If Carling did trail riding…


By Sean Comber

Spring in Devon, is there a nicer place to be? Rolling landscapes, daffs and primroses out in full bloom, exotic camellias and magnolias providing splashes of colour in well kept gardens and a layer or two less clothing when riding the bike. Yes, March is a time of lengthening days, a little less rain and clear fresh vistas. It is this time of year I get an email from my old Loddon Vale TRF posse for a weekend break taking in some of Devon’s finest lanes.

Well we were blessed with a glorious March weekend, influenced by a high pressure lurking out to the west promised showery weather but also sunshine. With the kids away we could comfortably accommodate the 5 guys who booked up to come down for three days riding in the annex/man cave. Colin, Stuart and Simon arrived at 11ish with their TTR250, XR400 and Suzonda respectively strapped onto Stuart’s trailer. As we awaited the arrival of the others we unloaded the bikes, with Simon causing a great ‘Only Fools and Horses’ moment with Stuart and I supporting his bike as he undid the straps, ‘careful Rodders, steady, steady’, and Stuart’s XR falls over, leaving us holding his bike safely still strapped down - classic! Anyway, the rest of the bikes were unloaded without drama and Chris and Ernie arrived with Serow and Scorpa respectively in a van. We caught up with all of the gossip and I sorted some bacon sarnies to stoke us up before bikes were fettled, gear clambered into and we were ready for the off. The sunshine was a welcome sight, but heavy clouds on the horizon looked threatening so wet weather gear was packed just in case. I decided I share the love over the weekend by riding each of the 1990’s quintessential trail bikes starting with the latest addition, the 1991 Honda CRM250. Since buying it a few months ago, riding it is quite addictive, the low down grunt, pokey top end provides hours of entertainment, all with a low saddle for short arses like me, a soft comfy seat, civilised cruising on tarmac and Honda build quality (I hope….). As my first trail bike without a leccy boot, I always feel quite manly stomping on the kick starter, as long as it starts within a few kicks that is…..

Meticulous planning the past few weeks meant that I had set up a ride up the Culm Valley for a few hours extending to Heathstock and back covering an ambitious 60 odd miles over the course of a few hours. We limbered up on a couple of gentle lanes near Kentisbeare where a bit of rain in the air meant a stop to put on waterproofs only for the rain to clear just as quickly, leaving some great views across the hills, dappled light picking out splashes of yellow daffodils. That was the last threat of the day and although we spotted moody black clouds all around us, we were blessed with our own pool of sunlight following us around all afternoon.

We rode on to the nadgery, narrow lane by Pirzwell before tackling the excellent lane at Allhallows Farm which provides plenty of interest, starting with a run down a stream with rocks and washouts before reaching the bottom of the depression and a few hundred years of very muddy going, leaving an option of paddling down the centre with the danger of toppling over or battling down the side through the undergrowth. I chose the central route and footed my way successfully, albeit in a very ungainly style to the end. All of the bikes struggled for grip and even the CRM was found wanting for grip with half worn MT43s. Once that was negotiated, we were treated with a gentle rocky climb through a sunken lane up into the sunshine and into Ashill.

Colin was given a good work out paddling along the land, carefully pruning brambles as he passed along the right hand rut. Having not ridden a great deal lately he was not quite ‘match fit’ so was thankful of the next few lanes being nice and flowing, stone based, with a smattering of mud, around Uffculme and Culmstock. Above Hemyock we rode a pleasant stony lane under repair at the bottom with a JCB distributing hardcore to fill in a deep washout. We slithered down Rosemary’s lane and exited the Culm valley and skirted Upottery Airbase near Smeatharpe which was one of two Devonshire bases from which the 101st Airborne Division who embarked (to Normandy) on the night of June 5th 1944 as part of the D-Day invasion. Riding along one of the old runways was fun thrashing the geared down trail bikes mercilessly along the deteriorating concrete air strip, the CRM well and truly ‘on the pipe’ as they say.

We then rode a couple of the lanes I’ve yet to ride during the course of the weekend, and which contributed towards my ticking off a few more of my I-spy book of Devon legal lanes. Stopping for a breather near Upottery, we noticed the temperature dropping a tad, reminding us that March can also feel like the tail end of winter. We crossed the A303 with the usual Friday afternoon mêlée heading down to Honiton and into the dense network of lanes around Stockland, Heathstock and Cotleigh, some great challenging but not mental climbs in the lengthening shadows. It was at Cotleigh that I took a wrong turn – not for the first time that weekend, thankfully the lads are used to it, and dived down the correct turning closely followed by Chris. We reached the end of the lane and we chatting about stuff wondering where everyone else was, assuming Colin was stuck somewhere when it dawned on us maybe they missed the turn!, we scuttled back and found Ernie at the start of the lane admitting by the time he had a chance to look around in the lane the rest had disappeared. The first rule of TRF trail riding broken followed by accepting the second rule ‘he who falls foul of the first rule shall inherit the first round that evening’! At that time I heard my mobile ring, thankfully we swapped numbers at the start, with the others off down the road near Honiton. I rode down and collected them coming back and we were once more on our way.

By now it was getting on towards 5pm, perfect light falling across the Otter Valley as we passed through the famous lace town of Honiton which grew up along the Fosse Way which linked Exeter with Lincoln and still retains that air of a thriving market town resisting the pressure from large chain stores. To finish off the day we enjoyed a lovely ride up a rocky climb at Curscombe and along the always entertaining Wilderness Lane before topping up with fuel in fading light before returning for a well earned bevvy whilst chains were oiled and reviving showers were had prior to tea and a pub crawl in search of a bar where you can hear yourself think above the din of Friday night music entertainment… yes we are quite old…. When we could hold some sort of conversation, it obviously reverted back to bikes and consideration of the ‘best’ trail bike and outside of Simon’s Suzonda, which ticks all boxes, has been trail ridden for years with no bash plate, vulnerable air intake and a few inches of travel and still sounds divine, and Ernie’s modern take on trail bikes with the Yamaha engine Scorpa; the rest of us were all riding bikes in their prime in the 90’s (a bit like me) XR, CRM, TTR, Serow and all tick the dual purpose bike, ridden all day in the saddle, rode any lane thrown at it, cruises at 50+ on the tarmac, reliable Japanese engineering, spares still plentiful, it is hard to see what more you’d want really. I was delighted with the CRM’s performance, a credit to Rodney who I bought it off, jumping on it and riding off without a care in the world. It really flatters me, light enough to easily manoeuvre, tracks in a straight line easily, but will switch ruts if required. It made a mockery of Colin’s cruel jibes earlier, as he packed a tow rope saying that it was always handy when riding with 2 strokes as they either break down or run out of fuel, but the CRM made him eat his words as with a proper 10 litre tank, reasonably frugal oil injected, liquid cooled engine she purred the whole afternoon and has groovy upside down blue anodised forks – what more would you want! Oldies but goodies, a bit like all of us really!

I was delighted with the CRM’s performance, a credit to Rodney who I bought it off, jumping on it and riding off without a care in the world. It really flatters me, light enough to easily manoeuvre, tracks in a straight line easily, but will switch ruts if required. It made a mockery of Colin’s cruel jibes earlier, as he packed a tow rope saying that it was always handy when riding with 2 strokes as they either break down or run out of fuel, but the CRM made him eat his words as with a proper 10 litre tank, reasonably frugal oil injected, liquid cooled engine she purred the whole afternoon and has groovy upside down blue anodised forks – what more would you want! Oldies but goodies, a bit like all of us really!

Saturday dawned bright and chilly and everyone was up before 8, Stuart manning the bacon and eggs not breaking a single yoke out of 10 eggs cracked into the frying pan, amazing, my success rate is about 50%, though he did admit he was a chef in an earlier existence. Any Simpson’s fan will remember the episode where Karl appears as a mysterious guardian angel, Stuart sort of fits that bill, albeit in a slightly less camp way: bacon and eggs sorted as we arrive in the kitchen, my bike turns but fail to start, in the blink of an eye Stuart has a mini can of WD40 to the rescue. Colin’s number plate mount works lose, Stuart asks if it’s a M6 or M8 bolt and how long does it need to be before finding the appropriate fixing in his spares kit. And he can kick start a Honda XR400 into life after dropping it – a true asset to have on any trail ride. Just to prove his demi-god status after the first lane on Saturday, travelling south and west towards Silverton he got a puncture. After realising he was missing and doubling back, I find him rummaging in his bag of goodies for some Holts Tyreweld, “wasting your time there, never seen it work before” we sagely told him, prepare to knuckle down to an hour’s mauling off the rear tyre we said. Nope, the Tyreweld oozes into the tube, inflates it to around 15 psi and stays that way for the next 200 miles we ride over the weekend - miraculous!

Today I had switched to yet another classic 90’s trail bike the 1998 electric start DR350S, she’s a bit plumper than the CRM, probably by 20 Kg or so all up of, similar power output I guess, but with a linear delivery which has pulled me out of many a scrape with that low down grunt. On the tarmac she is a blast, rock solid on Mitas/Trellesport Army Specials happy to cruise at the speed limit all day and immortalised by Austin Vince’s escapades riding around the world albeit on kick start versions.

Riding up on top of the ridge above Bradninch we get a fantastic view of a snow topped Dartmoor to the south – it really was cold overnight, and the rolling hills of Exmoor to the north. We ride a little back lane/UCR into Silverton, one I’ve managed to miss previously before crossing the Exe and through the pretty village of Thorverton and up another lane I’ve never ridden previously which proved a mistake. It started pleasant enough a farm track rounding the ridge that is Raddon Hills providing a perfect panorama in the early morning light across the Exe Valley. We stopped for photos and for Simon to empty his bladder (again….) then we passed through a gate and down a snotty steep lane to a field. Although a perfectly legal right of way with a County road sign pointing across to an obvious exit up the other side of the valley, having scoped it out Stuart noted a load of sheep crowded near the exit gate. So rather than frighten the potentially lambing ewes we about turned on the wet and slippery grass and slithered our way back up the muddy lane. Colin conveniently baled in the gateway in front of Stuart’s head cam, Stuart grinning and giving me the thumbs up as I pass – a sadistic bastard after my own heart!

By now we are an hour and half into an epic ride and only 5 miles down the road so I replanned a route down the road and up the great climb from Scratchface lane up over Raddon Hills and down onto the beautiful A3072 Crediton to Tivvy road before diving off to the right to ride down into the Creedy Valley through a couple of big puddles catching people out and onto Sandford. I toyed with leaving out the short lane in north Creedy as it was very tame when Jim and I ride it in the summer, but riding up it after the winter’s rain we’ve had was a different story! Very greasy with rocks, ruts and a decent gradient it was very challenging. My form slowly improving meant I got to the top without incident followed by Ernie, but knew it was challenging as accomplished trial’s rider Chris had taken a header, admitting he had baled more times that day than the last 15 years trail riding. Simon who rode very tidily all weekend even with the rear shock devoid of any damping on the unique and now pogo’ing TS125/CD200 cross. I felt for Colin as I knew he’d struggle and walking down to video the guys coming up when Colin hoved into view he killed the engine and slumped over the bars. OK, I get the point! I felt very guilty, but on reflection what does not quite kill you, makes you stronger as they say. After a bit of road work and a couple of painless lanes around the north of Crediton and Colebrooke we battled through the River Yeo at Coxmoor and stopped for a choccie bar break and inevitable call of nature for Simon. Here we saw the evidence of the amount of rain we’d had in the months previous, debris wedged into the fencing 10 feet or so above where the water was now. We then rode 2 excellent lanes around Seeland, particularly the one that runs parallel to the Yeo and was full of water, though not too deep.

After a run down the re-graded and interestingly named Cocktree Throat, followed by the pleasant rocky lane out of Sticklepath, there was just one last snotty climb up another muddy climb up Colin did not thank me for, before we hit Whiddon Down and lunch. Given our luck for the weekend, as we sipped coffees the only rain of the rain passed by before we were once more on our way. Riding north of Dartmoor left us in a bit of a rain shadow and although we could see hail storms away to the west, our luck held and we enjoyed predominant sunshine for the rest of the day. The next hour or so we rode some of my favourite lanes in Devon. The narrow byway at Throwleigh is obviously ancient, on the very edge of Dartmoor, remnants of hut circles all around and a thick sphagnum moss covering granite boulders rounded and aged over the millennia provided a verdant contrast to the cute primroses popping out of the nooks and crannies seeking the rays of dappled sun piercing the deciduous canopy enveloping the lane. We rode another classy byway set in the upper Teign Valley beside Gidleigh Park with the now famous Two Michelin Starred restaurant run by Michael Caines. Crossing the river in the valley bottom was like riding though Narnia with pack horse bridges, deep clefts in the rocks, the Teign tumbling off the moor hurriedly finding the least path of resistance, urgently seeking the coast to the west. The ride up another byway on the other side of the valley left everyone with a smile on their faces, just the right degree of technical challenge, without being completely energy sapping. That area really is a hidden gem. Anyway, enough waxing of lyricals, we had many more miles ahead of us.

Riding down through the quaint village of Chagford, I missed a lane I’d not ridden before as it appeared to pass through someone’s yard, another example of the hazards of not recceing the lane beforehand and on checking later was perfectly fine. Anyway we rode on to North Bovey and across the river, which was significantly lower than when I bottled out before Christmas as the depth was over the stepping stones. The only hazard today was catching the odd rock lying in wait in the river bed awaiting the unwary rider. We rode on to Houndtor Wood, a lovely long lane down to through the woods to the river, across a bridge and a gentle ride up the other side, everyone loving that lane. We turned north, enjoying a climb up along Little John’s Walk byway and around Trenchwood reservoir, again enjoyable riding uphill across the mixture of mud and rock. Time was getting on and we headed down into Christow down a nicely degrading tarmac road now ‘unsuitable for motor vehicles’ apparently. A blat along the Bridford byways along the hard packed surface with a couple of water splashes was fun before trundling down through Bridford Woods to the Teign.

It was now 5pm and we were left with either a run back up the motorway or thread our way through Exeter and pick up a couple of ‘urban lanes’. We plumped for the latter which proved to be a bit of a mistake really as, the ‘urban byway’ was in fact a housing estate, then we hit 5.30pm Saturday Exeter traffic! Finally we arrived at a UCR off Church Hill, I rode it in the summer with Mark Hart on a KTM 690 Adventure and it was badly degraded at the top owing to 4x4 abuse, but going down hill was not too bad. However, I’d not accounted for the deluge that was winter, ripping yet more material out of the lane causing some very bad holes in the middle rut which most of us chose. After a couple of horrible bangs on the underside, not exactly well protected with the minimal bash guard, which was still better than none at all that Simon was sporting. I was convinced he’d get wedged in the ravine but he trundled down not long after myself, Chris and Ernie. That left Colin and Stuart at the back. I could only imagine the curse words used by Colin under his helmet as he decided to walk his bike through the worst of the ruts. After a few hundred yards things eased slightly and we each found our own way to the end, some less gainly than others. Thankfully we all escaped unscathed, a couple of us looking anxiously under our sumps for signs of oil! With the last few rays of the day’s light guiding us back up the B3181 back to Cully the DR came into its own sweeping through the flowing bends. Running late we just had time to fettle the bikes, scoff some cake prepared by my wife to feed the five thousand, a quick shower and we were off to the Chinese to refuel our aching limbs.

Sunday was a more relaxed affair, come 8 o’clock and as I went to the garage for the papers, there was not a lot of activity in the kitchen, but upon my return sleepy heads were awaking and the smell of bacon wafted around the house. The guys wanted to be back by about 1pm so I reckoned we’d have time to ride up around Bickleigh and west of Tiverton, with lots of great lanes of moderate technicality but nothing mental. Colin had forgiven me for the previous day’s excesses and practically bounced down the stairs on his creaking knees. Just before 10am we were all back in the saddle again enjoying the sunshine and a couple of degrees warmer temperature than the day before. I had planned to share the love and ride the Serow but the battery was dead. The one chink in the Serow’s armour and I really should consider adding a kick start conversion. Therefore the DR was pressed back into action which was a shame as the contrast between the two is marked, the Serow being lighter and more mellow, being a perfect easy Sunday morning ride.

We headed off along my local lanes to Bickleigh with yet more great views across the hills. Two days of riding behind us and we were all flowing nicely, a steady pace, enjoying the lanes around Cotton Farm and Cruwys Morchard, plenty of buzzards in the trees and overhead, the odd roe deer surprised out of the undergrowth and plenty of rabbits and squirrels scurrying along side the lanes. Given everything was going so well I thought we ought to take in at least one technical rocky climb so rode down to Nethercleave and tackled the steep slippery hill to Withleigh. At the start it seemed easier than I remember but nearing the top I hit a couple of rocky steps and the DR stepped violently to the right, with me just about clinging on but rapidly losing momentum. Stopping now would mean I’d have no chance of restarting on the steep and slippery rocky slabs but I was saved by the 350 single’s low down grunt and lowered gearing and with the last gasp of torque she hauled me over the worst and up onto the flatter, grippier ground. I jumped off the bike and videoed the others coming up the hill which proved remarkably undramatic, all bar Stuart making it in one go.

We stopped for a rest overlooking Buzzards Wood, passing the time of day in the early spring sunshine with a few walkers. My success rate in riding new lanes over the weekend had been pretty poor but for some reason I’d never ridden a UCR down in Calverleigh so fancied giving it a go and we were rewarded by a lovely steep lose drop down the hill. At the bottom Chris suggested riding downhill a little faster and blipping the throttle occasionally to keep the bike tracking straight, something that I put into practice in the next lane to great effect. We had just enough time to loop around some lovely lanes near Oakford before riding down the Exe valley back to Tiverton for a final run down the deteriorating lane at Warnicombe, again washed out in places from the winter’s rain. As promised we pitched up at home for 1pm in time to load the bikes and scoff some sarnies before everyone made their way back to the Thames Valley. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect weekend even if it was dreamt up by a brewery giant’s marketing executives.