Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Jon Vernon's favourite Dartmoor cycling trails

Our IT manager Jon Vernon is a keen mountain biker. Here are some of his recommendations for pedalling across Dartmoor...

The news that Singletrack magazine have this month named Dartmoor as one of the top 5 mountain biking destinations in Britain will not come as a huge surprise for anyone whose ridden here. Despite its relative lack of elevation - the highest point of Dartmoor is “only” 621m - there are very few riding spots in these isles where you can experience such a great mix of technical terrain, wide sweeping views and challenging climbs in such a relatively compact area.

Ancient native woodland, rugged, windswept tors, rushing river valleys, mysterious prehistoric remains – it’s all here, and even for a novice rider, a mountain bike is the perfect way to get a real sense of the drama of the moor – quite simply you can get to places on a bike which you wouldn’t get to by car and which would take too long to cover on foot.

These are some of my favourite trails on the moor – handily, most are within half an hour or so of Helpful Holidays HQ here in Chagford!

Lustleigh Cleave

The jewel in the crown of Dartmoor riding and one which I’m lucky enough to be able to ride to from my front door. The steep-sided, heavily wooded valley of the River Bovey has a myriad of trails ranging from insanely fast, open moorland singletrack to sinuous wooded paths to boulder-strewn, technical downhill. The descent from Hunter’s Tor to Foxworthy Bridge via the infamous Nutcracker has it all and is, for my money, one of the best in the area. The southern side of the valley also has some fantastic trails radiating out from Water. You could easily spend a whole day of riding here and never cross your own tyre tracks. It’s a stunningly beautiful area,  particularly in spring – with the ancient trees and moss covered stones giving it a very mystical feel.

Bennet’s Cross, Vitifer Mine & Challacombe

This is my regular, swift after work loop in the summer – just brilliant after a spell of dry weather. The descent from the car part at Bennett’s Cross through the Vitifer mine workings is probably one of the most fun kilometres of trail anywhere on the high moor. It starts with a rather inauspicious roll over some tussocky, boggy ground before filtering down to a narrow, hard-packed ribbon of rollercoaster trail which twists through the spoil heaps, pits and leats of the old tin mine. Care needs to be taken though - a couple of sections are quite exposed, running close to a narrow gorge and the flooded workings.

The trail opens out to a beautiful spot near a clear bubbling stream, the site of the old miner’s drying house. From here follow the trail down the valley to Soussons Down via a second disused mine at Golden Dagger before contouring around to the medieval settlement of Challacombe then back up the neighbouring valley to Headland Warren. The bronze age settlement of Grimspound is well worth a short diversion here. After that, the pain of a short sharp climb up to Birch Tor is more than made up for by the fast, technical descent back down to the mine. Finish up with a well-deserved pint outside the Warren House – it claims, in Dartmoor, to have the biggest beer garden in the world!

This route can also be extended to an epic full day ride to Lustleigh Cleave by following the trail over the moor to Natsworthy via Grimspound and then on to Jays Grave, Hound Tor and Water.

Princetown / Burrator Loop

Another classic Dartmoor loop, and one which is fun to ride even in the wet. Park in Princetown and follow the bridleway next to the Plume of Feathers – the hard packed trail over South Hessary Tor is fast and fun, with a few technical challenges thrown in from the many water bars and drainage channels. The route then drops down the very aptly named Rocky Road towards Burrator, before joining a bridleway running downhill close to the mysterious Crazy Well Pool, reputed to be bottomless and the source of much local legend.

This section of trail is known by local riders, rather melodramatically, as the Widowmaker for its tendency to unseat the unwary if ridden too fast. Don’t let that put you off - it’s not particularly technical but does need to be treated with respect - in particular you need to avoid getting distracted by the stunning views!

There are two options for the return leg from Burrator – the first is along the level and well-marked trail which follows the route of the old railway line out to Kings Tor – this is a stunning ride in itself, suitable for all the family and with expansive views of the moor and Plymouth Sound to the south.

Alternatively, for the more adventurous, it’s possible to strike off across the moor to the east from Sheepstor to Eylesbarrow Tin Mine and the very remote Nun’s Cross farm before rejoining the trail at South Hessary Tor. This route covers some genuinely wild country and is best left for a clear day and those riders with good navigation skills, map and compass.

Teign Gorge / Hunters Path

From Fingle Bridge a good wide track runs in both directions along the south bank of the Teign through the lovely Fingle woods. Despite a couple of bumpy sections, this is a great option for all the family with some lovely picnic spots en route. To the east, the trail can be ridden all the way to Dunsford with options to explore the upper reaches of the valley on trails which have recently been reinstated by the Woodland Trust and National Trust.

For more enthusiastic riders, to the west, and on the opposite side of the river there is a great, short loop along the Hunter’s Path which clings precipitously to the edge of the gorge near Castle Drogo in its early sections before crossing Sharp Tor. The right hand fork in the trail after Hunting Gate plunges down a rooty descent to Fingle Bridge. Even better is the left hand fork which offers a sublime section of singletrack through Drewston Wood before climbing back up to Drewsteignton.

Stepping Stones Route

This one is best left for dry weather for obvious reasons as it involves 6 river crossings in the East and West Dart valleys. Whilst requiring a bit of bike portage in places, it takes in some stunning riverside and woodland scenery and feels like a proper adventure. Starting from Bellever Forest the first river crossing comes after a technical descent to Laughter Hole. There is a short climb to Babeny before a fast downhill and a second crossing below Brimpts Wood, the lush vegetation of the valley giving this section of the ride an almost tropical feel in the summer. The route shortly passes one of HH’s properties at Brimpts Farm before continuing on the road to Hexworthy. There is then a beast of a road climb to the Forest Inn before following the minor around to the right and down to meet the bridleway and a further series of stepping stones at Sherberton. The return leg is an enjoyable blast over the open moor from Dunnabridge Pound and back through the forest to the car park.