If you Google the Westcountry Way, you will probably come across a Sustrans route weaving its way gently from Padstow in Cornwall along quiet roads, canal towpaths and cycle paths to Bristol. It’s probably a lovely journey but in some 250 miles, only 75 are traffic free.
If you dig a little deeper, you might find some sparse details of a different Westcountry Way. For those who prefer dirt and gravel to tarmac, map and compass to signposts, wildlife to traffic, and wild camping to guesthouses, this is much more interesting.
Leaving the tourists behind on the promenade in Portsmouth, the trail heads north, climbing over the harsh, exposed heathland of Dartmoor and then the wooded, twisting trails of Exmoor, crossing the whole of the south western peninsular, before a descent to Minehead on the Bristol Channel, some 130 miles later. I’ve been wanting to do this coast to coast trip for a while, and finally make the time in late May.
I take a lunchtime train from London and then a short ride from Plymouth station south towards Plymouth Hoe – where Drake played bowls as the Armada approached. What a spot to start, looking towards the south from Plymouth…
Following cycle paths around the coast for a short while, I soon leave the tarmac behind, initially passing through the concrete underworld of the A379, before heading inland along the route of an old railway line along the Plym valley…
An hour or so later and civilisation has been left behind, as a stony singletrack path climbing Eylesborrow provides the first slightly technical test.
After grinding my way up over the loose rocks and stones for an hour or so, I’m on top, following trails cutting across the landscape. What this doesn’t show is the howling wind whipping across the heath… There is a storm coming, and there’s very little shelter. As evening approaches I realise that, despite my determination to wild camp on this trip, there is no shelter behind which to hide with my tarp. It really is blowing a gale – I struggle to ride in a straight line with the wind catching my frame bag like a sail…
And as much as I’d wanted to avoid it, I arrive at Princetown – home to the formidable Dartmoor prison – an hour or so before dark. Just as the trail enters the town, a pub has a camping field…
I give in to circumstance, pitch my tarp and eat a pub tea… 🙂
Come morning, the winds have died down without the storm that threatened ever having properly materialised, and after a quick coffee and porridge, I head back up onto the moor.
Quite quickly the trail disappears into a network of waterlogged channels, through which I try to pick a dry route, having to backtrack repeatedly. The thick layer of dark peat holds the water so well than even on ground that is relatively higher than its surroundings, after rain the surface can be absolutely sodden.
The trails alternate between wide, sandy braids, narrow winding tarmac, and barely visible ribbons of green, snaking over the hills.
In places, blankets of bluebells line the way.
Despite following a combination of two GPS tracks, I miss a turning and end up finding this river at the bottom of a long descent. The rocks aren’t spaced well enough to walk across carrying the bike, and so I opt to wade, initially thinking that this looked nice and shallow but two thirds of the way across finding myself up to my arse in a quite a strong current with the bike trying to float off downstream!
Later on I stop in Chagford for some lunch, and the Ogre starts to attract attention. Soon there is a small crowd of (three!) locals gathered round – at least one owner of a Surly LHT, and another who had just bought, or was about to buy, a Surly ECR… What’s the collective noun for a group of Surly owners…?
After chatting for way too long about Chagford, bikes and bike trips, I head north along the Teign Valley. The singletrack trail twists and climbs slowly through the trees until the valley drops away on my right hand side.
Eventually I leave Dartmoor behind and follow a network of small lanes, in search of somewhere secluded to camp. John, outside the deli in Chagford, had suggested that I might find somewhere near Itton Moor. After exploring a sunken lane which led only to a lumpy, waterlogged field and a claustrophobic, insect laden wood alongside a very slow moving stream, I finally settle on a corner of a farmer’s field, tucked in close to the hedge. I’m reluctant to enter a field where there are crops, or where the gate is locked shut, but this seems pretty perfect…
The following day brings blue skies dotted with cotton wool clouds, and Exmoor…
It’s a little warm, and I need to do some navigation to find my way around a closed road. Its a good job my gloves are made for both ventilation and operating a touch screen…
I’m testing out a new way to carry my camera – a Porcelain Rocket Mini-Slinger, sized for carrying a mirrorless or micro 4/3 camera behind the bars – sits where a second Mountain Feedbag might normally go. The Mini-Slinger is rock solid, not moving at all on rough terrain, thanks to two straps around the bar, one around the stem, and a tensioner around the fork crown. It is also a LOT easier to access the camera than when squeezed into a zipped front pocket, sitting out in front of the bar harness. The front pocket curves around the drybag held in the harness, which doesn’t naturally make a good fit for a bulky, rectangular camera. Whilst the drawcord of the Mini-Slinger won’t keep pouring rain out, I have just popped a small drybag inside to use when needed, as I would wherever the camera was stored.
Also shown here is the Wildcat Tom Cat bag made specifically for Jones Bars. It’s really handy, perfectly sized for a wallet, phone and SPOT tracker, whilst somehow fitting on the bars with everything else, and still leaving thumb holes for using the ‘hoods’ of the bars. There is a cable access hole on the front which means I can run the USB charger cable from the dynamo hub inside the bag. The combination of the Mini-Slinger and Tom Cat really seems to reduce how crammed the front pocket and Gas Tank used to feel. A place for everything, and… Well, you know the rest.
Exmore feels very different to Dartmoor. Less exposed. More of a patchwork of fields and hedges. More intimate, twisty tracks.
I find a beautiful place to camp – flat grass just above a stretch of river – but it’s a privately owned nature reserve with bridleways running through, and with a few people in the area I decide against it. Pushing slowly up a steep track I come across an empty farmers field bathed in golden light. I want to camp in here, but the gate is tied up and I can hear the farmer in his tractor close by, so I opt in the end for the scrubby, lumpy, gated but unlocked field across the track. Keeping a low profile until the farmer heads home at dusk, I watch another farmer in a tractor across a valley trying to plough a steep, rocky field.
Happy with my spot for the night, I bed down, and with clear forecast, there’s no need for a tarp to block my view of the sky.
As dusk falls, I take a look over the hedge, across the track into the locked field… I’m grateful for sticking to my rules, as the farmer has opened the gate at the far end and the field is now filled with cows… Had I climbed over that gate I would surely have been discovered / trampled / pooed on…
In the morning I’m up early and find myself riding through an eery mist, reminiscent of something out of The Hound of the Baskervilles (although that was mostly set on Dartmoor).
The mist eventually lifts as I descend to Exford. The town hasn’t really woken up yet. I was hoping to find a coffee but instead I fill up with water, and sit on a bench in the village green eating as school kids wait for buses nearby. A steep climb out of town later and I’m in the final stretch, skirting around Dunkery Hill.
It feels like it might be all downhill from here to the coast, but I’ve underestimated this day. There is more woodland singletrack, more steep uphill, and some big sky.
Heading around Luccombe Hill I can see the sea at the end of the valley. As I descend to cross the valley floor, a group of teenagers with massive rucksacks come into view, slowly negotiating the trail as they approach a junction. I guess they’ve never seen a bikepacker on a rough trail before and as I pass them, I hear a ‘Woah…’. Feeling a burst of coolness that I never experienced as a teenager, instead of stopping for a chat I instinctively add a burst of speed and disappear impressively (in my mind) at speed down a track. The wrong track. Oh dear. I realise part way down that I’ve taken the wrong route but there’s no way I’m denting my pride by pushing back up the hill. In the end it isn’t too much of a detour, but I shake my head at the childish reaction a group of impressed kids brought so easily. I guess riding a bike really does bring out the child in you!
I stop in Selworthy for a delicious scone and jam…and err…Coke…
…before the final push up Selworthy Beacon.
It really is all downhill from here. The weather has closed in and its a slightly damp and windy ride along the coastal path and down into Minehead.
I’ve been dreaming of fish and chips on the seafront for the past day or two but the West Somerset Railway, which runs steam and old diesel trains between Minehead and Taunton, has a train leaving soon, so I grab a takeaway and before I’ve even been in town for half an hour, I’m on my way out again, heading for Bristol for a weekend with friends.
You can pick up a guide and map information to the WestCountry Way from the Mountain Bike Routes UK website. Trains to Plymouth are frequent, and the West Somerset Railway seems to run hourly from Minehead to Bishops Lydeard which is just a few miles from Taunton, from where you can access mainline routes via Bristol and Bath. The guide also provides an additional 30 mile off road route from Minehead, over the Quantocks to Taunton, if you have the time to ride rather than rail. The Westcountry Way is a beautiful route that’s not very well known but is fairly easy to access, and with ample opportunities for wild camping, particularly given the more liberal stance here than in the rest of England. Go explore!