Singletrack Magazine Issue 116: The Isle Of Purbeck

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This Dorset hotspot is not an island, but it does come with a ferry and the promise of adventure, as Tom Hutton discovers.

Words & Photography Tom Hutton

If it starts with a ferry ride it’s an adventure, right? OK, so the ferry ride’s only a few hundred metres, but that doesn’t matter to me – from my saddle, those few hundred metres somehow make Dorset feel like Scotland. 

And as the gargantuan chains start creaking and groaning as they winch the huge boat away from land and out into the fast-flowing channel, to me at least, Sandbanks has become Oban, or Mallaig, or Uig, or some other remote Scottish port (albeit with higher house prices), and the Isle of Purbeck, which is really a peninsula and not an island at all, has been magically transformed into Skye, or Knoydart, or Arran, or Harris. 

Hey, we can all dream. 

This was a dream day for an adventure: late September and wall-to-wall sunshine. Sure, there was definitely that chill in the air confirming autumn was on its way. But in the sun it was pleasant, even in just a jersey, and it was still early in the morning. It was going to be a hot one later. For a bit anyway: the forecast suggested things might change by the end of the day. 

A word of warning at this stage. Don’t miss the cycle path around the toll booths when you get off the ferry. I was with Steph and Sean (of Marmalade MTB fame), and we almost got taken out by a very violently dropping barrier that certainly would have won if we were still on V-brakes. There then followed a tirade of abuse from the barrier’s operator, who seemed to think we’d nearly decapitated ourselves deliberately, rather than making a genuine error.

With our heart rates back to normal, and our ears no longer ringing, we cruised up the road onto the ‘island’ wearing ear-to-ear grins. The prospect of a sunny day out on some of the south’s most fun trails made the couple of kilometres to the start slip by in no time. 

There’s not a lot of ‘natural’ singletrack on the Isle of Purbeck, but we did know of a few sections from previous visits, with the best bits being actually quite close to the ferry. So the first part of our plan was to find these and use them as our opening climb. This gave us a chance to recce the best lines, and also to get a few pictures in the bag in the sunshine – if the forecast was to be believed, our photo stops might not be so leisurely on the return, downhill leg. 

It was fun – a predominantly sandy ribbon of singletrack that cut a winding line into undulating banks of heather, which at this time of year looked their absolute best. 

This is one of the great things about this ride – variety. Later we’d be up on the rolling chalk downs that the south is best known for. But right now, we were crossing stunning heathland, spread with heather and dotted with impressive stands of pine and birch that made it actually feel like Scotland. We even saw a lizard! 

A few short, sharp ramps provided climbing challenges that none of us totally cleaned – more line choice than lack of talent or lungs or legs, honest… And we were eventually spat out onto the road, 100m higher than when we started, with the prospect of a fun finish in store later in the day. 

Sadly, we lost half of this hard-won height on a 60-second tarmac plummet down to the foot of Nine Barrow Down – just what you need before the day’s biggest climb. But this huge, chalky whaleback ridge forms the hub of most Purbeck riding, and was certainly going to provide us with at least one of our key photo stops, so we had little choice but to change down and suck it up. And by now it was definitely getting warm.

Nine down, how many to go?

The top of Nine Barrow Down feels almost flat after the climb up there. It’s not though, the ridge undulates along its whole length with some stiff ramps and a couple of steep drops that are open enough to enable warp speed to be attained when free of walkers and horses.

And it was to be walkers that provided our next bit of entertainment. Cresting one of the hills, we caught up with the back of a large group – probably 30 plus – walkers. We rang bells (yup, for real!), and yelled the customary, cheery ‘hello’, and were then totally taken aback when the woman at the back, who was presumably some kind of leader, raised a whistle to her mouth and fired a painfully high-pitched blast down the line. This was followed by an equally deafening yell of ‘bikes’, at which they all obediently moved over to let us past. 

I’m still wondering if I dreamed this. 

The race was now on as we desperately wanted to get some shots at the start of the drop into Corfe. And we really didn’t need a platoon of whistle-toting walkers with drill sergeant vocal chords in the middle of them. We needn’t have worried though. The downhill roll to the start of this final fling was plenty fast enough to put some space between us and them, and we arrived at the envisaged spot to find it empty, with great views over Corfe and its atmospheric castle walls. 

The pressure was on though, and Steph and Sean were having to literally sprint between takes in order to maintain the solitude. With the shots in the can, it was time for a fun drop to Corfe, where we knew gargantuan blocks of cake would fuel us for the second half of the journey. The coffee was good too. 

Plan A had been to make a circumnavigation of Nine Barrow Down, using the aptly named Underhill Path to trace our way back east to the foot of the earlier brutal climb. But sadly the less-popular low road seems to have been neglected this summer and the singletrack we had been looking forward to had been swallowed by a particularly aggressive strain of bramble bush that quickly had us beating a hasty, bloody-armed retreat. 

There was nothing for it but to reverse the descent we’d enjoyed so much an hour ago and clamber all the way back onto Nine Barrow Down. The climb was thankfully a little cooler than earlier, but this wasn’t all good news – casting our eyes north-east, where the day’s weather seemed to be coming from, we could already make out some fairly hefty storm clouds. It looked like the forecast was going to be right about the change, although not about the timing and we were about to get drenched.

It’s more scenic this way. 

The cruise along the summit was actually more scenic this way, with the ocean to the east and south. And with the pending bad weather providing a little extra motivation, we covered the ground to the far end a fair bit quicker than we had on the way out.

It was now time to turn the day’s biggest climb into the day’s biggest descent and with good sight lines and little in the way of technical challenge, it was a very fast plummet back down to the road – all the time with the next big climb – Ballard Down – looming directly ahead. 

Ballard Down isn’t quite as high as Nine Barrow Down, but the clamber up onto it is notably steeper and on a less forgiving surface too. I could see the relief on Sean and Steph’s faces when I suggested we stopped for some pictures at the monument at the top. The sky and sea to the south provided a cheery blue background to the pictures, but that streak of grey approaching from the north was definitely getting a lot closer now and any thoughts we had of shooting sunny pictures of the white chalk cliffs of Old Harry were definitely forgotten. 

We sped down towards the tip of the peninsula with the Isle of Wight and its spectacular chalk needles providing an awesome backdrop, slowing briefly as we got caught up in a sizeable flock of swallows darting crazily back and forth at about helmet height, making the most of a huge swarm of flying insects that had suddenly appeared.

It was a little like a scene from a David Attenborough series and pretty impressive to watch. But those clouds were getting ever closer so we pressed on, arriving on the viewing promontory above Old Harry at exactly the same time as the first big, wet, cold raindrops.

Now I don’t want to get a reputation for moaning about the weather, but the impending deluge was a bit of a déjà vu for Steph and me, after our last Singletrack Classic Ride on the Wiltshire Downs was somewhat ruined by a horrible squall at Cherhill Monument. Two Classic Rides; two depressing, ride-changing downpours; and both hitting us exactly as we arrived at photographic highlight of the trip…

We were feeling smug that we’d bashed off so many images earlier now.

All will pass in time. 

We knew it would soon pass and that there was little we could really do. We donned waterproofs, though by the time we got them out of our bags and over our shoulders we were already soaked to the skin. We stood in a little huddle waiting for it to run out of steam. At its height, raindrops were hitting the chalky ground so hard that we were being splashed with chalky water. 

We still wanted a few shots from here, so as the tail end slipped slowly by and started drifting out into the Channel, we tried to focus on the task in hand, slipping and sliding on the wet milky clay as we went. 

The drop down to Studland village from Ballard Down is usually fast and straightforward, but it was now totally waterlogged and not a lot of fun to ride at all. Our only consolation was that a lot of the walkers we passed looked much worse off than us, with wet jeans, vests, even skirts and heels, and barely a waterproof in sight. 

We skipped through Studland Village on tarmac and picked up the bridleway network again on the far side, where it climbs back onto the wonderful heathery heathland we’d enjoyed so much on the way out. The rain had done a great job of damping down the sand – a definite bonus – but it did little to dampen our spirits, especially as the singletrack we’d been looking forward to seemed to have dealt with the deluge way better than chalky clay.

We made the most of it: charging down short, steep ramps and winding easily around swooping narrow bends. It was a great way to end a great day, even though we were all a little wetter and colder than we’d have chosen.  

The waterproofs (and in fact all our spare clothing) came out again for the wait for the ferry ride back to Sandbanks and we were definitely looking forward to some warm, dry clothes. It had certainly been the adventure it had promised to be though. And it wasn’t long before we were discussing other potential unlikely adventures…

A shortlist was drawn up – watch this space for the next one! 

The Knowledge

Isle of Purbeck Classic Ride

Distance: 44km

Highest Point: 199m

Total Ascent: 650m

Maps

OS Explorer Series (1:25 000) OL15 Purbeck and South Dorset or OS Landranger Series (1:50 000) 195 Bournemouth and Purbeck

Accommodation

There’s a Youth Hostel at Swanage 

T: 0345 371 9346 

• yha.org.uk

Absolutely tons of B&B and hotel options in the area and on the other side of the ferry in Bournemouth and Poole.

Swanage Tourist Information Centre

T: 01929 422885

• swanage.gov.uk/Tourist_Information.aspx

Campsites

Burnbake Campsite is close to the route as it passes through the woods early on.

• burnbake.com

Food During

We pigged out in the Courtyard Café in Corfe Castle, where there’s also a choice of pubs. There’s also the Bankes Arms in Studland, which is perfectly placed for a pint or some grub before the singletrack finale. 

• corfecastlemodelvillage.co.uk/courtyard-cafe-tea-room

• bankesarms.com

Food After

This depends on where you start and finish. On the Studland side, see the Bankes Arms above. On the Sandbanks side, we enjoyed Caff (01202 700464), or there’s even a Rick Stein place if you’re feeling plush. Boatyard Cafe is worth a plug too! 

• boatyardcafe.com

• rickstein.com

Bike Shops

Rockets and Rascals is the local shop (01202 708842), and we’ve had great service from Bournemouth Cycleworks (01202 424945). Not forgetting the iconic Charlie The Bikemonger in Swanage. 

• poole.rocketsandrascals.com

• bournemouthcycleworks.co.uk

• harliethebikemonger.com

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