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 email@example.com 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!
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
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.