Cycling around Fingle woods / castle Drogo, Dartmoor national park. It's really very good.

Well now, I was getting slightly huffy at the lack of decent mountain biking to be had around Okehampton in Devon. Big national park, lack of decent off-road routes had me moody. But then looking at the map of Drewsteignton suggested routes around the Fingle woods of castle Drogo, so of late that's where I've been and I'm happy. I've only had time to explore the estate up to Fingle Bridge, but there must be riding along the river Teign to Dunsford as there's quite a large wooded area easily equal in size to Leith Hill. If I get the chance, then certainly a play is due. The Fingle woods are also interesting for the fact that the National Trust are ditching Scandinavian pine for native oak. Sure it'll take 70 years to recreate native woodland here, but it's a nice thought.

The main reason I was getting huffy was the large road to off-road ratio cycling involved. For four days I was cycling twelve miles to ride three tame off road miles; one particular day one of those miles involved me carrying my bike uphill on to Cosdon Beacon. Not good, even if the downhill over granite was fun. On my bike there's a 2.4" grippy Schwalbe. Great off-road but a pain for twelve or more road miles. But gradually I figured that here straight roads between places aren't always the quickest thanks to the hills. I've now got my route to the trails down to just under three miles, and since finding the river Teign the number of off-road routes has increased. Add in a few cheeky footpaths.....

Navigation in a new area tends to be fun, and alarmingly time wasting. A ride that now takes me ten to fifteen minutes was taking over thirty minutes when I first got here. All that stopping, get the map out, suss where you are takes a time toll. With a bit of practice it all becomes easy, especially when you get to learn the markers. The first week requires a bit of patience. I've also learnt that the Dartmoor mountain biking maps are, shall we say, phrased differently to the OS route maps. OS just tells you where the bridleways are, and you get on with it. The Dartmoor cycle maps give route indications from blue [easy] to grey [hard]. Just before grey are two grades of red, which I figured would mean good riding, with blue being boring. Well, no, doesn't work like that. Grey is hard, but not that hard really. But the red? Well that just means that in nice weather you may, or may not actually find the trail at all. Then in wet weather they become a boggy mess. So now I don't bother with red graded trails, just use the rather nice blue ones to link grey bits. I've never bothered with the electronic mapping systems. I'd rather learn my area than follow a screen rather blindly.

The quality of the off-road cycling? Well it would challenge quite a few people. Few places are even remotely technical, although the steep drop down the granite ridge from Drogo is a bit heart in mouth over roots and exposed rock beds. But what it lacks in technicality it makes up in rockiness, the steepness of the hills and the awfulness of the weather. Indeed I'd say here the weather is the major factor, and the biggest challenge. As always on nice days you get sucked in to thinking how easy it all is, but I'd hate to be up on one of the Tors when the weather comes in. Apart from the weather the hardest bit to get your head around is the steepness. On a few times I've been cycling for twenty or so minutes, thinking I've covered some ground only to pop up at a view point a few hundred metres away from the last one. One road out of Chagford must be 1:3, and off-road this steepness is common and pretty constant. It reminds me of cycling in the Belgium Ardennen. In a three hour ride, with no stops, no chat, I covered less than twelve miles. It's like riding up and down Box Hill. I like it, but don't come here thinking of knocking off an easy thirty miles before lunch. Indeed it would be a long hard day if you tried to do that off-road. For me the climbs are as much a part of mountain biking as the drops.

Here you can see two of the trails that I've been using. This one follows the ridge line - you can see it in the distance, and it drops straight down at that point. It drops to another trail that you can also see in the bottom of the valley floor. I held my 'phone level with the horizon for this so that the steepness of the trail may be judged. As you may note, great trail surface but a rather large drop. Which would you prefer? Endless loops of BKB near Peaslake with your middle management mates, or a loop of Drogo, all-be-it solo? It's also fun to pop up at the NT cafĂ© all sweaty and muddy. The German tourists think nothing of it but the Brits look guilty at having driven. Some just tune out the possibility that anybody could ride.

Actually I'm giving the Brits bad play here. At the lovely Fingle Bridge pub [did I mention I'm now doing night rides to the pub?] I got chatting to a few people. One German wasn't happy with the length and steepness of the walking, yet a surprising number of eager Brits were up for the challenge that the 3 mile walk represented. I quite liked that.

Oh yes, I took my family for a walk and was slagging off all the skid marks down a particular trail. This prior to a rocky outcrop and well after a 40cm drop off over a root. Coming down the trail at speed I spotted the drop with a cry of joy and popped off it.... only to come up against the rocks pretty quickly, skidding with a laugh in the process. From then on I went looking for skid marks as a sign of goodness.

It's taking time, but we're getting to grips with Dartmoor. Even in the car, what look like short journeys take ages to do. The narrow roads mean frequent stopping, or even reversing back up to let other cars through - and this on the main A-roads that have you brushing door mirrors against hedges either side. B-roads and farm tracks can be very silly indeed. If you're stopping out of town, you'll be in your car every day as there are no footpaths anywhere and that's a bore. We got chatting to some locals and they think nothing now of driving nine miles [14km] to the local shop, but near twenty miles for a loaf of bread is silly. And then there's the rain. It seems to rain every day. But the area is so lovely, and the quality of the towns so good, that you put up with it all and we're having a great time. Indeed my family now get a bit hacked off at driving every day and have chilled out; my son collects eggs each morning, my daughter feeds horses and sheep, and my wife reads trashy books in the middle of a field all hippy and casual. Me? Four hours on the bike, pop into the butchers' shop in Chagford for meat, or buy a cake from Ruth, then bake home made cheeses scones. All good.

Having been here a week, and in looking at the map, I think the area around Lustleigh is a good bet for the committed mountain biker. OK I've not ridden it, but the local maps hint at it being good - plus this month's What Mountain Bike has a route not too far away. Of course I don't get much choice in where I ride. My wife selects our main holiday each year depending upon two criteria; does she like the house and is it near hills? So we spent time in the Ardennen, Wales and now Devon. Whether or not the riding is any good is up to me and my route finding ability. It can be a challenge sometimes, like this year or easy, like the two weeks' we spent in Dolgellau. Oddly I prefer the challenge as on off days you can blame the area. It is also really nice to have an holiday where I can cycle different areas, and for the past twenty years I get two weeks' play time somewhere, which really motivates me for the remaining 50 weeks' at home. In this way I've ridden bits of the Rockies, spent time in northern Iceland, Belgium, Germany and most of the UK. What a great wife I have.

And you know what? You don't even need to bring a bike. Along the granite way, or near Postbridge, you can hire them. What are you waiting for?

I do realise though that few people will bother to explore the Fingle woods by bike as mountain biking is way out of fashion. That's a pity as it is a great location.


  1. Lack of decent offroad route on Dartmoor? You're kidding, surely ;-)....the Drogo loop is nice enough but is actually pretty tame in comparison with other routes in the area. You've barely scratched the surface - there is tons of stuff worth riding within a couple of miles of that. By your own admission you missed out the good stuff around Lustleigh. Try the infamous nutcracker descent off Hunters Tor between North Bovey and Lustleigh... some of the singletrack through the Bovey valley is stunningly good and can be hooked into an epic loop out from Bennet's Cross incorporating the Vitifer Mines, Heathercombe, Jay's Grave, Bowermans and Hound Tor....there is also the stepping stones route out from Bellever and the Widowmaker / Burrator loop out from Princetown... all really good. If you're in the area again would be happy to offer some tips.

  2. I know now.... But I was only there for two weeks, and had to accommodate the needs of my family as well as trying to fit cycling in, so my experience was very limited. My rides were based around some MTB guide I'd bought, which proved to be very tame indeed and wasted a full week really. The Drogo bit I really quite enjoyed, and if that's tame compared to your excellent suggestions, then I'm coming back no worries. Thanks for taking the time to reply and for providing some insight into what's there.

  3. No worries, I can relate to balancing riding with family time...just wouldn't want you to think that the Teign valley is all we have to offer here on Dartmoor. Have to agree with you about the Granite Way though. It is dull. We like riding the Tarka Trail as a family which starts a little way to the North and is and is far more pleasant. On Dartmoor itself, the fire-roads in Fernworthy and Bellever Forests are also both good for a family pootle if you don't mind a few gentle hills, and the old railway line out from Princetown to Burrator is also lovely in nice weather.


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