Pete (an owner of a rather lovely Travers EVO with a Pinion gear box) emailed me, would I like to join himself and Stuart on a little bimble over Exmoor and the Quantock Hills?
It was going to be a much more relaxed, take in the scenery bike packing trip, rather than the mile munching affairs I had done before! Of course I jumped at the chance to ride somewhere I hadn't before.
It was my brother in-law's wedding the night before so, with just 4 hours sleep, I set off in the van from Essex to meet Pete and Stuart in Taunton. They had set off the previous evening and were camped about 2 hours along the trail - no problem I will catch them up! 1 hour in, I get a Whatsapp message, they had packed up camp and would set off and I would catch them (hopefully)!
I had the course on my Garmin, so no issues...well, my usual GPS - the Garmin 1030 - was dead (waterlogged from my previous bike packing trip), so I was relying on my Garmin 130 which only had a breadcrumb trail and no base map. Easy to follow on the road, but off-road it's tricky to tell the correct route without the base map context....I got lost! Once I took a near vertical wall that was hardly walkable let alone rideable, but I could see the correct route was running parallel to me so, no problem, I would cut across at the top of the hill and rejoin the route...That was easier said than done but I eventually dragged my bike through trees and brush to make it back on course. Not long after, I climbed a really enjoyable technical hill, half way up I realised the trails had started to diverge from my route on the GPS. I looked over the steep bank to see a trail below me, so I turn around to retrace my steps...nope! I am an idiot as I attempted to descend the 45* slope through the razor sharp waist-deep brush. I didn't get too far before my shins were covered in blood and stinging like crazy, so then I retraced my tracks back down the hill, like anyone else would do!
The next bit of track was just amazing, rolling up and down with lots of slippery rock strewn river crossings to negotiate before popping out back into some civilisation (a car park anyway), where I found Pete and Stuart (Known as Cabbage...I didn't ask) eating a late breakfast.
After a quick chat and catch up we set off again. I tried to hang back, it wasn't my ride and I didn't want to dictate the pace. We continued for the next 2 hours until we found a nice community run shop where we stopped for lunch. The trails were as I imagined, nice mix of wooded trails, open moorland and rolling hills. This is going to be amazing, we are going to get round in record time!
We soon realised that we were not making fast enough progress to make it round the route in 2 1/2 days, so drew up a plan to re-evaluate what we should do when we hit Dunster. The trails were brutal - bottom gear (32x52) grinds up and down, loose boulder climbs with slippery rock slabs covered in slimy mud and moss that went on for hundreds of metres. It was fun but tiring, especially with fully loaded bikes. We took a creative view on the section to Dunster and took the road down into the town, trying to make up a bit of time, in search of cream teas before the shops shut.
Refreshed after our cream teas, we came up with a plan. Dunkery Beacon was close and, with poor weather forecast for the next day, we decided we would much rather cut some of the course off, climb the highest point on the route and then get down the other side to find a camping spot. We followed the road all the way to the base of the climb before rejoining the course at about 18:00, although not the steepest of the days' climbs, it was mainly loose rock and unrelenting, could we reach the top before dark? Mmmm... just at about 17:00, the weather started to turn as we reached the beacon, with a strong headwind and driving (although light) rain meant we did not hang around long. Just took a few photos, put another layer on and headed off down the wrong track! We soon realised after about 200m and retraced our tracks.
The night really started to draw in on us now, so back on track we were ready to smash the descent...but it didnt go down, it dropped slightly then for the next mile or so just followed the ridge along a draggy grassy track before eventually popping out on to the road. We turned left and headed down into Exford to a Youth Hostel marked on the map, to see if we could camp in their grounds. We found the YHA sign, followed it up the hill, nothing, so we returned to the junction to find it was the first house (directly opposite where the sign was pointing) knocked on the door and no answer, so we went round the back to be confronted by a room full of women having a hen party in the conservatory! we knocked on the door and understandably being confronted by 3 sweaty dirty mountain bikers they were wary. I can only apologise that we were not the entertainment they had expected! although I am sure Pete could have cracked out his boom box and we could have had a go at the Hot Chocolate classic to pay for our stay...sadly we were not that quick thinking, so we retreated back to the pub/hotel across the road.
It was now dark and raining, we were hungry and had no camping place, after a hearty meal the owner of the pub dragged the chef out of the kitchen to direct us to a local spot were we could wild camp, it was just a mile up a flat road, luckily he sudenly remembered the campsite just round the courner with warm showers (if you read the sign unlike me and went in the ladies) although these were off course it was a much easier ride to them. The wild camping spot as we were to find out in the morning was about 3 miles away up and very steep road climb.
Oddly camping in October isnt that popular in the UK so we had our pick of camping spot with the field all to ourselves. Pete and Stuart chose the flat open area, I went for the slightly sloped patch under a tree, I mean when its raining and forecast of lighting thats the best place to go isn't it? The rhythmical dripping from the tree branches helped me get off to sleep...I was pretty tired anyway with just 4 hours sleep the night before. That was the end of day 22:30 lights out.
Day 2 and 3 to come....
HAND BUILT TITANIUM FRAMES.