Around the Purbecks
Type of ride Cliffs, coast roads, wild swims and a lost village
Distance 45 miles
Difficulty Challenging. Hilly; lanes with a short section of off-road cycleway
The “Isle” of Purbeck is not really an island but a peninsula bordered by the sea to the south and west and the River Frome to the north. It’s a geologist’s paradise, featuring sandy heath, ball clay, chalk downland, oil-bearing shale and hard limestones long prized as building materials. Much of London was rebuilt after the Great Fire with stone from Purbeck quarries. The rich geological layer cake provides a variety of wildlife habitats and the Purbeck hills are home to many species of wild flower.
Note that this ride passes through the army’s Lulworth firing range. Whiteways Road (between East Lulworth and Steeple) is open almost all weekends, and all the time during the summer but check ahead on the Ministry of Defence’s website to ensure the road is open.
Starting out of the fortified Saxon town of Wareham the route heads east through the heath and coniferous woodland above the largest onshore oil field in Europe. Turning west just outside Swanage, the ride passes the craggy ruins of Corfe Castle en route for the “lost village” of Tyneham: in 1943 the war office evicted its 225 residents and the village is now an open-air museum. It’s then a thrilling descent to Lulworth Cove (and a testing climb back up the same road) before heading inland on quiet lanes via Chaldon Herring to the River Frome at Moreton (there are paddling and swim spots by the ford). The church is worth a look for its engraved windows by Laurence Whistler. TE Lawrence “of Arabia”, who lived nearby, is buried in the graveyard here. Lanes on the south bank of the Frome lead back to Wareham.
• Olivers in Corfe Castle is a cafe and B&B in the heart of the village (doubles from £95 B&B, April to October).
• The Boat Shed Cafe on Main Road Lower in West Lulworth is in a perfect location overlooking the cove.
Type of ride Rolling countryside, stately homes, follies and a castle
Distance 32 miles
Difficulty Easy. Lanes and a couple of short sections of unsurfaced track.
Frome is a groovy, independent-minded Somerset town blessed with many handsome old buildings and some steep, narrow, cobbled streets. There’s a strong cycling scene, too. The hip bike company Charge is based here, as is the Bicycle Academy, which runs courses in framebuilding.
This ride takes in two of the great treasure houses of the West Country: Longleat and Stourhead, making use of cycle paths and bridleways that allow people on bikes privileged access to their grounds. Starting out of Frome on National Cycle Route 24, quiet farm lanes lead to Longleat, the 130-room Elizabethan pile set in 10,000 acres, which includes Britain’s first safari park. It’s a real thrill riding from the house up the broad, tree-lined carriage drive to the imposing gateway.
Heading south through rolling countryside on the edge of the Wessex chalk downs, the next stop is Stourhead, a Palladian mansion most famous for its gardens, which were inspired by scenes of the Grand Tour of Europe. The ride takes in a short wooded bridleway – that can get muddy after heavy rains – en route to the grandest of Stourhead’s follies: King Alfred’s Tower tops a hill on the border of Wiltshire and Somerset, reputedly the spot where Alfred the Great rallied his troops in defence of Wessex against Viking invaders. More quiet farm lanes lead to Nunney, a bewitchingly pretty village set around a moated castle. From there it’s just three miles back to Frome.
• The Seymour Arms in Witham Friary is a fabulous time-warp of an estate pub. No food served but you can bring your own.
• Moat and Turret Cafe in Nunney is popular with cyclists and serves great cakes and light lunches.
Type of ride Dartmoor explorer
Start/finish Bovey Tracey
Distance 32 miles
Difficulty Challenging. Hilly; lanes and a railway cycle path
This ride begins in Bovey Tracey, the self-styled Gateway to the Moor and home to a recently opened Cafe 3 Sixty, an airy, stylish cafe, bike shop and social hub of the local cycling scene. If you’re getting here by train, the flat and mostly traffic-free Stover Trail connects from Newton Abbot station about four miles away. Any bike ride on Dartmoor is going to be hilly but this ride front-loads the climbing, when the legs are freshest. The first five miles are almost entirely uphill all the way to Haytor Rocks, Dartmoor’s most famous landmark.
It’s a long and rewarding descent into Widecombe-in-the-Moor, whose church, known as the Cathedral of the Moor, towers above low-slung granite cottages with thatched roofs. From Widecombe, a sliver of tarmac lane climbs gradually up Challacombe Down. Here the desolate wildness of Dartmoor becomes startlingly apparent. Just short of the summit pass short track on the right leads to the remains of Grimspound, a large bronze age walled settlement. It’s an eerie spot and it is fitting that while researching The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle sheltered in one of the huts to a smoke a pipe. The ride then swaps the wide open expanses of the uplands for the complex topography, patchwork fields and dense woodland of the moorland edge, passing through the lovely villages of North Bovey and Lustleigh. The last two miles follows the new Wray Valley cycleway back to Bovey Tracey.
• The Rugglestone Inn inWidecombe-in-the-Moor is an authentic, wisteria-clad Dartmoor inn serving real ale and pub grub, and which has a cottage available for short breaks and week-long stays (from £375 a week).
• The Ring of Bells Inn in North Bovey is a smart, recently renovated dining pub with rooms (doubles from £95 B&B).
The Dart Circular
Type of ride Devon lanes by a majestic river
Distance 25 miles
Difficulty Moderate. Short but some steep hills. Lanes and a short section of unsurfaced cycleway
Queen Victoria praised the River Dart as “England’s Rhine”, which says as much about her own world view as it does about the Dart. The rivers are actually very different. The Rhine is long, wide and meandering and with a vast lowland delta, while the Dart is short, shallow and fast-flowing until Totnes, where it empties into a tidal flooded river valley. What the tidal Dart does share with the Upper Rhine is scenic grandeur, castles and country houses.
This short but deceptively hilly ride begins on the traffic-free path from Totnes along the banks of the Dart towards the Sharpham estate. It’s downhill to Bow Creek, one of the fingers of the Dart and a pair of riverside pubs. The Maltsters Arms was once owned and run by Keith Floyd, the TV chef and gastronome. Over the next hill is Dittisham (pronounced Ditsham), a village that sits high on a spur overlooking the Dart and extends downhill to a little quay. Ring the bell for the tiny clinker-built ferry across the water to Greenway (£3.50 for adult plus bicycle). The childhood home of Sir Walter Raleigh, the estate was later bought as a holiday home by Agatha Christie. It’s now in the possession of the National Trust. Some very quiet lanes lead to Stoke Gabriel, another sleepy riverside village, and back via Littlehempston and over the grand stone bridge Staverton for a final run in to Totnes through the grounds of Dartington Hall.
• The Maltsters Arms in Tuckenhay is a large foodie pub overlooking the river, which also has double rooms from £79 B&B.
• The Anchor Stone Café in Dittisham serves local seafood specials on the quayside.
Type of ride Classic Cornwall, from tiny harbours to cliff-top mines
Distance 35 miles
Difficulty Moderate. Mostly lanes with two sections of gravel track
Penwith is Cornwall’s Cornwall: a peninsula on a peninsula. It outdoes the rest of the county when it comes to archetypal Cornish characteristics: its coastline is wilder, its rocks are richer in ores, its fishermen catch more fish and it has more prehistoric ruins.
Starting in Penzance, the ride passes the newly restored art deco saltwater lido. Trawlers mass in Newlyn’s harbour and the quayside fish shops sell the day’s catch. Around the headland is Mousehole, where tightly packed terraces rise from its compact harbour and tiny sandy beach. Heading inland, the route passes Carn Euny, one of the best-preserved prehistoric villages in the West Country (free entry). From St Just, an old mining track rounds the headland. It passes the old copper and tin mines whose chimneys and engine houses perch precariously on cliffs above the Atlantic waves. Some of the seams extended deep underground and up to half a mile out to sea.
Back on the tarmac at Pendeen, the coast road east towards Zennor is a pure joy to ride, especially when the prevailing westerly tailwind is blowing. It’s a dramatic, elemental landscape: ancient patchwork fields, dark craggy cliffs on the left and shapely hills rising on the right. DH Lawrence rented a cottage near Zennor and loved it here. “This isn’t merely territory,” he wrote in a letter, “it is a new continent of the soul”. The final leg is on quiet lanes to St Michael’s Mount and then the traffic-free promenade path back to Penzance.
• Stock up on picnic provisions at Hole Foods Deli and cafe in Mousehole.
• The Tinners Arms in Zennor has stone floors, log fires, low ceilings, good beer and simple, local food. For accommodation, there’s the nearby White House (doubles from £120 B&B).
Lost Lanes West: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in the West Country of England, by Jack Thurston, is published by Wild Things Publishing (£16.99). Guardian readers receive a 20% discount and free P&P with code Guardian18
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