James Vincent travels to Cheddar, in the West Country for this issue’s Classic Ride, hoping to find fun trails and the one true cheese.
Words & Photography james vincent
They say knowledge is power. I say knowledge plays its part, but it helps to get lucky from time to time. I’m off to the Mendips, and Chipps has taken great delight in telling me that “last time I was there it was comedically [sic] wet and muddy, but hey, you might get a sunny frosty day when everything’s solid…” Emails about the ride bounce back and forth containing such gems as “not sure when you were thinking of but you probably know it doesn’t hold up well in the winter?”, and “I don’t think the trails will be dry until May…”.
Brilliant. Just brilliant. After the greatest summer I can remember, where dry, dusty trails stretched as far as the eye could see, it’s now the middle of December, summer is but a distant memory, and I’m in the South West of England tasked with shooting a Classic Ride on trails that don’t hold up in the wet. Splendid.
Grilling the locals.
Fortunately, I have a pair of aces up my sleeve. The first goes by the name of Box, or to his parents and the authorities, Rob Cooksley. He’s just returned from a couple of seasons spannering with Team Madison Saracen for a certain Danny Hart and has recently reopened the rather conveniently located Bad Ass Bikes, which serves as the starting point for today’s ride. What he doesn’t know about mountain biking in the Mendips ain’t worth knowing. The second ace is Rob’s mate Dave Parke, a former civil engineer who now spends his time designing cycling infrastructure for councils. The yin to Rob’s yang, the chalk to his cheese, Dave has an encyclopaedic knowledge of what’s a legitimate right of way and what trails lie out of bounds.
But all this local knowledge will be useless if the Mendips are sitting under several feet of prime Somerset mud… Well, I said it helps to get lucky sometimes and boy, did we. I’d been watching an uncomfortably narrow weather window make its way slowly to the right over the last week, hoping it would come to rest over our chosen riding day, while all around this little patch of sunshine were heavy black clouds and rain. Lots of rain. Enough rain to wake me up in the middle of the night a few days earlier. It’s only natural, therefore, that I do a little happy dance as I open the curtains and find the sun shining brightly back at me before I set off to meet Rob and Dave in Burrington Combe, on the northern edge of the Mendips, about 14 miles south west of Bristol.
Introductions made and coffee drunk, we roll out of the car park and immediately start climbing. My legs aren’t quite ready for this, yet protests fall on deaf ears – there’s no let-up in the pace and we spin past a few houses on the outskirts of Burrington before turning onto one of the many bridleways that litter the area. Picking our way through the trees, Dave and I watch Rob disappear into the distance, making good time on his ascent towards the old Iron Age fort of Burrington Ham.
Crossing the road, we say a cheery good morning to some local cows before tackling one of the surprisingly few muddy climbs on the ride. Dave and I give it our best, but it’s no good – we’re off and walking as Rob rides off to get the next gate for us. This will become a familiar sight throughout the day, but hey, if he’s got energy to burn, I’m not going to try to stop him. From here, we’re treated to classic British moorland mountain biking – generations of farmers and their horses, then Land Rovers and quad bikes, have laid down a rutted doubletrack for us to follow. There’s the occasional puddle and patch of squelchy mud (some larger than others), but they do nothing to dull our progress towards the local landmark and key navigation point of Beacon Batch. Nearing the beacon, the paths improve and little mounds of earth begin to appear all over the place. Part of an intricate WW2 defence system, when lit they were designed to fool the Luftwaffe into thinking they were flying over the more heavily populated and industrialised Bristol. Unfortunately, they were significantly less than effective and not a single bomb was dropped over the area, while large swathes of Bristol were flattened during the Blitz.
Which whey now?
After a quick sprint away from the beacon and its futile decoys, we go through a gate and delve into the legend that is Rowberrow Warren. While Rob is keen to show me a particular trail, Dave makes a point of explaining that although riding has been going on in these woods for years, most of it was unsanctioned, and we can’t go that way. Booooo. However, there is now a core group of riders working alongside the Forestry Commission, and an area of land has been set aside for riding, so all is not lost. Huzzah! In fact, nothing appears to be lost at all, and the classic ‘Christmas Tree’ is a gloriously loamy, rooty, and twisty piece of singletrack that has us giggling like small children on Christmas morning.
More whooping and hollering ensues, then all of a sudden Rob stops – “This way,” he cries, pointing off the trail! “Is it legit?” I ask. “Yeah, it’s OK,” assures Dave. Rob wants to show me a gap jump (I wasn’t expecting that), so we follow his lead and at once the trail is more obviously sculpted than before. The earth construction of the jump doesn’t look too bad to me, but the take-off is due to get rebuilt to Forestry Commission standards because in its current guise it’s unsafe – it’s refreshing to see riders and the authorities working together in harmony. More please! We spend a short while sessioning the gap… well, I say we, but in reality it’s Rob who sessions it. I have little interest in my wheels leaving the ground and besides, I’ve got photos to take. Ahem…
Exploring deeper into the forest, we’re transported to Rotorua. Trees tower above us, the forest floor is a lush carpet teeming with verdant bracken, and yet another sublime piece of singletrack wends its way between the trunks. A cheeky off-camber section tries to catch us off guard, the trail steepens, and we’re spat out onto the fire road at the bottom via an even steeper chute. We could stay here and session these tracks all day, but we’ve got a date with a gorge.
Cruising back to civilisation, the fire road becomes a farm track, becomes a quiet country road and we meander our way along. There are off-road options, but we’re doing our best not to upset anyone and put up with dodging the odd quarry truck instead.
The country roads bring us to the hamlet of Charterhouse, where we have the first mechanical of the day – Rob manages to snap his chain while ‘making it look good for the camera’. Given his background as a pro mechanic, Dave and I decide there’s nothing we can do to help so we leave him to it, and shoot the breeze chatting about hunting for mushrooms (the cooking ones before you jump to any nefarious conclusions), the Roman lead mines of the area, cobalt, and the infamous Gerry’s Hostel in Torridon (if you know, you know).
There’s a smidgen more road work to get to the top of the Cheddar Gorge and although there are other routes in the area, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I came all this way and missed out this classic descent into Cheddar. It also offers me a chance to right a pretty serious wrong – back in the day I spent eight years living in Bristol, yet this is only my second visit to the gorge, and my first time with a bike. I know – it’s pretty shameful.
To get to the descent at the top of the gorge, we have to drop a short way down the gorge road itself to reach a bridleway to climb back up. It sounds obtuse, but although there is a more direct route, it contains a short section of footpath. Turning off the main road, we all make a valiant attempt at the climb, but in reality the surface is as loose and rocky as anything in the Lake District. None of us make more than a few metres progress before our bikes are shouldered – I’m hundreds of miles from my Lakeland home, yet here I am, carrying my bike up a rocky path. Lovely stuff.
Initially there’s nothing particularly striking about The Gorge up top – to the south is a broad, grassy plain, fading away into a milky, early afternoon wintery haze onto the Somerset Levels. A gnarled tree forces you to choose left or right, and at this stage there’s nothing to suggest you should stay left. Pass the tree, however, and you start to see glimpses of a gaping chasm to your right. The near vertical cliff drops over 130m, and all of a sudden, staying left becomes a rather pertinent move. Picking their lines between the rocks, Dave disappears, swiftly followed by Rob who crashes into him. Collapsed in a tangled heap on the floor, there’s plenty of giggling until we realise how close we all are to the edge. Gulp.
Gathering ourselves together, we attack the descent into Cheddar, and I realise very quickly that it’s a classic for a reason. Doubletrack! Singletrack! Ruts! Sharp, flinty rock gardens! Punctures! (These last two may be related.) It’s got it all, and all at the perfect gradient ready for you to ride at whatever speed you feel comfortable. Which on our off-peak Monday afternoon was pretty quick as the trail is deserted save for a few crusty hippies resting on benches, but – be warned – during busier periods it will be heaving with tourists.
We peer down the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder, and swiftly turn away, following the bridleway as it dives off to the left, past the lookout tower and into the undergrowth for a couple of hundred metres, before it rudely spits us out next to someone’s drive.
Zider I Up, Landlord!
Rolling down the hill into Cheddar, our thoughts turn to lunch. Fortunately, the Gorge sees thousands of tourists each year and we’re spoiled for choice. The aptly, if not particularly originally named Café Gorge provides some sustenance, a lone rock climber provides the entertainment, and a refreshing bottle of (low alcohol) cider is consumed. When in Rome, etc. At this point we realise that time is running away from us, so we knock the optional Crook Peak on the head and decide to turn for home.
With heavy legs, we’re at the lowest elevation of the day and yet we’re faced with the longest sustained climb of our ride. It’s a horrible thing, rising at an average gradient of 11% for just under a mile. This may not seem much, but at this point in our ride it hurts. Lots. Thankfully, Rob sits on my rear wheel gently offering encouragement the whole way, and I’m truly grateful. After what seems like an eternity Dave joins us at the top, looking every bit a broken man. There’s just one final road section to go, but after the climb we’ve just endured it’s sweet relief as our legs are spent. Except for Rob, of course, who’s still looking far too sprightly and is practically spinning around in circles in excitement at the prospect of one last hoon through the woods of Rowberrow. Unfortunately for Dave, he’s avoided his childcare duties for long enough and has less than half an hour to get his daughter fed and watered in time for ballet so he’s forced to take a shortcut through a potato field (still a bridleway of course). Fortunately for Rob and I, we get one last hurrah, so we say wave goodbye to Dave, turn left past the farm and dive back into Rowberrow.
Hello darkness my old friend.
By now it’s properly dark, and the last glimmer of light vanishes as we disappear into the trees for the final time. In a flash, Rob has dropped me and I’m struggling to keep up – he’s been riding these woods for years, and I’m riding blind – literally. The trail is a rutted, rooty delight, full of tight twists, turns and numerous little features to pop off and enjoy if you’ve got the energy. Even though I’m reduced to a passenger on my bike, I can tell it’s one of the greats and I’d love to come back and ride it properly when I’m not a ragged mess. To try to regain some composure I suggest to Rob that there’s a photo to be had here, so I take a breather and he eagerly pushes back up for another go. Completely bereft of light, the only chance I’ve got of taking a usable photo is to try a pan shot, but even then I’m pushing the limits of my camera at 6400 ISO with a 1/30 exposure. Shot in the bag, we’re back on the trail and Rob glides along, picking up speed and floating over every obstacle without even trying.
It’s pitch black by the time we roll into the car park to hose the bikes down, and Rob pops the kettle on for a well-deserved brew. I know I’m going to be late home for dinner, but you know, tea. Rides like this don’t come around very often, but when they do, they’re worth savouring right to the very end.
The opportunity to ride in an area that’s become a minor character in Mint Sauce (The Mendip Brothers) is a good enough reason for me! Oh, that’s not enough for you? Well, if you must then. For starters, it’s easily accessible from most of the region – served by a great network of A-roads and the M5 to the west, getting there isn’t a problem at all, and most of the trails are easy to find too with no need to disappear down a remote B-road looking for an obscure layby and hidden trail diving off into the woods.
There are plenty of options too – although this particular ride set off from the north of the area, there’s nothing stopping you from starting in Cheddar itself (just mind the tourists), and tackling Crook Peak (heading north on the M5, it’s the big hill on your right as you drive between junctions 22 and 21) – we had planned to, but ended up having too much fun elsewhere and simply ran out of time.
The sheer variety of riding enclosed in a relatively small space is mightily impressive too – from the dense woodlands of Rowberrow, via the open moorland of Black Down to the pointy rock gardens of The Gorge itself, you’re spoilt for choice! Then, even though you’re never too far from civilisation, you still get to feel like you’re out in the wild at times, especially up near Beacon Batch if the weather is closing in. Finally, there are some relatively serious hills to keep you entertained – we managed to tick off nearly 3,000ft of climbing on our ride with the final climb clocking in at just shy of 700ft. All of which conspires to make the Mendips a perfect microcosm of UK mountain biking.
- Distance: 36.2km (22.5 miles)
- Highest Point: 321m (1,054ft)
- Total Ascent: 862m (2,831ft)
OS Explorer (1:25 000) 141 Cheddar Gorge & Mendip Hills West, or Landranger (1:50 000) 182 Weston-super-Mare.
Eating and drinking
Our route took us through Cheddar, and there are a multitude of cafés and eateries catering for the hordes of tourists who visit the gorge. We enjoyed a brilliant lunch in Café Gorge, and the recently refurbished Rockface is highly recommended too.
- Cafe Gorge – egorge.co.uk
- T: 01934 741985
I’ve got to mention Bad Ass Bikes in Burrington Combe because, aside from the obvious, Rob really knows his way around a bike (you don’t get to work for a UCI World Cup trade team for nothing), and has an incredibly well stocked and organised workshop to keep you rolling. To the south, you’ve got the equally excellent Bike City Wells, and the sprawling bike-tropolis of Bristol isn’t far north with bike shops aplenty.
There are country inns and pubs with rooms all over the area, along with numerous B&Bs or hotels, including The Plume of Feathers just down the road from Burrington in Rickford. If your budget is more limited, there’s a YHA Hostel in Cheddar itself.
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