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Loddon Vale/Surrey TRF trip to Devon, September 2019

The long running invite for my friends at Loddon Vale TRF (LVTRF) and more recently Richard from the Surrey group extends to weekends in spring and autumn now dating back to just after we moved back down in 2012. Simon can provide the stats of who’s come when, but for me, it’s all about having a laugh and trail riding with like-minded people. In recent times there has been a drift towards gentleman’s trail riding with quality coffee and cake supplanting all out mileage. I therefore try and plan an itinerary of 50 miles Friday afternoon, a bit of a trek – say 100 miles Saturday and a morning bimble before the lads kick off for home Sunday afternoon. We had a bit of toing and froing this time. Stuart and Pete both dropped out for unrelated reasons associated with the fairer sex and Richard having had his beta nicked was keen to ride out a 300 KTM smoker he’d rennervated, so garnered a late invite. It’s a grim reality that everyone knows someone who has had their bike(s) nicked which is a heart braking experience by all accounts. Not only have you had something you have grown very attached to taken away by some low life scum bag, but the insurance cover rarely provides enough for a like-for-like replacement. Richard explained how it had knocked him for six and had taken a considerable time to get over it. Still he was back in the saddle and was sufficiently keen to get going, that he had the coffee on already when I arrived back home. Within minutes Ernie arrived with his Scorpa which was building almost KTM levels of notoriety associated with its reliability…….. But he reckoned it was sorted now….. Lastly Simon (Serow) and Eddie arrived unpacking his CRF250X off the trailer before bacon sarnies were provided by yours truly for sustenance/fat to cover the rest of the afternoon. Paul arrived from up the road on his WR400 in good time for a 2pm kick off.

Plenty of chat was enjoyed, catching up from the summer when we last met up and hearing about Eddie’s good news regarding his recent radio therapy which had prevented him coming to the IoM in the summer.  I was determined to make sure I ran a relaxed agenda for the weekend, nothing super technical but quality lanes and quality coffee/cake. Friday afternoon was therefore arranged around some of the best lanes north of Cully with a cake stop in my newly discovered Tivvy canal basin coffee and cake stop. So off we set riding the lanes up past Butterleigh and Bickleigh, finally thankfully beginning to thin out regarding encroaching bramble, hazel and other brash. I planned a pretty direct route across to the Exe, down through Yarde and Silverton, then onto Thorverton and the lovely lane across the lush green grassed, cambered field at Ashley. We splashed across the little stream running down to the Exe and up the old steepish stone hedged lane to Eastern Down and Chapel Farm. But first we paused on the top of the hill for obligatory photo ops down the bucolic, typically English view down the valley to Thorverton, with an archetypal church nestling in the landscape. In between were corners of fields set aside for maize, providing habitats for pheasants, prior to them being open season for blasting out of the air. Heading west allowed us to take in Raddon Hills which is a lovely lane up to the main Tivvy Exeter road. At the top I paused to take in the view west to see slate grey cumulus clouds scudding in from the Atlantic bringing showers sweeping through the valleys of mid Devon, seemingly randomly depositing their rain. We had a splash but nothing soaking, but kept moving to try and stay ahead of them.

We cut north to Hayne, passing a couple of escaped pigs foraging in the hedgerow and dodging the odd bit of traffic in the narrow lanes. We rode a favourite lane down the rocky hill to Cotton Farm then onto Cruwys Morchard with its now widened and slightly graded lane. The mud here and there giving off that damp, earthy odour of decaying organic matter freshly exposed to the atmosphere, which always takes me back to my schoolboy scrambling days many, many moons ago where fresh fields would slowly be cut up by knobbly tyres to expose the aromatic mud below. Plus I spent quite a lot of time with my head buried in the stuff as well…. Next up was the UCR from Wood to Partridge farms, fording the Dart river at the base of the valley, set in a dense coniferous wood, full of pheasants and pens. A bit of road work took us through the pretty hamlet of Templeton then up to Witheridge moor and Tidderson lane with some long, shallow water filled whoops testament to the recent rain. We crossed the link road and climbed up to Stoodleigh Beacon before dropping down to Coleford Bottom to run up another lovely lane adjacent to the stream, splashing through muddy puddles as we went. I was curious as to the depth of the Iron Mill stream in the next lane given the recent rain, but thought we’d have a look anyway. The steep wooded valley was steaming in the high humidity, giving off an ethereal aura as we dropped off the hillside and ran out of tarmac at Furze Clift. The ford looked ‘lively’ but less deep than when we last went through, so I plunged in with the XR200. After a bit of scabbling for grip and a deeper hole on the other side, I successfully negotiated it as did the others behind me with no dramas.

We doubled back up the cheerily named Hangmans Hill, which I guess has an interesting history, along the easy lane at Quoit at Cross then ran for coffee and cake. I’d reckoned on getting to the Canal Café at Tivvy as at the end of September hostelries are beginning to either close down for the winter or shut early. We arrived at 4.45pm, just in time to snag some yummy cake and coffees of various varieties. We had a pleasant chat with the chap working there about trail bikes and he showed us his Honda CB500 road/faux adventure bike. As it was closing time, we let them close the café and completed a final few lanes around Butterleigh to get us back in good time to fettle bikes for a full day’s riding on Saturday.     

Saturday

Having lost Stuart we were down a chef, so Gaynor stepped up to the plate and put a plateful of fried goodies in front of us to stoke the boilers and after the recent better news regarding sausage and bacon in terms of health impacts, we tucked in. Matt was joining us today on his KTM 250 as I’d not seen him over the summer and he randomly texted to see if I was going out on Saturday. I’d already decided to ride to West Bay so as he’s from north of there it would all come together nicely as he’d be wanting to nip off lunchtime ish. So that left 7 of us for the first part of the day, with dry weather now forecast to 4pm, so we looked to be away sharpish with a mixture of high white clouds with a few blue patches here and there. As always – if you believed the weather forecast, you’d never get out of bed to do anything. We packed waterproofs to plan for the worst and hoped for the best. There was going to be a bit of road work but the idea was to take in some views and have a pleasant lunch on the coast. Knowing the manageable mileage folk like to do, I was aiming for 100 miles maximum so realised we’d not be able to get to Chesil Beach, but Chideock and Uploaders would be in range and I fancied West Bay for lunch, as I’ve not been there for ages. Wilderness lane between Cully and Honiton was a bit greasy and Richard’s frisky KTM caught him out on the roots, the bike and him going down and catching his back a bit, but he was all good after snaffling a couple of my codeine painkillers.

Given we had to make a bit of progress we followed onto to Honiton which needed a detour as the town centre was cordoned off for some event. Everyone navigated the increasingly eroded short lane up to Cheeseway Ash, but there was an ominous amount to steam emanating from Ernie’s Scorpa. He’d fettled it since the spring when it packed up across Exmoor, with some sort of battery charging issue. It had water issues the last time we travelled east though as well, a T-piece breaking on the water feed from or to the radiator. After a bit of poking and prodding, given the restricted access without pulling off the tank, it was concluded that it may have been a bit of a water overflow thing from the rad…… We mulled it over with a few of Eddie’s jelly babies and rode on. The Southcote Farm lane was lovely as always, the grapes in the vineyard about to be harvested and sent off to Lyme Bay winery for fermenting. The stream at the bottom we forded was a bit swollen from overnight rain but nothing too technical, it never seems to get too wet, although 4x4s have obviously been active there and there is annoying evidence that they’d been playing in the river, driving along for about 100 yards before clambering out onto the true course of the lane. Much more damage and people I’m sure will start to complain. We kept to the legal route, the sickly sweet aroma of the highly invasive Himalayan Balsam hanging heavily in the damp morning air.   

We all then had a hassle-free ride up to Lower Cleave up a dumpy bag repaired lane that I managed feet up on the old CRM250 which I was very pleased with. We all eventually crossed the A35 which never gets quiet it seems, even in late September, we rode up the UCR at Parehayne Hill dappled light piercing the canopy of trees as we picked our way over the roots and stones, suicidal squirrels scurrying hither and thither. Just as they seem to have narrowly avoided being squished by my front wheel, they seem to double back and have another go at diving through my spokes!

Next up was Downhayne Brake Road, the term ‘brake’ is suggested to mean a place overgrown with bushes or a thicket and crops up here and there in Devon. We ran all the way down the hill, with me pausing to photograph the views down the valley towards Colyton and beyond. The crisp and clear autumnal air coursing through our nostrils as we reached the bottom of the lane at Gittshayne, with a bit of mud and water to splash through. We forded the Coly without drama, water droplets sparkling like diamonds in my viewfinder as they splashed through the foot deep water. Ducking round Colyford we rode down the narrow grassy lane, which I don’t ride that often which pops out on the road on a bit of a blind bend so we had to be careful exiting. Crossing the Axe we hiked right down the west bank of the estuary opposite the tramway which runs from Seaton to Colyton, a distance of 3 miles and has been there since 1970, after the branch line closed in 1966. Just down the road is Axmouth, another once important port, now consigned to history. King Alfred the Great bequeathed the village to Aethelweard, which may not seem like a big inheritance, but the port was apparently responsible for 15% of the country’s shipping trade in the mid 14th Century. The remains of a late medieval fishing boat can be seen at low tide in the River Axe, just south-west of the village apparently. There’s a gentle wide, gravel track up the hill to the main road where we pinned our ears back and skipped out around the back of Lyme and by-passed Charmouth, to Morcombelake, and out along the byway/UCR for a break, to drink in the views of the Dorset coastline and Golden Cap, the highest point along the south coast. Having passed a group of cheery walkers, they repassed us as we munched on energy bars before we saddled up and passed them again, something I always feel bad about but they waved us by happily enough. We met a few walkers around Langdon Hill as well, which was not surprising, given everyone was out enjoying the breezy but warm autumnal sunshine. We were all sweating by now, given we’d dressed for the worst.

 

Joining the A35 at the pretty bottleneck of Chideock we at least only needed to turn left up to Ryall to ride a couple of short UCRs around the back of the hamlet, backing onto gardens and then on the long UCR-byway-UCR down into the Winniford Valley again providing magnificent views across the Dorset landscape as we rode across the cropped grass field. That brought us into the superb Chideock complex of a cross of UCRs up the gorgeously sunken Hell Lane, Ernie at least not boiling the Scorpa and nearly ripping his face off on a bramble this time! The lane has been cut up a bit recently it seems, I’ve not ridden it for a while and 4x4 traffic and rain erosion is beginning to bite again. At the top Matt said his goodbyes and rode off into the distance as we rode up and back the deadend northern lane to Henwood with again breath-taking views out to the coastline and the channel beyond. Back at Quarry Cross we turned right and dropped through the lane to Symondsbury, a very pretty hamlet of thatch and whitewash. In historical times the main economy of the village was the production of flax and hemp for Bridport's rope and net manufacturing trade. More recently the main business has been milk, beef, sheep, pigs and arable production and, since the decline of agriculture in the late 20th century, the village has hosted two colleges, many small workshops and several large self-catering holiday lets. The village still has several orchards, two cider presses, one apple juice business, an orchard conservation company, artists, potters, an outdoor toddler group and a primary school. Many of the inhabitants still work in the village on the two business parks and other converted agricultural buildings. The small River Simene passes through the parish. A tributary stream also wanders through the village itself, coming from a spring that is believed still to have healing properties. In the medieval age, people from miles around came to bathe their eyes, that were then allegedly healed. There is an old road from the sea through the village, that used to take pilgrims to the shrine of St Wite at Whitchurch Canonicorum just up the road. In 2004/5 The Symondsbury Apple Project undertook research into Dorset's Orchard and cider history discovering that in Symondsbury parish there were over 100 acres of orchard in 1839.

 

We bumbled through the rather busy old rope making town of Bridport and up its high street, full of shoppers and market stalls. We paused to refuel before battling down the re-wilded, aptly named Green Lane. All manner of bramble, hazel, bracken and other brash obscured the path of the lane and I forged a route through a central rut somewhere under the CRMs wheels. Ducking and diving we eventually popped out into the recently cut maize field where the farmer had conveniently and with maximum efficiency had planted the corn on the cob right up to the hedge across the right of way so we battled through the stubble down to the churned up lane at the bottom where the big tractors had squelched through the mud down to the farm. Historically this was the fertile soils that provided the hemp and flax for Bridport’s rope making industry which only petered out after the advent of man-made fibres. The lane which would have once carried packhorses and carts full of natural fibres, still continues to this day though, through Glossop Copse and around Boarsbarrow Hill another conical, stand-alone Dorset hillock, all green and pretty sticking out of the landscape. The lane runs across a field with great views across to Boarsbarrow. The lane then drops through a sunken section, blocked with a small tree down, but we managed to clear the brash and squeeze through and down the final stony section to Yondover, another pretty hamlet, across the river Asker to Loders, reputedly the location where cider making was first introduced by Benedictine monks at the priory, during the reign of Henry the 1st in the 1100’s. We immediately turned up Knowl lane, another lovely sunken trackway climbing up then around the hillside with panoramic views back into the Asker valley with the little cottages dotting the landscape and the summer greens were fading to ploughed red and russet foliage. Paul had a bit of a moment on the brutish WR400, the front getting all twisted as he tank slapped up the hedge but kept her upright and popped out at the top of the hill, smiling and recanting the episode to the others, as I took a few photos and noted the view worth taking in that was behind the others.

It was lunchtime so we dropped into West Bay the old port of Bridport which has migrated out into the channel as the estuary silted up behind it. It was once a feverish site of commerce, with the rope from Bridport and local fishing it has relocated a couple of times as waterways have become silted up. The railway came and went and now it relies on tourism and a residual fishing industry…. Oh and a film location for Broadchurch, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Harbour Lights with Nick Berry (remember that?) River Cottage, Reggie Perrin and others. We tucked into exotic coffees and pizza sitting outside the Watch House café. It was packed inside – always a good sign, but plenty of bench space was available cordoned off from the shingle beach, and with our riding kit on we were toasty enough. Sitting there. With a stiff offshore breeze whipping up white caps in Lyme Bay, the swell sucking the shingle in and out with every set of waves, slowing grinding the shingle to sand. The windswept view, the taste of sea salt on our tongues and the keenness of the wind were a reminder that autumn was here and after a few moody photos and a selfie or two with Golden Cap on the horizon along the beach behind us, it was time to remount and trek back ahead on the rain building from the west and would be with us in a few hours.

 

After a turn around the harbour, we backtracked along the A35 to Quarr Lane back up to Quarry Cross past the iconic Colmers Hill, a near-conical sandstone eminence topped by pine trees. It is highly visible from the main street in Bridport, and its significance extends back to around the 1th century. The hill takes its name from the "Colmer Tenement". The family were tenants of the Dukes of Somerset and Earls of Ilchester in the 17th 18th centuries and the Rev. John Colmer was the rector from 1805–06. During World War I Scots Pine trees were planted on the summit by Major W P Colfox MC and the hill now forms an iconic subject for artists and photographers. Back down Hell Lane and through the byway to Ryall allowed us to turn north west though the quaint Whitchurch Canonicorum, another Dorset village bequeathed by Alfred to Aethelweard (luck boy) in 899 AD and noteworthy owing to the Church of St Candida and Holy Cross. It is the only shrine in Britain to have survived the Reformation with its relics intact, apart from that of Saint Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. The saint in question is the somewhat obscure Saint Wite (Latinised as Saint Candida somehow) possibly martyred by the Danes and after whom the church and the village are named. We put in a few road miles to Wootton Fitzpaine to ride what I thought would be an old UCR down to an abandoned watermill but there was a new dwelling there now it seems so we turned around and continued to Hawkchurch, via the lovely Stonebarrow Lane dropping through a leafy woods with the smell of rotting leaves and water splashes. We paused for sustenance before taking off across the road into another UCR up to Northay. After the long lane at Hawkchurch up to Buddlewall, we jinked across the Axe back into Devon and familiar lanes of Membury and the lovely enclosed, wet and stony Heathstock UCRs.

 

We had another unscheduled pause for Ernie to play with his errant Scorpa, I can’t exactly remember what, but by the time I’d backtracked what ever had fallen off or over heated was sorted and we were soon underway once more. I reflected on what increasingly seems a distinct line between largely reliable Japanese based trail/enduro bikes and everything else, Scorpa, KTM, Beta, GasGas, Ossa Explorer – what ever happened to that? All very light and beautifully balanced, but realistically are built either down to a price or sacrifice robustness for lightness. They seem to be either ‘fun’ bikes with flimsy plastics, tiny fuel tanks and torture devices for seats, or competition thoroughbreds requiring meticulous fettling after only hours of riding. The Japanese bikes sacrifice a bit of weight and may cost a bit more, but they retain their value and they are built to take a bit of abuse being engineered for longevity, with rear subframes of substance. Unlike many non Jap bikes, you never see their rear end wobbling like Kim Kardashians arse in a thong…….

I was going to pause for afternoon tea at the Café off the Stockland straight, but (a) folk were keen to press on to avoid the rain and (b) it was closed, being just under new management. We therefore cracked on down through Cotleigh and back around Honiton to avoid the closed town centre and home via Hembury. At the top beside the old Iron Age fort, Ernies bike was once more on the boil so he pootled home on the road as we ran down past Beer Farm and Wilderness lane. The rain arrived with vengeance just after we got back so the forecast was spot on and our timing just right. After an hour or so tea drinking and head scratching as to the reason for the Scorpa’s malaise, we gave up and had tea, Ernie deciding to go home in the morning.    

Sunday

Sunday dawned dry with the promise of a mostly overcast but dry morning. It was a first for Richard as he had managed to stick out a full weekend and we bumbled down through Whimple, a lovely rock and mud lane up to Down House Farm. It was here I got caught in two minds regarding riding in the washout or trying to climb out onto the ledge and ran out of momentum, then put my foot down into thin air and lay the CRM down. The others had also skittered about a bit on the rock and exposed roots. The lane around the back or the orchard was similarly wet before we headed down to a degrading tarmac at Westcott house that links across to the gorgeous lane at Aylesbeare. Riding north to south, you start at over 100 metres and ride along a rut between lush hedges before dropping down into the shallow valley, the lane sinking below the hedge and becoming increasingly rooty, stony and wet as overhead foliage traps in foliage stopping the lane drying out as it drops into a little rivulet of water. I skipped off the CRM to catch the others coming through and nicely captured Simon piling head first into the hedge as the wet, rounded cobbles in the bottom of the stream bed caught him out. Although it looked like he’d head butted a tree, after I’d stopped laughing I checked and he was actually OK…..

 

We dropped into the Goosemoor lane off the Newton Pop road and down Naps lane, with glimpses now out towards the sea and then Pound lane and the lovely Back lane to Stowford with its precipitous drop into the river which always gives me a bit of a distraction. Popping through the little fords with a bit of water flowing from the overnight downpours and we passed through Yettington to East Budleigh Common where I spied a lone woman walking a number of little terriers. We slowed down but she was obviously very agitated and called the dog to her, swearing like a fish wife, the dog quailing on the ground belly up in a rather pathetic way, giving the impression it was often shouted at. She then turned her aggression on us berating us with her potty mouth which would impressive a Tourettes Syndrome sufferer. I politely noted we were on a public right of way, but there was no calming her and I rode on, wondering if the last in the group – Simon was going to get abused by the walking stick she was brandishing! As I scuttled off, at the end of the lane we all regrouped unscathed! After a run up over Kersbrook we cruised into Budleigh hoping, being still September the café by the far car park would be open – but it was closed, so we sat on the top of the beach munching choccie bars we had stashed before setting off back.      

We pitched north up the rutted but recently flailed lanes through East Budleigh, the smell of wood sap hanging heavy in the morning air. The lanes are not very exciting, no views and require complete concentration to ensure you don’t lose the front end. They are a good practice for keeping up enough pace to clear the tyre tread and maintain balance, ensuring you keep looking ahead rather than looking down at the front wheel, but not a lot of fun. We skipped up to Colaton and up the UCR through the field and down the track to splash through the stream to the church. Further up the road we did the simple Monkey lane, the aroma of farmyard manure wafting off the surrounding fields before we rejoined the main road. We took in the narrow hedged lane from Southerton to Venn Ottery before crossing the swollen Otter, running russet brown full of red Devon soil on its way to Budleigh and the sea. The climb up from sea view lane in Tipton to the bottom of Fire Beacon Hill is always fun, loose in places a couple of water drains crossing the lane and then a drop back down the narrow, rocky lane before returning to the road rather than dropping down dumpy bag lane to the bottom of the hill. This left us on East Hill Strips running up and down the steep escarpment, grinning like Cheshire cats as the bikes bucked and scrabbled for grip on the steep incline. The lane at East Island Farmhouse/Higher Rill is closed with a horse gate as it is being repaired, so we looped back around the road and almost went arse over tit on a load of spilt diesel on the tarmac hill. We tiptoed past the muddy abyss on an ever narrowing ledge on the lane down to Alfington. Simon struggled with the roots climbing up onto the ledge but I was careful to simply roll over it with sufficient momentum to carry me over without too much power to lead to the rear tyre breaking free. Richard followed suit, but Simon was too tentative and needed a bit of assistance to get over it. Thankfully we all got past the ledge without trying to put our feet down into space on the right hand side as the 10 foot drop would not have been pleasant at all.

 

This left us the usual gallop up over Hembury Hill from Curscombe and Wilderness Lane before home for lunch and our goodbyes. A weekend where if you believed the forecast, we’d have remained tucked up in bed and abandoned any ideas of trail riding, but in reality, we dodged all of the worst of the rain and had a fantastic weekend. As always, I’m not sure I ever remember an occasion where I’ve regretted going out on my bike whatever the weather has thrown at me. If you are doing something you are passionate about, the weather is only a very small part of the equation!