It’s rare that a good idea is found at the bottom of a bottle…
Words & Photography James Vincent
It all started with a message from my sister back in September last year. “I’ve got you the coolest Christmas present ever. You’re going to love it.” Really? I was genuinely intrigued. I mean, this was off the back of me giving her a smoke machine for her last birthday but I managed to keep that one to myself and didn’t need to forewarn her of its awesomeness (initially sceptical, she now loves it). What on earth could be so good that she felt the need to tell me about it that far in advance? Now, if it was a bike, I could understand the excitement, but let’s be realistic here – that’s never going to happen. Of course, I’ve been given bikes before for Christmas, but that was a long time ago, and they were from my parents. Not my sister.
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Eventually, Christmas Day rolls around, and in the chaos of our large family gathering, I’ve completely forgotten all about the Present To End All Presents™, until she excitedly hands me a neatly wrapped tube. It’s definitely not a bike then.
I hurriedly tear the package open and inside is a single, folded A4 piece of paper.
An event ticket.
To a whisky tasting in Bristol.
Erm… thanks, I mumble, and try my best to look as excited as my sister obviously is, but more importantly, I try not to disappoint the assembled throng of small children who sit staring at me, wondering why Uncle James isn’t bouncing up and down with glee.
What’s wrong with Bristol?
Now, before you all jump online and moan about what an ungrateful sod I am, let me explain. I live in Carlisle, and in the five hours it takes me to drive to Bristol, I could be visiting actual distilleries in actual Scotland, hitting up some epic riding spots along the way. I could be island hopping my way across the Inner Hebrides checking out Campbeltown, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg (a particular favourite), or heading north to the Spey Valley and really getting stuck in (actually, that sounds like a great idea for a trip – hold that thought). Now, where was I? Oh yes, I’ve got to go to Bristol. Which, last time I checked, was famous for its sherry and cider. Its whisky, not so much.
But I’m not really whinging, because it’ll be a great opportunity to try out a ton of different whiskies, from a variety of distilleries from all over the world, and my sister tells me that the only limit to how much you can sample, is, well, how much you can drink. Added to all this, Bristol is an amazing city, one that’s blessed with a ridiculously healthy riding scene, and I’ve got friends living nearby so I’ll make a long weekend of it and take a bike with me. Which will be the perfect activity for the day after drinking, sorry tasting, a near unlimited quantity of cask-strength spirit, on an empty stomach, all kicking off at noon. What could possibly go wrong?
But before I got too carried away I’d need to have some sort of a plan, otherwise my recovery day would be spent lounging about being all indecisive and hung-over. There’s a vast network of trails to be found on the outskirts of Bristol, in Leigh Woods and Ashton Court, except that I rode a lot of those back in the early 2000s and I’m always keen to discover new places where possible. Which makes it rather fortuitous that my mate Dave moved south from Keswick a few years ago and now resides about halfway between between the Mendips and the Quantocks, both prime riding locations not too far from Bristol. I know nothing of these two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – all I’ve got to go on are the exploits of the Mendip Brothers, which I’d read about in MBUK as a teenager, and I once drove through the Quantocks to play a gig at a wedding reception in Minehead. So I task Dave with showing me the best trails around, and eagerly await to see what he comes up with.
After much umming and ahhing, and on the advice of some proper locals, it is decided that we’ll head to the Quantocks, reckoning that in spite of its more compact nature it would be a bit more to my taste. I cut my teeth riding on Dartmoor and, therefore, Dave hopes I’ll be satisfied with the open moorland and plentiful gorse bushes if the trails aren’t up quite to scratch.
And so it is that I arrive in the quintessentially Somerset village of Holford on the northern edge of the Quantocks, impressively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a Sunday morning, bearing in mind my previous day’s entertainment. Call me a lightweight if you will, but having started the whisky tasting at lunchtime, my taste buds were toast by late afternoon and there’s only so much interest in different stills, barrels and other ageing processes I can muster before I start to nod off (turns out I just like drinking it, sorry). Any hangover I was going to get kicked in early Saturday evening and was long gone by the following morning.
The car park fills up and we make our introductions, the air laden with familiar accents and dialects from my past, until Dave and his wife Sarah arrive, slicing through the soft West Country burr with their broad northern twang. It’s a glorious clash of worlds and I’m utterly confused. Maybe I am a little hung-over after all…
Pedalling away from the car park, we pass the upmarket Combe House Hotel and soon find ourselves rolling alongside the gurgling river of Holford Combe, through ancient woodlands and trees laden with moss and lichen. A deer disturbs the undergrowth nearby before bounding through the bracken away from us, while groups of teenagers bimble along, training for their Duke of Edinburgh’s award or some similarly edifying venture. This is as bucolic as it gets, and it’s perfect.
Eventually our route takes us away from the serene valley floor, and we climb sharply to the ruins of Dowsborough Fort. We roll to the edge and congregate with a lone rider to gaze at the view which stretches back past Holford all the way to the sea. Cutting a great swathe through the scrub is the first descent of the day, and it’s a beauty. Full of natural whoops, rollers and stutter bumps that are so characteristic of open moorland riding, we let go of the brakes and descend as fast we dare, before taking a sharp left and dropping even further back into the valley. The rutted track that reveals itself is a blast, and loose rocks fire into the air, hunting out frames and exposed limbs with pinpoint accuracy.
It’s over far too soon though and we’re back at the bottom, ready for another winch up Lady’s Combe. Reaching the same old wall as before, this time we take a right, and disappear shrieking and hollering down a broad, tree-lined avenue, soft and squelchy underneath our tyres. It’s not technically demanding, but that’s part of the appeal – it’s fun, without there being much consequence if things were to go wrong.
We then spend a great while forest bashing, picking our way through Seven Wells Wood and Great Wood. As we ride, Dave tells me the forests are riddled with tracks, some legit, some cheeky, and all far too numerous to count – he’s still got loads of exploring to do before he’s found them all. At the top of our climb is the gloriously named Dead Woman’s Ditch – an ancient earth bank and associated ditch that are thought to be linked to Dowsborough Fort that we passed earlier. We pick up a loamy, twisty and rooty track, that in spite of the sunshine above, is dark and gloomy in the belly of the beast. Things are starting to get interesting and it’s nothing that wouldn’t be out of place in an enduro, but it’s unremarkable and is again over far too soon, serving as a gentle reminder that the hills in this part of the country are just that little bit smaller than those oop north. Spitting us out unceremoniously back on the fire road near Great Wood Camp, I notice that somewhere along our travels, almost imperceptibly, the trees have changed. Whereas before we were surrounded by oak and beech, we now find ourselves in a small coniferous enclave and for a moment we could be in a managed forest anywhere in the country.
But the ambiguity is short-lived, and very soon we’re back up onto the open moorland again, unmistakably in the south-west. I don’t know whether it’s the colour of the grass, the slightly sandy soil, the ubiquity of gorse bushes or a combination of all of the above that does it, but there’s nowhere else like it – it reminds me of home, and I love it.
After a short stop for snacks at the important waymarker of Bicknoller Post, I notice that everyone in the group is now a little more animated than before, and I soon discover it’s not just a sugar rush taking hold – we’re at the top of Weacombe Combe, or WeeWee Combe as the locals affectionately call it, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve come all this way. It’s fairly unassuming from the top – just a large grassy bank that fades away into a valley and off round a blind left-hander, but I’m assured it’s worth it. I roll in, hesitant about what’s to come, and more than slightly apprehensive about the apparent lack of photo ops – as I said, it doesn’t look like much from the top and the light is as flat as a pancake. I needn’t have worried about anything though, as the lack of technicality presented by the grassy bank means I pick up speed in a flash, and my bike is soon bouncing around underneath me, suspension working overtime as I try to hold a high line through the blind corner. I’m just about to bail out and haul on the anchors, when the gradient levels off and I’m onto a rolling singletrack with the occasional rise and small lip to pop off and keep things interesting. The trail narrows, drops again, and begins to criss-cross the stream running along the bottom of the valley. It’s a warp-speed slalom course – your opponent is nature itself and the only limiting factor is how wet you want to get in the water splashes, which fortuitously provide a couple of cracking photo spots.
Hi-fives abound and with adrenaline buzzing we winch our way back up to the tops again, by which time any adrenaline is long gone. Unusually, I’ve not had to carry my bike on this ride yet and my legs aren’t used to all this pedalling.
The descent of Smith’s Combe is next on the menu, and this one’s even better. It starts in the same unassuming way as WeeWee Combe, all open moorland with your path defined by grassy tracks in the bracken, but rapidly takes on a much tougher character. Skirting a small patch of woodland, the trail becomes increasingly loose and rocky, when an off-camber right-hander catches both Dave and I out at the same time and we disappear off the side of the trail into a patch of bracken, stinging nettles and other assorted foliage. Grinning like idiots, and with our sides hurting from laughing as much as any injury caused by the crash, we pick ourselves up and retrieve our bikes from the undergrowth just in time to see Andy smash his rear tyre into a rogue rock. Much hilarity ensues as the guys struggle to get numerous tubeless repair plugs to seal, before giving up and resorting to sticking a tube in. Onwards!
The second half of Smith’s Combe is a water-splash filled riot, similar to Weacombe, that dumps us at the foot of the most brutal climb of the day, all the way back up to Bicknoller Post and the way home (see, I told you it was important).
We’re left with the relatively gentle descent of Sheppard’s Combe and a rather wet Lady’s Edge, and soon we’re meandering our way along the river again, where we started our journey many hours ago. Someone suggests the riverbed as an option, but for some not so inexplicable reason, the group fall silent and we opt for the normality and relative dryness of the actual trail back to the car park.
And so my first visit to the Quantocks was complete. I’d ridden narrow singletrack climbs in quiet, sunken combes, taken in the views from the tops stretching over to Wales and beyond, before plummeting back down a different, sunken combe – a little louder than before – at warp speed, splashing through the streams that seem to line them all. I’d even tasted some fine whiskies, deftly sidestepped a potential hangover, and caught up with some old friends.
I’m definitely planning on coming back soon. And my sister will be getting the spangliest disco glitter ball I can find for Christmas as a thank you.
Extra Gallery – The images we couldn’t fit in the mag
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