A DAY CYCLING IN THREE COUNTIES
If setting out from with a long down hill in the chill of a bright summer morning is your idea of fun then this would have been perfect. Halfway down to Axminster an extra jersey was required. South Dorset, East Devon and South Somerset are all hilly, with long, long freewheels down high-hedged lanes, and occasionally strenuous climbs. A lovely day, but a challenging ride for Charlie Faringdon.
The trick in hilly country is to take a good look at the map , aim to gain height, and keep it. Sadly, this was not possible from Monkton Wyld Camping and Caravanning Club Campsite. Whichever way one went, the ride began with a lengthy descent, in this case on NCR2. Now and then the huge views across broad valleys so typical of this area appeared over field gates or through gaps in the hedges. Axminster was not far on the map, but the length of descent belied this. Not for the last time, the miles rolled by easily.
Although the A35 passes Axmister by, the main road to Chard and north to the M5 runs through its heart. Add lots of shops to the bustling atmosphere and you have a typical west-country market town. In search of inner tubes, I searched the town centre. I knew there was a bike shop there, but couldn’t quite get orientated amongst the twisting streets. Eventually, it turned up; a real Aladin’s Cave of almost everything that could be thought of. The owner said he liked to keep all the things cyclists might need.
I like having sufficient spare inner-tubes. It gives me a feeling of comfort and security when heading off into hedge-lined lanes prone to random flailing. I soon found myself on one such, climbing onto a broad ridge. Peace and quiet prevailed, but sudden bursts of traffic indicated that this was a bit of a rat-run for somewhere. Every now and again there was a steep section, the road rising almost in a series of steps. The views grew, too. It was many years since I had cycled down this way and I had forgotten what magnificent country it is. With the valley of the River Yarty to the west, I was tempted to drop down towards it, but a glance at the map and a quick counting of the arrows around Membury expelled such foolish thoughts.
The road reached 245 metres shortly after entering Somerset, the third county of the day. A prosaic change amongst the rolling hills, the golden fields sharp against the dark woodland and the deep blue sky, habitations embraced by valleys with churches peeking out. The traffic had died away. Pedalling steadily, sun on my back, deep in our ancient countryside; and the birds sang and what could be better? Unsurprisingly, in this paradise, stood a signpost to the Holy City.
How was the A30 hereabouts one of our major roads? A short section of it linked the lanes I wanted to follow. No cars in the mile I rode along it, but four young, female cycle tourers. Their rig-out reminded me of my early touring and hiking days, with bags and bits held on by bungees and belts and all sorts at a variety of precarious angles. Happy days, but I’d not be without my panniers now.
I love the way that Taunton, several miles away, is signposted along what is clearly a country lane. I feared heavier traffic, but there was little. Keeping height above Combe Saint Nicholas and Buckland Saint Mary, the woodland became thicker shading the summit ridge of the Blackdown Hills. Taking a short diversion to Castle Neroche, one felt that this was a different land to that where the ride had begun; more enclosed, more contorted, older.
The Blackdown ridge would make a grand few miles of riding, but I had intended all along to drop down and circle into Ilminster from the north-west. A couple of cycle tourers, were checking their map – a wise precaution in hilly areas – to following a circular route. We renewed our brief acquaintance a little later, still going in opposite directions.
It was another, this time, well-earned descent that took me down to Staple Fitzpaine. I ate and drank in the churchyard with the elegant tower almost shining in the sunlight. There was a pub just down the road, but the weather was too good. Gazing at the map, pondering where to go next, sitting in peace and quiet, had the effect of encouraging me not to go anywhere. To be honest, I was spoilt for choice of enticing country lanes. I knew I wanted to go to Ilminster, but wasn’t sure of the best way. To solve the problem, I got on my bike and cycled in the general direction. Soon got there, too, despite lack of planning.
Another busy little town, Ilminster, as one would expect, has an impressive church, a small market square and a long, sloping main street. At the top end of the high street in an arts centre that was once a Quaker Meeting House, I ate one of the most delicious bowls of tomato and roasted pepper soup I have ever had.
I wanted to check out the sections of traffic free routes around, partly out of general interest to get an idea about surfaces and so on. In this case there was also the interesting name given to this section of old railway track: The Stop Line. I assumed this was nature of some rural railway lines with stops at every village. Wrong, as ever. The line, which closely follows the route of the Chard Canal, was part of England’s Second World War defences aimed at stopping the advance of invading troops through the West Country. Cow sheds, barns and so on were used to disguise defensive positions, as were some of the railway buildings. Pill boxes were sheltered in railway embankments and next to bridges. Some, it seems had recently been used as temporary homes by itinerants and were full of unsavoury evidence of human occupation.
Entry to Chard is close to the Chard Reservoir – water for the canal - but I’d decided to divert around Chard. I had been there before and it suffers from heavy traffic. So, off I went on lanes signposted with names of places one never gets to go through or hardly notices. Lanes sunken through patches of woodland, rolling along for miles, a sudden jolt of civilisation arrived as Forde Abbey was staging a gymkhana. I slowed for horse and riders crossing the road, but found that it was generally the four by fours that took this as a signal to pull out or squeeze past.
The climb to Thorncombe and the ridge ride to Birdsmoorgate lived up to expectation. Down to Bettiscombe; its church standing deep in time and undergrowth; and ever on down – or so it seemed – into Marshwood Vale. Here farms stand in pastures grazed by cows fit to advertise butter and cream teas and all the best of the dairy. It felt like a landscape of content, though there’s probably little enough profit in those farms at present. For the cyclist heading south it is a joyful amble. It was to end with a surprise.
The tower of the parish church at Whitchurch Canonicorum is not pure white, but was pretty close in the summer afternoon sun. It begged a visit. As ever a seemingly oversized parish church turned out to be a gem. There were tombs and gargoyles and, surprise, surprise, a shrine which had once been immensely popular as a destination of pilgrims. There is some dispute about the dedication of the shrine. Witta (as in Witta’s church, presumably) was a companion of an Anglo-Saxon missionary, St. Boniface, in his missionary work in Germany. When Boniface and his followers were martyred, Witta avoided death and carried on the work. That doesn’t usually qualify one for a shrine in rural Dorset. Local tradition suggests that the shrine is to a girl of holy character killed during a Viking Raid on Charmouth, a not uncommon occurrence. Whatever its origins, it still attracted some pilgrims on the day I was there. They didn’t seem overly concerned with its provenance.
Heading down to Charmouth to meet some friends who had gone swimming, turned out to be a mistake. A strong wind had battered the coast all day, they’d spent a long time in the water but had chilled quickly and gone off home. Even so, a cuppa and a bit of cake in the seafront café was a definite plus and the smell of the sea always adds to a cycling day, for me. The real mistake in going down to Charmouth was just that; it is down. This is not a forgiving coast. I had cycled into Lyme Regis before and the climb back to the campsite would be akin to the epic effort of cycling out of that car-infested town.
I chugged up from the beach to Charmouth village. The narrow road had traffic calming pinch points. Interestingly, some motorists stayed well back when the road was full width, but at the sign of an approaching pinch-point accelerated to overtake just as everything narrowed. I was pleased to get back on the country lane that climbed over the A35, before descending to Wootton Fitzpaine. Here, amongst the cottages and the orchards, I checked the map in the vague hope that there was a way round the steep climb past Monkton Wyld. This hope, and I have held it often, is rarely fulfilled. This was part of NCN2. It was tough going, despite the considerately placed bench and the good views back, which I felt I should stop and admire every now and again. Cresting the hill, my ride came to a sudden end as the campsite was a few hundred yards away.
And the camp cooking tasted better than ever, as a hearty draft of cider.
On the borders of three counties, tourist information comes in threes; www.visit-dorset.com has lots of information about the area, as do www.visitsomerset.co.uk for Somerset and www.visitdevon.co.uk from their own perspectives.
Accommodation of all sorts is plentiful, though for Camping and Caravanning Club members, it should be noted that their Charmouth site is a several miles out of Charmouth – good site, though.
The only railway stations of any use in this specific area are Axminster and Crewkerne, on one line, and Taunton, on a different line. You’ll just have to cycle!