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Big Ride: Exmoor, UK

Stu Bowers
24 Feb 2017

Scenic moorland, rugged coastlines and a fair share of steep inclines: Exmoor has everything you need for a dramatic day out on a bike

I do still love a paper Ordnance Survey map. There’s something captivating about running your finger across the page, compiling a mental image of the topography and specific features of the course you’re plotting thanks to the intricate details, contours and symbols. It’s just far more fulfilling than Google Maps on a screen. 

Exmoor is a real treat for a certified map geek. In cartographic form the landscape immediately looks dramatic. There are vast swathes of narrowly spaced contour lines, sometimes so tightly packed that sections of the page appear to be shaded orange. On an OS map a single black arrowhead on a road signifies a slope of 14-20% gradient. A double arrowhead suggests 20% or greater. Exmoor has rather a large number of double-arrowed roads, and it’s certain that we will be going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow as we make our way round our 116km course. 

Sitting in the Yarn Market Hotel in Dunster with my riding companion for today, Heidi, I decide it’s best not to mention the amount of climbing we have ahead of us, especially as we are both still laden down with breakfast.

Steady as we go

Thankfully my eggs have time to settle before those gradients do their worst. The start isn’t overly arduous as we leave Dunster to the south and track along the river valley that sits beside the giant mound of Dunkery Hill, atop which sits Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor, and indeed all of Somerset, at 520m. 

Apparently the medieval village of Dunster was the birthplace of the song ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’, so inspired was writer Cecil Alexander when he visited. Today, though, is rather more ‘all things dank and a bit misty’ as we roll out of town, with the castle peering down on us from its commanding position high up on the tor behind us.

We’re quickly nestled among the hedgerows, in narrow lanes typical of this part of Somerset. The sound of the breeze in the trees is only interrupted by the occasional babbling stream as we pass over humpback stone bridges. It’s quintessential rural England. 

The centrepiece of Exmoor is the vast dome of moorland with its northern and western edges tumbling to the sea via rugged coastlines composed of deep, steep-sided valleys and coombes, craggy cliffs, secluded bays and quaint harbours. It was one of Britain’s first National Parks, designated in 1954, and covers 692 square kilometres from the Brendon Hills in the east to Coombe Martin in the west. We’re saving the far-reaching views across the moor until later in the ride – if the low cloud lifts, that is – and for now we’re leaving Exmoor behind us and heading to the coast. A brief spell on the A39 to reach the village of Porlock temporarily interrupts the tranquillity, but no sooner have we left the end of the village high street and peeled off onto one of the highlights of the route – the Porlock Toll Road – peace and quiet descends once more. 

The 6.8km Porlock Toll Road is not to be confused with the main road that also snakes steeply (25% max) up Porlock Hill. The toll road is owned privately by the Porlock Manor Estate and is much narrower, far prettier and largely traffic-free. 

Minehead Cycling Club runs an annual hill climb up the toll road with a £300 first prize up for grabs. The Tour of Britain has visited and the Tour of Wessex sportive also takes in this brute. The toll for cyclists is just £1, which is paid at the tollhouse about three-quarters of the way up. The gradient is ideal, never more than 7%, as it meanders in and out of the hillside, mostly forested for the lower part but with occasional sections where the trees part to reveal tantalising glimpses of the coast below, with the odd hairpin bend thrown in for a bit of an Alpine feel too. It’s a real treat to ride and well worth savouring, not Strava-bashing. Incidentally you’d have to be travelling at an average speed of about 24kmh and reaching the top in well under 16 minutes to head the leaderboard. 

As we emerge from the wooded lower section, the panoramic splendour of the hillsides to our left and coastal vistas on the right reveals itself. The cloud has lifted and it’s possible to see all the way across the Bristol Channel to Swansea and the Gower Peninsula in the distance. We also look behind us at the wonderful view of Porlock Bay before heading up onto the ridge to briefly join the A39.

It’s only a matter of about 500 metres on the main road before we duck left and swoop down the fast descent of Hookway Hill. Just before we reach the valley floor we need to take real care around a treacherous hairpin bend, steep and tight with the road surface mossy and slick. We’re soon at the northern end of the Badgworthy Valley, or Doone Valley as it has also been known after RD Blackmore’s classic romance, Lorna Doone, was based here. We can’t resist riding through the rocky ford at Malmesmead rather than taking the bridge, and the cafe at the Lorna Doone Inn also offers too strong a pull, so with about a third of the ride complete, it’s time for a cuppa.

Worth the effort

The steep ascent from Brendon to rejoin the A39 towards Countisbury is a slow affair as both Heidi and I have a bad case of cafe legs, but the effort pays dividends as the descent into Lynmouth is not to be missed. Countisbury Hill is fairly straight and steep. Speed comes with such ease and abundance it’s hard not to ride on the brakes the whole way down, and all too easy to miss the magnificent view off to the right. 

Lynmouth itself is just as picturesque. I recall coming here as a schoolboy on a geography field trip to study a town that was virtually wiped off the map by a massive flood in 1952. A storm soaked the already saturated moors above and the flow of water down the valley was so powerful that it carried huge boulders, trees and other debris with it, flattening everything in its path. Houses and cars were washed out to sea and 34 people died as a result. 

There’s no evidence today of the tragedy, and the pretty harbour has a relaxed atmosphere as we pass through, but our day is about to get a bit more dramatic. We’ve arrived at the double-arrowed climb to Lynton, which has me and Heidi searching for our lowest gears and hunched over the handlebars like a pair of sprinters duking it out to the finish line, only in slow motion. 

Thankfully a recurring theme on this ride is that any effort made grinding steeply skywards results in plentiful rewards soon after. In this instance waiting just around the corner is the spectacular Valley of Rocks. It’s fairly obvious how it got the name. Castle Rock, hewn from the landscape by the Ice Age, is the focal point, dominating the rugged coastline. In high season the car parks would be full of coaches, but today we have it almost to ourselves as we follow the road around the heather-clad hillside.

Another toll road, with an honesty box curiously perched on top of a pole in the middle of the road, allows us to continue hugging the coastline. Again the views are pretty special. The sea is ever-present over our right shoulders but not always in sight – at times it feels almost like we’re in a rainforest as we traverse the deep, wooded coombes and the unwieldy vegetation encroaches onto the road, making it very narrow. 

There’s another literary reference as we pick up sections of the Tarka Trail, named after the journey taken by Tarka the Otter in the book of the same name. And predictably there are a few more steep ramps along the way to Martinhoe.

This marks the most westerly point of the ride, and from here we begin to loop back in the direction of Barbrook and Hillsford Bridge. As we leave the coast behind and crest the top of the hill, Exmoor – our new target – looms large on the horizon. This end of Exmoor is not quite as lofty as its easterly side, topping out at around 480m, but having descended a good way before beginning the next climb it still feels like a fair effort to haul our slightly jaded legs up the next 10km that will ascend the best part of 300m. 

The few trees dotted about the high part of the moor all have a telling lean. Their branches trail sideways like long hair in a gale, sculpted by the winds that howl across this barren landscape. Today we only have a minimal headwind to contend with as we pedal past ponies grazing at the roadside, entirely oblivious to our presence. 

Beyond Simonsbath is a final sting in the tail – another 5km of exposed climbing to the top of Kinsford Hill. Then it’s practically all downhill for the next 25km to Dulverton, topped off with Windball Hill, a double-arrowed road where finally the arrows are directed in our favour. Dulverton is known as the southern gateway to the moor, but today it’s our exit point as we head north to complete the loop.

To keep off the main A396 we need to muster the energy for one final ramp, which while not long is pretty steep. But once we find ourselves up on the ridgeline that runs parallel with the main road we can relax and enjoy the last kilometres on rolling roads, before a final swooping descent through the trees to Timberscombe. Here we have no choice but to join the main road back into Dunster, but it’s only a matter of a few minutes before the castle comes into view and we’re unclipping with only one thing left to do: find the nearest pub.

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The rider’s ride

Canyon Endurace CF SLX 9.0 SL, £5,099

Read the review here

Do it yourself

Travel

It’s not impossible to reach Exmoor by train but it isn’t straightforward. Great Western Railway runs services to both Taunton and Barnstaple (via Exeter St Davids) from London Paddington and Birmingham New Street, but the easiest way to get around is by car. Dunster is just a few hundred metres from the A39 to Minehead, near the M5.

Fuel stop

Good restaurants and cafes are plentiful around tourist hubs such as Dunster, Porlock, Lynmouth, Lynton and Dulverton, but are trickier to find in the lesser-populated areas. We highly rate the Lorna Doone Inn, Malmesmead, for a mid-ride stop that offers excellent cream teas.

Thanks

Many thanks to Ian Piper from the Exmoor National Park Centre, Dunster, (who is also race organiser for the Minehead Cycling Club hill climb up Porlock Hill) for his help with planning the route. Also to Anthony Brunt of the Yarn Market Hotel, Dunster (yarnmarkethotel.co.uk), for a very pleasurable stay in this superb hotel. 

Thanks also to Mark Blathwayt, owner of the Porlock Manor Estate, for permission to shoot on the toll road, and Jake Hollins for being our support driver on roads often narrower than his van.

 

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