Gravel Culture: Travel Gravel - The West Country Way
Gravel Union On
14 October 2021
I been planning try the West Country Way for a while, so I had been watching the August weather forecast for a dry spell, ideally with a bit of sunshine. Eventually, 1st September was looking good, so off I went, knowing the Dartmoor section really well but after that, apart from the expectations of steeper hills on Exmoor, the rest was into the unknown! But I was confident it was more gravel than an MTB route, although only time in the saddle would tell.
As I live close to the start in Plymouth, I’d decided to make the route a return loop back home. In total I was away for 4 days and cycled 300kms/195 miles, but this review covers only the 200kms/120ish miles to Minehead. I’d planned my route to fit in with distances that were relatively easy for me to achieve with plenty of time for cafe stops and Instagram pics, plus some nice campsites that I could review.
Day One: Plymouth to Drewsteignton
I was up early to ride the 15kms/9miles to the start, which was on Plymouth Hoe, where Sir Francis Drake played bowls whilst he waited for the Spanish Armada! After a bit of “taking in the moment”, at around 07:30 I was ready to get going.
The first section of the route was on former railway lines before getting onto the Princetown track which was fast (and still flat) gravel. After a cafe stop, it was then onto a gnarly old track that took me over open moorland to Hexworthy, followed by a bit of road, before crossing open moorland again into the forests. First Bellever, then Soussons before getting back into some hilly sections and an easy ascent followed by a tough descent down to Challacombe Cross. It was then road all the way to Chagford, a decent size town with shops, pubs, cafes etc. But I found out that getting food between 14:00–18:00 was nigh-on impossible. This was the case across the entire route so plan accordingly!
With not much to do (or eat) in Chagford, I managed to find a phone number for the pub in nearby Drewsteignton and found out that not only were they open again, but they were serving food! The pub being open was the opposite of what I’d initially been told, but riding there also meant that the absolute best track on the entire route was also right at the end of my first day - Hunter’s Track.
Day Two: Drewsteignton to Exford
Not only was the pub serving food in the evening, but they were also happy to make me breakfast, so I was happy to ride the extra distance back up to the pub to give me a full stomach to start the day with.
The route between Dartmoor and Exmoor was mainly road so I wasn’t expecting a particularly hard day but OMG, those damn hills!! Even on the tarmac, the little lanes were tough going and some of the original gravel/rock tracks for the route were super tough on a gravel bike - they were at best Type 2 fun! If you try this route, be prepared for some challenging sections…
The first little village I came to at about 15kms/9 miles was North Tawton, which was complete with cafe and shops, so I stopped for a coffee before attempting my first bit of the day’s off-road sections on the Tarka Trail. Then I was back on minor roads again and quickly arrived at the Eggsford Crossing Café - well worth stopping at as the food was great, plus there’s very little beyond the shop in Chumleigh which was the next village along. As the route neared Exford it included a mix of some gnarly tracks and open moorland, which kept me on my toes!
Day Three: Exford to Minehead
As I was doing a return journey, I had freeze-dried porridge for breakfast and wanted to leave early, well before anyone would be serving me breakfast, plus the sun was threatening to show its face so I wanted to be on the beach by lunchtime!
I had previously ridden and run on Exmoor so I was wary of what lay ahead and I wasn’t “disappointed”. First off, everything out of Exford was up! Secondly, Exmoor hills were far sharper than Dartmoor hills and thirdly, Exmoor gravel was much bigger chunks of rock. Whilst the route started off steeply, but with a decent gravelly surface, it quickly became very rocky and quite hard to descend at any speed, having to carefully pick my line whilst my brakes started to squeal and overheat.
After a long hard morning of riding around Dunkery, assuming you are still alive, you will arrive at Allerford and cross a lovely little stone bridge to head up a nice bridleway with a final sharp ascent to arrive at Periwinkle Tea Rooms - a little cluster of yellow thatched roof National Trust houses. It’s well worth taking a break here as the track continues to go up through the forest and up yet again to Selworthy Beacon for some amazing views before going down, down, down fast bridleways all the way to Minehead for some well-earned fish, chips and beer.
In my view, this route is suitable for a gravel bike, but a hardtail MTB would also be OK. There are a lot of road sectiopns between Dartmoor and Exmoor, with some steep inclines which are well-suited to a gravel bike but, some of the Exmoor off-road tracks, even with the Type 2 fun options removed, were still at the more extreme end of gravel. One of the great features of the route are the many options to break it up into daily distances that suit any rider. There are plenty of pubs, cafes, shops and campsites along the way to minimise how much food and water you need to carry. I was fortunate to have good weather and dry trail conditions, but I suspect if you were less lucky and got a few wet and windy days the route would be a very different experience!
If you fancy trying Peter’s modified version of the West Country Way, check out the route link here.
If you’d like to go and ride Peter’s home trails on Dartmoor, check out this article or visit his website.