Barney journeys back to his Cornish roots to bring you this West Country classic ride.
Words & Photography Barney Marsh
Long has my family boasted of ties to Cornwall, despite our predominantly Northern roots. My mother and grandmother were born there. My aunt lives there. My mother, sister and niece are named after villages there. We regularly used to holiday in the deepest, most inaccessible parts of the county. My childhood memories of Cornwall, then, are of massively steep hills, dropping down to dark, shadowy coves. Of pebbled beaches surrounded by massive, imposing rocky edifices. Of scraping bare feet on barnacles. Of watery ‘cola’, toweringly high hedges, and an almost visceral sense of claustrophobia. No wide open places here, no expansive views. I never remember feeling more inside a place, almost under it, as I did in Cornwall.
And when I grew older, and found a calling of sorts on two wheels, I never really considered the place worthy of visiting to ride. I’d fallen in love with the wide open, with majestic vistas, with mountains and sky, and above all, with space. And as cosy and comforting as my childhood experiences of Cornwall were, ‘space’ was not high on the things I felt the place possessed.
But, of course, there comes a time when preconceptions need to be challenged. There is a keen riding community in the far, far south west of our beleaguered isle, and they must perforce have some fun stuff to ride, mustn’t they? Well, it turns out, of course, that they do.
Bissoe hot right now.
And when I visited, boy was it warm. Cornwall is generally supposed to be warmer than other parts of the country, true, but the heat was almost more than my poor Yorkshire-attenuated body could handle, especially having spent the previous night sleeping in the back of a van. At what felt like gas mark 7.
So I was a clammy, flaky mess when I rolled into Bissoe. Even more of a clammy, flaky mess than usual, anyway. Bissoe doesn’t boast much – a former tin mine and arsenic extraction facility and a couple of small businesses. One of these, though, is Bike Chain Bissoe, a café and bike hire place located on the Coast to Coast trail that joins Portreath on the north coast to Devoran on the south, using old mining trails. These old trails criss-cross the county, and do a grand job of getting people out into the middle of the countryside with nary a car to be seen. No, they’re not the most technical of trails, at all – but they provide marvellous conduits to the more fun bits and pieces. And it was here, loaded with maps, water and an all-important stash of hot cross buns – that my ride began.
The Poldice Valley was mined from around the 16th century; firstly for tin, and then – as the need for it increased – for copper, and by the turn of the 20th century for arsenic. It closed in 1930. The valley is littered with spoil heaps from these old mine works – and a lot of them have been built upon. There are proper ‘built’ jump park features: drops, doubles and tabletops, alongside more natural – but still spicy – downhill trails and plenty more besides. They even run national cross-country races here – so there’s plenty of stuff to get your teeth into. The Coast to Coast trail runs up the valley bottom with all of this to the left; there’s a turn up a steep climb through some of the built stuff, which is known by the locals as ‘Mars’ for obvious reasons – it’s sparsely vegetated, and a pretty peculiar place to ride – towards the woods of United Downs.
A two-hot-cross-bun problem.
One of the things about riding in this particular bit of Cornwall is how very easy it is to get lost. As I rode past yet another old mine working, trails darted hither and thither in mesmerising confusion. It’s all too easy to take the wrong trail, and be happily pootling along for a while before realising that you’ve ballsed up, and need to retrace your steps. In fact, it’s a pretty good idea to pack a GPS, to be honest – normally I’d quite happily scorn such technological trickery for want of a decent map, but on more than one occasion I found myself poring over maps and figuring out routes for seemingly ages. I’m not sure quite how long, but at least two hot cross buns were eaten. Both by me.
Once back on the bike, I followed a veritable labyrinth of mining trails. Doubletrack, for the most part. Sometimes tarmacked, sometimes dirt, but all car-free, relatively flat, and fast, and fun. And gradually they took me prettily to the magnificently named Carnkie.
You Great Flat Lode.
Although it sounds like some sort of weird insult, the Great Flat Lode is a body of rock canted at an unusually shallow gradient. And this being Cornwall, it was extensively mined. I stopped at the top to admire the view next to one of the ruined buildings (yes, hot cross buns were involved; no, I’m not sorry). To the north, I could see my next target – the mound of Carn Brea.
Carn Brea was a Neolithic settlement until around 5,400 years ago, when it was mysteriously abandoned. It was then reinhabited around the Iron Age. Nowadays, it sports a folly/castle/restaurant as well as a rather spiffing monument to the glories of one Francis Basset, who was an English nobleman and politician who died in 1835. It’s an imposing edifice, to be sure, but to my modern sensibilities the whole place would have been much improved if the fans of Frank had left well alone. Also imposing, to be fair, is the nadgery, thrutchy and otherwise step-tacular climb up to the monument (bonus points for no dabs!), where you can park your bike next to the Sacrificing Rock for a quick squizz at the map, and another hot cross bun.
Brea if you wanna go faster.
The run down the other side of the Brea was also a hoot – also steppy, also thrutchy, although not so steep that I couldn’t just enjoy myself. It’s a popular spot with dog walkers, though – so I had to make sure I didn’t end up with any of the small yappy things stuck in my spokes. Or their dogs, come to that.
Eventually, the trail took an anticlockwise turn around the bottom of the Carn. As the path became more hemmed in by wall on one side and embankment on the other, the vegetation decided to join enthusiastically in, and I soon found that the only reasonable way I could make any progress was by pounding on the pedals, and ignoring the relentless assault that the foliage was making on my hands. It was quite surprising how overgrown this particular section was, given that it’s definitely a bridleway (I stopped to check, and to hot-cross bun – yes, it’s a verb now) and that it’s popular with walkers. But just as my gloves were wearing out, I erupted triumphantly onto the road.
It was getting hotter now, as I headed back east on another of the mining tracks past the Carn Marth open-air theatre (built on the site of a former quarry, don’t you know – very cultured) and through St Day, before meandering up towards Unity Woods.
Unity and cakes.
Unity Woods is one of the other places on the ride that is festooned with trails. There’s loads to go at here; many of them have been worked on by the locals for years. It’s probably worth mentioning that the area has (surprise, surprise) been positively Swiss-cheesed by mines over the years; mine shafts are all over the place, and they’re not the sort of drop-offs I’m looking for. A trip down one of them is generally considered to be suboptimal. But they’re mostly fenced off. Mostly.
The spin back down the Poldice Valley was, of course, marked by a strong desire to fill my boots again with all of the trails on my right, but I decided that, in the words of the immortal Douglas Adams, discretion was the better part of valour – and cowardice was the better part of discretion. So I valiantly put the larger jumps off for another time. Up on the left though – that looked interesting… and indeed it was.
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Twelveheads are better than eleven?
A swift retracing of steps was in order, which fortuitously took me through a yet another amazingly named hamlet: Twelveheads. I had visions of some sort of gory origin for this name; a minor war, perhaps – or a spectacular mutant badger. But no – it’s another mining name, stemming from the stamps – machines that were used for crushing ore. Each of them had twelve heads. Well, that was deeply underwhelming.
But after this somewhat prosaic revelation, and a short, but suitably horrible climb, I was rewarded with a wonderful little descent which snickered and gurned its way back down the hillside – doubletrack at the top, but narrowing to rocky, steeply cornered singletrack that spat me out down the side of an old quarry scant metres from where I’d turned back, with a massive grin on my face. Now that was a diversion worth taking.
All that remained, then, was to meander back along a parallel trail to the original one I’d taken, and to avail myself of a splendid coffee and slice of cake at Bike Chain Bissoe before plotting what else I might be able to uncover. My Cornish expectations had been well and truly exploded out of the water; there were views! There were wide open spaces! And coupled with the awesome – and abundantly evident – history of the place, and the surprisingly fun and plentiful trails, it’s clearly only a matter of time before I’ll go back to explore.
Well, it’s Cornwall, isn’t it? Land of Pirates! Of Poldark, the One True Pasty and, of course, the One True Way (jam first, then cream). It’s a land of claustrophobic little fishing villages, of piskies and wreckers. More folklore than you can shake a stick at, and about the same amount of history. Fiercely independent people, with their own, revived, language. It’s exquisitely beautiful; barren and windswept or verdant and lush in equal measure. It’s also, thanks to the lack of motorways and its geography – there are SO MANY 7ft high hedges and blind corners – an absolute arse to get to and around.
But don’t let that deter you! Once you’re there, it’s hard to overlook the manifold charms of Kernow. For every maiden aunt stuffing her face full of clotted cream in a quaint Cornish cottage, there’s a tousle-haired surf dude with abs like a miniature cobbled street uttering empty platitudes with an air of profound amazement in a West Country accent. There’s tons of non-bikey stuff to do of course, from wandering around the astounding coast to pottering about in Truro with a few desolate moors and ruined buildings en route. And tourism is pretty much the main industry of the place these days, so you emphatically won’t be alone.
But what, I hear you cry, of the mountain biker? Well, there will be plenty of folk telling you that it’s not worth the extra time to travel all the way down there when you have to pass through Devon – and from a certain perspective, they have a point. Devon is, it’s true, home to some of the country’s best riding. But honestly, give Cornwall a chance. There are fantastic bike parks – Woody’s is perhaps the preeminent (uplift only) one, but Old Hill also deserves a mention for slightly more beginner-level radness. There are trail centres – Cardinham Woods is a lot of fun, and a trip to Grogley is an absolute must. And if you can find a local to show you around? Then you’re in for a whole heap of awesome: there’s a thriving bike scene in Cornwall, perhaps made more close-knit by its relative obscurity. But even if that’s not your bag, there are loads and loads of old mine roads to explore, which link little villages, and they can link some of the more entertaining trails up rather nicely.
One of the issues is perhaps that some of the best-looking stuff might not be legal. The vast majority of the South West Coast path in Cornwall is footpath. It’s clear that lots of it would be an absolute blast to ride for the most part from a trail perspective, although it’s also clear that it’d also be a nightmare at others, purely because of the walkers who head down to Cornwall specifically to walk it – and the 30,000 steps it includes. Having said that, though, there are areas where it’s possible to ride pretty close. The trails from Porthtowan to St Agnes which run parallel to the path are well worth an explore, with some very steep climbs and descents – you could even link up (using some of those mining roads again) with this Classic Ride route for a large and very entertaining day out. You can also ride from just south of Mousehole to Marazion on the path. Although to be honest, it’s a bit of a ‘meh’ experience from a mountain biking perspective, but the views are nice, and it does go through Penzance (arrrrr, Jim lad). But as I’ve mentioned, there’s a lot more to get your teeth into.
Seriously, grab a map and go explore. You won’t be disappointed.