Nothing releases the pressure like a trip back to the age of steam
Linking lazy trails with the West Somerset Line proves the perfect way to escape the rat race and reconnect with the spirit of riding.
Words: Julia Hobson. Photos: Roo Fowler.
From rails to trails
Einstein once famously said that Life was like riding a bicycle. That you must find your balance to keep moving forward. He was right, of course, but it’s not easy in an age where the World moves at a million miles an hour.
Juggling demands from all the different parts of life can feel an impossible task, walking a tightrope between being in control, and spiralling out of it. Finding time to slow down or stop for a while, to escape from the pressures of modern day living, is something we all aspire to, but rarely achieve, despite its importance to our wellbeing.
For me, like many, riding my bike has long been a way of doing that. Losing myself in the rhythm of the spinning wheels, finding places and moments of calm.
But somehow, slowly, I’ve lost my balance. My way to de-stress has become my work, guiding people day in day out, and the line between which rides are which has become blurred. Outside of work there’s no rest either. I’ve become addicted to personal adventures on an epic scale, the ones that challenge and push you to your limits physically and mentally. A personality that thrives on the excitement around these challenges means I cram as much into my life as possible. Aspiring to always do something bigger, harder, longer, faster, than the last adventure.
But the body has a way of letting you know when you need to slow down. When it’s time to re-address that balance. For me that time is now.
My good friend Rachael has become the perfect adventure buddy in recent years, but she too has been struggling with work/life balance. So when the time came for our most recent trip together, we decided we didn’t need an epic, we needed a trip that reminded us that riding bikes can still be a way to relax, and not just about doing something bigger and better than the last thing we did.
An actual holiday. You know? The kind with a comfy bed in a warm cottage to sleep in, the kind where we rode our bikes as much or as little as we felt like, the kind where we sat chatting in cafes and drinking cups of tea, the kind where we actually didn’t try and pack far too much into a far too small amount of time….
No 3am slogging up mountain sides to watch the sunrise.
No hike-a-bikes to reach gnarly trails.
No 10 hour days of epic distances and huge climbs.
No riding ourselves to physical and mental exhaustion each day.
It wasn’t supposed to be a challenge. It was about temporarily stepping off the crazy treadmill our lives are normally on, and reminding ourselves that riding bikes can be just, well, riding bikes.
Fed up of persistent rainy weather in the North, we headed South, to the Somerset coast. Specifically, Exmoor and the Quantocks, where we’d heard tales of great riding, excellent cafes, and good weather. A heritage steam train, the West Somerset line, runs right between these two areas. What better way to fully immerse ourselves in the “Go slow” theme of our trip, than to use a form of transport hailing from a pre-digital era to access the trails?!
Freedom-of-the-line tickets would allow us to hop on and off the train to explore nearby trails, we had researched the area’s best cafes, and a quaint thatched cottage in the sleepy medieval village of Dunster was booked. A simple, but beautiful plan was forming. The rest of the plan was that there was no plan…we’d get the train, take a map, and spend a few days going and seeing what we found. No agenda, just riding bikes and having fun.
There’s something about a steam train that seems to encapsulate emotions, conjure up memories of watching childhood films and imagining being a part of them.
Stepping onto the old platform was literally like stepping back in time, like walking onto a film set from the Railway Children, (it was!). It was a glimpse into a romantic bygone era when these grand elegant works of engineering art ruled the rails. Trolleys laden with ancient luggage, old fashioned signs, beautiful hanging baskets, even the stationmaster and the train controllers were in uniforms that looked like they had come from the 19th Century. As the train slowly pulled into the station, it became clear that it was a good job our theme for the trip was “going slow”, this machine wasn’t built for speed.
Time really did start to slow down on the train as we steamed alongside the gently rolling Quantock hills. Watching the scenery and life outside slowly pass by, a much needed sense of calm descended upon us. The steam inside the windows from hot cups of tea matched that outside, and as we wiped them we were reminded that the rain continued to drizzle. Storm Brian, we had just heard, had decided to accompany us on our trip. What was that about the weather being better in the South?!
The first stop saw us ride to Triscombe, where damp tree branches overhung to create a leafy tunnel above the lane we climbed up. From the top, trails seemed to shoot off in every direction, criss-crossing each other through the trees. It was wet and muddy, and a summer of riding dry dusty alpine trails had done nothing to prepare me for the slithering of tyres on roots already stripped of their bark and coated in a thin veneer of slippery British mud.
Low clouds floated through the forest like mist, raindrops dripped from the old man’s beard hanging on the tree branches, and water droplets glistened on the mossy blanket of the forest floor. Twisting trails wiggled amongst ferns, fallen trees, and fungi. It felt almost magical. A place enhanced by the rain, the dampness had made it come alive, made everything sparkle. When we stopped to find our breath after swooping gleefully down another fun trail, I became aware of the sound of the rain dripping through the canopy of tall trees onto the loamy soil below. It was soothing, just standing in silence, listening. It had been a while since I’d done this…stopped and let my senses take over, all other thoughts and anxieties fading away.
As we rode back to the train, it occurred to me that for the first time in a long time, I had lost myself in the riding. I’d experienced that sensation that the rest of the World is standing still whilst you flow down a trail. I’d forgotten about the long list of things I needed to do in the following week, I’d not looked at my watch (except to make sure we didn’t miss the last train!), I had no idea how far we’d ridden, just that we’d had a lot of fun. It was a good start to the trip.
Our second train journey took us to the classic British seaside holiday resort of Minehead, and the final stop on the Railway line. Once again, the steady pace of the steam train set the pace for the day. We were beginning to remember how to slow down.
Disembarking from the train, we crossed the beach and began to climb through coastal beech trees shaped by years of winds blowing from the sea into strange stunted, twisted formations. Wild ponies sheltered amongst them, completely unfazed by us riding only metres away, and as we emerged onto the moorland above, we could feel why they’d chosen such spots to get out of the strengthening breeze. Brian was on his way.
The views across the sea on one side, towards South Wales, and the rolling hills of Exmoor on the other were beautiful. Leaving the Coast, we descended through woodlands which were steeper and drier than those of the previous day. Fallen leaves of every colour blanketed the ground, as we worked our way down tight switch-backing trails. Thick shrubby Rhodedendron made it feel dark and enclosed, but beams of sunlight pierced through at points to bathe sections in rich golden light, highlighting more leaves, falling softly like snow from the tall branches above. Tyres crunched through dry leaves and wind-fallen twigs and branches. Again, sights and sounds, and intense focus on what bikes and bodies were doing filled our heads, leaving no room for outside thoughts. It was wonderfully refreshing.
We crossed pretty streams and rode along windy narrow lanes, lined by high hedgerows full of birds. Through fords and over old packhorse bridges, past thatched houses with tall chimneys, and beautiful manicured cottage gardens, before stopping in tea gardens for a proper English cream tea with freshly baked scones. Jam then cream, or cream then jam? What a luxury for that to be the most difficult decision of the day.
It was lovely to sit in the warm afternoon sun and not feel rushed or pressured to be doing more or getting immediately back on the bikes. I had forgotten how much pleasure can be found from slowing down, taking time to appreciate where you are and what you are doing.
With stomachs full from far too much tea and cake, we began a slow push upwards, this time through more open woodland of silver birch. This gave way to dark lines of perfect sinuous singletrack descents, winding through carpets of vibrant green moss and grass. Steep sections, alternated with easier flowing sections, all on loamy ground that made a hollow, muffled sound as you rode over it. It was possible to lose yourself in the landscape, trying to allow all your senses to take every sound, sight, smell in, until you hit a technical section of trail to draw your attention back to the riding.
Quantocks of solace
A final climb took us into another deeper, darker forest. So dark that no birds sang, silent save for the rustle of branches high above as the wind blew through them. It was like a fairytale forest, so still and enclosed, enchanted. Centuries old stone walls lined the sides of the tracks we climbed, covered with thick, lush green moss, new trees growing from the old walls. Trails dropped into the woods everywhere, some clearly ridden a lot, some returning to nature, overgrown with bracken and brambles. The ones we did find descended on more fabulous rich loamy singletrack. Dark, but with surprise open sections where trees had been felled and only browning bracken lined the sides of the trail, eyes struggling to adjust quickly enough to the contrast in light.
It felt like we were miles from anywhere, hidden deep in these enchanted woods, whereas in reality civilisation was very close by. This sensation was one I would normally associate with going to the mountains to find…of solitude, of being somewhere remote, wild and far away from the rest of the World. Of being small, and young compared to the trees around you and what they have seen. Some of these were here long before the railways that brought people to the coast for their holidays were built. It was a wonderful surprise to learn that you can find this in the woods too, without having to go so far.
I was beginning to remember that some of the best riding days are often not the most epic, just the ones where you are out having fun with friends. That biking can still be a way to keep the Balance between work and play.
One final ride took us exploring in the woods above Dunster. These were different again from others we’d ridden in the preceding days. It seems that every beautiful piece of English woodland has its own character, even those relatively close to each other. Tall, narrow trees that looked like bar codes when viewed from a distance, hid off camber traverses that had us paddling with foot out to stay upright, giggling as we went. The thin trees swayed, somewhat alarmingly, and knocked together in the breeze above. Our moving ceiling reminding us that Brian wasn’t far away. The woods were providing a sanctuary from the storm.
We found the last of the summer’s dust hiding under the top layer of rain-dampened soil and yellowing pine needles lying like snow on the ground, giving some much needed traction on steep, tight fall-line descents. The kind of terrain that makes you feel good about yourself…hero dirt. It was perfect. I found myself smiling contentedly, relaxed and happy. This trip had been exactly what I needed.
The statistics of distance, height climbed and descended during our few days away are completely irrelevant. It wasn’t “epic”, nor was it hard or challenging in any way, but we had explored a new place, had a brilliant time, and weren’t going to return home with the need to spend weeks recovering. The steam train set the pace for the trip, reminding us that it doesn’t always have to be about how fast or how far your adventures are. It seems that sometimes, you need to slow down, to speed up.