Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Mountain Biking in the Quantocks

View from Beacon Hill – Minehead in background
Here's another post from our own Jon Vernon - in which Jon takes his mountain bike for a spin.

The South West is often overlooked as a UK mountain biking destination in favour of the big mountains of Wales, the Lake District and Scotland. A shame since in the trinity of Exmoor, the Quantocks and Dartmoor we have some of the best natural riding in the southern UK on our doorstep and whilst we may lack the elevation of the more well known biking destinations, we more than make up for it in the sheer variety of routes, natural beauty and challenging riding locally. Within a few miles of our office here in Chagford we have everything from high-level, widescreen moorland routes, to switchback ascents, technical rock gardens and beautifully flowing wooded singletrack in hidden river valleys, and what’s more it’s not uncommon to spend hours riding without seeing another soul.

Much as I love the riding I’m lucky enough to have on my doorstep, a change is as good as a rest, and a long weekend visiting family in West Somerset brings the opportunity to spend a couple of hours on the bike in another of my favourite riding areas.

Rising sharply from the Somerset Levels west of Bridgwater and running in a rough north westerly direction from the outskirts of Taunton to the Bristol Channel the Quantock Hills are often overlooked by visitors heading down the M5 to the better known tourist areas of Devon and Cornwall and to it’s bigger brethren -  Exmoor and Dartmoor - to the west. This was Britain’s first designated Area of Natural Beauty (for good reason), it’s foothills have several very picturesque villages with any number of lovely old pubs, and the area has a number of historical connections, including being the home of Coleridge, who lived in nearby Nether Stowey for several years.

The Great Road
If all that wasn’t enough of an attraction in itself, its quirks of geography also make it classic mountain biking country. The local devonian rock and grit is rather more forgiving that Dartmoor granite and also drains water easily meaning that it can be ridden all year around in pretty much all conditions.  The stunning open heathland of the main ridge is complemented by the steep sided, often densely wooded valleys known locally as combes with which the whole range is riven.  Added to this already heady mix is the fact that a rich equestrian history has left a legacy of countless bridleways and byways which criss-cross the hills in all direction. This density of good, all weather trails make it a near-perfect location for all types and level of mountain biker from novice cross country rider to extreme downhiller.

I start my route from Staple Plain in the North West corner of the hills close to the coast at East Quantoxhead. From here it’s a steady grind up a rocky track along the flanks of Beacon Hill to Bicknoller Post as buzzards wheel and cry overhead in the warm sunshine. The first descent of the day is down Weacombe, which I’d probably put in my top 5 downhills anywhere.  The first section is an easy roll over hummocky grass before things start to speed up as the angles get steeper and the trail narrows to a ribbon of singletrack tracing a steep sided gully. The trail is less than 6 inches wide in places as it snakes down the valley  – riding it safely is all about subtle movements of weight around the bike punctuated by light dabs on the brakes – overcooking things at this point is going to at best result in a bruised ego and an early bath in the stream which is often disconcertingly far below me in the gully to my right. It’s a huge amount of fun to ride – a slalom through gnarled and ancient trees with constant transitions from ultra fast, smooth and flowing sections to rocky and rooty steps before hitting a number of stream crossings as the trail levels out. By the time I reach the gate at the bottom my disc brake rotors are hissing with steam from the accumulated heat of the descent.

From here I drop further through the silence of the woods, catching glimpses of deer and a wild pony and foal before contouring around the foot of the hills and paying the inevitable gravity tax with a long and draggy climb back up to the high ground via Bicknoller Combe.  It’s all worth it though as I take a breather at the top to enjoy the amazing views of Exmoor to the West and the Bristol Channel and distant Welsh mountains to the north. Then it’s a case of doing it all again, this time with an equally fun descent down Hodder’s Combe on the eastern side of the hills. This starts with a loose, steep and very sketchy plummet down a deeply rutted chute of a trail before the gradient mellows as the route enters the ancient woodland of Willoughby Cleeve. The trail flows beautifully through the woods here through ancient stands of oak and bluebells before emerging in the small village of Holford.

The rest of the day passes in a similar vein with steep climbs rewarded by beautifully fast descents in lovely natural surroundings. Despite it being a bank holiday weekend I only spot two other riders and one walker in all the time I’m out – a far cry from the crowded trail centres of South Wales which is just visible across the Channel. The sheer density of trails here mean that despite having been riding for several hours and covering a huge variety of terrain I’ve never been more than 2 or 3 miles from the car!

After a final climb up Smith’s Combe I savour the view one last time before a fast and furious drop back down through the heather and gorse to the car, tired, dusty and happy and in urgent need of a cold beer.

For all our cottages with 'cycling' in their descriptions, click here.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Hero Dog to Stay at Helpful Holidays Cottage

It’s a pleasure to see pet dogs lapping up their holidays in our cottages and that’s even more true of heroic visitor Brin: the dog who saved soldier’s lives by barking to warn them of a hidden bomb in Afghanistan.

His owner, Sally Baldwin, is escorting him to the War Dogs Exhibition at Davidstowe Airfield on 27th-28th July.

Brin was adopted by the British Army when they found him starving near a base in Helmand. They discovered his talent for sniffing out bombs and he began joining them on patrols. It was on such a patrol that his talent saved the life of two soldiers. Brin was later captured by the Taliban but was found by Special Forces during a mission months later.

Sally started a fundraising mission to bring the stray to the UK after she read his story of heroism on the internet. He would not be flown home with troops so she started collecting donations, pledges of support and selling her own car. She arranged for Brin to be hidden in a convoy truck and driven through some of the most inhospitable areas of Afghanistan before being flown to the UK and quarantined. She had the help of Nowzad, a charity dedicated to relieving the suffering of animals in Afghanistan.

Sally said: “I saw his picture on the internet. I read his story of how, as a stray, he had saved soldier’s lives by barking at a hidden bomb devise in Helmand, survived capture, starvation and broken ribs by the Taliban, and for the next three months it became a race against time to get him home.”

Sally visited Brin in quarantine. “Three times a week I would drive 60 miles to be with him, bring him toys to play with and building his trust. Although always friendly, he was not used to fuss and would spend time just sitting at a distance watching me. The turning point came when I fell asleep on his bed and woke up with him curled up beside me. I will never forget that moment.”

Brin and Sally now work together to raise money for other animals in need. Sally said: “I made a promise to Brin the day he came home that I would never forget the others who, each and every day, through no fault of their own struggle to survive and together we  travel the UK sharing his story to help raise awareness for so many who wait for the same chance.

Brin has helped to raise over £8,000 for the charity in Afghanistan and in 2011 was awarded the PDSA Commendation for Loyalty towards the British forces. Not bad for a starving Afghan stray who simply barked at a hidden bomb to warn the lads of danger. In 2013 Brin was award the British Animal Honour (Canine Commando).

To find out more about our dog-friendly cottages click here

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

New and Returning Cottages to Help You Make Your Next Holiday Choice

From barn conversions to waterside retreats, we have a selection of holiday cottages new to our website.

Throwleigh, or more specifically the tiny edge-of-Dartmoor hamlet of Wonson, is home to the aforementioned barn conversion – a cosy cottage tucked away down country lanes and close to a pretty church and country pub. The interior is all hand built and oozes country charm.

The waterside retreat in Kingsand, South Cornwall, overlooks the village square to the sea. An ancient cottage of 18th cent. origins, on three levels, snuggles between its sister cottages. To the front there is a terrace with table and chairs,
just right for a morning cuppa or evening glass of wine.

Otterton in East Devon is known for its working mill. Take a loaf of artisan bread back to this detached cottage between the mill and the church and enjoy its chic interior or the enclosed garden with both decking and lawned areas.

The former mews stables of the grand Victorian Lynton Hotel have recently been converted into a small enclave of homes including this stylish holiday cottage. Complete with a private garden, good access for those with limited mobility and the chance to ride the nearby funicular railway for views from the cliff-top over the town and harbour, this Devon property is likely to prove very popular.

If a mooring for your boat is part of your holiday cottage check list, how about this creek-side property in Port Navas, Cornwall? The tidal creek leads into the Helford River, and beside it a lane to Glendurgan and Trebah gardens and Helford Passage (sandy beach, good pub, boat hire) where pedestrian ferry to Helford village.

We are pleased to see the return of these two sweet cottages near Swimbridge, Devon, to our website. At the end of a short gravel drive, you will find two single-storey cottages and games room made from ancient barns in 6 acres of garden, wildlife ponds, meadows and woodland.

For Information call Helpful Holidays on 01647 433593. To plan your next visit to the West Country and to find a holiday home, go to http://www.helpfulholidays.com

Thursday, 6 June 2013

A weekend to remember in Polzeath and Trebarwith Strand

Our IT Manager Jon Vernon has shared this fantastic account of an idyllic weekend picnicking, surfing, sandcastling and walking in North Cornwall:

One of the many joys of living here on Dartmoor is that if the urge takes us we can swap the brooding drama and sweeping landscape of the high moor for the coast pretty easily. What’s more, we’re blessed with two coasts to choose from – the rolling hills and scenic bays and estuaries of the south or the rugged and often stormy north coast are both within an hours drive. As a surfer, with a swell running the north shore is the big draw, so with a good weather forecast on the cards we packed up our VW camper van early on Saturday morning, picked up some barbecue provisions from our local deli and were on the road for an impromptu overnight camping trip.

In little over an hour we were parked up enjoying a picnic lunch at our favourite clifftop campsite at Polzeath with fantastic views towards Pentire Head in one direction and the Camel Estuary and Stepper Point in the other. The beach here is a huge expanse of golden sand at low tide with fantastic rockpooling and sandcastle building opportunities.  Due to a shallow profile and the shelter of the cliffs, it’s one of the safer beaches in North Cornwall to learn surfing, with several surf schools operating from the beach in the summer months and daily lifeguard cover.

It’s also a great base for walking - one of our favourite stretches of the South West Coast path runs north from here out to Pentire Point and beyond to Port Quin via the striking rock formations known as The Rumps.  A plaque here marks the spot where Lawrence Binyon wrote his poem “For The Fallen” in 1914. It’s a stunningly beautiful spot, and easy to see how it inspired such a poignant poem.

This time we choose to spend a lovely relaxed afternoon on the beach – I head in for a quick surf whilst my wife Liz and our little boy Harry have fun digging castle fortifications and splashing about in the rockpools until we hear the call of the ice cream van.  Later, we fire up the barbecue and enjoy local steak and grilled asparagus and a few glasses of red wine as we watch a spectacular sunset with the sound of the waves crashing on the cliffs below us. Moments like this are the reason we chose to move to the West Country and really couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

There are very few things finer in life than an early morning surf, and this is exactly what I do the following morning.  The swell has dropped a little overnight, but so has the wind and I manage to catch some cracking waves before most people are even awake. After a quick play on the beach (more sandcastles!) and breakfast we pack up the van and head on up the coast to Port Isaac. The village is a little gem, with tiny cottages and narrow lanes tucked away in a steep sided cleft in the cliffs. It’s still a working fishing harbour with several boats tending pots out in the bay and a busy inshore lifeboat station. It’s a great place for a wander followed by lunch in the Mote on the slipway.

After lunch we head on to one of our favourite places– Trebarwith Strand. The cliffs and rock formations here are  just incredible with a fast flowing stream snaking  down the valley and tumbling down over the rocks to the beach. Choughs and Peregrines nest in the old quarry workings here and there is a stunning walk along the coast path to Tintagel Island. The tides and currents can be fierce here and the surfing is not for the faint-hearted but it’s a fantastic place to watch big winter storms. The tide is in when we arrive so there is not much beach to play on, but we’re happy just to take in the view in the sunshine for a little while before winding our way home to Dartmoor after a great weekend.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Cream Tea, Cricket and Charity with Gidleigh Park

Helpful Holidays and Gidleigh Park Hotel go head-to-head in style next month in our annual charity cricket match. 

We're raising money for our charity for 2013, the Devon Air Ambulance Trust. Last year, the match raised over £4,200 for Farms for City Children.

Both teams will don their whites on Sunday 23rd June 2013 and head to the cricket pavilion in Chagford for 2pm. They will play a limited overs match and while it is for charity and it is for fun, cricket fans will witness strong play from the two closely matched teams.

Our marketing manager Adrian Innocent said: “Last year we saw a magnificent batting display from the Gidleigh Park team to clinch a late win in what was a massive run chase. It was fabulous fun and one of the best displays of clean striking and six hitting I’ve ever seen. For those who would rather just sit back and soak up the atmosphere, they can enjoy the beautiful setting of Chagford Cricket Club, backed by the brooding Meldon Hill.”

Tickets for the Grand Raffle are available from Helpful Holidays on the day, or in advance, and prizes include a champagne lunch for two at Michael Caines restaurant at Gidleigh Park, a weekend break in a 5* Helpful Holidays cottage, a spa treatment for 2 at Bovey Castle, dinner and stay for two at The Arundell Arms with private fly fishing lesson and much more.

The afternoon promises to be the perfect English summer treat, with a hog roast, food tent and decadent cream teas served by Gidleigh Park. Photos from last year’s match can be found here

For Information call Helpful Holidays 01647 433593. To plan your next visit to the West Country and to find a holiday home, go to http://www.helpfulholidays.com