The West Country

I’ve been toying with the idea of a trip to the English West Country for some time. It is so close to home that the simplicity of planning makes up for any lack of exoticism. It is a little ironic then that one of the reasons I was keen to visit to Cornwall was to visit the Eden Project, an attempt to bring the exotic to Britain and to save the world in the process.

Eden is impressive, and has had a hugely positive impact on the surrounding area of used and disused clay mines; it is fine example of the way that tourism can provide jobs and regeneration, whilst actually enhancing the environment. It is not however the only reason to take a cycle trip in the West Country.

Highlights included most of the coastal sections – Boscastle and Megavissey in particular are wonderful – and an incredible cliff-top camp near Tintagel.

Sustrans

Having ridden around various parts of Britain, I have noticed the increase in the numbers of blue bicycle route signs over the past few years. I was well aware that they were part of the Sustrans (Sustainable Transport) network in which this charity aims to provide safe cycle routes the length and breadth of the country. Despite this, I hadn’t ever actually followed one of these routes for any great distance. It was time to give it a go.

I visited Stanfords (if you haven’t been, you should go), and picked up maps for the West Country Way and the Cornish Way, conveniently printed on waterproof paper and then booked a cheap train ticket back to London. If we’d been content to follow the route without deviation, that would have been all the planning required. In fact, we were keen to do some real mountain biking in the Quantocks and on Exmoor, as opposed to the tamer ‘off-road’ Sustrans sections and so printed off some additional Ordnance Survey maps covering those sections from my National Parks Multimap CD.

Our experience suggested that Sustrans are doing an excellent job. The routes were generally easy to follow both with signs and the maps (though you couldn’t do it with the signs alone) and the road sections saw very little traffic. Clearly the emphasis is on accessibility and for me this detracted a little from the experience. At present, the mix of riding surfaces was enjoyable, especially with our detours, but I get the feeling that Sustrans would like to turn most of the routes into two-meter-wide gravel tracks. After a while we also gave up on their circuitous routes into towns. I’d rather spend three minutes riding on an A-road than thirty intricately navigating various industrial areas and council estates in a bid to avoid the traffic. Overall though, Sustrans is a very positive organization that will undoubtedly develop cycling and cycle touring in the UK.

Highlights

Inevitably around half the route, particularly in Somerset and away from the coasts, was made up of rolling farmland and miles and miles of hedgerows – pleasant enough but not the main attraction. We had decided to take a detour along the Quantock ridge from Triscombe Stone past Hurley Beacon and would highly recommend this for its fabulous views and excellent (non-technical) mountain biking. Even the road climb to the ridge was lovely; there is also an off-road option which we avoided owing to the wet weather.

We didn’t want to miss the chance to mountain bike on Exmoor either and therefore again took a much more northerly route than the official West Country Way. For those following in our tyre tracks, we took the bridleway from Brockwell to Webber’s Post and then the 20% road climb, joining the Macmillan Way to Dunkery Beacon. This was all rideable, which the direct route from Brockwell did not appear to be in our direction. We continued on and camped at Westermill Farm which was very pleasant. The next day it rained so we took the valley road to Simonsbath before taking the Tarka Trail Route past the Exe Head. In the sunshine this might have made a good ride, but there is no defined trail and we got caught out in a thunderstorm – not recommended!
Other highlights included most of the coastal sections – Boscastle and Megavissey in particular are wonderful – and an incredible cliff-top camp near Tintagel. It goes without saying that pasties and cream teas in Cornwall and cider in Somerset also provided highpoints after a long day in the saddle!

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