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Head to the hills, Day 2 – #ExmoorEpic

Day 2, early morning, the tarp and bivvy combination seems to be working a dream. I’m snug, I’m dry, it’s raining, I got some decent sleep overnight, it’s raining… Oh, no – it’s raining. And so we have that dilemma moment; do I stay warm and dry where I am and slowly watch the time ticking by or do I get up and get wet packing everything away in the rain and starting the day’s route in the rain? The answer is of course a scramble to find my phone, it will know what to do! Have I got a signal? Yes. Have a got a weather app? Of course! Will the rain stop? Probably, in about an hour. Time to get out my mini-stove and pans to make a coffee then.

Sure enough the rain passed and we were able to pack up our kit in relatively dry conditions, although my tarp and bivvy would need to be hung out to dry properly later at home. It really is a good camping solution for bikepacking, especially for just 1 or 2 nights. It packs down neatly, isn’t too weighty, costs very little and having the bikes as part of the structure it also means that they won’t get stolen without your knowledge! Woolacombe didn’t seem to have the same amount of breakfast options as Ilfracombe, so my plan was to pack up in Woolacombe, cycle up out of the bay area via Challacombe hill and then ride over to Ilfracombe before breakfast. Fortunately Phil had brought some Quaker ‘Porridge’ bars, so we had one of those each to fill the gap in the meantime. Energy gel for breakfast isn’t exactly where you want to be going!

Nice and sung in my bivvy
Nice and sung in my bivvy

Where we did end up going though was up Challacombe Hill; this is number 7 in the list of 100 and it’s the steepest way up out of Woolacombe. You can imagine in the middle of summer, tourists having hired bikes for the day, freewheeling happily down to the beach and then having to struggle their way back up this! It’s only 1.5 km long and only rises 166 m in total but when the gradient reaches and maintains 25% it becomes a struggle. Without any kind of a warm up, camping kit on board and a lot of riding in the legs from yesterday, we had to really dig deep on this one. At times it became one of those real grinds, fortunately the traffic wasn’t too heavy, although we could have done without one particular 4×4 coming the other way. The relief and the sense of achievement on reaching the top was significant though and with Ilfracombe being another seaside town we were at least now guaranteed a generally downhill ride to reach our breakfast. With the hill out of the way we were able to continue in a much more sedate manner on cycle route 27, which is a cycle path following the old, now disused, Ilfracombe Branch line railway. Generally downhill, with a couple of tunnels, it makes for a good ride. Just be a little cautious of the dog walkers particularly as you get closer to Ilfracombe.

Is that a railway tunnel?
Is that a railway tunnel?

In Ilfracombe, Adele’s Cafe provided much needed breakfast; scrambled eggs and another coffee for me please. But on a damp and dreary October weekday morning, Ilfracombe didn’t have any thing else to keep us from our travels so we set off on what would be another tough but enjoyable day of riding. The coast road out from Ilfracombe onward towards Lynton is a really nice ride. For us, the weather stayed dry but it remained fairly overcast and cloudy. In beautiful sunshine the views across the little bays and the rugged Devon coastline would be even more impressive.

Rugged Devon Coastline
Rugged Devon Coastline

The road out of Ilfracombe is a fairly busy main road, the A339. Generally I try to avoid the bigger roads in favour of the minor ones but in this case that would have meant riding inland and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to cling to the coast as much as possible, so we pedalled on enjoying the sea views. As the A339 starts to head inland itself a route branches off to the left that stays closer to the coast and goes over the hills instead of through the valley. The main plan of the trip was to ride up the 5 big climbs from the 100 climbs list but what I hadn’t fully realised was how many additional steep ascents I’d accidentally added in to the route too. Coming into Combe Martin we took a left into Shute Lane and started facing upwards. And so came the first uttering of the day’s regular repeated phrase ‘Oh no, we’re not going up there are we?’. Almost 1.5 km at an average of 13% is sometimes just too much, of course whenever the road goes up the scenery quality tends to follow and the views from off the tops of the hills down into the valley were really quite impressive.

Just about up in the clouds
Just about up in the clouds

The next ‘Really?’, ‘How steep is that!’ moment came when we crossed the River Heddon and turned left up King’s Lane just after the Hunter’s Inn. Another 25% road sign, more getting out of the saddle to grind up the hill at less than 5 mph. And on this occasion a little bit of getting off and walking for the first time in the trip. King’s Lane is not only really steep, in October it’s also covered in fallen leaves and after the night’s rainfall, back wheel slippage brought an end to my climbing attempt. In fact down at the bottom we’d looked at the lane and actually considered going another way. However, wanting to ride through the valley of rocks, I quickly noticed on the map that there was no other option. King’s Lane took us up to Martinhoe and once we’d gained the height and put in the hard work the reward was well worth it. Riding around by Woody Bay on Sir Robert’s Path was an absolute joy. A narrow lane pinned to the side of the cliff winding it’s way around lined with trees and as green as green can be. This is definitely a road I’d love to come back and ride again and if I design myself an ultimate Devon route this will be included.

Sir Robert's Path
Sir Robert’s Path

Between Sir Robert’s Path and the Valley of Rocks lies Lee Bay, the River Lee and Lee Abbey. Here we came to our first toll. I’m not sure which bit of it is a toll road and at £2 it seems a bit steep for a couple of bike riders, especially as a car of 4 presumably pays once for 4 people whereas a couple of bike riders pay once each? Who knows, there’s no one to ask as it’s just an honesty box in the middle of the road and a CCTV camera. Whatever the rules, the riding along this section of the coast is so good I’d definitely include it in the route anyway, even if you’re not exactly getting your money’s worth!

Approaching Lee Abbey
Approaching Lee Abbey

It wasn’t long after passing the Abbey that we found ourselves looking down into the Valley of Rocks. This is somewhere that I visited with my family when we stayed on holiday in Devon. The rocky outcrops making for a great exploring area and the narrow cliff path around the back of the big outcrops making for some nervousness for anyone looking down into the sea below. But until now I’d previously never had the chance to ride through by bike, down the hill, around the little roundabout in the middle and up past the car park and the cricket ground and onward towards Lynton. If you’re riding here on a nice dry sunny day and have lunch packed, make this your picnic stop off point, it’s well worth spending a little time here. It would also make for a good bivvy spot if you happened to get down here late!  Maybe pick up supplies in Lynton and head back this way.

Looking down into the valley
Looking down into the valley

Just beyond the Valley of Rocks lies Lynton and a spot of lunch. Here we got ourselves a much needed pasty and had a chat with a few folks who seemed to be mightily impressed with our cycling efforts. It’s always nice to receive the odd compliment. Coming down from Lynton to Lynmouth I was glad that we had no plans to head back up that way. It seems that we managed to find one big hill at least that we were going down rather than going up. The A39 detour still being in place also meant that we didn’t have to climb up the A39 out of Lynmouth either, so a detour up by Brendon on a slightly less aggressive gradient was much appreciated. Once we got back on to the A39 as planned we were able to gain some time by picking up the pace. As good as the little lanes are, a more main road is always faster.

Approaching Porlock there are two options, back down the steep 1:4 hill that we came up the day before or down the 1:14 toll road instead. The toll road on this occasion was £1 for cyclists, properly defined this time at least and actually with a manned gate too. Having come up the other way the day before we just had to take the longer but shallower toll option on the way down.  And if I return to ride again along this part of the country I’ll prefer the toll route again. Not only is it a more reasonable gradient but it’s actually a nicer view and a much more fun route with many more twists and turns. Of course riding it as a descent is always going to make it more fun and being a long gradual descent means you just get more time to enjoy it.

The Porlock Toll Road
The Porlock Toll Road

The next big climb of the trip was Dunkery Beacon. Climbing from Luccombe just past Porlock, the Dunkery Beacon climb is long and hard and takes you right up to 450 m above sea level well inland into wild Exmoor. Again it’s another tough climb but compared to some others around this area, the gradient is a little more kind and although it keeps going and going, you do feel like it’s a gradient that you can cope with and continue to cope with. And cope we did.  Sure there was out of the saddle efforts and riding with a fully loaded bike makes it all the more difficult but we put in the effort and made it over the top. After a stop on the top to take some photos we then heading further into Exmoor.

View from the top
View from the top

With the penultimate big climb out of the way, there was just the job of descending out of Exmoor and heading back to the Quantock Hills and then on to the final climb of Crowcombe Hill. If only everything was as simple as it sounds. The first part of this plan was just fine, descending out of Exmoor was simply a case of enjoying the descent. Good views, barely any need to pedal and lots of miles in fewer minutes. However, once we were down into the relatively flat bit between Exmoor and The Quantocks, I had an unfortunate moment on a gravelly corner at the bottom of the hill before reaching the little village of Stogumber. It was one of those occasions where I was fully confident that I could get around the corner with the speed I was carrying, until I saw the gravel that had built up on the road surface that is. Then I quickly went into self preservation mode, trying to keep it straight on the gravel, turning when possible to make it round the corner, avoiding the grassy verge on the edge and somehow loosing the front wheel from underneath me. Thump. I hit the road on my right hand side.

Fortunately both the bike and I managed to bounce sufficiently to avoid serious damage. So I scrambled to the side of the road to get out of the way and sat on the verge to compose myself. Fortunately Phil and the lady in the car following us managed to stop and avoid my bike that I’d left in the road. I’m sure the lady following thought that I’d been going far to quick, but she did offer assistance all the same, asking if I needed her to take me anywhere. But having brushed myself down and surveyed the damage I decided there was no need to take up her offer. My clothes had been hit the hardest, with holes and gashes in my jersey, shorts and leggings. The bike had some tears to the handlebar tape and needed the rear brake caliper re-centreing but apart from that was ready to roll. And I had matching grazes to the various holes in my kit, shin, knee, elbow and hip.

And so we carried on. Gently at first and then soon enough back up to full speed as if nothing had happened. Just with a few additional aches and pains. After 2 days of tough riding, 1 crash and carrying all that extra kit on my bike, I didn’t really fancy the final climb up Crowcombe Hill. Had it been something easy, even a long drag would be fine as long as it wasn’t too steep, I’d have been happy to spin my way to the top slowly and steadily. But it was another of those 25 percenters and in the wrong frame of mind a tough hill becomes even tougher. And as such, part way up with a steeper section in view and no brow in sight denoting the top, I got off. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d just dug in and kept going no matter what. There was no need to save anything for later as we were practically back at the car already but I got off and I walked up the rest of the climb, only getting back on for the final shallower section. I will have to return some other time, I cannot leave it at that, another day, a lighter load, fewer grazes. I will return and I will conquer Crowcombe Hill.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1880448217 – Link to the ride on Strava – Day 2.

Relive ‘Return ride across Exmoor’

 

 

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