Road riding on Exmoor – a biased review

Which way? There's almost always more than one way to connect each village. The options spread the few visitors out even further, leaving you with endless roads to yourself

The Exmoor coast is the most primitive shoreline left in England. The huge cliffs have protected 35 miles of coastline from development, and the result is one of the most one unique landscapes in the UK. The cliffs role inland onto huge flat-topped hills. The relentless atlantic storms and long winters have scoured the vegetation from the tops of the moorland, leaving hardy plants and wildlife. The wooded valleys cutting between these hills are a contrast – part of the huge variety of terrain you’ll see if you cross Exmoor by bike.

Countisbury Hill is famous in the UK as one of the hardest climbs. The first mile is at 25% gradient

The Tour of Britain has visited Exmoor on every iteration since it’s rebirth, and it’s easy to see why. The roads cutting straight up and down the hills create 25% gradients that are impossible to ride easily. With all elevation starting from absolute zero – sea level – and rising to 1600 feet, the climbs are bigger than they appear on the map, and some of the most challenging in the UK.

Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills
Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills

As soon as you travel off the top of the moor, the trees grow taller, plant species become more numerous, and the weather a little gentler. The weather is fast-moving and unpredictable on Exmoor. The storms moved rapidly off the atlantic and over the coast, dropping heavy rain any time of the year. The wooded valleys are the protection from the elements, and it’s not uncommon to have different weather at the bottom of the hill from at the top.

In the bottom of the valley's, it's sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above
In the bottom of the valley’s, it’s sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above

The inaccessible coastline was further protected when Exmoor became a national park. Unlike the Wildernesses that make up American national parks, in the UK the national parks are living places filled with farms and industry. The protection comes from stopping development that would ruin what is already there. As such, Exmoor is filled with small villages, each with its own identity. Some of the villages are just a couple of miles apart, separated by open moorland and winding roads. These winding roads have often been replaced by (slightly) larger roads that now carry cars around the park, leaving winding country lanes to the bikes and horses. It takes a lot of local knowledge to successfully piece together a route through the best parts of Exmoor, and it takes a strong pair of legs to carry out the planned ride.

Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside
Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside

With Weather and fitness on your side, there are endless options for riding, taking in the busier coastal areas, or the quieter high moorland.

Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It's hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor
Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It’s hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor

I’ve been riding and walking on Exmoor for a long time, but it’s only recently that I’ve truly appreciated Exmoor for what it offers to cyclists. The variable weather that can never be predicted is the biggest factor in keeping people from coming to this part of the world – it seems that sunshine is often the determining factor when riders decide where to visit. Hot summers days might be the easiest time to enjoy the riding, but some of the best days are the ones where you’re the only person around for miles, the roads are your own, and the bleak moorland rolls on for days.

The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers
The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers

Home for the Holidays

Christa and I headed back to England for Christmas and New Year; it was a huge step for Christa to forego her own family to spend time with mine, and I’m so glad she did. Missing the holidays is a big deal, and one that I haven’t done yet. Having her in England was amazing though: no extended skype time in the evenings, and a great opportunity to settle into Devonshire life. The first time she visited, we fitted as many tourist attractions into our week as possible, and didn’t get a feel for the slow life that my parents lead. This time around we had no such commitments and enjoyed a quiet week at Crackalands Farm.

The Seaside at Combe Martin on a dark winters day

Continue reading Home for the Holidays

Christa Came to England

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London, England. There’s a light flurry of snow on the motorway, and taillights are flashing in front of me as nervous drivers negotiate the increasing volume of traffic that appears in the shadow of the great city. I’m following road signs, an old fashioned and unpopular way to navigate in the age of mobile information, but the road signs don’t move, and I’m making good time, with only an iPod to distract me from the road ahead. The car smells fantastic. The grey and dismal outside looks cold, but the smell of the flowers on the front seat next to me is warm and colourful.

I get to the airport. Early. Eager. I’d told myself to be patient, arrive 20 minutes after the flight landed, and I’d still have time. But I got there 15 minutes before the plane was due. Christa was probably still somewhere over the north Atlantic at that point. I find a good position, bustled between families waiting for parents and children to arrive, and bored taxi drivers holding up scrawled names on dog-eared pieces of paper. I have a direct view of the sliding arrivals doors, and my heart races just a little every time they open. I know I’m too early, but I stand there anyway, just waiting.

Finally, the status board tells me the flight is landed, the bags are delivered, and I find myself looking through the doors longing the next person to be Christa. It finally is. We both have tears in our eyes, and we don’t say a word. I feel like everyone in the hall is watching us, and I’m glad to be holding the centre of attention. Together again.

Saturday January 12th wasn’t that exciting for everyone else, but getting lost in the outer reaches of London was paradise for me. We turned out of the airport on the hunt for Windsor Castle. A massive hulk of medieval building on the banks of the Thames. Somehow we ended up in Hounslow, a massive hulk of beat-up Indian restaurants. At least Christa had seen that not all of England was like The Holiday! We found Windsor 15 minutes later, the castle towering over the pretty shops and restaurants by the river. We walked alongside the grand castle walls in the twilight, and strolled down past the river, before settling on a nice pub for a quick evening meal.

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With the light truly fading, it was time to make the journey back to Devon. Although not many miles, the sinewy roads mean the drive would be four hours at least. Late on a Saturday, though, the roads were clear and we sped free of London and towards the countryside. Past Bristol, the biggest port in England, we were within reach 3 hours later. Winding down from the hills into Combe Martin, it felt like magic that Christa was coming home with me.

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We awake to something strange outside. The sound of waking throughout my childhood was the pattering of rain, light or heavy, onto the tin-roofed shed opposite the house. This morning though the gentle winter sun, hovering just over the greens hills, was reflecting off the roof. We woke quickly and booted up. Rain jackets a necessity, no matter how sunny it looked outside.

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We walked down past the Combe Martin seaside as the tide receded to its furthest point, and then followed the edge of Exmoor National Park up a small footpath and into open pastures filled with sheep. The track was muddy from continuous rain, and we negotiated sliding down a couple of cliffs to open up into a huge view of the North Devon coast. As we climbed up the last reaches of hangman, the true expanse Exmoor becomes visible. Although the sun was shining, a heavy haze filled the horizon blanketing the distant sea and keeping Wales undercover for another day. Day one success.

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With my parents off work, and the rare fact of the sun shining for a consecutive day, we unanimously agreed to show Christa perhaps the most idyllic spot on Exmoor. We drove East into the National Park to Watersmeet; the confluence of the East Lynn river and Hoar Oak water. We followed the east Lynn through a mossy and humid gorge along a windy and leaf covered trail leading to the small village of Rockford; only one road in or out; this is the British idea of solitude. The steep sided oak clad hills tower over the river, and the path to the top was equally as muddy as the day before, but we made the top of the hill in no time. The distinctive rolling tops of the moorland contrast with the secluded valleys.

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The windswept hedgerows are known for their sideways growing trees, and we sheltered along their length as we made our way to the top of Countisbury hill. On the border of Devon and Somerset, this hill is a famous climb for British cyclists, but today it was desolate. At the top, seemingly impervious to the gale coming off the sea 1500 feet below, a herd of Exmoor Ponies grazed on gorse bushes and tough grass. Their nonchalance to our advances showed that there were certainly more suited to the Environment than we were. From the top of the hill, we descended to Countisbury church, a small and bare church tucked into the hill. Just below that, the Blue Ball Inn, a welcoming pub filled with open fires and friendly dogs waiting by the hearth. We ate heartily, knowing the walk back to the car was all downhill. It was difficult to re-dress and head back to the cold outside, but we eventually mustered the courage and found ourselves back among oak trees as we descended our stored elevation on a winding singletrack path. The steep valley meant we were within 200 feet of Watersmeet before we could see the bridge over the river. With rain clouds just building, just got back to the car in time to avoid getting wet. Two dry days in a row; someone up there must have been in a good mood.

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Day three, the contrast to the rugged North facing Exmoor Coast is the smooth sandy beaches of Western facing Woolacombe. We parked in the empty village and strolled down to the beach. Three miles of almost untouched sand, with only a handful of people in sight. We walked almost the full length, taking in the vast expanse of headland jutting out from the sea. Morte Point lies to the North; named for its jagged and dangerous rocks that have claimed many ships in darker times.

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With a low tide, we could see all the rocks, and why sailing here is a skilled past-time. We hopped onto the sand dunes and made our way back towards the village, before getting back onto the beach to find some pretty driftwood and take some photos. We were soon to discover that being the only ones on the beach was a problem. Everywhere was shut, apart from a small shop tucked into a side street. Christa enjoyed hot chocolate with a side of chocolate cake, and I devoured my first cup of tea since breakfast. We drove back towards Combe Martin, but detoured into the valley that half of my family would trace to be their ancestral home. Simply named ‘Lee’, which is a local term for a sheltered valley, the name is apt. I had to stop and show Christa the steps carved into the rock, during a time where the quickest route was along the coast. We skipped stones across the incoming waves and once again enjoyed being alone with the sea and the sand. Unlike before, Wales was now sitting high on the horizon – the towns and hills clearly visible 30 miles across the coast. Back in the village, we saw a restored cottage, with rounded walls, low ceilings and small windows, typical of North Devon. Its thatched roof had just been refitted, completing the picture.

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With three days of exploring the natural beauty of my home county, it was time to head towards civilisation once again. Devon is old, its history rooted in farming and fishing. The houses are humble and quaint, built for warmth and purpose. They show what happened in England before the idea of industrialisation was ever conceived. We had to move on to the ‘big’ city. We caught the train to Bath, stopping briefly for a change of trains. Christa survived the backwards seating and we got to town in the middle of the morning. The same population as Boulder, but very different, Bath sits in a bowl of wooded hills, the river Avon snaking through the centre of town. We had 8 hours to explore before we’d get back on the train and head to London. The uniform sandstone architecture is the responsibility of two 18th century architects; John Wood and John Wood Jr. They constructed a grand town with little financial or physical constraints in their way. The fortuitous fact that Bath suffered little damage in World War two means its beauty remains unaltered. The most famous buildings are the ones we visited first.

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Bath Abby, a huge and magnificent Cathedral, is one of few inhabited monasteries left in the UK. We sat and marvelled at the grand arches reaching to the ceiling. We sat in silence and absorbed the total absence of sounds inside the great hall. The kind of warm quiet that fills churches. After a tour up the main street, we visited the Royal Circus and Royal Crescent. The most desirable residences in Bath, these arcades of huge houses typify Bath. The light snow falling just added to the winter magic. With the sights seen, we ate lunch in a small cafe next to Pultney Bridge overlooking the River Avon. With refreshments consumed, we had to do some history

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The town of Bath has been inhabited continuously for over 2000 years. The romans invaded Britain before Christ was born, and made their settlements during the late first century. The thermal waters rising from the ground signified something special for them, and the location became a shrine to Minerva; the roman goddess of art, education and trade. Named Aquae Sulis, the town was created around the bathing complex that still survives under the main streets of the city. The shrine survived until 300 AD, when Christianity was brought to the country, and worship of pagan gods died out. The town that replaced it remained powerful and constantly changing. It wasn’t until the last phase of construction in the 1700s that the roman baths were uncovered, and once again rebuilt to utilise the warm waters. These bath houses still stand, but the roman foundations, and locations of the shrines, can be seen under the ‘modern’ buildings.

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A long day was finished off with a carafe of wine and good Turkish food in a small restaurant. Turkish, although entirely foreign to Americans, is common in the UK and a great example of how one culture can become part of another. With the wine finished, we sat back and enjoyed the relaxation of train travel to London. Two hours later, we stepped into Paddington station, and walked towards Hyde Park and our hotel in light flurries of snow.

With snow falling heavily outside, we buttoned up and headed out into the morning to see the sights of the great city. We rode the tube under Hyde Park to Kensington, and the grand building of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum. Set up to show the splendour of the British Empire by the Queen who formed it, the V&A now holds collections of culture. It makes no attempt to catalogue the life of a region or country, but takes the finest examples of art, sculpture and fashion across every age. We walked around the display of western fashion from the 1300’s to the modern time with amazement, and marvelled at Japanese samurai swords, before walking around the corner and seeing the world’s best examples of marble sculptures from ancient Greece. We left before we ran out of capacity to look at anything else, and recaffeinated in anticipation of the Science Museum. Encyclopaedic collections of technology and innovation. Full size replicas of space crafts, and a whole room filled with what makes a human a human. We played in the ‘Google Lab’ creating music with people across the world, and saw how a robot can draw our own faces. Sometimes, tourism feels a lot like education!

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With hunger building, we jumped back on the tube and went to Covent Garden; the famous glass house that used to house the market stalls of fresh fruit and flowers brought into the city by traders and farmers. Now, the area is full of restaurants; we picked a pie shop and Christa tucked into a heart Pasty. With the light fading (yes, at 3pm!) we made the walk into Leicester Square; home of the west end and the biggest theatres in the world. We wanted to see a play, and found ‘Spamalot’ to be exactly what we were looking for. Light hearted comedy with no pretence of anything else. As we ran out of time to head back to the hotel, we headed for the Thames, and walked across the Embankment Bridge to have dinner.

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The snow was falling hard, filling the sky with a reflective orange glow from the city lights. The London Eye towered over the houses of parliament, but with no little visibility, we decided to give it a miss. Walking into the theatre after dinner, we climbed up four flights of stairs to find our seats in the upper stalls, high above the stage but with a perfect view of the action. The place was packed, and the cast enjoyed endless laughter and applause from the crowd. It was perhaps the best money we spent, and a great first experience of theatre in the west end. Tired and with aching feet, we made it to our hotel just before midnight, ready to start again the next day.

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Saturday in London. So much to see and do. No trip would be complete without seeing the seat of British power. Buckingham Palace, grand and old is a magnet for tourists, and we dodged the crowds to see the Union Flag flying high over the rooftop; a sure sign the Queen was currently in residence.

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We walked through St James’ park to Parliament square and Westminster Abby. The site of royal weddings and national remembrances, the Cathedral beats Bath for size and grandeur. It sits up against the bank of the Thames, next to the houses of Parliament; Parliament Palace and Big Ben adding huge towers to the skyline. Christa and I both seem to be equally crowd averse, so we danced around the hordes of people to find our very own phone box in which to pose. What could be better than me and my girl living it up in London?!

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Lunchtime. Again. We dashed to Kensington and found a seat in a cafe for soup and coffee, just the energy needed for a trip to Harrods; the emporium of everything expensive ever made. Four stories and countless departments filled with Dior, Armani, and thousands of other people! We viewed the boutique clothes and daydreamed of driving off in the Aston Martins parked outside, but left on foot, back to the tube, happy to be happy and not caring about anything else. With one stop left on our whistle-stop London Experience, I found my good friends from University to be in town for the evening. We dashed to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge for a quick photo in the frigid cold, but cruising across town to our hotel. We freshened up and hit Covent Garden once more for a late night meal with Trevor and Sarah. Conversation, like normal with four cyclists at one table, revolved around cycling. We drank beer, ate burgers (which could not live up to their American competitors), and didn’t leave the restaurant till 11pm. Our idea of a late night film dissolved as we realised not even London cinemas show films that late, so we called it a day.

The last day. No time for being sad though, as happiness is the cure of all ills. We ate Croissants until we could no longer move, and drank coffee until it seemed like a bad idea. The heavy snow coming down in sheets outside the cafe was causing panic in the British media, but we kept a close eye on the departures board, and could see no reason why Christa would not be getting back to Colorado. The train lumbered slowly out of Paddington station on the way to Heathrow. We held hands tightly. No words are needed after 7 days together; we knew what we were both thinking. Goodbyes suck. The airport formalities distracted us from the inevitable, but soon enough Christa walked through security and out of sight. A heavy heart is never a bad thing though; the negative emotions of leaving are the balance needed for the next hello to mean more than the last. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.