I have hesitated to write about the Exe Estuary Trail which here on the eastern bank has been welcomed, with much celebration. In Lympstone it has destroyed one of my favourite woodland corners where an owl roosted and that is hard to forgive. But it has now arrived to the extent that a cyclist can pedal all the way from Exmouth to Exton and back again. I have walked the length of it and have cycled along it. It is a good way to get from Lympstone to Exmouth or to Exton.
It is one small part of the National Cycle Network, a worthy initiative launched by Sustrans and very welcome in many parts of the kingdom, but, despite its name and its claims, the Exe Estuary Trail doesn’t offer much of the Estuary that was not already there to be enjoyed. Indeed in some ways the Trail distances the Estuary and excludes people. This of course is the fault of the railway that lies like a forbidding No Man’s Land between the Trail and the foreshore. At its worst the Trail with its too many fences and padlocks reminds me of the old Iron Curtain dividing Germany that once we patrolled.
After the decision had been made to keep the cyclists to landward of the railway there was no way that they could be given the Estuary. They were necessarily to be fobbed off with a tasteful rat run and, except at the approved stopping places, denied the greatest gift the Estuary has to offer, the sense of wildness, freedom and openness. Without the freedom to explore, the Estuary loses much of its charm.
It has always been possible to take the footpath from Lympstone to Exmouth to seaward of the railway line and it still is. Against all common sense, we even used to cycle that way. It made for an exciting ride. I don’t suppose anyone will ever do that again. It is also possible, with perhaps a little trespassing on railway property and a pair of short boots, to walk from Lympstone to Exton along the foreshore. There a walker really feels that he is on an estuary trail! He is treading the same territory as the herons and if he is not careful the tide will fill his boots up.
The Trail, of course, will bring much happiness to a great number of people. It is already doing so. I expect the Royal Marines will make good use of it. It allows people to stop and stare at a country inland that was only to be glimpsed from the train. Where the gulag fencing drops below the level of the lane there are some good views to be had of the Exe that few have enjoyed since the Exeter road ran that way two hundred years ago. Before the autumn that cleansed owl will no doubt have found another dusky corner. What has been gained is more substantial than what has been lost.
Come friends, we shall try not let the best be the enemy of the good.