Back at it

I’m back to riding a lot after the Christmas break, and it feels great! My experimentation with the cyclocross season ended well, and I’m hooked for life on that sport. It left me confused on fitness and motivation levels though. By the beginning of December I’d lost the sharp speed I needed for cross season, and had no motivation for longer rides. I tried a couple times to get back into it with some two hour jaunts in the rain, but I wasn’t feeling it. I had to walk away for a while.

Reading over some old blog posts, I realised I had felt pretty similar at the same time last year, and the cure had been a really good rest. With the new year ticking around, the rain relenting, and renewed vigour, I finally had all the pieces in place to ride properly. No more motivational speeches to myself, no more ‘why am I doing this?’ in the back on my mind, finally I was riding because that’s what I wanted to do. I’m happiest when I’m riding. Just ask anyone who knows me how grumpy I am when I haven’t had any exercise!

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This week I had the pleasure of a riding companion. Rob (/) is an Exmoor local who has ridden more miles around here than almost anyone else. I’m excellent at the off-road topography, but his knowledge of every road name, every connector, and the gradient profile of each climb was excellent. After I contacted him out the blue, he planned a long route on Saturday, and we headed off for a full day. I knew I was in trouble when he turned up on a road bike. The silent whoosh of his tyres along the road amplified the buzz coming off of mine. I’d told him I wanted a hard ride though, and that’s what we both got.

Exmoor Road Cycling Ride Lynton Exford Dulverton Porlock

We headed up and away from the coast towards the high ridge separating Exmoor from the rest of Devon; the boundary between rough moorland and the productive and fertile farmland to the south. We managed to find the clouds and mist, even on a relatively clear day. The view south, which can stretch over 50 miles, was shorter today but still wonderful to look over the rolling green hills. We dipped down into Dulverton, a market town on the southern end of the National Park, then climbed back up within sight of the coast. From there down to Porlock is an undulating descent through well kept farmland and pretty little villages. This area in the summer is prime tourist land, and it was a relief to see many more horses and cyclists than cars. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that many cyclists out on Exmoor as I did today.

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I’m sure Rob had intentionally included the longest climb on the Moor on our first ride. I wasn’t perturbed though; it’s a beautiful road, winding through a couple hidden valleys before skirting around Dunkery beacon. After a month of non stop rain, I couldn’t help but enjoy the uninterrupted views across the Bristol channel, even as far as Wales.

Porlock and bristol channel from top of Mill Lane, Dunery Beacon, Exmoor National Park

From there it was a fast ride west, back towards Lynton and Combe Martin. Rob’s road tyres came in useful for both of us; for him it meant cruising along at 18 mph, for me it meant unashamed wheel-sucking and enjoying the draft. I hate riding alone.

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I’d aimed for four hours on the bike, but realistically knew it was going to be further. After parting ways with Rob in Barbrook, I ate my Emergency chocolate rations (few people know this, but I rarely ride without chocolate in my pocket!) and rolled home to Combe Martin. I felt really good. Refreshed. I was expecting to be completely worked over, but I felt the opposite. Sometimes what you need is exactly what you think you don’t need.

Lovely weekend on Exmoor!

A walk in December

Panorama of the Exmoor and North Devon coast from Little Hangman

The 27th of December is a forgotten day. It sits nestled between Christmas and Hogmanay with nothing of its own to celebrate. Boxing day is marked with a family celebration of token exercise; a sedate and relaxed walk across the beach. But this day is quiet and anonymous. The perfect day for a walk.

Combe Martin, and the rest of Southwest England, has suffered an unusually wet year. Starting in April, a dry winter was replaced with almost continuous rainfall of extreme proportions. When I came home for the holidays, the locals were downtrodden and sick of yet more rain. Relentless falling of precipitation. This has resulted in mud everywhere. The trails and paths that normally are hard and worn, are now covered in inches of mud, standing off of the surface and mixed with puddles of brown brackish water.

Leicester Cliff Footpath, on the way to Little Hangman from Combe Martin, North Devon

The walk from the village to the top of Little Hangman is short and steep – about a mile up, with a gain of 400 feet from the beach. It hugs the edge of some fields, before breaking out into the moorland, and then up a short sharp final push to the top. A small bobble of hillside sticks up and out of the coastline. Contrary to what the name suggests, Hangman hill was never the sight of gallows. The most likely explanation for the name comes from the Hangman’s position on the westernmost boundary of Exmoor National Park. The Celtic language was widely spoken in the southwest until the 16th century, and lent the words hars – boundary and muen – stone, or hill. From hars muen, it takes just a simple trans locution to form the modern day Hangman.

Wild Pear beach, below Little Hangman outside of Combe Martin, North Devon

As you walk up and out of the pasture land and into the rougher vegetation at the top, the view to the west opens up – Watermouth cove, a fantastic natural harbour is in the foreground, with the rolling hills of the North Devon coast above it in the distance. A recent addition to the skyline is the wind farms on the higher ground – huge monstrosities of turbines, realising the need for home grown energy.

Looking at the North Devon coast from Exmoor

To the east, the majestic cliffs of Exmoor National Park can just be seen behind Great Hangman. The tallest cliffs in England stretch up from the churning sea. With the constant rain of this year, large landslips can be seen falling down the cliffs, with other precipitously balanced chunks of earth just ready to fall. In December, very little provides colour against the bruised sky; the heather ready to burst in purple when summer rolls through, and the gorse flowers, a beautiful golden yellow, today are muted and dormant. The landscape is monochrome, bleakly beautiful.

Highest Sea cliffs in England, Great Hangman on Exmoor National Park

After we’d had our fill of the summit, we walked inland, past West Challacombe manor – a medieval farmhouse restored in the Georgian era into a grand house. Down the small lane which leads back to the village, back past the seafront and the dog walkers who haven’t ventured past the beach, and home for a cup of tea.

Decomposing wooden bridge over the river at West Challacombe