In the first of an ongoing blog series, our own Tom Wood takes us in a cycling adventure across the wilds of Exmoor.
Never trust a diversion. If I learned little else from my first day on the road, let it be that. The Strawberry Line is a fantastic gravel path that skirts the very worst of the Mendips, cutting through some stunning countryside on an old railway line. The first five miles went well and I cruised along nicely on my own highly customised Temple, with only the occasional dog walker for company. Without warning a diversion appeared, taking me down a rutted track that didn’t bode well. The next thing I knew I was riding uphill across a boggy field, inches deep in thick mud and not a path in sight. My bike didn’t grumble and got me to the top regardless of how much grime now occupied its gear mechanism.
The rest of this first day went smoothly by comparison, my map leading me across the disconcertingly flat lanes to the southwest of the Mendips. Bridgwater hosted me for a frankly obscene lunch (jacket potato with double chilli and a pint of cola) that brought on the overwhelming urge to nap by the roadside. Lethargy isn’t, as it turns out, what you need to tackle the Quantocks. I felt several stone heavier as I lumbered up the climbs and felt rather like I was letting my bike down - it wasn’t the one that had overeaten here. We made it up to the top together for the glorious descent, which ended in the slightly surreal image of a steam train puffing its way out of a station. Beyond here lay Milverton, where Temple was born, and my bed for the night. Well, by bed I mean a one-man tent pitched in a copse, but it still counts.
Morning brought a fog that lay over the deserted lanes like the blanket I didn’t have to warm me through the chilly night. Wild camping is a wonderful treat but it does produce stiff legs that are tricky to get warmed up for a second day of riding. The National Trust saved me with a cannily-placed public toilet block that offered shelter and a place to freshen up. This did, however, also mean that I was now entering Exmoor, which promised the highest climbs of my cycling life to date.
The last village passed by and then I was quickly into a true wilderness, the moors spreading out with orange glow all around me. The hills were high, but the ascent to the peak of my route was surprisingly manageable with regular snack breaks. Malt loaf drove me to the top and into the clouds that sat low over the landscape. This had a bizarre effect as I descended: rain that started as a gentle drizzle became a downpour as I left the national park for the relative flats towards Barnstaple. One last pub lunch had the added bonus of a warm, dry bathroom to layer up for the final miles that would be a doddle, right?
My chosen destination was Woolacombe, a surfing resort about ten miles from Barnstaple. The first five of these were a lovely cruise along the riverbank in the rain that had long ceased to bother me or my bike. The final five couldn’t be much different: seemingly endless climbing up narrow lanes plied by oversized camper vans decked out with surfboards and mountain bikes. I cursed myself for ignoring the contour lines of the map, but it was so worth it. The approach to Woolacombe couldn’t have been more dramatic, formed as it was by a 25% gradient downhill right onto the beach.
Reaching the sea signalled the end of my trip, and I marked the occasion by dipping the front wheel of my bike into the foamy water. I’m certain I looked a little mad, but it felt only right to give it a taste of what we’d been chasing together for the past two days. And me? Well, I could only think one thing: where next?