East Devon

East Devon is famous for the imposing cliffs and fossils of its dramatic Jurassic Coast, picturesque villages with whitewashed thatched cottages and narrow lanes with old trees, not to mention its cream teas, but what about mountain biking there? The mountain biking does of course give a good excuse for the cream teas, but is that all? It is true that East Devon is somewhat overshadowed by the more popular routes in West Devon (Dartmoor and Exmoor) but that doesn't mean that there is nowhere to cycle off-road in the East of Devon. Certainly not! For a start, the narrow lanes might have tarmac on them, but there are few cars. This is because, as you drive along, your wing-mirrors sometimes brush the vegetation on both sides of the road at once and if you meet oncoming traffic, you have to be prepared to reverse quite some way, neither of which makes them popular with city drivers. And those lanes are spectacular, deeply sunken after years of usage, packed with seriously ancient trees and lined with ferns. The number of woody species in a 30m stretch of hedgerow gives an indication of the centuries of age and without trying too hard we found some hedges of almost a thousand years old. There is also a good assortment of bridleways, which are officially for pedestrians, horses and bikes although in practice I mostly saw walkers on them. One dog-walker exclaimed "that's a first" as I cycled past him on a beautiful piece of singletrack on the East Hills Strips. I also discovered that just because a track is marked on the map, that does not mean that it really exists. There was one which had a style at one end, a gate at the other and even a gate half way down but in between nothing but shoulder-high bracken, prickly gorse and purple moor-grass tussocks. It took me over an hour to traverse one kilometre, mostly with the bike on my shoulders, except for the section where I could crawl under the low boughs of a row of beech trees. That would also have been easier if I had not had a bike with me.

Sid Valley Devon

Some very helpful people on the Singletrack Forum pointed me in the direction of Woodbury Common, and that indeed turned out to be The Place To Ride.

Woodbury Common

Woodbury is a area of pebble heathland and mixed forest. When I was there in July the bell heather and gorse was flowering, which was a spectacular colour combination, especially on views looking out towards the sea and there were also loads of dragon flies and butterflies. Unfortunately they were there in part because of the dense brambles, which apparently thought it was entertaining to put out strong prickly shoots across the paths at ankle level, meaning that I ended the rides with impressive quantities of scratches and blood. It was worth it though, with great trails ticking all the boxes; amazing views, swooping downhills, challenging uphills, small stream crossings (always fun), varied woodland, and diverse surfaces underwheel but little tarmac.

Woodland river, Woodbury Common

Healthland on Woodbury Common

Here is one route I took on Woodbury Common, and here is an extra bit. (To download, right-click the links then download as). It is also on gpsies.

Haldon Forest and Dartmoor

Of course, whilst in East Devon, you and your bike really ought to head west over to Dartmoor. There are all sorts of possibilities there. Just to the west of Exeter there is the Haldon Forest trail centre. The routes are clearly signed, though it helps if you realise that the orange walking route is not actually the red mountain biking route. The red trail, "hard", is definitely the most fun, though the "moderate" Kiddens trail is also pretty good.  However, the other "moderate" trail "Spicers", is actually pretty easy and the enjoyment comes more from the views and landscape than the cycling. The more difficult routes certainly make you work hard and concentrate with twisty tracks, lots of up and down and even a few bumpy bits which you can jump over if you're feeling adventurous, or just roll over if not. And of course, that great advantage of a trail centre, a decent cafe, is also a bonus.

Haldon Forest

But it must be said, the excellent cafe at Haldon Forest has nothing on the "Hound of the Basketmeals" on Hound Tor (where else?) on Dartmoor. Not only does it have a completely brilliant name, but food is just what a hungry mountain biker needs after toiling up and down the moors. I was following the route described as "the toughest of all the Dartmoor rides" in Nick Cotton and Tom Fenton's book. I had foolishly imagined that this would be possible by the end of my holiday, but the ridiculously long steep hills certainly had me struggling. Of course the payback in terms of vast views and incredible long downhills was amazing. Seeing it was in the holiday period and I was following a route in a popular book, I had expected to see quite a lot of mountain bikers, but I came across only one other (from Melbourne, Australia as it happens). But I did see deer, rabbits, stoats, a mouse and a mole, which is not bad, though I have to admit I'm not 100% sure the mole was alive. It was also a ride of great contrasts, from impressive ancient woodland to wonderful old lanes


to huge open spaces on the tops of the moors. Definitely worthwhile!

Bike Hire

I hired a bike from Soanes Cycles in Coylton (near Axminster and Sidmouth). They were friendly and helpful and booking the bike by mail went fine. The bike was adequate but with weaker brakes than I'm used to, only 8x3 gears and poor suspension, so in the beginning I was worried that would be a problem.  The lack of gears did mean that I had to walk up some hills I might have otherwise managed to cycle, but with slopes of 25-30% in the region you are probably going to be doing some walking anyway and in the end the brakes performed fine down huge steep hills. The big advantage was that the price was very good, so I could afford to hire it for most of the holiday.

Forest Cycle Hire at Haldon Forest Park has good quality hardtails for hire.  They did not respond to my mail reserving a bike to hire but when we turned up they had plenty so it was not a problem.

Do remember that if you're from Wageningen (or much or the rest of the world), the brakes on UK bikes are swapped; the right lever is the front brake.

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