Laurence McJannet, author of Bikepacking: Mountain Bike Camping Adventures on the Wild Trails of Britain, details some of his favourite areas to explore
The one place outside of Scotland where it is legal to wild camp; you’ll be spoilt for choice as to where to lay your bivvy for the night. My favourite Dartmoor ride (though its countless tracks make for almost limitless variations) is a 55-kilometre journey around its northeast edge to the sleepy village of Dunsford from Chagford Common, as wild feeling a spot as you could hope to find. A desolate, boggy moorland trail over Headland Warren winds its way past numerous cairns and tors, skirting temptingly past civilisation at Moretonhampstead before heading to the leafy embrace of the River Bovey. The trail makes an about-turn at the village of Dunsford and heads for the heart of the moor again, but not before taking in some wonderfully rocky singletrack at Lustleigh and bounding on to tackle the foreboding sounding Grimspound. Bovey Tracey is a worthwhile detour for refreshments before the final punishing leg. It’s a challenging ride in terms of distance and terrain, but it’s an immensely satisfying one.
One of my most memorable wild camps lies atop the huge crest of granite and igneous rock at the pinnacle of the Malvern range. Worcestershire Beacon, at 425 metres,
harbours a small concave rock shelter – a secret cave almost – from which you can hopefully see most of the 15 counties allegedly visible from the summit. The riding along its wealth of dusty bridle paths, particularly over Wyche and Jubilee Hill to the south, is hugely enjoyable and challenging whilst the route off its foothills towards Old Storridge Common to the northwest more sedate and pleasurable. Yet despite over 45 kilometres of wonderfully varied riding it’s the idyllic wild camp that steals the show – the quality of light at the summit is phenomenal, only briefly obscured by wisps of cloud drifting off the beacons. The sounds of distant civilisation drifting up from Great and West Malvern and the sun setting over the vast patchwork carpet of Worcestershire’s arable land and the distant Welsh hills combines to create a unique adventure ride that lingers long in the memory.
Snowdon, North Wales
The highest rideable summit in Britain may seem like a lofty ambition for most bikepackers, but the Rangers Path that leads to the summit station makes this goal surprisingly achievable. It’s arduous, of course, but the rewards far surpass the effort. The views from 1,085 metres up over Snowdonia’s sublime landscape are truly breathtaking… as is the descent. You need to bear in mind the May to September ban on bikes on the mountain (between 10am-5pm), but a summer evening ascent, wild camp on the upper slopes and a dawn slalom off the mountain mean you can tackle Snowdon all year round. With some wonderful and thankfully flatter riding along the mountain railway stations of Beddgelert and Nantmor (particularly the waymarked Lon Gwyrfai trail) you can tailor your trail to suit your ability. But if you have it in your legs to reach the summit you won’t regret reaching for the sky. If anything the ban is a blessing – it encourages you to scale Snowdon at a time when everyone else is coming off the mountain so when you reach the second highest place in the whole of the UK, you’ll end up having it all to yourself.
Mull, Western Isles
I have never felt so beautifully isolated as I did spending a night in the Tomsleibhe bothy (mountainbothies.org.uk) deep in the heart of Mull’s Glenforsa estate. Ferries can deliver you to the ports of Craignure or Tobermory, the latter the island’s colourful capital. From Tobermory a wild, forgotten trail leads you past the rugged northern coastline at Ardmore and the heavily wooded banks of Loch Frisa in the midst of Salen Forest. Finally the Glenforsa estate road will beckon you along the banks of the fast-flowing River Forsa to the wildest of dwellings. Beneath the formidable glare of Beinn Talaidh, and at least seven kilometres from the nearest dwelling, Tomsleibhe is a truly remote place to spend the night, but all the more beautiful for it. With working fireplaces in two of its three rooms it offers welcome respite from the inhospitable Western Isles weather. And when night falls there’s such utter silence too – broken only by the occasional hoot of an owl or the bark of a stag. A glimpse of a golden eagle near the bothy and minke whale off the Sound of Mull perfected my experience in this otherworldly idyll.
Buttermere, Lake District
If you are searching for a bikepacking adventure to really test your mettle then trying to scale the high passes between Buttermere and Ennerdale certainly fits the bill. Keep your kit as light as possible – you’ll be playing hike-a-bike on the steepest sections over Gale Fell and the Scarth Gap Pass. It starts innocuously enough though with wide, stony
bridle paths leaving the shores of Buttermere and Crummock Water behind. But saturated scrub and jagged scree make for a challenging ascent of Scale Knott and Gale Fell, and the descent off Banna Fell is no less arduous. A wild camp in Ennerdale’s forest or on the shore of Ennerdale Water will provide a welcome respite from the wild, rugged landscape all around you. So too will the flat forest trails along the River Liza, but illusions will soon be shattered, this time by the Scarth Gap Pass, where steep, blunt boulders are made slippery by a network of ice-cold rivulets. You’ll need every ounce of energy for the two-kilometre descent back to lake level – so filling up on tea and scones will be well earned on your return to Buttermere and the National Trust’s shop. It may sound a daunting journey but this is as exhilarating and rewarding a wild ride as you could wish for.
Brightstone Forest, Isle of Wight
For a fantastic combination of exposed coastal trails and tight forest singletrack make a beeline for the Isle of Wight. There’s great riding just a couple of kilometres from the Yarmouth ferry terminal, climbing from Wellow to the wooded ridge of Brighstone where tight, technical tracks weave throughout the forest. The wide, dusty Tennyson Trail descends into open downland, and guides you into Newport, where a plethora of pubs and cafes wait to quench your thirst. Then prepare for a long, steady climb as the trail swings round to crest the top of three downs – Garstons, Chillerton and eventually Limerstone. There are plenty of opportunities for a wild coastal camp just a kilometre or two south of the latter or you can take your pick of bivvy spots up in the woods of Brighstone Down – anywhere on the edge of the trees is sure to boast beautiful sea views. In the morning an undulating chalky coastal trail through wildflower meadows and along golf course fairways whisks you toward the coast at Freshwater Bay before a lovely flat trail through the marshes along the River Yar returns you to the bustling port of Yarmouth.
Bikepacking: Mountain Bike Camping Adventures on the Wild Trails of Britain by Laurence McJannet is available from all good bookshops (£16.99, Wild Things Publishing).