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.

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