Trail Unknown's 2019 in Pictures
We held our first trip in the Surrey Hills and had our biggest riding group yet with 18 people - possibly too many.
Tom went out to Uganda to race the Elgon Enduro on the slopes of a 4321m extinct volcano and finished 3rd woo!
We got a call from a small company called Specialized who asked us to plan a 3 day ebike trip. We chose Exmoor as the location and included staying in a lighthouse on the cliff side. The recce was the coldest thing ever.. Sleet on the Moor.
We gave a talk at the London Bike Show about how the UK could learn from places like Tasmania and Rotorua - Talk here.
We showed Specialized's event team the planned route for the lighthouse trip and fortunately the sun was out. After the trip we were asked to be Specialized ambassadors which seemed like a good indication they enjoyed themselves.
We held our first guided ride in the Quantocks and had a super fun group!
We cycled the South West Coast to Coast for 5 days through Exmoor and Dartmoor with Aussie man Magnus - Video here
We had our first magazine feature in Outdoor Fitness about our ride from Bristol to Cheddar Gorge, thanks to Pat Kinsella.
We held our third yoga mountain bike retreat with Carly from Moon Forest Flow - we got a write up in the Financial Times!
We started a free after school mountain bike club where we live in Oxford, including running a trash free tails themed ride.
The Times featured our first stand up paddleboard and mountain bike combo weekend in the Wye Valley, with Kev Brady.
We raced a tandem mountain bike at the Top of the Gorge festival, a top weekend as always.
We ran our lighthouse trip for Specialized and had 3 days of perfect weather on Exmoor. A highlight was bringing in Drake's Island to play their surfy sounds for us at sunset from the lighthouse while Tanzie's epic veg food van sorted dinner.
We were asked by Ordnance Survey and Sustrans to make three videos about the National Cycle Network - see our videos for the Tarka Trail in Devon, the Lochs and Glens trail in Scotland and the Monsal Trail in the Peaks. These videos are now playing in shopping centres around the UK to inspire people to visit them. Obviously we didn't just stick to the tarmac!
We headed out to Bike Nomad in Slovenia for a 4 day assessment from the European Organisation of Mountain Bike Instructor-Guides. The trails were loamy and super fun, and we also rode through a cave system - video here.
After the success of our first trip with Specialized, they asked us to plan more for 2020 and for that we got to spend a week in the Scottish Highlands in a motorhome in -8 degrees!
We planned a Coast to Coast through Snowdonia National Park with an attempted summit of Snowdon as part of content creation mission for Sigma Sports, however the Welsh December weather had other plans for us and with 70mph gusts on day 2, it became unrideable. A highlight of the trip was riding down through a slate mine in the dark after a long day in the mountains to an epic feast at Petes Eats.
till next year folks!
If you have any crazy ideas for us or would like to discuss planning UK mountain bike trips then you can get in contact with Hugo or Tom on email@example.com.
EO-MTBing / Bike Nomad, Slovenia
After a splendid summer of guiding, Trail Unknown left the shire and headed out to Bike Nomad in Slovenia for a 4 day assessment from the European Organisation of Mountain Bike Instructor-Guides (EOMTBing), a new governing body that coordinates a European standard across ten national mountain bike associations. Lots of people are interested in how this new qualification is running so we thought to share our experience.
If you're after a short answer, the bar is set very high as it should be for a top level qualification, so the 4 days were super full on but we learnt a lot, made great contacts and would definitely recommend it to any serious mountain bike instructor / guide who is looking to push themselves to a top level.
about The Qualification
Day 1 - Preparation Day
Day 1 was about learning the trails and finding out about your individual missions. In preparation for our guiding exam on Day 3, we were split into groups of two and given a 20km / 800m ascent / 3 hour GPX route, all on natural trails. We wouldn't know which half we would be guiding until the exam, meaning you had to learn it all. No maps were given. We also learnt the topic of our 30 minute skills instruction session for live clients for Day 4, mine was 'trail awareness', so you also had to be on the look out for a section of trail to teach on. I felt some early nerves pinging, I was asking myself existential questions like what even is trail awareness, or am I even trail aware!?
For my guiding route, I was teamed up with a local Slovenian shredder called Vid Persak, who was so unbelievably pinned that I was thoroughly humbled and again left questioning my abilities! Only over dinner that night did I realise he was an Orbea EWS team racer and had built most of these tracks, which totally made sense. The trails were sick but half my route was techy black descents used at the last EWS and I knew I would be pushing my comfort zones as a guide. We finished at the Bike Nomad chalet with a beer and all my stress soaked away into the view of the sunset over the mountains.
DAY 2 - Slow Speed, Navigation, Fast Speed
Unless your French, you will not be prepared for the slow speed exam! It was like a techy, uphill, trials course full of tight turns and awkward roots. The course is broken down into 10 x 3m stages and if you put a foot down more than 4 times then you fail. You get 10 minutes to look at and ride the course, no practice.
After the slow speed you're straight into your navigation exam, solo of course. The aim of the exam is to find 4 points marked on the map within the time limit set by an evaluator's time + 30%. Normally I'm very good with navigation having trained as a Mountain Leader also but this was tricky due to being given two maps: one with trails on it but no contour lines, and one with contour lines with no trails. Difficult one to prepare for really but my advice for future would be to sit down before you ride and really make sure you are confident where every marker is before you ride. Most people failed this exam as there was only one way you could link together the points in the time period given.
The high speed exam was good fun. It was basically a race with a time set by a French ex-downhill racer and you have to get within 30% of his time on a 2 minute track. Being English, we all embraced the challenge of hitting the Frenchie's time. Hugo equalled his time and I wasn't far off. For queen and country!
Day 3 - Guiding, trailside repair, emergency management
My morning started with going through a 30 minute emergency management exam, which you do solo and with two evaluators. You were given UTM coordinates and had to find the emergency location. My situation was hypothermia which was fine as I had dealt with that personally back in February this year when Hugo and I tried to cycle across Exmoor in a sleet storm. Hugo's situation was a heart attack. We then had to go through our leader kit and discuss what we would use in certain situations.
For the guiding exam, we'd named our route 'from heaven to hell' because the first half was full of flowy descents and the second was all gnarly black trail. We rolled the dice to see who would guide which half, and despite all my praying, Vin was to be the angel guide for heaven, and I knew I would have some difficulty in hell. You had to start with all the usual stuff: medical checks, bike checks, warm up games, route plans etc. and also expected to have thought through options and escape routes. We were a group of 9 in total including two evaluators and two riders who had joined acting as live clients, I made sure to ask them plenty about how much they rode before we dropped into the black trails. I stopped at three points down the black and asked the group to get off and discuss line choice and gave demonstrations and walk arounds. I'm always conscious about the flow of the ride but safety always comes first. The second half of my black was closed for forestry works so I took a different route down that I hadn't really analysed and failed the guiding exam for not blocking off a side option. Gutting because I would normally always do that. I should have ridden the track slower to give me time to think on the fly..
The trail side repair was to swap bikes with Vin and remove the rear mech and mech hanger from his Orbea. This was a tricky one as his mech hanger was internal to the frame and required a special key built into the frame to undo it. I completed the task but failed the exam due to my confusion over his special key!
Day 4 - Instruction Exam
I was up at first light looking for a place to run my skills session. It's difficult to know at what level to pitch the session as we were told it would be for intermediates but that's a pretty abstract term so you have to have options for progression and you have to find that in the trail too.
Trail Unknown's background has been more guiding than coaching but we have run beginner trips such as our yoga MTB retreats, SUP MTB weekends and our kids mountain bike club, but that's all been beginner stuff. I understood many of the examinors and candidates made their living from coaching so it is definitely an avenue we want to develop ourselves in, to help intermediate riders become advanced riders.
Hugo ran his session on slow speed riding, focusing on track stands and how you could apply these to the trail to allow you to look down a steep section of trail without having to get off your bike. For my trail awareness session, I focused on a short 30m section of track with lots of roots and multiple line choice. I tried to focus on the concepts of head up, unweighting over roots and braking between roots in order to keep your flow. I allowed the riders to session the section and then come in together to discuss what was working and what wasn't. If I did it again I would session just a 5m piece of track where everyone could watch each other and use more video analysis.
Results + FREE Riding WOo!
On the final day of the exam we had an uplift organised for all 25 of us by Anej at Bike Nomad and rode a huge 2km of natural downhill as a mega train of mountain bike leaders! The final results were that 44 of 61 exams had been passed between the candidates, but even one exam failed is an entire fail so the final result was that 1 person passed out of 9 and that was our local shredder Vin. We will definitely be on the exam next year to polish off our remaining modules.
Before heading home we had heard about a black diamond rated mountain bike trail that went through a 10km cave system called Into the Black. The experience was epic and we will write a whole story about it because it deserves it!
For any questions about the course/assessment, speak to Chip Rafferty on firstname.lastname@example.org
For questions about mountain bike experiences in the UK, email us on email@example.com !
Ethan's Peak District shred mission
Stop, take a breath and re-evaluate your position. Those are words that could come from any of the latest self-help gurus or apparently from me, as I stand in a cold peat bog nearing the end of a long ride in the Peaks, motivated I push on.
Let us start from the beginning though. After recently completing the training for my level 2 in MTB Leadership I thought I would brush up on my navigation and route planning skills. I gave myself a criteria; I want a beautiful national park, I want it natural, I want ground unknown to me. So after a brief bit of research it was settled, armed with an OS map, The Peak District would become my test ground. I left Friday night straight after work and five hours later I was in the Peaks, the sun was long down but lit by starlight I could already spy the glistening water of Ladybower reservoir and the hills surrounding it. I found the most luxurious of lay-bys and from there rested for the mission ahead.
Cracking the doors open of the van I was battered by glorious views. I also feel I was almost battered by the local park ranger, turns out I couldn’t sleep there. However she was friendly enough and was quick to point out to always look for no overnight camping signs. With a bowl of porridge on the stove I begun the final plan of my route. Being in the area I added the Derwent Edge path which upon waking sat right across from me, whose rocky features I could spy from hotel lay-by. I also knew of one famous descent in the Peaks, The Beast, a rocky, chunder fest of a trail that was going right on the route. In previous bits of research I also learnt of the Cut Gate path, more notably for me the final descent back into the Derwent Valley. Mixing them together with some unknown, but squiggly looking steep descents, I had formed a loop of epic proportions. Predicted around 50km of riding, both scenic and gnarly, it may have been the coffee, but I was buzzing for it.
I set off south from hotel lay-by and ascended through farmland to reach my first peak. The world I drove through the night before really came alive. It was here that I learnt that though very detailed, real places look very different from their map counterpart. “Look at your surroundings before looking at your map” I reminded myself, a slight relocation and I carry on rolling. The first proper descent that lay before me looked like a series of rocky berms, throwing myself in I descended cackling like a mad man despite being very alone. The stoke was real, the walkers confused. Following the river Ashop west, I found myself at the base of Potato Alley. Now I opted to climb this as it leads directly to The Beast, but maintaining grip on the potato-like rocks for a 2km climb made me seriously envy the people descending it (and made me hungry for some post ride chips). I didn’t know what to expect from The Beast but some handy guys with strong accents were present to warn me of the gnarliness I was in store for. Warnings only spurred me on as I cranked alongside the woods before dropping in. A wide bed of rocks lay before me, loads of lines and plenty of gnar cascading the hillside. Alas, to the praise of my battered hands, it was over. A proper trail, well worth putting on your list if you’re ever visiting.
After a brief snack break on the river, many photos were taken of the beautiful river that stretched onwards towards the reservoir and the woodland behind me. I could see ribbons of freshly churned loam tempting me in into the woodland for some laps but I pressed on, I’ll be back. Crossing the Ladybower dam and its huge plug holes, past the very enticing pub and I was heading up again. My path took me to a view point I had seen from where I slept, Whinstone Lee Tor. It was possibly my most expansive view of the ride, I could not only see where I had been but also the long way in which I was heading. I set out, descending from the tor on the longest descent of the ride. I may have been halted by a fair few gates, but flying through ruts, moorland and onto long old paths quickly made up for it. I knew that right at the bottom there was an access road that would hoist me right back to the top, however it turns out that was private. Damn. Time to get the map out and improvise. Now as lovely as the quiet was on my improvised route to the top, I feel it was a path least trodden. A couple stream crossings and a few new sheep friends later and I am climbing over a dry stone wall, back on track.
The route along Derwent Edge started back at Whinstone Lee Tor, and with a little play on the slabs at the top I am cruising along the ridge taking in the expanse to the east and the crazy formations of rocks and boulders with crazier names, Cakes of Bread being my favourite. The path here was great for a spot of trials on the technical sections of climbing. Something you don’t get to do if you stick to purpose built trail centres and bike parks. As I reach the peak and bask in the views yet again, I realise not only is this ride taking longer than I planned but I have about a mouthful of water and no food. Keen to get it done, I descend on a path more akin to a rocky North Shore trail feature. My path forks but my route of choice was easy, a path chopped out of the earth with snaking switchbacks to take me back down to reservoir level. An easy choice that was my favourite descent of the ride.
Back at the base of the Derwent Valley, I take in dams famous for their part in the famous dam buster raids. However, no bouncing bombs for me, I have one more trail that needs ticking off and it needs bombing. I had a choice though, the longer route to the top of the Cut Gate descent seemed like an unwise decision to take with my current supplies, so I opted for a short cut. What a mistake that was. As I trudged, forcing my bike along what may or may not have been the path I thought I was following, I questioned my very existence. It took a couple reassuring map checks and a long of groaning to get me through the bog. I couldn’t even see the path that I was looking for in the expanse of nothingness that lay before. Reaching a fence, I knew I must have been at least halfway through the 2.5km slog. So I straight-lined it, shouted at a stream and made it. I was never going to head back the way I came, and for that I am proud as the descent into the valley had rekindled the fire that lit the way for this adventure.
Tired and very thirsty, I followed the long road along the reservoirs all the way back to the van. A man half dead, but very happy. I learnt a lot on this journey, all of which I know I can take with me. It was a solo trip, but the entire time all I could think was how much I would love to show this side of riding to my friends and the world. It’s not all shralping berms and sending jumps. Sometimes all it takes is a little journey into the unknown and a proper adventure in one of our beautiful national parks to see the bigger picture of what this is all about.
A big thank you to Ethan Brown for this wicked article. If you would like to ride the Peak District the easier way, email us on firstname.lastname@example.org for local guided trips and accommodation. We'll get you to all the sweet spots, linked up in as many days as your group can handle!
Chapter One: The Lighthouse - A 3 day BACKCOUNTRY trail ride across Exmoor for Specialized Bikes
This was the trip we had been looking forward to delivering all year, a three day circumnavigation of Exmoor National Park for Specialized and ten of their luckiest customers. From the moment the riders turned up on the Friday morning to the moment the riders left on Sunday afternoon, they had no idea where they were going, what they would be doing or where they would be staying. We’d spent months planning every detail of the expedition, with a stunning 130km route that no one had offered before, yet the customers knew nothing more than the very moment in front of them. Welcome to Trail Unknown Chapter one: The Lighthouse.
We welcomed the group to Exmoor with a beautiful pedal along Horner water and up through the ancient oak forests to descend down a long, flowing natural single track called Granny’s Ride. The weather was el primo and the mossy forests were glowing.
The morning’s challenge was up to the highest point in the South of the UK outside of Dartmoor, Dunkery Beacon at 519m. Dunkery has a reputation for being a mean climb straight up from sea level, but with the assistance of the Specialized Levo’s underneath us, we could enjoy the views out to Wales across the Bristol Channel from the balcony trail known as Dickies Path. As we hit the beacon, we stopped to take in the sight of thirty red deer galloping along the top of the moor together and got close to a majestic herd of Exmoor’s wild ponies. I quietly thanked the wildlife for putting on a good show.
Heading South from Dunkery, we descended down to Exford tea rooms who had prepared a mega spread of sandwiches, cakes, scones with clotted cream and jam, teas and coffees for us to enjoy out on the green in the sun. The afternoon’s ride followed the River Exe, twisting and turning in the wooded valley, taking us away from the sea and deep into the Park. We passed the quintessentially English village of Withypool, over a bridge with kids splashing in the river below us, and climbed our way up onto the Moor, away from everything and into the quiet sunshine. We arrived at a little farmhouse called Blindwell for our first night’s accommodation, so far South that we could now actually see the Tors of Dartmoor on the Southern horizon.
Specialized had requested in the brief that the first day should feel like a journey out into the Wilderness. With that happily ticked, we enjoyed a scrumptious dinner from Tanzie’s Epic Veg food van who made us fresh vegan burgers to order, including oyster mushrooms and crispy coconut bacon. The fire was lit, the stars came out.
If the mornings strong coffee from Boost Coffee Co. didn’t wake everyone up, a long screaming downhill off the Moor into a loose rocky track certainly did the trick.
We followed the Two Moors Way from Withypool heading North to Simonsbath and on to lunch at the National Trust’s Watersmeet Tea Rooms, a former fishing lodge nestled in one of the deepest river gorges in the UK. This was one of the most insanely beautiful sections of the Two Moors Way that we were keen to feature into the route. The Two Moors Way is a coast to coast route that crosses both Exmoor and Dartmoor that we had taken a week to ride in its entirety back in Spring, so trust us when we say this section is a highlight and you should go ride it!
Saturday afternoon’s ride took us back up the Moor and down into the stunning Doone Valley, famous for Blackmore’s Lorna Doone novel - About a family of outlaws who used to dominate the valley, stealing Lorna Doone as a young girl and who later falls in love with a local hero farmer. Read the book if you’re going to ride the valley, it gives your ride a whole new dimension of adventure.
Climbing out of outlaw country, we were now riding along Exmoor’s colossal sea cliffs. With one hell of a descent down to the sea, my vision was 80% blue from riding at the sea and the sky. The downhill finished at Foreland Point Lighthouse, our flipping epic accommodation for the night. Tanzie was on hand to create a mega selection of fresh curry’s from the lighthouse keeper’s kitchen. While people were sipping a cold beer in the late afternoon sun, we snuck our buddies at Drake’s Island in to play their mean guitar riffs, framed by the golden sunset across the sea and the sound of the crashing waves intertwined with the music. Some rides you’ll never forget…
The final day was a Turbo mission home, powering across the Moor and back up to Dunkery Beacon for a fine selection of downhill trail riding bliss from the top of Exmoor. We took in Deddy’s Combe, Flora’s ride and finished with Cat Scramble. The final numbers were in, we’d covered some 130km with 3,500m vert and were still smiling well into our stone baked pizzas back at Horner Farm.
The Lighthouse trip - Explore Exmoor National Park on a 3 day epic trail ride around the park. Staying at the famous Foreland Point Lighthouse. For enquiries email us at Ride@trailunknown.com
Oh the familiar sound of the alarm clock on a Sunday, which somehow always sees me getting up earlier than I do on a weekday, but when Trail Unknown invite you on a ride, you don’t say no!
The Quantocks was the destination for the day – having ridden the Quantocks twice already in the week you might think I would already be bored of heading up to Somerset from Exeter. However, safe in the knowledge that you never know what is going to happen on any ride with Trail Unknown the journey was made again with the promise of new trails and, not promised, but much expected dodgy line choice and back wheel roost from both Tom and Hugo.
Arriving in the car park there was an eclectic mix of bikes from e-bikes to xc bikes, to hard core hardtails and the playing it safe big travel enduro bikes (aka me), although we all quickly eyed up the e-bikes and instantly called dibs on who was getting first tows up the hills. Once introductions were made, we headed up a short hill to the first descent, a classic grassy Quantocks speedway into some flowing fast corners to wake everyone up. Simon (the guide for the day) soon worked out that this was a group that was going to make a lot of noise down every descent, whoops of joy could probably be heard as far away as Dartmoor as back wheels tried to over take front wheels and loam sprayed into the eyes of every single member of the group.
We continued on and then down some more fast flowy corners, along a stream where multiple line choice made even a flat, pedally section interesting. We arrived at the bottom of a hill which I instantly recognised as something that I normally ride down and Simon gleefully said we would be riding up it – knowing how fun and fast that hill is to come down I wasn’t too excited to pedal up but with the potential of more golden, cornery, single track at the top I begrudgingly made my way up. And the promise was kept! Top hint for riding with Trail Unknown always, let either Tom or Hugo go in front of you and you will be crying with laughter the whole way down. I dropped in just behind Tom who went about 50 mph into the first corner, going full foot out flat out and setting the tone for the rest of that trail as we all went flying into corners with no regard for bike finesse – all safely arriving at the bottom after even more shrieking, that track was quite quickly named as one of everyone’s favourite so far and left us wanting to come back to ride it even faster when it was dry.
We continued on a traverse to the much-anticipated Foxy Bean café to calm our adrenalin and share stories of just missed trees and sketchy root hucks. After emptying the café of brownies and coffee we headed to Great Wood where the well known Triscombe trails are, safe in the knowledge that this is one of my top five riding spots I knew that Simon could point us down any trail and it would be guaranteed to be a good time. The first descent after lunch is always questionable and this was no exception. We set off into the first lot of corners and over some fun kickers and the next thing I hear is loud shrieks from behind as Will comes hooning it down and completely slides out on a corner with a massive smile on his face and hits the floor. Even more stoked he gets up and continues to shred down the trail with the rest of the group laughing their heads off enjoying the perfect gradient and grippy hero dirt.
We pedalled back round to the top for some more radness and headed towards the well known Chimney run. Here we split with some choosing the fast rocky chute and others excitedly headed down a super steep switch back trail. Pretty sure this time you could hear Tom’s shrieks in Scotland as we dropped in and gravity pulled us down the steep track and brakes squealed as we hit ruts and corners way too fast for our own good! We then winched up to the open moor again, along the way translating to each other what every shriek and yell meant. Legs were getting tired so we decided two finish with two more descents (always two more, never one more) and finish on a high. After riding even more perfect single track we headed back up to the final descent of the day and all excitedly looked down the grassy track in front of us. Simon provided the race beeps and we set off in a mass start down the valley, eyes watering we clung to our bikes as they rattled over the dry mud and settled into an order to tackle the upcoming left hander that we had all noticed at the last minute. Somehow, we skidded round and continued down at full speed avoiding ruts, sheep and more sketchy corners before finally coming to a halt at a gate. Turning around to look at the rest of the group as they came down there was a sea of smiles and definite feeling of ‘saved the best until last’, Tom and Hugo came sliding in at the rear and their smiles resonated with the group and we all agreed that was a mega way to end the ride.
Back at the car park we were rewarded with some fancy Trail Unknown t-shirts to celebrate a successful first day for them guiding on the Quantocks and much praise was given to the guys for an absolutely outstanding day out. A perfect balance of climbing and descending, great lunch stop, great chat from everyone all day and great fun! Cheers guys!
Our next guided day in the Quantocks is Sunday August 11th 2019 - click here to see more info. We also do private guided groups for 5+ riders.
So the plan was to ride my retro hardtail loaded with overnight kit for three complete days, about 35km per day, and spend two nights camping in Exmoor. This wasn't to be epic wild camping, bivvying on a bed of moss, drinking from a mountain stream and foraging for breakfast that I often read about, no, this is Entry Level bikepacking. Accessible bikepacking. Wild camping is all well and good but it requires a certain amount of tactics and planning that I didn't want to get into this time, particularly packing up early in the morning, something I have never been good at. “Early” for me and “early” for landowners likely to catch me differs by about 3 or 4 hours so for this trip, campsites were on the card.
I also couldn't face packing all the food I needed for three days - dehydrated meals or tastier, but heavier boil in the bag meals - either way they add to the bulk of stuff to be carried. And for lunch? Would sandwiches I prepared on Friday night still be edible by Monday lunchtime after three days in the summer heat with no fridge? No, my plan was to mix up a little bit of campstove cooking with eating at pubs or tearooms on the way.
Exmoor was a perfect location for all of this. Only an hour and a half’s drive from home in Bristol, I could easily get there in time for a full days riding on Saturday without a ridiculously early start. In terms of all the creature comforts mentioned above, Exmoor has it all - villages such as Exford, Withypool and Winsford are all within striking distance from anywhere and all boast places to eat. There are enough campsites around, all big enough to find your own space even if its busy. And of course, the riding. If your looking at this website, chances are you are already acquainted with the trails on Exmoor, but the variety and quantity is immense. Woodland singletrack to high open moorland stone tracks, views over the coast to Wales, wild ponies and a real feeling of being out there.
Bike and Kit
My companion for this trip, was my 1992 Orange Prestige with upgraded Pace RC35 forks and sporting state of the art V-brakes. While retro MTB fans usually give me an approving nod when seeing me out on this, others may think this a strange choice, but I wanted to use this because it had lugs for fitting a pannier rack to use the equally ancient pannier luggage I already had, as well as double bottle cage mounts. Nowadays I realise there is a plethora of bike luggage out there that will fit everywhere on your bike without special frames or mounts enabling me to take one of my more modern, more comfortable bikes instead but I figured I would give the old Orange its day. This bikepacking has become its sole raison d’etre and besides, the more sedate, less gnarly pace of a bikepacking trip I think suits its old school geometry and style.
My setup was basic, being summer and with the aforementioned pubs, I didn't need loads of kit: sleeping bag in a dry bag on the handlebars. Stem pouch with inner tube and tools. Tent poles just in the bag they came in strapped to my top tube, 2x water bottles underneath. Pannier rack with top mounted pack containing the rest of the tent, sleeping mat, waterproof jacket and gas canister. 16L Camelbak with clothing, titanium mug, stove and food (some noodles, dried pasta, pitta breads, chocolate spread, porridge pots and coffee).
My route was part stuff I knew, part stuff I didn't, with as much off road as possible - I wasn't making any concessions due to the bike I was riding.
Day one’s gentle start was the perfect introduction to the trip with a flat track through the beautiful woods near Dulverton - under a canopy of trees, surrounded by thick green vegetation and riding along side a tinkling stream, it was hard to believe I was in England.
After a gruelling half hour push up a grassy potholed track, I had never before been so pleased to see a section of road, and a nice 4km flat section let me take my helmet off and cruise along with the wind in my hair, enjoying the view, the peace and quiet and the expanse of this section of Exmoor, accompanied by the highland cattle, running along the moor beside me, long blonde locks bouncing lazily like some 80’s shampoo TV advert.
The rough track down to Withypool that followed showed me that a descent that is a blast on a lightweight full suspension bike, hopping and bouncing over the ditches and rocks may not necessarily be as much fun when ploughing down on a fully laden old school hardtail with 50mm of front wheel travel. But as I was to discover, the reverse would also be equally true.
The fun descent into Exford was a new find for me, setting me up nicely for the pints and hot food awaiting me at the White Horse pub in the village, handily serving food all day.
Westermill farm campsite is huge, so much so that despite one field being booked out for a private party and the one field where fires are allowed being pretty full, I still managed to get a whole field to myself, carefully pitching my tent next to the sole tree to ensure it was in the shade of the morning sun. Walking to the shower block in bare feet, I really wished I had packed some flip flops...
The first off road section of Day two was a real treat, taking me northwards towards the Doone Valley. A fairly smooth but fast track, I'm sure it would seem tame on any other ride but it was spot on today. Shortly after this came the only bit of the whole trip where I was worried I might go the wrong way. I went the wrong way, and getting back on track involved 15 minutes of dragging my bike uphill through thick, tussocky, slightly boggy grass. Only a couple of contour lines and mere millimeters on the map but felt like such a struggle!
The path along Doone Valley was as amazing as the times I'd ridden it previously, but perhaps looked even more stunning on this gorgeous summers day. So many potential spots for a swim or a picnic or just a nice walk and I really wanted to come back and enjoy the valley at a slower pace, instead of racing through on a bike not able to look at much more than the ground in front of me. Such was my euphoria in this spot I crossed the footbridge to the tearoom at the campsite to enjoy the surroundings for longer. A pot of tea and a bacon baguette later and I started chatting to the lady who runs the place. She told me she came here on holiday several years ago and had also fell in love with place and and told the owner she didn't want to leave. “Don't then” he had replied, and offered her a job. She’s been there ever since. I told her I wanted to come back later that summer with the baby that we were expecting, as our first camping trip - she said that she had other regulars who first came here with a months-old baby and have been coming back every year since. I had a good look round - the site was massive and plenty of corners to try and hide away from others with a crying baby.
I climbed up to the the Culbone Inn for some liquid refreshment and then came probably the sketchiest descent of the whole trip heading towards Poole Bridge. Short, but steep and littered with loose rocks, I thought this really isn't the terrain to be riding this sort of bike on. No dropper post, hard narrow tyres, steep head angle etc etc and all this extra weight in places I wasn't used to. I probably should have walked it but either momentum or bravado kept me going and it was all I could do to just sit back as far as I could, hold on and just hope muscle memory would guide me through rubber side down. It worked, just..
That night I was one of about 5 campers in the expansive Poole Bridge. I camped at the far end, and whilst riding my bike barefooted to the toilet block, again, really wished I had packed some flip flops. As I had forgone a fire the night before, I was keen on one tonight, and finding the dying embers of the previous campers, for the first time in my life, got a fire going without even striking a match.
Straight out of the campsite, Horner Woods served up some sublime singletrack for breakfast, long, narrow and flowing alongside the stream. From there came a long series of steep uphills to Dunkery Beacon, reminding me that if two days back to back hadn't already killed me, Day 3, The Day Of Climbing would do. A couple at the Beacon took my photo and seemed impressed with my efforts; the ride down made it all worthwhile and seemed to go on forever, and although possibly the least technical descent off the top, was perfectly suited to my setup.
Not fully acknowledging the steep road down to Exford that would need to be climbed up again after, I made a last minute decision to detour there (again) for lunch, this time in a tea room rather than the pub. I watched another cyclist arrive with a bike bearing luggage, although not as much as mine, so I figured he probably wasn't camping. I got chatting to him and he was nearing the end of an epic John o’groats to Lands End bike ride (staying in BnBs mainly) - riding around 100 miles a day, it really put my efforts to shame, but having said that, he seemed equally impressed with me for riding almost all off road, and choosing Exmoor to do it in - from his experience, the hilliest place he had ridden on his journey since Scotland! (He obviously bypassed the Lakes then…) Just goes to show, a challenge is in the eye of the beholder, or something like that.
A hidden and eerily quiet but beautiful section of the River Exe eventually led me to Tarr Steps, definitely not quiet but still pretty stunning. The tracks round here are a bit confusing with the official bridleway crossing the river twice at deep fords. As in shoes and socks off, knee-deep wading deep. Nice in summer, not so good when riding around here in torrential rain in winter (another story…), and I managed to miss what may the best bit that I had ridden on that aforementioned rather soggy day. I made up for it at the Tarr Farm Inn with an ice cold pint and then went for a paddle - stepping gingerly over the rocks and pebbles, I wished, for the third time, that I had brought flip flops with me.
With just one tedious road climb and a descent left, I wanted to make this moment last, so went to buy an ice cream. I managed to persuade the stall holder to let me have 20p off the cost of one as that was all the change I had left on me, but any hopes of lying by the river to eat it were dashed as he seemed to want to chat. Ah well, the least I could do after getting a discount ice cream. We talked about local riding and Australia, where we had both spent considerable amounts of time and about the reality running an ice cream stall in an idyllic location.
Finishing back in Dulverton at the end of three days and the bottom of a long descent that just got faster and faster as it progressed felt like it necessitated some sort of high five or celebration but alas there was none to be had. My reserved woo-hoos were for me alone and there wasn't even a post ride pint or cake. The cafes were all starting to close and it felt like a bit of an anticlimax, but I guess I’d had my celebration at Tarr Steps. I didn't really want to go home, and dreamt of just carrying on riding, just keeping going until either the weather broke or my wife demanded I went home. Still, that's one of the signs of a good ride, leaving you wanting more. I had discovered new tracks and new campsites, had some good chats with inspiring people and spotted other places for further exploration. I had proved to myself that I could ride 100km over 3 consecutive days, navigating without the use of a GPS, and how straightforward it all was, luckily with no mechanicals or other problems. So many possibilities for upping the ante - next time I could go for more days, go harder and longer on a full sus bike or go somewhere completely different and unknown (up north?) - or I could just do the same thing with the wife and daughter or friends, and show them the delights of simple bikepacking with pubs and campsites (and pack the flip flops next time).
This will be my third year attending the South West Outdoor Festival (SWOF), a festival for adventure lovers that tours around the South West and is happening this year on the 5th - 7th October in East Soar, South Devon. Ever year, SWOF has been my favourite festival and I'm going to outline why I'm so excited.
1. Awesome locations
As the festival is run by the National Trust, the locations are always idyllic and show off some of the best spots in the South West. In the first year at Heddon Mouth in Exmoor the mountain bike ride went out from the festival site, along the sea cliffs and to the epic valley of the rocks. The second year on top of Cheddar Gorge was, well, it was on top of Cheddar Gorge!
2. the inspiration for uk adventure
Speakers who I have seen at the festival have included Sean Conway, Monty Halls, Dave Cornthwaite, Anna McNuff, Jamie McDonald and Tobias Mews, to name a few. All with epic tales of adventure to share to inspire you to get creative and push yourself. From skateboarding across the UK to dressing up as a crocodile and running the South West Coast Path. If you want inspiration for adventure, this is the place.
3. The activities
Activities I've enjoyed at SWOF have included guided mountain bike rides and fun races, yoga, sea kayaking, guided walks, foraging, axe throwing, archery and even tree climbing. This year is set to be epic as the festival site is so close to the sea and all the watersports activities. I'm looking forward to the night run! Trail Unknown will be at SWOF this year running mini mountain bike races with prizes to win and running mountain bike rides out from the festival site to take in the local sights.
4. the music
There's been some cracking music over the years to get the hips wobbling in the evenings. From the South West's most loved jam man DJ Dan to bands such as Crinkle Cuts and Sam Green & The Midnight Heist, that I'd describe as absolute gems I'd never heard of before but are now regularly playing in my van. Yes, that is a picture of me dancing in the front row with a 10 year old and my 70 year old parents behind me. All ages welcome on the dance floor!
5. The curry van
Please oh please may those heaven sent men provide me with more onion bhajis again this year! The bhajis are so good Hugo ran an impromptu trail marathon to get one for free. At the last festival they brought a tray of leftover bhajis onto the dancefloor.
GET your tickets here and see you there
the quantock hills
We spent a weekend shooting with Aussie Grit Apparel (F1 driver Mark Webber's new riding gear brand) and thought we'd use the wonderful pictures to inspire you to get into these beautiful hills.
Let's start with some juicy facts. The Quantock Hills were the UK's first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and offer mountain bikers a magnificent variety of terrain to ride, from scenic tracks up high on the heath to flowing downhills in the deep forests of the combes. The Quantocks are located one hour south from Bristol and one hour north from Exeter, forming the western border of the Somerset Levels.
a history of wonder and inspiration
The Quantock Hills have been home to the famous works of S.T. Coleridge, Williams Wordsworth, Shelley and Edward Thomas. The poets became famous for attempting to capture and share the magic in these hills through their art. Which must have been a frustrating job, because like we all know when trying to describe the flow of a mountain bike trail, words will never be enough. You gotta feeeel it.
high on the heath
From the top of the hills on a clear day, you can see across the Bristol Channel as far as the Gower Peninsula in Wales to the north, the Mendip Hills to the east, the Blackdown Hills to the south, and the Brendon Hills and Exmoor to the West. The bridleway running 20km along the top of the hills is a beautiful ride for a cyclist of any experience and makes the Quantocks a perfect location for sharing your love of mountain biking with family and friends. The leafy bridleway connects up all the combes and car parks, ideal for easy navigation.
getting your flow on
If you're thinking 'I'm a gnarly flow dog, show me the naughty stuff', then the Quantocks can provide you with everything you need. Hidden in the magical combes is the flow dreams are made of. You can ride to the soundtrack of trickling streams, surrounded by ancient woodlands. You begin to understand where the likes of Wordsworth got his power from - it may or may not be worth packing a quill in your ride bag. Check out the likes of Triscombe, Bin Combe, Frog Combe, Holford Combe and Smith's Combe.
There are ample places full of character to stop and eat, including the Carew Arms in Crowcombe (which is the only pub we've ever been into with a homemade bowling alley) and the Combe House hotel. However our personal favourite is to visit Kate and Mike's beautiful garden cafe straight off the end of the trail at Holford Combe. They serve tea, cakes and meals prepared fresh from their garden if notified in advance.
check us out
If you like the look of the kit in the photos then do go and check out Aussie Grit Apparel - their shorts have become our go to's for adventure riding. If you would like further information about mountain biking in the Quantocks or would like Trail Unknown to guide your group of mountain biking buddies then please get in contact with us on email@example.com. Thank you also to Jacob at Mid Nowhere Productions for the marvellous camera skills.
The Peak District Adventure
Fast, rocky and rooty descents..…paired with some wind, sun, rain and a thunderstorm - it was a wild weekend! Yes - the Dark Peak is the one for an awesome weekend of adventure on two wheels!
We based ourselves in Hope, riding around Edale and the legendary Hope Valley. The Peak District is known for its amazing history and network of natural trails. Expect rocky, steep and technical tracks. Along with a rad local community of adventures, cracking coffee shops and good food.
After a quick coffee at Cafe Adventure (the perfect place to fuel up and get excited for a day out in the hills), we met our guide Rich who runs a guiding company and blog called Tyred n Cranky. If you’ve met Rich you’d remember him. He’s a giant of a man, full of laughter with a love of riding, racing and history. An ex-army, reservist, part time racer and full-time legend - we knew we’d be in good hands.
With a short steep technical climb to start we headed up to Mam Tor. At the top were gale force winds, struggling to stay on the bike we stumbled and tripoded along the ridge praying not to be blown over to Sheffield. For our first descent - a mix of open wide rocky tracks that urged you to let the brakes off.
We then ascended and descended across the hill tops to the Roych descent which has an epic singletrack that rises above a gnarly old rocky road. The great thing about the Peaks is the mix of smooth and single track like tracks that weave their way alongside the rocky bridlepaths. This is perfect to mix up the riding on a descent, allowing you to be playful with line choice and giving you a permanent grin on that mug of yours.
We stopped for lunch in Hayfield and tucked into some classic ham and cheese rolls with local cheese and chutney..ohh baby! After a quick coffee we jumped back onto the saddle in the direction of Jacobs Ladder.
As we reached the top of Jacobs Ladder it started to rain, with no time to chuck on a rain jacket we became stuck in downpour and with fast approaching lightning in the distance. I looked at Rich… his eyes were ‘lets get down…fast’. As we hurtled down thunder was cracking above us and bolts of lightning were striking around us. Luckily Jacobs Ladder is as fast and steep as it gets so we got down in no time and escaped the storm.
The storm came and went in a blink of an eye and we were back in the sun. One more climb to the top of Cavedale descent and we were done for the day. An epic wonderland descent with loose rocks and an amazing crumbling castle. The start of the descent is open wide grassland, you’re then plunged into about 100meters of just rocky and technical riding! After you’ve survived the turbulence of the rocks you’re rewarded with a grassy bank that sweeps past the abandoned castle and urges you to play on the natural rollers and kickers to link up and boost off.
We finished the ride off with a trip to The Old Hall Hotel for one of their famous steak and ale pies, washed down with a slice of chocolate cake…just laavely. If you like riding rocky tracks with varied line choice then the Peak District is the ideal location for you. The local area is also home to some awesome people and definitely worth a visit on two wheels!
Friday afternoon...I was sitting at work counting down the hours till the weekend, the van was packed and I was ready for a weekend of guiding in Exmoor. But what to do tonight..perhaps an adventure was on the cards… I looked at my phone...Quick check of the weather and I was in for Cheddar Gorge!
5pm came around and I was out the door and on my way to cheddar. Home of succulent cave aged cheese and spectacular views.
We arrived in cheddar at 8pm, quick stop at the chippy to pick up dinner and we were heading up. We climbed the South side of the gorge, the start was fairly technical climb but good to stretch the legs after a day sitting at the desk.
The sunset came and went and we still had a descent to reach our bed for the night. We chose to head down the bridle path that crossed the gorge and heads over the road to the North side. Our eyes gleaming as we came across a technical rout covered descent that would easily home to some off priest tracks in Morzine. With light nearly gone we squinted our way down, wishing we had packed lights but enjoying the technical natural descent. O man was it fun!
We climbed up the road, careful not to be mowed down by the boy racers of cheddar testing out their new 2 strokes. We climbed up the back and over to the top of the South side again. Luckily the weather was on our side and we bedded down under the stars for the night.
We woke up at sunrise and climbed up to the West side of the gorge, looped over to the top. The views were amazing, we could see over to the Quantocks and the beaches at Bridgwater Bay. Our final descent started down a wide open track, with tonnes of line choice and a wicked couple of natural features, finishing with a technical rocky descent.
We finished at the car park at 8 and that was that...off to Exmoor. I’l be sure to be back to Cheddar soon!
Hugo and Tom are trail hunting fanatics, travelling around the UK to find the best and most beautiful wild riding locations for their mountain bikes. We write about our findings and provide professionally guided mountain bike trips to our favourite spots. We're also big believers in outdoor education for children.