Clare Balding takes a pedal-powered trip across the UK. In Devon, she rides from Lynmouth, scene of Britain's worst flood disaster, to Ilfracombe via Little Switzerland.
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60 years ago, an extraordinary man called Harold Briercliffe
wrote a string of books about his great passion - cycling.
Now largely forgotten, these overlooked gems were the culmination of a lifelong epic journey.
His destination? The whole of Britain, on two wheels.
Over half a century later, armed with one of his trusty cycling touring guides
and riding Harold's very own bicycle, a Dawes Super Galaxy,
I'm retracing his tracks to find the glorious landscape he loved.
I'm going in search of Britain by bike.
Welcome to the rugged and romantic Atlantic coastline of North Devon.
I've come to North Devon, a favourite destination of the cyclist and author Harold Briercliffe,
who described this coastline as "incomparably the finest and the grandest anywhere in the country".
And he said, "In quaintness and pleasantness,
"the villages and hamlets of the West Country stand alone."
Yet soon after Harold's visit here, this same landscape
would inflict a terrible tragedy on the people of this area.
I'm following just part of Harold Briercliffe's 286-mile tour
through what he calls "the crowning glory of the Atlantic Coast" -
a stunning coastline that takes in Combe Martin and the Port of Ilfracombe.
Along the way,
I'll be exploring how the landscape of Devon has shaped its destiny
and how the people of the area continue to look ahead at new ways
of making the most of their tremendous natural resources.
'My first port of call is Lynmouth.
'There'll be plenty of climbing to come, but the first bit is easy.'
Harold Briercliffe, normally a straight-talking northerner,
was exceptionally struck by its effortless appeal.
"The situation of Lynmouth, at the foot of a steep-sided valley, is a most romantic one.
"200 yards from the shore, the two Lyn streams, east and west, unite,
"and even their final yards are inclined, so that Lynmouth has no untidy estuary.
"The courses of the two Lyns are amongst the most
"picturesque stretches of valley scenery in Britain".
Picturesque? Romantic? Undoubtedly.
But this place has changed dramatically since Harold cycled through.
In 1952, just a few years after his Cycling Touring Guides were
published, the worst post-war flood in Britain took place here.
It may look calm today, but in August 1952
after 90 million tons of rain fell on Exmoor,
the combined force of the swollen Lyn rivers almost destroyed the entire village.
Local historian Tim Prosser remembers weeping when he heard the news of the disaster,
and ever since, Lynmouth's flood has held a peculiar fascination for him.
He told me what happened that dark summer day.
This black, ominous cloud came over in the afternoon.
Some people have likened it to the clouds seen after an atomic explosion.
And...by six o'clock, the village was in pitch darkness.
Excitement grew during the day, but that turned to concern
at about six o'clock in the evening, when May Bridge was swept away,
and then all hell let loose.
This footage, taken the next morning and never before shown in public,
graphically portrays the devastation caused by the Lynmouth flood.
In total, 34 people lost their lives when bridges and buildings collapsed
as water engulfed the village.
Shocked survivors were helped to escape from their ruined homes,
as the community tried to find safety and shelter from the wreckage
left in the wake of the relentless flood.
In one night, Lynmouth's relationship with the Lyn rivers was changed for ever.
Tim has built a scale model of the village, just as it was
moments before the flood struck. The model is housed in a museum
'dedicated to the memory of the victims.'
Gosh. This is it then, Tim?
-This is the model of Lynmouth.
-How long did this take you?
And a very patient wife, because it was built in the dining room.
A contributing factor to the flood
was that this Lyn Valley Hotel,
built in 1893, encroached onto the riverbed.
Consequently, the river became a narrow channel.
And on the night of the flood, 50-60 tonne boulders were washed down and blocked this narrow channel,
forcing the river to divert through the heart of the village and cause a tremendous amount of damage.
People in Lynton,
at the top of the cliff just above Lynmouth, slept peacefully the whole night,
without realising what was happening in the village below them.
It was PC Derek Harper who managed to make his way up to the hotel,
borrow a motorcar and drive to Porlock, ten miles away, before he found a telephone that was working.
And that was about 3:30 in the morning.
'Help arrived at first light, and soon a rescue operation was launched.
'114,000 tonnes of debris were cleared from the mouth of the rivers,
'and an appeal fund was set up to rebuild the village.
'Lynmouth became a cause celebre,
'and people who had never heard of the village were moved by its plight.
'Over the following years, a new road was built to improve access for cars, and the rivers were widened,
'their courses altered to ensure that the village would never suffer another such catastrophe.'
It's almost as if this is your memorial to those who died in the flood.
My life changed from the moment this went on display.
All of a sudden, the pride I had
and the appreciation of survivors of the flood who would come and look at the model,
and thank me for recreating the village they thought they'd lost for ever.
Many a tear was shed by the elders of the village.
The same power of water that had devastated Lynmouth in 1952
had previously been harnessed for its benefit.
The steep drop of the Lyn rivers as they approach the sea is a source of enormous natural energy.
So this is the place where all of that water power
is put into action.
Situated at the bottom of the Glen Lyn Gorge,
this private hydroelectric station draws on the power of the West Lyn river,
but back in 1890, a similar turbine was built on the East Lyn river,
and Lynmouth became one of the first settlements in Britain to light its streets with electricity.
They also developed a pioneering system
using off-peak electricity to fill a reservoir at the top of the hill,
generating a constant supply of power regardless of the river flow.
Have a look at this if you want to enjoy the power of water.
This water cannon is just being switched now to full power,
and it's just the gravity of water rushing down from the top of Exmoor that's creating this.
There's no artificial pump happening here.
That is major league! That would water a few lawns, wouldn't it?
And over across the other side of the river, you can see where the flood level was that night in 1952.
They say in that one night, there was more water coming down here
than you'd get in three months on the Thames.
Must have been absolutely terrifying. All the lights went out.
There was no power, that would have come from the hydroelectric station
on the other river, and that was swept away. It would have just been horrendous.
Most modern tourists arrive and leave by car, which does make life easier,
because Lynmouth lies at the bottom of a 500ft rock face,
a daunting hill which was a major obstacle to the area's economic development in the 19th century.
Early visitors wishing to reach the village of Lynton at the top
had to either climb it on foot or hitch a ride on a donkey.
Until, that is, the community drew on its natural resources to solve the problem.
This Cliff Railway opened in 1890 and immediately brought trade and tourism to Lynton and Lynmouth.
And do you know how it's powered? By water.
This isn't the only water-driven railway in Britain, but it is the last.
Every other one has gone electric.
And the mechanics are really simple - if you're an engineer.
Basically, it's a counterbalance system.
We use a big tank of water.
Under each carriage, when the car's ready to move away, he'll be letting water out of the tank underneath -
he keeps letting water out until the balance changes and the top car becomes heavier.
Then it's simply gravity. The top car drops and pulls the bottom car up.
The water we use comes from a river inland.
When they built the thing, they found that a point in the river slightly higher than the top station.
And its gravity fed along a pipe about half a mile long.
When we let it out down there, it goes under the road and out to sea. Very ecological and clever.
And here he comes.
-That's the buffer.
Got it. And this is the tank.
Yeah, it's just full of water.
Harold says in the book that you can cycle up the long way round the road. But to be honest,
even he reckons this is a slightly easier option, and he writes about the people who run the cliff railway
and says they've made provisions for bicycles.
-There is a charge. How much is it to take the bike on?
-£3 for a bicycle.
That sounds like a bargain.
And then you let it out with this wheel here, do you?
-That's the brake.
-Oh, that's the brake!
See, I still don't understand it.
Back in 1948, the charge for bikes or luggage was tuppence extra.
For Harold, it was a price worth paying to experience one of
the steepest and most spectacular railway rides in the world.
"Automatic brakes come into action in case of any mishap.
"On the ascent, a glorious view opens across Lynmouth Bay at Foreland Point
"and the thin strip of road up Countisbury Hill".
That was fantastic.
That is so cool.
It's a 500ft ride,
and it comes up so smoothly and so quickly and so quietly as well.
Brilliant. Thank you.
See you. Bye.
"Once on firm earth again, the tourist finds himself in the smart streets of Lynton, a breezy resort.
"It would be advisable for the touring cyclist to eat here,
"for opportunities are fewer for some miles".
I'm travelling westwards out of Lynton in the direction of Combe Martin,
by way of an impressive gorge known as the Valley of Rocks.
The same Victorian tourists who had made the cliff railway a success
were equally appreciative of this landscape.
With its echoes of the Alps, they called this "Little Switzerland".
When Harold visited in the late 1940s, he too was impressed.
"This is one of the finest bits of country in the West.
"The road gives little impression of what lies to the north, closer to the sea".
Harold said that the view from this height out to sea is
"most alarming or satisfying, depending upon the beholder".
I think it's pretty satisfying unless, of course, you're worried about your brakes.
The Valley of Rocks is unique in Britain in running parallel with the sea, not inland from it,
due to the rivers cutting deeply during the last Ice Age.
Now home to a population of wild goats, the spectacular
weathered rock formations are eerily atmospheric.
Harold said that the Valley of Rocks provided "sensations in plenty".
And the rocks around have really weird names, there's the Devil's Cheesewring and Ragged Jack.
How can you call a rock the Devil's Cheesewring?!
That's just ridiculous!
Harold was very much one to stop and stare. He loved a good view.
If that meant getting up high to appreciate the view even better, he'd do that.
In fact, he says in the book, leave the bike behind and either make for North Walk
or climb up Castle Rock here, because it's definitely worth it.
So that's what I'm going to do.
Local legend says there's the silhouette of a woman hidden in this rock,
but I have to make my way down the valley and around the coast to see whether it's true.
And that means a steep climb.
-Harold...was a man for cycling really,
really long distances.
But round here,
he said keep it short.
30 miles is plenty.
And he was right.
But at the top of the hill is the perfect spot to reveal the secret of the lady hidden in the rock.
This is meant to be the point
where I can see. That's where I was sitting.
See the slanty bit of rock?
Just under that, you can make it out. Oh, my word!
It's a white witch with a broom, and she's wearing a skirt and you can see her little leg.
"Continuing along the road, quite well surfaced at this point, the tourist climbs to another gap
"and then drops to the gateway of Lee Abbey grounds".
There's a toll here at the abbey, but it's like an honesty box, so there's nobody actually manning it.
But it's £1.
That's for cars or bikes.
And a pound may be a bit steep, but a good joke's included in the price.
"During the next climb, there is a lovely outlook across Woody Bay.
"For nearly two miles, this coastal drive continues, giving splendid pictures of the rocky coast".
The views from up here are so bewitching, they led one man to his ruin.
In the late 19th century, Woody Bay caught the eye of a solicitor called Colonel Benjamin Lake.
What nature and fortune had created round the corner at Lynton, he thought he could create here.
As part of his grand scheme, the Colonel purchased the Hunter's Inn
at the bottom of the adjacent valley, and the current owner David Orton has cycled up here to meet me.
Gosh, what a sight.
Tell me about what it was meant to be.
Woody Bay, as it was originally known, is a beautiful little cove.
Colonel Lake decided that he wanted a tourist attraction on the scale of
Linton, Lynmouth or perhaps even Ilfracombe.
His ambition was to have a big pier there, have steamers coming in. The idea was, he was going to build
luxurious hotels and villas, and further develop this piece of coast.
I assume that Colonel Lake therefore invested a lot of his own money in this place?
He'd had some slightly dubious dealings in coal shares, and lost a lot of money on that.
To be fair, he did invest a lot of his own money here, but he mortgaged an awful lot.
He then remortgaged his land further to buy more bits of land and help with the development.
He was finally declared bankrupt by the London courts, and he personally went bankrupt for £200,000.
That would be the equivalent of millions today.
A phenomenal sum of money, unbelievable.
He'd actually been embezzling his clients' funds, and was imprisoned for 12 years.
Unfortunately, he didn't complete his sentence, because he died.
So from these grand plans and this dream of making Woody Bay a rival
to the other good tourist towns around here,
he ended up overspending, being declared bankrupt and dying in prison. That's tragic.
Stealing other people's money is unforgivable. I can understand why
he loved this piece of coast so much.
The natural beauty is staggering. But there's no excuse for what he did.
I'm following a route that was undertaken by Harold Briercliffe, who was a really keen cyclist.
He came from Hitchin. He would have cycled along this path.
I suspect that he'd be pleased that this never was developed.
It hasn't changed at all in the time since he last cycled along here.
It's absolutely beautiful. He would love it.
"This is perhaps the finest part of the accessible coast of North Devon.
"For a mile, the road descends steeply,
"and then reaches the bridge at Hunter's Inn, one of the pleasantest of all spots in the West of England".
Hunter's Inn nestles in the heart of the Heddon Valley, one of the deepest valleys in England,
and it's quite a relief to ease off the pedals and freewheel down to the waiting refreshment.
Talk about a party! What is going on?
I didn't think it'd be this busy.
This is our annual beer festival. We do it every year.
We all get together and have great fun. It's a big party.
After it was rebuilt by Colonel Lake, the Hunter's Inn became a playground for the rich and famous.
Its quirky charms made it a particular favourite for writers and musicians,
and it's still a popular watering hole today.
Back in the 1940s, the price of a room at the Hunter's Inn was
probably well beyond Harold's reach and that of most ordinary Britons.
But after the war, the spending power of working people was growing,
and so was the demand for low cost holidays.
Harold's cycle touring guides were written to satisfy an eager new market.
92-year-old Rene Stacey is the only surviving founder member
of the Hitchin Nomads, Harold Briercliffe's cycling club.
She remembers making the most of bicycle holidays with her fellow members.
We cycled from 9:30 in the morning.
We used to get home about eight, nine o'clock at night.
Apart from our lunches, we'd cycled all day. We loved bikes.
We loved the scenery to get there.
No looking out of coach windows.
No looking out of train windows.
All in our legs. Lovely mileage.
With a bike, you could get down little narrow tracks that cars couldn't get to.
So you were privileged, in a way.
Harold's route leaves the Heddon Valley, goes up to the village of
Trentishoe and then a few miles westwards down into Combe Martin.
"Combe Martin is a straggling village situated in the bottom of a valley,
"and has a fair amount of accommodation for cyclists".
And that's all Harold had to say on the matter.
But in fact, Combe Martin is a place well worth exploring further.
There are hidden depths and buried treasure in those rocks,
but you need more than a bucket and spade to uncover them.
Mick Warburton is the captain of this historic mine,
and he's responsible for uncovering the secrets of these hills.
When did you first discover what was underneath the ground here?
It was about 20 years ago that we first came here and started to do some rough archaeology.
We started to realise what a cracking site this was.
The old miners knew, when you had this stone, and if it was close to limestone -
which nearly all of those woods over the opposite side of the valley were all limestone quarries -
where limestone and Leicester slates and sandstones were close, there was a good chance of getting silver lead.
And so, for more than 600 years, Combe Martin was mined for its high-quality silver ore,
a source of riches for the Plantagenet kings of the 14th and 15th centuries.
The mines here were run by the king
for his own profit.
It has been said that the battles of Cressier, Poitiers
and even Agincourt have been won in the shafts of Combe Martin.
So Combe Martin supplied the silver that gave the Crown revenue.
So when they say the landscape is rich, they really mean it?
Yeah. This is pretty much the richest silver mine that the king had in Great Britain.
The medieval miners at Combe Martin worked at the cutting edge of
their profession, mining silver ore at astonishing depths.
It wasn't until steam-powered pumps came in in the 19th century
that modern miners could uncover the original workings.
When you're underground and you find something, and you've found something out,
you've realised the way that people have worked here in the past.
That's very important to us.
Perhaps the most important stage in the prospecting process
is to separate the silver from the lead ore.
For this, the mine captain used a tool called a vanning shovel.
What you do is, you put
a little bit of the specimen on the shovel.
You wash all the mud out of the sample.
You pick a bit of water up like this and push it forwards and backwards like that.
See what's happening immediately.
-See the very dark... band at the top?
Silver ore sticks to the shovel, and the light stuff washes off.
Should I be calling you captain?
Well, it's an honorary position, isn't it,
because I'm not paid and none of the volunteers are paid.
But years ago, a mine captain would have been the equivalent of a mine manager today.
But you didn't have to pass any GCSEs, you just had to know what you were doing.
-Thank you, captain.
-Thank you, Clare.
Where are you off now?
I am now off to Ilfracombe.
-I'm going to take it steady.
Mick and his team have a deep and genuine respect
for the methods of their ancestors, and are determined to preserve them.
This area has been mined for centuries, and yet the landscape remains
resolutely rugged and untouched, as if to say that
the riches of the earth are here, but only if you're prepared to put in the work.
And Harold's Devon tour certainly takes legwork.
From Combe Martin, his route winds between the hills and the sea, through the bay of Hele,
and climbs up briefly before dropping back down into Ilfracombe.
"Ilfracombe is the largest and most sophisticated resort
"on the north coast of Devon, lying in a charming and hilly countryside".
I started my journey in Lynmouth and I'm finishing it here at Ilfracombe,
at this ancient harbour,
that provides a safe port in a stormy Bristol channel.
Gosh. Great colour here.
Suddenly you come into the sunshine, and everything is bright and alert.
Even the houses, it looks like a Neopolitan cake!
As I reach the end of my journey, I run into a pair of cyclists who
are setting off on theirs - a 102-mile ride coast to coast from Ilfracombe to Plymouth.
Now, there's some superstition, or some ritual you have to go through before you set off.
-Explain what that is?
-I believe you have to put your front wheel in the water here,
and then when we get to Plymouth at that end, we'll find somewhere to put our front wheel in the water there.
-CHEERING AND CLAPPING
-See you in Plymouth!
Ilfracombe has always made use of its sheltered setting.
The natural harbour here has given the town an importance beyond its size.
In the book, Harold says that this place was a busier or bigger port in the 14th century than Liverpool.
Is that true?
Strategically, Ilfracombe was very important.
It's much closer to the open Atlantic than Liverpool was, or is.
So you could get ships away from Ilfracombe and get them to sea
to fight whoever was trying to attack our shores much quicker.
What about Ilfracombe as a town?
-Is it thriving?
-We've had a rocky ride,
but Ilfracombe is on the up again.
There are regeneration and development plans here,
and the place is starting to buzz again.
I guess if you live here, you look around and think, "We've got a lot of water, a lot of wind.
"How can we make it work?"
It's the second highest rise and fall of tide in the world.
We need to harness that 30ft rise and fall.
The technology to do that is not quite there.
The horizontal movement of tide is there with waves,
but we're looking very much at the vertical movement of tide.
When the technology gets there, we'll be first in line, I'm sure.
That's it, because you've got the natural resources.
Almost as important, if not more so is, you've got the attitude. You want to do something.
Absolutely. There's no cavalry coming over the hill at Ilfracombe. You've got to do it yourself.
That brings that community spirit.
And over the course of this magnificent 20 mile journey,
I've discovered just how important that community spirit is
in harnessing the area's natural attributes
and using them to the locals' advantage.
It is a stunning countryside, but you can also see the power of nature.
We've seen it from Lynmouth and the floods to the Cliff Railway,
the Hydro-Electric power station,
the silver mines at Combe Martin, where you really use everything that's given around you.
You look out here to the Bristol Channel, and it looks pretty choppy out there.
And yet there are still people going out in a rowboat, saying, "Yeah, we can do this.
"We can push against the tide".
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Clare Balding sets out on a two-wheel odyssey to re-discover Britain from the saddle of a touring cycle.
In a six-part series, Clare follows the wheeltracks of compulsive cyclist and author Harold Briercliffe whose evocative guide books of the late 1940s lovingly describe by-passed Britain - a world of unspoiled villages, cycle touring clubs and sunny B roads.
Carrying a set of Harold's Cycling Touring Guides for company and riding his very own bicycle, Clare embarks on six iconic cycle rides to try and find the world he described - if it is still there.
Her first journey takes Clare to the rugged and beautiful Atlantic coast of north Devon - from Lynmouth, scene of Britain's worst flood disaster in the early 1950s, to Ilfracombe via Little Switzerland, and a hidden silver mine whose riches probably helped England win the Battle of Agincourt.