More than 10 years ago a scintillating bridleway near Porlock in the South West of England claimed the MBR Trail of the Year crown. With the help of Exmoor Adventures' uplift we head back to see if it's still as fun in the modern era
Bridleways really aren’t supposed to be this good. This corner has the perfect radius to hold my speed for the next, the trail defined by a steam below me to one side, and a steep-sided bank to the other. There are roots and rocks under my tyres and a canopy of leaves overhead. In front, the disappearing wheel of our guide Dan, dropping his shoulder into the next corner at what must be 30kph.
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We’re building speed round every corner, pushing into the little rises and natural lips that rise up, using the contours perfectly, until there’s nowhere to go buy across the stream.
We stop, panting at a gate, bulging eyes, speechless, and then laugh out loud. This is Hawkcome bridleway in Exmoor, once crowned by this very magazine as Britain’s Best Singletrack.
Anywhere else in the UK this is not your usual bridleway. In much of the UK, mountain biking is only permitted on designated bridleways which are historical rights of way, and they can be few and far between, or designated riding areas, and is prohibited on footpaths.
But in Exmoor these rights of way are as abundant as the mossy trees that shelter them. There’s something almost spooky about the way the singletrack here manages to use the contours of the hill so perfectly, and develop corners with the skill of a consummate trail builder.
It’s as if an unseen hand had built them, over thousands of years as walkers and cattle carved out their shape.
I’ve not been here for nearly two decades, since MBR’s mad road trip that took in 10 great UK trails in just 48 hours (those were the days!), so honestly it was high time we came back.
Things have changed in the two decades since then though. The Millennium Dome [A landmark in London] is called something else, the mad internet dial-up tone has been silenced, and there’s now an uplift service running out of Porlock, run by Exmoor Adventures.
That means for £70 you’ll get shuttled around to the tops of the local hills, before being guided back down again, with a pasty lunch at about half way round.
The man doing the shuttling is Dan French, we meet him at the start of the day outside Exmoor Adventures’ base at Porlock Weir. It’s the exact opposite of the uplift centre at BikePark Wales. The building’s tiny and looks more like an old lifeboat station waiting for its moment in Grand Designs, I half expect McCLoud’s dulcet tones to meet me at the doorstep. Inside, wetsuits and canoes hang from the rafters, jostling for position alongside mountain bikes and paddles.
Coastal views and coastal breezes
Like the town though, it is charming, and with its back to the sea and pointing straight up into the hills I’m reassured that the sign at the front offering archery to school groups is just another string to Dan’s bow, and not the main focus of the business.
“The plan is to really grow the mountain bike side of things now,” Dan tells me. It’s also not a lifeboat station, but rather appropriately an old bus garage. We climb up and around the switchbacks out of town, on the second uplift of the morning. On a good day he’ll cram in more than a dozen.
It is ludicrously steep here and the new shuttle bus we’re in scrabbles for grip on the damp, leaf covered tarmac. “That’s why we’ve brought in Jack to guide riders down the more techie trails here.”
The talking stops abruptly because coming the other way is another van, this one towing a digger. The road’s too narrow to let two vehicles pass each other, and the chances of the other driver guiding his ponderous load backwards up the hill seem zero.
Dan starts the nerve wracking process of reversing us and the bikes back down the switchbacks – a difficult procedure in the best of weather conditions but after heavy rain it takes consummate skill. We’re loving it in the back simply because we don’t have to do it.
Reversing done, Dan reassures us this is extremely unlucky to meet anyone coming down outside the busy summer season, a period when the uplift doesn’t run simply because Porlock is so busy and the tortuous streets so narrow. The van stops close to the top of Dunkery Beacon, and we pile out and pedal the last five minutes to reach the trig point and its panoramic views of Exmoor to the south and Wales to the north.
Ride the peaks right down to the sea (almost)
The Exmoor hills we’re being driven up aren’t huge by Welsh or Scottish standards, but they do have the enviable ability to be ridden right from the top, down to almost to the sea – that’s an impressive 500m of elevation. It’s so rare to be able to use the entirety of a hill.
We’re not here to stand and stare though, and Dan swears blind he’s seen a big cat up here, so we’re off at pace. We rattle down a steep, fast bridleway from the top with what the Germans would call fahrtwind blasting in our faces.
It’s extremely slippery, the jumble of rocks sliding your tyres this way and that, into the dubious safety of grassy tufts that offer even less traction. It levels out at the bottom, I nearly lose the back end on the slick grass, while Rich from Bike Perfect lays it down while laughing at my near misfortune. Karma meets schadenfreude.
It’s a strange thing, being so close to the sea somehow robs me of my sense of perspective. Looking ahead the trail seems to drop straight into the Bristol channel, like we’ve descended the entire hill already and we’re about to hit the muddy sand below. But left and right I can still see the big hills rolling down beside me, and I know we’ve only just begun.
I’ve ridden next to the sea on a couple of occasions before, around Devon and Cornwall, or in the South Downs around Eastbourne and Steyning, but I can’t say I’ve ever actually enjoyed it before. It’s always been about the views rather than the singletrack.
Here it’s different, we’ve swapped the wide bridleways of the South Downs for singletrack, on good dirt, mostly under trees, and with very little traffic on it.
Fast, flowing, fun and steep
The lack of riders, walkers or horse riders is a very good thing, because the next trail feels about as fast as I’d ever want to go on a mountain bike. I’m at the point of touching my brakes but nerve myself to stay off them as Dan tucks closer to the bike and pumps every compression going.
Now he’s standing taller though, pushing the bike into the ground and desperately trying to scrub off speed as the trail comes in closer and tighter, steeper and rougher.
I’ve had it on good authority that the beautiful woodland here shelters a labyrinth of brilliant trails, purpose built and of varying degrees of terrifying steepness
We must have gone from 30kph down to 10 in a couple of bike lengths. Suddenly it ends, across a small stone bridge, almost into someone’s garden and out into the town we left half an hour before, ready for another run.
So far it’s just been bridleways we’ve ridden, but now Jack is taking over the guiding. I look across at Rich because we both know things are about to turn serious… but in a good way.
I’ve had it on good authority that the beautiful woodland here shelters a labyrinth of brilliant trails, purpose built and of varying degrees of terrifying steepness. The only trouble is finding them. That’s where Jack comes in, a Minehead local, he’s ridden these since he was a nipper, and can find his way down the hillside with his eyes closed.
Which is lucky, because in mid-autumn at 4pm the light is fast falling and the weather’s starting to get that menacing look. Warm gusts of wind stir the trees around us and a few tentative drops start to fall.
“This trail is rated a 15”
“This trail is rated a 15 really,” Jack says, as we tip in. “Everything up to now’s been kinda PG,” he says encouragingly.
Some of my favourite trails are 15 rated, and this trail is has to go on the list – it’s tight but not super steep yet, instead there are off-camber sections that need total commitment, precise wheel placement, and the ability just to let it run and surf the rear wheel around where it’s loose. The chute to the fireroad is worthy of any South Wales off-piste finale.
Except this isn’t the end, we climb up a private toll road under the dripping trees, before dropping in for one last descent. I’m about to tip in when MBR bike test editor Muldoon (along for the ride) feels this is the perfect moment to have a 30 minute phone call.
We’ve just rediscovered mountain bike paradise
I stop too, basic humanity preventing me from leaving him, as the dusk settles and I realise I can’t see more than 6ft from my wheel. Somehow we get down the last section, perhaps helped by the darkness blinding us to the intimidating trail.
I head home at 20mph in the absolutely sheeting rain with plenty of time to contemplate the riding around Porlock. There’s something magical about riding in mature, deciduous woodland, instead of pine or coppiced plantations. That makes a difference to the soil quality, the light and the beauty, all of which Exmoor has in abundance.
The trails here are fantastic too, fun bridleways jostle for top honours with off-piste singletrack that can rival many a South Wales hill for jank.
My home trails around Surrey are congested, but you’re unlikely to see another rider here, and that’s reflected in the unspoilt nature of the trails. Put that together and we’ve just rediscovered mountain bike paradise.
Want to recreate this ride for yourself? Here’s everything you need to know to explore those lush Exmoor trails.
How to get there
Sadly the nearest train stations are Barnstable, Bridgwater or Taunton, giving you a 32 to 35 mile ride to get to Porlock.
If you’re driving, from the North take the M5 Motorway either to Bridgwater, then the A39, or to Taunton and then the A358 then A39. From the South, either the A39 along the North Coast or the M5 and repeat the journey as above.
The ride above was guided and run by Exmoor Adventures, who are based out of Porlock. They offer guided trips for riders of all levels from beginner to expert, plus families, and also bike maintenance and bike leadership courses.