South-West is best, or so the saying goes. I may be biased as this is my home turf, but there’s certainly a lot of truth in that. From the coast of Cornwall to the wild national parks of Dartmoor and Exmoor, countless protected areas of natural beauty, conservation sites, the Jurassic Coastline and idyllic rural scenes; the South-West is surely one of the most wonderful places to explore by bike.
When it comes to riding off-road here, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Difficult as it was, here I’ve managed to narrow it down to my favourite few areas to explore, which include the mining trails of inland Cornwall, my childhood playground in East Devon, the wilderness of Dartmoor, the all-too-often forgotten Quantock and Mendip Hills and the golden Cotswolds.
Most of these routes are accessible by train, so you can easily enjoy them as a day trip or weekender. Popular with tourists seeking rural escape, the South-West boasts not only an overwhelmingly friendly population, but also a swell number of tea rooms, cafes, pubs, campsites and guesthouses, all to keep you well fed, watered and rested on your jollies.
As these are gravel routes, they can all be ridden on a gravel, cyclo-cross or mountain bike, although I would recommend tyre widths of 40mm and above. The routes vary in difficulty and length, so check the Tour information and descriptions before you leave.
The West County is well known for being very wet. Therefore, a lot of these trails become pretty tough-going in the winter. It’s best to try them in the drier months, and always make sure you have waterproofs with you, just in case!
This triangular route heading east from Bristol is one of my favourite local gravel loops from where I live, and a pretty big day out too. It takes in parts of the Cotswold Way, the stunning bridleways of Castle Combe, and the Fosse Way bridleway descent into the city of Bath. Then there’s an easy finish following the river and the traffic-free Bristol to Bath railway path back to the start. It’s a brilliant route, not to be underestimated! Expect chalky-white bridleways, wide gravel byways, quiet lanes and pretty towpaths. Spend as much or as little time as you like exploring historic Bath, where you’ll also find many places to enjoy a drink, meal or ice cream!The route is a loop from Bristol’s central Temple Meads train station, paying a visit to Business As Usual, a cycling themed cafe and bike shop, on the way out of town at the start. This is a great place to meet friends for a coffee and pick up any last minute supplies before you venture into more remote terrain. After following the smooth and traffic-free Bristol to Bath railway path out of the city, you’ll take back lanes through Pucklechurch (including a steep and rocky warm up climb), then on through Hinton up the alternative Cock Lane climb which is quieter than the main road in the village. Turn left onto the Cotswold Way further up, riding along the field margin with fantastic views on a clear day as far as the Severn Bridge and Wales beyond. You’ll follow this through a few fields, over the main road and alongside the M4 motorway. To the north of Nettleton, enjoy the bumpy hedgerow bridleway past the dairy farm, which after a few gates opens up into a central path up through a large arable field. Skirt the next few field edges before returning to the lanes, then onto Summer Lane gravel Byway. The real highlight of the route comes next as you pass the Castle Combe race course, well known for the mid-week crits, and take the bridleway through Hammerdown Wood. Expect chalky hillside trails, impressive valleys, secluded and vibrant with wildlife.The following leg takes you onto the Fosse Way Roman road, admittedly quite a busy road at times but with good visibility, and corking views to the Wessex Downs on your left. Peel off to the right when you reach Bannerdown, taking the Fosse Way bridleway descent that can be pretty technical down to Batheaston. Cross the river to the gravel trail that’ll lead you to the canal, and ride into the centre of Bath along the towpath, taking care for other people as it can get pretty busy along here.From Bath, you follow the Bristol to Bath railway path all the way back into Bitton, before peeling off to ride up Willsbridge Hill. Here you make your way to Hanham Lock, taking the gravel trail alongside the River Avon past Hanham Woods all the way back into town toward the railway station.
Unjustly, the lanes and trails of Cornwall often get overlooked for cycling. Perhaps because they’re right down the end of the country, or perhaps in part because of their wicked steepness. If you thought Cornwall was all flat sandy beaches, you’d be wrong. Nestled in the steep river valleys of this coastal county, a wealth of bridleways, forest trails and old mining paths make this the perfect place to explore by gravel, cyclo-cross or mountain bike. This route takes in a bit of everything, from the artist’s coastal town of Falmouth to the quiet trails of the Poldice Valley, before climbing high up onto Carn Marth and following the mining trails past the crumbling ruins of this county’s past. Starting at the central railway station in Falmouth, you’ll head north out of the town on back streets, through pretty Penryn and along lanes to Devichoys Wood. After some fun on the woodland trails to Perran Foundry, you’ll take a short stint along the main road to the west toward Devoran to reach the traffic-free gravel trail alongside the Carnon River. Pass under the Carnon Viaduct along the trail to Bissoe, where you’ll find a bike shop and cafe at Bike Chain. They do awesome cakes and great cream teas, not to be passed by lightly! Now into the Poldice Valley, there’s a huge network of trails, from easy gravel tracks in the valley bottom to more challenging XC climbs and downhill trails. Why not take some time to explore this area?Next on the Tour is the climb up Carn Marth, one of the tallest hills in the area which will reward you with incredible views of the rural heartland of Cornwall. Pass by the pond, formerly a granite quarry, before descending to follow the mining trails to the west. You’ll rumble along on these brilliant hilltop trails, past countless ruins of old mining works; buildings, wheelhouses and chimneys to West Wheal Francis. From here you’ll head back south-east toward Falmouth, enjoying a quiet stretch of bridleway around the shores of Stithians Lake. If you’re lucky, you might even see some windsurfers here!From Stithians village you’ll follow lanes back into town, finishing along Falmouth Harbour, the perfect place to enjoy fish and chips or a delicious Cornish pasty.
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Part of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Woodbury Common is a heather and gorse heathland with both plantation and natural ancient woodland to the east of Exeter. A refuge for cyclists, hikers, runners and orienteers not far from the city, this area is rich with brilliant, varied trails that are especially good on a gravel bike. With the backdrop of the Jurassic Coastline in the distance, the wide fire roads, twisting singletracks, wooded trails and even some man-made jumps make this the perfect destination for an off road ride. I’ve ridden here all my life as my local playground, yet am still finding new trails and areas to explore. This route is a loop from central Exeter, starting and finishing from the main train station of St Davids. Although the city portion is easy-going alongside the river and canal, if you’d like to shorten the route and are travelling by car, why not start in Clyst St Mary?After following the riverside trail to Exeter Quay, you’ll follow the canal towpath south to Countess Wear, where you can take the cycle path to avoid the busy main road, and then the lanes to Clyst St Mary via Old Rydon Lane. Soon you’ll be on Oil Mill Lane, climbing gradually up the valley side up to Woodbury Salterton village.From here you take a quieter lane almost all the way up to the Common, turning right onto a bridleway just before Woodbury Golf Club. This rocky and sometimes wet track leads you up to the main road by Woodbury Castle, crossing over into the main car park. From here, Woodbury Common is your oyster. Admire the coastal views to the south, the estuary, Haldon and Dartmoor beyond to the west. Ahead of you, gravel roads, woodland trails, dirt jumps and heathland singletrack are all there to be enjoyed. Don’t feel like you have to stick strictly to this route, simply follow the trails that take your fancy!After your exploration of Woodbury Common, start to head south to the gorgeous coastal town of Budleigh Salterton. Much more quaint than neighbouring Exmouth, you’ll find a pebble beach, colourful beach huts and great ice-cream from The Creamery here at the mouth of the River Otter. To make your way back to Exeter, follow the cyclepath to Exmouth first before picking up the Exe Estuary Trail all the way back along the water to Topsham. After a few roads, you’ll be back along the same canal that you left the city on. Why not stop at Exeter Quay for a drink or meal before making your way home?
Well-known as an off-road mecca on the South Coast, the New Forest is a corking area to explore on bike, horse or foot. Great swathes of moor and grassland are intercepted by deciduous woodland, parkland and plantations. Ponies and cattle roam semi-wild across the moorland and roads, and the gravel riding here really is second-to-none.I rode this route back in January with the Woods Cyclery on one of their Sunday shop rides, while recording Unpaved Podcast. Co-owner Tom Farrell really knows how to put on a good gravel route in his backyard, so we can thank him for this Tour, plus most of the photos too! For anyone who hasn’t visited, the New Forest is like a giant trail centre. The gravel roads that criss-cross the moorland and woodlands are well draining year-round, there are brilliant cafes and pubs in almost every village or town and you can link them all up for an almost tarmac-free ride!This route is a loop from Lyndhurst, where you can say hello to the folks at The Woods Cyclery and even get any last minute supplies you may need for the ride. If you’re visiting by train, the nearest station is Brockenhurst, a short ride away. You’ll start by heading north-east out of Lyndhurst, a short lane section leading to the gravel road alongside Highland Water which you’ll follow to the north through Holmhill Inclosure. You won’t find any major climbs or descents on this route, just gradual and steady-going inclines which make this a fairly casual ride. At least if you ride it at a casual pace! After crossing the road, you’ll ride a loop clockwise through the Milkham Inclosure, a combination of open gravel roads with far-reaching views and forest tracks. Enjoy the long and fast downhill section back toward the main road. After crossing back across more of the forest, the route ends with some more cracking doubletrack to the south, past Rhinefield Ornamental Drive. I’ve put in a detour to the Oak Inn for a something to eat and drink, before heading back to Lynhurst where you’ll also find lots of great cafes and pubs for refreshment.
In Bristol we’re spoilt for riding. The Cotswolds to the north, the Wessex Downs to the west, Wales a short ride away and the Mendips to the south. Classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Mendip Hills are a chain of rolling green fields, secluded woodland and the well-known rocky outcrops of Cheddar Gorge. This Tour was from WTF Bikexplorers Grassroots Ride I organised last year, an overnight bikepacking trip from the city of Bristol out to the Mendips and back. That should give you a bit of an indication to the difficulty of the route; it can certainly be done in one (long) day, but if you can camp overnight in the hills you can enjoy it at a more leisurely pace over two. We met at the Bristol cycling hub Business As Usual to start our ride, which is where you’ll find this Tour starts and ends at. It’s a short pedal to the main Bristol Temple Meads train station and right next door to the local Lawrence Hill station. To start the ride, you’ll climb out of the city to the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, crossing into the Ashton Court Estate where you’ll enjoy your first stretch of gravel up the main fire road. Look over your shoulder and you can already see the city shrinking away behind you.After a short off-road blitz through Wraxall Piece, you’ll drop off the Long Ashton Escarpment via the fire road down through the woodland parallel to Belmont Hill. This is a brilliant stretch of fairly easy going off road terrain to ease you into it. Down in the valley, you’ll take a short stretch on the road to Flax Bourton, starting your next off road climb up into the woodlands of Bourton Combe. This trail can be pretty technical in parts and very slippy in the wet, take care! After the very steep descent to Brockley Combe, continue along the bridleway on the other side of the road past the airport runway to Wrington. Testing, steep climbs, wicked descents and more dirt than you could shake a stick at; this is a corking bit of linking trail heading south. From Wrington village, follow lanes through Churchill to Sandford, where you pick up the traffic-free light gravel Strawberry Line. Snaking down the cleave in the hillside, you’ll avoid the majority of climbing over the Mendip Hills as it delivers you through Axbridge to the lively town of Cheddar. Take a break here to ride a little up into the gorge, where you’ll find plenty of tea-rooms and ice cream parlours to top-up on much needed energy before the next big climb. Rather than taking the road climb up through the gorge, you’ll follow the magnificent bridleway up the side of the hill through fields, before tackling the rocky, steep push-up to the top. Along the tops, you can see for miles; Cheddar Reservoir, Wedmore, the coastline even. Here the trail turns into a stony doubletrack, farm roads that are just brilliant on a gravel bike or mountain bike. You’ll drop over the other side down to the Gorge Road on a twisting descent that’ll make you want to do it all over again.Your next highlight is Beacon Batch, the vast moorland landscape that stretches over the very top of the hills. You’ll ride a series of byways and bridleways to almost reach the top, before dropping down a back lane to Burrington Combe, where you’ll start to make your way back to Bristol.After a few lanes, you retrace your tyre marks from Wrington along the bridleway, then taking a different route back into the city via the cycle path at Flax Bourton and through Long Ashton. Back in the bustling city, it’s hard to believe how you could feel so remote just a few short hours ago.
Perhaps overshadowed by their neighbour, Exmoor National Park, the Quantock Hills in Somerset often don’t get much of a look-in, yet they’re dream territory for gravel riders that enjoy challenging climbs and more technical terrain. Although you will find wide gravel tracks criss-crossing along the tops of the Quantocks across the heather moorland, these tend to me much rockier and technical than typical byways or bridleways in the English countryside. If this sounds like your cup of tea, combined with a series of rooty woodland valley singletrack, clear stream crossings and quiet lanes, this Tour is for you.Starting and finishing from the train station in Taunton, this route is a great day trip for riders across the South-West, and can easily be extended for a great weekender. Why not take some extra time to explore the gorgeous North Somerset coastline while you’re there?Start by leaving Taunton heading north on lanes towards Kingston St Mary. It’s a fairly easy, flat start until you reach Cushuish, where the gradient ramps up and you reach Ball Lane byway, which takes you directly up into the Quantock Hills on a fairly wide, mucky trail. You’ll reach the top of your first climb as you approach Buncombe Wood, and from here on in it’s all up and down! After a short drop, climb up Cothelstone Hill, before crossing the moorland onto Lydeard Hill Road heading north-west. From the car park you’re soon back onto the rocky, wide doubletrack along the top of the hills, with big views all around. You’ll barely notice the climb as you follow the golden road up to the highest point on the Quantock Hills, Wills Neck. From here you can see right down into Devon with Dartmoor and Exmoor national parks, across to the Brecon Beacons and even as far as the Mendip and Blackdown Hills on a clear day. From the open tops you’ll next descend into a dark, leafy and damp woodland that lines the valley of Holford Combe. These trails have to be top ten on my list of favourite singletrack; snaking alongside the water of the same name, these ribbons of narrow trail cross over roots, short steep climbs and descents, splashing through the stream as you work your way along the valley bottom.Climb your way back out of the Combe to the tops, a more gradual climb and now much closer to the coastline. After reaching the highest point at Thorncombe Hill, you’re treated to a corking single and doubletrack to the west to the village of Bicknoller, down Bicknoller Combe.There’s a little village shop here that’s well worth a visit for snacks and drinks, before starting to make your way back to Taunton. If you’re tired, you can take lanes all the way back south, but here I’ve proposed you ride back up onto the Quantocks and along some of the main gravel roads along the moorland, over Halsway Hill and then down to the east along Keeper’s Combe, before passing alongside the pretty Hawkridge Reservoir. Back into Taunton from here is pretty easy going, a little climbing up Merridge Hill but otherwise all downhill on lanes which should get you back to the county town in good time.
No Collection of off-road routes in the South-West would be complete without a foray onto Dartmoor. A truly wild expanse of moorland, unique granite tor-topped peaks and vast, hostile landscapes make this an incredible place to ride any kind of bike. Although a lot of Dartmoor seems rather wild and unkempt, there are actually many crucial ecosystems here, so it’s more important than ever to keep to marked ways and not stray. This Tour is a loop from the gorgeous market town of Tavistock located on the west of Dartmoor, up onto the moorland to Princetown, famed for its high security prison and providing the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes novel ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.From Princetown to Yelverton, you ride along the bridleway of the former railway line that linked these two settlements to Plymouth, dating back to 1823. Now little more than a wide, grassy and stony track across the moorland, there are just a few clues to its former purpose, like an old stone overbridge.After contouring past Kings Tor and descending ever so gently past Leeden Tor, Ingra Tor and Sharpitor, you’ll reach Burrator Reservoir. Here, circle the water counter-clockwise to take in the more technical bridleway trail alongside the lower slopes of Sheeps Tor, before looping to the north of the water that supplies the city of Plymouth. From Yelverton, you’ll pick up another traffic-free cycleway almost all the way back into Tavistock; Drake’s Trail. This follows parallel to the main road, the paved cycle track meandering through woodland past Horrabridge and along the metal bridge over the River Walkham. Complete the loop in Tavistock from the south, following the river and the Tavistock Canal through meadows back into the heart of the town. The undercover market is a great place to seek out a cafe for any post-ride refreshment or souvenirs of your trip.