Coast to Coast
Cycling across south west England with Trail Unknown
We sat down with mountain bike guide, thrill-seeker, environmentalist and Specialized adventure ambassador, Tom Shopland, to talk about his recent coast to coast bike-packing trip across the south west.
A little about Tom
A close friend of mine, I can vouch for the fact that Tom is certainly not afraid of the unknown. He has travelled extensively, spending two years working and riding in New Zealand, Australia and Asia, including traversing the Himalayas with the support of a local mountain bike guide. Upon his return to the UK, the realisation quickly crept in that he had explored so much of the world, without ever fully embracing what he had right on his own doorstep.
Purchasing a van and swiftly converting it into his mobile home, Tom set about unearthing some of the finest trails the south west has to offer. He spent a year travelling through Cornwall, Devon and Wales, amazed by the diverse landscapes and exceptional calibre of riding so close to home.
It was at this point Tom knew he had to combine his passion for the outdoors with his work. Teaming up with a close friend and fellow MTB enthusiast, Hugo, the pair had one goal in mind; to share the wilder side of UK riding with other passionate and like-minded individuals, and like that, Trail Unknown was born.
Now well into its third summer, the company has run countless trips through Britain's lesser-known trails, uniting riders from all over the world. Sit back, relax and enjoy Tom’s account of what sounded like an epic trip across some of Britain’s most scenic trails.
Who, where and why?
Where do I start? Having spent the past few years trail hunting in the south west, Hugo, myself and the latest member of the Trail Unknown crew, Magnus, wanted to link up all our favourite routes into one epic trail riding adventure.
Riding across Exmoor and Dartmoor was a dreamy choice for us, with the coastlines and the biggest hills in the south of the UK, the area plays host to so many scenic flow trails peppered with some of the finest tea rooms this world has to offer (just one of the reasons the trip took an extra day). We planned a coast to coast trip with a rough four-day route in mind, but we wanted to keep the finer details flexible to leave plenty of wiggle room for spontaneous adventures.
Four days of trail riding... Amazing
Well, actually it turned into five! We slowed down to take it at a more enjoyable pace. This was off the back of two big days of guiding in Exmoor, so we listened to our legs and enjoyed our surroundings.
Let's talk bikes
When we decided to do this, a lot of people described it as bike-packing, and in essence, I guess it was. But I didn’t really look at it like that, for me, it was more of an extended trail ride. The route wasn’t dictated by elevation or distance, instead, we just wanted to link together as many fun, flowy sections as physically possible; hence our bike choice!
The Specialized Stumpjumper felt spot on, it offers the perfect blend of comfort and speed, without restricting the level of trails we chose to ride.
So, how were the first few days?
We set off on Monday morning from Porlock with the climb of Dunkery Beacon. This consisted of 519 metres of elevation as we started off from sea level. The weather was spot on and we rode along the high moors with views of Wales across the Bristol Channel. We spent the day riding along the super scenic River Exe and descending through deep wooded valleys to finish day one in Dulverton, the southern entry point to the National Park.
The first night was a little unusual though. We set up camp along the river at dusk. It was a nice remote spot, very peaceful with the sound of the water. Just as I was about to strike a match and light our little fire, everything went a bit ‘28 days later’. Flashes of red light beamed into the fields, darting from corner to corner. The source? What I can only describe as a giant red light cannon strapped to the back of some kind of farmers vehicle. Rabbit hunters! We all hit the deck and hoped the bunny (or farmers gun) wouldn’t come near us.
Day two’s plan was to follow the Exe Valley Way to Exeter for a talk we were giving that night at the Old Timers pub. The talk was part of an adventure speakers series and we spoke with local rider Rachel Manning about getting into mountain biking. A large proportion of the audience were either new to cycling or had never ridden mountain bikes before, so it was great to see everyone buzzing to try it! Many people see mountain biking as a scary sport but like skiing, it’s only as scary as the track you choose.
After a night of Firehouse’s legendary pizzas and flavoured ciders, the next morning our plan was to follow an abandoned railway line from Exeter to Teign Valley and on to the west of Dartmoor. What we didn’t realise though, was that it snaked through a private commercial forest. We got some odd looks as we weaved, half-dressed and with gear hanging off us, around the heavy machinery, busy workers and fallen trees, but everyone seemed friendly enough. People in that part of the world are used to accepting the unusual I think. Eventually, the railway line led us to an old tunnel that we were hoping to ride for three kilometres through, unfortunately, it was all walled off and super creepy, which meant we had to turn around and re-route.
This might have been a blessing in disguise, as the new route led us straight to an amazing log cabin right in the middle of the woodland. We stopped and ate our lunch here, embracing the silence. It was just so far away from everything - one day I plan to return and camp at it, riding nothing but the surrounding trails from dawn to dusk.
Another cool moment came about later the same day. Our route took us past our mate Steve’s house in Dunsford. Steve is a guide we had worked with on a past event and fortunately, he was in his front garden. Keen to down his tools and escape gardening, our friend hurried off to fetch his bike while we stored our luggage behind the bar at Fingle Bridge Inn. Steve was super keen to show us this new track he’d ridden called ‘oak my god’ and oh my god, it was the best trail we rode, and at sunset too. We camped by the pub after only travelling 20km of our 240km route that day, but it was a perfect example of why not sticking to a rigorous schedule has its benefits.
The 'final' day
After three days of near enough solid riding, we expected this to be our final day. A quick check of the GPS suggested otherwise. We still had 100km left and the legs were certainly feeling it. There was a lot of breakfast chat about going hard. After just a few hours, the discovery of a lovely deli in Chagford offering unlimited coffee for just £1.50 with £1 brownies further hampered any chances of completing the ride before sundown.
Just a few miles further on, we discovered another hidden gem. Professional BMX rider Kye Forte was in the process of completing his new bike park at River Dart Country Park, something we had read about, but didn’t realise we were quite so near. Built but not yet open, this place looked amazing; a pump track merged with some of the smoothest dirt jumps I’ve ever seen. Luck was clearly on our side, as the guys welcomed us in. Once again we peeled off the luggage and embraced an afternoon of fast-paced mountain biking, followed by a healthy dose of cliff jumping into the River Dart.
Any tough moments along the way?
Funny you should say that. After this epic afternoon of bikes and cliff jumping, we arrived at another pub, out of energy and deep in the heart of the Moor at around 8pm. There was a dark storm coming in and it took us three pints to decide whether to carry on through the night into the proper wild side of the moor, south towards Ivybridge. There was this wild, foolish moment, where we clinked our glasses, over childish glances of adventurous mystery and knew we must keep riding into the night for the spirit of personal challenge.
Luck was clearly not on our side that evening as we climbed steadily up and away from what little civilisation we were in and into the stormy sun lit skies of the South Moor. To make matters worse all our technology decided to give up on us too. Fumbling around in my bag for our trusty map, I had a flashback to a bright idea we’d had just a week before; decorating the walls of Hugo’s van with Ordnance Survey Maps. Damn that well-decorated ‘insta-van’. Reaching for my compass, we did what a wise young man called Ollie Boulton had once taught me with all his limited knowledge of navigation, when in trouble head south.
We were beaten, it was dark and we were pooped. We headed downhill to find a flat spot to camp and that’s when Dartmoor decided to really turn the screw. BOG! Smelly, filthy bog. I’d flipped over my handlebars. Magnus had lost a leg to the squelch. Hugo was freaking out over a gravestone he’d found. We found a flat patch behind a wall but Hugo, perhaps righteously, had a weird thing about sleeping next to the gravestone in the middle of the moor. Bravely, I dismissed all thoughts of Scooby-Doo mud monsters and volunteered as tribute to sleep on the edge of our three-person tarp palace, meters away from the grave. Hugo snuggled in with a smile, safely between Magnus and I.
At least it didn’t happen with one of your groups...
Can you imagine? To be honest this kind of thing has never and would never happen on a guided ride. The only times we ever end up in these ridiculous situations is doing exactly this - testing different trails, areas and environments. When we reccy trips, we use this time to push ourselves, meet local riders and discover hidden gems for everyone to enjoy. Put simply, we learn the hard way so our customers can enjoy the benefits!
One final question, what’s next?
We’re planning the route for a week in Snowdonia on our e-bikes later this year for a documentary with Millward Media. I’m stoked to put our Kenevo’s to the test of big mountain exploration.
You can get in touch with Tom about epic places in the UK to ride bikes on the Trail Unknown website.