priority and be especially aware that it is normal to find many small children walking, or riding along here. As a result, be prepared (and willing) to slow right down, or even stop.
|Unbelievably, this lovely carved bench was stolen by some lowlife scumbag!
It has since been replaced with a more plain bench.
Along the way you will catch regular glimpses of the railway heritage that made this gorgeous cycle path possible. These range from the railway cottages at Cann viaduct to the old Shaugh Bridge halt, and many others. Not long after the old station, you will arrive at the Shaugh tunnel built by Brunel. Look out for a wooden bench on your right – just the place to rest a bit and admire the view.
As with old railway track beds, old tramway routes also offer gentle gradients. After a while you will arrive at double wooden gates, and the track surface will deteriorate and become unsealed. Soon you will cross the tramway stones diagonally, then pass through some more gates.
Instead of actually entering the roundabout, turn left onto what may seem like a pedestrian walkway, immediately before the roundabout. You can see the path on this Google Streetview image:
This is a shared path, and is the official Drake’s Trail and NCN27 route. As you go along you’ll see a children’s playpark on your left, and soon after you will be at the edge of a car park.
Should you need mechanical assistance, Rockin Bikes is located just off from the far end of the car park.
As you probably guessed from the name of The Old Station, Drake’s Trail here follows the course of the old railway track that linked Yelverton with Tavistock. As is typically the case with old railway routes, there are very few steep inclines. You will pass over Magpie viaduct, which offers rather nice views.
Before long you will be crossing Gem Bridge, a viaduct that spans the Walkham valley. The bridge has quite a noticeable slope to it – it is downhill towards Tavistock. Do have a look over the side – on the southern side you will see a zig-zag path winding down to the valley floor. That used to be the official route, except it wasn’t half as nice as it is now!
Once across the bridge it slopes uphill, and soon you will come to a picnic area made out of granite slabs that once were part of Brunel’s original viaduct. The path continues to the left of the picnic area, and soon heads uphill again. At the top of the hill the path will curve to the right before turning left and joining the old track bed once again.
In no time at all you’d be riding through Grenofen tunnel, so called as it passes right underneath the hamlet of Grenofen, and in the process saving you from having to ride up a long and painful uphill.
Just be aware that it always rains inside the tunnel! Of course it isn’t real rain, but rather water that filtered through the ground above, but in practical terms that makes no difference at all, as you’d still get wet.
The path continues in a straight line for a while, before curving downhill to the left. Very soon after it curves right again, and pretty much follows the course of Tiddy Brook, which indeed it crosses quite soon via another bridge. A few twists and turns later and you will meet a road. This is Anderton Lane, and it means you have now reached Tavistock.
Cross Anderton Lane into the residential road in front of you, called Buzzard Road, and turn right almost immediately after into Woodpecker Way. Follow Woodpecker Way until you get to a short traffic-free link with Old Oak Road. This is signed NCN27. A short ride on Old Oak Road (literally a football pitch length) brings you to a short traffic-free section that links with Hazel Road, and you must turn left here to take it. Again, it is signed NCN27, though not very clearly.
At the end of Hazel Road, turn left onto Hawthorn Road, then almost immediately turn right onto the traffic-free section that takes you all the way to Plymouth Road. Plymouth Road is the A386 and is busy, but the traffic-free section takes you to a toucan crossing where you can safely cross to ride past Lidl on the shared path on the other side of the road. Should you prefer to ride on the road, you can of course simply turn right on Plymouth Road and follow it the short distance to the roundabout.
The roundabout is normally busy, as it is the main entrance to the local Morrisons. The cycle path crosses the entrance to and exit from Morrisons, then skirts the very edge of the car park, before leading you via a connecting path to the car park of West Devon Business Park.
Continue straight ahead with the road to the T-junction, where you must turn right, but keep your speed down as the cycle path turning is very close. You will notice the road narrows a bit, and there is a “Cycle Track” sign. Turn left immediately after the sign, and cross the bridge. From here on you will be cycling on a shared use path, so do watch out for pedestrians.
One option is to proceed straight on, with the other allowing you to turn off to the left. Go straight, unless you aim to cycle through Tavistock and on to Lydford, or further.