Across the Moors

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!

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11 Comments

  1. That looks fun! And mention of an Ogre. (I thought you were an ECR man? Taken the plunge?) Perhaps the collective noun for Surly owners should be ‘An Envy’? Bravo! 🙂

      • Wow, weird, I got completely the wrong end of the stick here, I thought your blog had been posted by a recent acquaintance of mine, Mike Hayes, (http://www.seasurfdirt.com), who has a range of bikes, including an ECR, and who lives in Cornwall near me…hence my ECR comment.

        Apologies!

        I think the confusion occurred because I clicked on your mailout/email and got straight to the blog w/o all the website headers and my brain immediately connected the Westcountry Way with Mike…..or something….maybe I was just not paying attention!

        Yes, hello Chris, I’ve been following some of your adventures with interest, you’re a man after my own heart.. I too have had a spark ignited by the likes of Cass, Lael/Nick, Logan, Joe Cruz, Glenn Charles, Bunyan Velo & bike-packing generally, and that inner sanctum of bike obsessed trail blazers whose names keep cropping up…and I too am a bit of a nature freak..

        I love your bike. I’ve been on an LHT for the last four years wearing grooves into small country lanes, gravel trails and flattish off-road tracks around Cornwall, Brittany and Wales, but am about to take the plunge into fatter territory as the lure of wilder tracks and horizons beckons. Just can’t quite commit/choose between an Ogre or an ECR. It’s looking like the Ogre at present as I don’t think I’m yet ready for anything fatter..and running less than 3″ tyres on the ECR might involve problems with pedal strikes, I hear..

        I dig your set-up, pretty much the same spec as I’d have for mine. Only changes being a King BB, different pedals (Hope F20’s – pricey but love them), Schmidt Edelux front light, Smart Sam tyres for versatility, maybe Middleburn RS8 X-type cranks, and some bling and colour swap outs…I love the green of the old Ogre but sadly it’s no longer available. My g/f has the tarnish/grey of your rig but I can’t quite get used to that, not w/o desert surroundings, so it’s looking like it’ll be another black bike for me!

        I see you’ve drilled out your Flow Ex rims for Shraeder valves, which presumably means you’re not running them tubeless? Why did you do that? You can get teeny adaptors to fit on presta valves so you can use them with an auto air line. Or have you custom rigged some tubeless Shraeder valves? Just curious?

        Anyway, glad to see that now you’ve cut your teeth on some of the wilds of Spain you’re off to bigger pastures in the grand ol’ Wild West! Colorado. Awesome. Was there when I was 18. Made a huge impression, so too New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and the likes of Bryce Canyon, Arches National Park, and all the local indigenous art and architecture. I hope your adventure is everything you’ve dreamed of and the gateway to things too marvellous to yet comprehend!

        Incidentally, how old are you? (No need to reply if that’s too much information).

        Go well, and ‘May the wind be in your wheels’ as Josie Dew once said…

        Justin. 🙂

  2. Great treat to read, shame I had to wait till August to receive.
    Cows are known for their ability to lick the paint off cars, doesn’t bear thinking about.

  3. Hola Chris!
    Splendid timing, we’re heading to Exmoor next weekend (bank holiday) for a similar bikepacking trip! I saw the book you referenced. Do you have a GPX route or track you could share? Any particular sections you would recommend or warn against? I am interested to check out Tarr Steps and Dunkery Beacon, but not sure about bike access. We’ll be doing a loop starting and ending in Taunton, possibly passing through Quantocks if time permits.

    Cheers!
    Lars

    • Hey Lars…
      Great minds eh! It is a lovely bit of the world, that I’ve somehow hardly ever visited before.

      I do have a couple of slightly different GPX tracks that I picked up from guys on the Bear Bones Bikepacking forum that I can send over to you if you ping me your email address via the contact page?

      I skirted Dunkery Beacon itself as the guide suggested it was overused and best avoided. Great views. The area around Tarr Steps is lovely also – that flat area just above a river that I nearly slept on was actually very close by.

      The West Dart to the east of Princetown can be hard to cross if the water level is high apparently – there are stone steps but it can be fast and deep (close to my waist-deep wade).

      Other than that, it’s all beautiful as I’m sure the Quantocks are… Look forward to seeing your photos!

      Cheers, Chris

  4. Captures the moods of the moors nicely Chris. Sorry about Itton Moor-we must have had it drier!

    We later rode the Kennet and Avon on the LHT you mention (See CGOAB for write up). Now thinking of more adventurous wanderings and am just about to hand over the cash for an Ogre – you should get some commission as a rolling salesman! Based on our chat at Blacks the deli I am still pondering on the option of replacing the rigid forks with suspension set up like yours – any further thoughts on the matter?

    • Hey Johnny, Sorry for such a delay before replying…! Things got busy. With suspension forks on, I found the steering a little slow, but once I’d put a shorter stem on, I started to really enjoy it. I haven’t looked at the fork measurements but perhaps its due to a different fork offset / rake. I don’t think I would have survived the Colorado trail with rigid forks! I’ve still got the suspension forks on and feel like I want to keep them on there for trail riding at least. What did you do in the end?

  5. Hi Chris – I put suspension on! Or rather Rich at Keep pedalling did. This was based on the type of trail riding I have planned and Rich’s subsequent recommendation. So far I’m very pleased and had plenty of fun riding the Dartmoor forest tracks and single track descents around Chagford. Interesting point about the stem – Im thinking something similar in order to keep the saddle central on the seat post and to pull the bars back over the hub – so I’ll def. try that. Thanks, Johnny

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