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Dartmoor Resource: Lost Lanes West

Lost Lanes West by Jack Thurston

East Hill Road

Photo: East Hill Road

Lost Lanes West by Jack Thurston

In May 2022 I was looking for books on Dartmoor in the Exeter Oxfam bookshop and I stumbled across a copy of the cycling book Lost Lanes West (LLW) by Jack Thurston, published in 2018. Now as well as being a walker who is interested in archaeology, hence the Prehistoric Dartmoor Walks (PDW) website, I'm also a keen cyclist.

Generally speaking, I have not got on well with cycling books as they tend to be aimed at people only prepared to cycle very short distances. This book is to be applauded for treating its readers like adults prepared to cycle some distance but it also perhaps requires a warning, namely, this book assumes you are prepared to cycle some distance and climb some hills.

So why am I writing about this book on an archaeological website? A theme of this website has always been about visiting sites without a car. A lot of the field work done has been whilst camping with a touring bike or cycling on to the moor. If I can encourage others to leave the car behind and enjoy the moor by bus, or by train, or by bicycle then I have in my view achieved something worthwhile for the environment.

The book LLW is part of a Lost Lanes series of books of which there are currently 5 books. The details of the other books can be found on the Lost Lanes website. The West one includes rides in Wiltshire (5), Dorset (4), Somerset & Avon (8), Devon (8) and Cornwall (5). At the time of writing, I have cycled 6 of the routes, one in Dorset and 5 in Devon. The routes are almost entirely away from main roads. They tend to include sections and variants of sections of national cycle routes. They can often be done by taking a train. Along with the lost lanes are the picturesque villages and stunning landscapes. Some of the Devon routes link up and combine some of my repertoire of regular cycle rides. Including sections totally new to me as a cyclist in Devon for 40 years.

All the routes appear on the website as downloadable GPX or TPX format along with a PDF of simple and clear route instructions. There is a description and discussion of the route in the book with nice photos and a map of the route. The routes are online but a bit tucked away to encourage people to buy the book. That is entirely understandable and I think the best I can do is direct people to the FAQs section of the website which also addresses issues such as what kind of bike is needed. I use a Dawes Galaxy Plus touring bike which had coped fine with the routes. On one tiny section of the Dorset ride I did I had to get off and walk for 50 yards over a ford. On the Widecombe Way route which I cycled yesterday (4th July) I got off and walked down one of the hills into Lustleigh on Dartmoor. It was so steep, I felt a little uncomfortable and unsafe cycling down it, which is not a problem! You get off and walk for a few minutes in glorious countryside to enter a stunningly picturesque village. Always check your brakes before doing hilly terrains – mine were working fine but even so that was very steep!

Lost Lanes FAQ

What follows are accounts of some of the rides that I have done from the book. Despite being an author who publishes GPS data of archaeological sites and the co-author of Google Map of the sites on Dartmoor I don't actually have a smart phone. I simply printed out the PDFs of the rides and followed the instructions e.g. Left turn at T-junction for 2 km then take right turn.

I estimate that I cycle approximately 8-10 miles an hour or around 5 minutes per kilometre, so with such PDF instructions I know to take the left turn and approximately in 10 mins (2 km) I need to turn right. I also had maps and a compass and a Garmin. Generally, the instructions are logical you go straight on unless told to turn off. The straight on instructions can include following an NCR cycle route – you use common sense – if the route says continue for 8 km and you are on an NCR then it probably means to take any necessary turns implied in the NCR.

East Devon Escapade - Ride 18

Ottery St Mary bluebells

Photo: Ottery St Mary bluebells

The first of the routes I took on was the one that starts in Honiton in East Devon. Starting from Exeter I got a return train to Honiton. Thurston writes:

"It is no use to take a cycle into Devon unless one is prepared to work" wrote Arthur Norway in Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall a best-selling travelogue published in 1897 and researched entirely by bicycle … he was specifically referring to the landscape of this ride, around the Axe valley, and the observation is just as true today, even with the benefits of lightweight bikes with low gears …

He continues:

The ride begins as it means to go on, with a brute of a climb on a very lost lane up Roundball Hill. After that it's a fabulous run through old beech woods to Gittisham …

He concludes with this:

This is the hilliest ride in the book, so do consider splitting over two days.

Well, I cycled it in one day but it was a very long day and a tough ride! I will probably do again but I'm likely to heed the advice and split the ride in two smaller sections. This ride is essentially a figure of eight ride and the first loop can be done from Honiton train station (still a tough ride) and the second loop (much easier) from Axminster train station. The route takes in some stunning countryside such as the ridgeway route along East Hill (see photo above) and then the beautiful area around Branscombe and Beer. The following is from my account posted on social media.

The route is approx. 50 miles and most of that is on quiet lanes often with little or no traffic. It started with a steep climb out of Honiton through some beautiful beech woodland on to Gittisham. Then some lovely lanes leading on to the ridgeway (East Hill) which stretches for 5 or 6 km. The first photo (see above) is looking along the road. Along the top it is relatively level and I stopped at White Cross to take in the views overlooking Ottery St Mary and Tipton St John. This area is just a bit to the west of where I cycled last weekend looking at the Farway and Broad Down cairns.

The route took me on through Sidbury and Branscombe. I like the little church at Branscombe and took a couple of pics. This stretch is part of the National Cycle Route 2 and goes on passing Beer and on into Seaton. From Seaton I cycled up via the Seaton Wetland Reserve … then on to Colyton and Colyford and then off to the east to Uplyme which is just above Lyme Regis …

A lot of the lanes in this area have proper solid Devon hedges. Substantial banks and very many of them are topped with bluebells and other wild flowering plants. Quite stunning lanes to cycle at this time of the year. I'll probably revisit this one although I'll probably shorten the ride as it is quite tough. The other rides in this book - well going by this I must check them out, 30 rides around the Westcountry.

St Winifreds church, Branscombe

Photo: St Winifreds church, Branscombe

The Thrills of the Chase - Ride 6 (Dorset)

Moor Critchel avenue of trees

Photo: Moor Critchel avenue of trees

I was staying in Shaftesbury North Dorset in early June and it gave me an opportunity to do this ride. The route is in my view quite long but these are intended to be all day trips on the bike. I posted the following about the route on the website of the book:

I did it on a Dawes Galaxy Plus touring bike today (Sunday 12th June 2022) and also a variant of the route on Friday 10th. Most is on road but it does include parts of the Dorset railway trail beyond Blandford Forum. Easy on a touring bike – typical surface quality for off road disused rail routes. Today I incorporated some of the Dorset Railway route into Blandford Forum from Spetisbury (NCR 250) as an alternative to the back lane into Blandford used by the book (in fact I have done both). I thought not including this was a bit of a mistake by the author of the book to miss out such a nice off-road alternative but I think the reason is that trail comes out on a short section of very busy main road into Blandford Forum and the book tries to avoid any main road at all. The rail trail is picked up in the book once in Blandford Forum having arrived via quiet back lanes. I have no doubt it is a deliberate choice by the author to skip but it is worth knowing about as an alternative. It is an outstandingly beautiful route but as with all suggested routes might be worth adapting. It is a long way – on Friday I shortened by lopping off the Gillingham segment. Today I did the lot including incorporating a detour from Tarrant Crawford via Shapwick to Badbury Rings. It is a long route at 102km! I made it longer at 110 km – which is doable in a day at my slow pace in June.

The Museum, Farnham

Photo: Moor Critchel avenue of trees

So why is this pub in Farnham called the museum? The reason is the association with General Augustus Pitt-Rivers who owned the nearby Larmer Tree Gardens. Probably better known these days for the End of the Road Festival (annual music festival in England which focuses on independent rock and folk music). Pitt-Rivers was an Egyptologist famed for his contribution to archaeology by developing the concept of building a chronology of artefacts such as pottery to then use as dating evidence.

Farnham is an incredibly picturesque place and part of the reason I repeated the ride a few days after I did it the first time was so I go just go back and see it again. I also wanted to visit Badbury Rings - which adds about 8 km to the distance of the ride.

See also: Dorset Life: Farnham

Hambledon Hill

Photo: Hambledon Hill

This route does take in some interesting archaeology. It passes the massive iron age hillfort Hambledon Hill and passes through the location of the Dorest Cursus which is the largest Neolithic site in England although there is not much to see of it. The route also takes in the fascinating combination of a Norman church built on a Neolithic henge.

Knowlton Church and Earthworks. Norman church on Neolithic Henge.

Photo: Knowlton Church and Earthworks. Norman church on Neolithic Henge.

Not officially on the route used in the book but with a short detour adding just a few miles is the Badbury Rings.

Badbury Rings

Photo: Badbury Rings

As mentioned above I did two different variations on this route in the space of a few days. The following photo is of Spetisbury on the NCR route 250 which is skipped in the route in the book. I applaud the fact the author avoids busy roads. However, you can opt to alter routes to your taste if you so choose! If you are prepared to have a tiny bit of main road then you can include this stretch of disused railway. I would also say that using the route in the book requires taking a road within Blandford Forum with a fairly hidden path down to the NCR route. I have cycled the North Dorset railway before but this was a fabulous ride.

Spetisbury disused railway station

Photo: Spetisbury disused railway station

Surf and Turf - Ride 19 (Devon)

Columbjohn Chapel

Photo: Columbjohn Chapel

I live in Exeter in Devon and two of my favourite routes are combined in to this longer day out. A significant proportion of the route is off road but suitable for a road bike. The routes down the Exe Estuary from Exeter on either side to Dawlish or Exmouth are lovely and you can do almost entirely on off road or quiet routes without any hills. This route takes you down to Exmouth and then on disused railway to Knowle near Budleigh Salterton and on to Otterton on another off-road route that I cycle very regularly. Onwards heading north through Tipton St John and by-passing Ottery St Mary all on gorgeous and very quiet lanes. Then up through Clyst Hydon and across the M5, near Budlake, to return to Exeter via Killerton and Thorverton. The book suggests an off road stretch through Killerton from Ellerhayes Bridge to Columbjohn. The Killerton estate was donated to the National Trust by Sir Richard Acland. He was a founder of CND, a radical socialist and at one point an MP. The Chapel at Columbjohn is the Acland family chapel.

The return route from Thorverton is via the pretty villages of Brampford Speke and Upton Pyne which is beautiful countryside although I must confess, I have not cycled that for years as I prefer the less hilly main road route through to Cowley Bridge. I applaud the fact an alternative is given to a busy road and it is fun to revisit routes I have not cycled for years.

This route is very long and from Exeter you can easily split in to at least two circular routes. A northern route incorporating Killerton and a southern route incorporating Exmouth and Otterton. There are also train stations at Pinhoe, Cranbrook, Exmouth, Feniton and Honiton. Not all quite on the route but close enough to adapt the route for shorter rides.

To the Edge of the Moor - Ride 20 (Devon)

Nine Stones cairn circle at Belstone

Photo: Nine Stones cairn circle at Belstone

This route took me initially on similar terrain out through Newton St Cyres and on to Crediton. These are quiet lanes I have been cycling for years. Form Crediton the route passes uphill past the Posbury clump and on to Yeoford. Then on through some spectacular countryside to the village of Spreyton famed for the Tom Cobley Tavern (Tom Cobley being a Dartmoor legend) and on to South Tawton and then Belstone. At Belstone I stopped at The Tors for a pint and a rest and then went for a short walk to see the Nine Stones cairn circle.

This was again quite a challenging cycle ride from Exeter but I will just point out that Crediton has a train station. Newton Poppleford also has a train station. Yeoford also has a train station on the line to Barnstable (might be a request stop). The possibilities for adapting and shortening this route by train are many. Again, I hugely enjoyed this ride although I suspect I may shorten the route in future using train options. Additionally, it is cheap to use the Okehampton train to return via the rail network. The highlight for me of this route was between Crediton and Belstone, such incredibly beautiful mid-Devon countryside.

Violets and Viaducts - Ride 21 (Devon)

St Michael de Rupe - Brentor Church

Photo: St Michael de Rupe - Brentor Church

Now that the Okehampton train line has re-opened it is easy to get to the start of this ride on the granite way from Okehampton. It is worth saying that Okehampton is one of the highest points on the moor and that the off-road old train route to Lydford, the Granite Way, can be combined with a short road route through Mary Tavy and Peter Tavy to Tavistock. From there you can then follow the Drake Trail through Yelverton on to Plym Valley Way down to Plymouth for a train home. Approximately 45 miles of which a substantial proportion is downhill is one of my favourite rides in Devon.

The route in the book starts at Okehampton and follows the granite way through Lydford and on to Brentor. It then loops back through the lanes with fine views onto dartmoor as you return on to the granite way near the Fox & Hounds.

Station Road on the Granite Way near the Fox & Hounds

Photo: Station Road on the Granite Way near the Fox & Hounds

I had a curious experience at Brentor. I had just returned from travels across Dorset in which I had managed to break the gear cable to my front gear shifter. I had bodged replacing it and it wasn't working properly. I decided to try to fix it and I was circling the car park testing it and looking frustrated when a cyclist turned up and asked what the problem was? He had cycled a long way to get there from Launceston. “Do you mind if I tinker and try to fix it?”. I did not catch his name but he undid it all and within 5 mins had reconnected it in a way that still works months onwards. I could have managed without this fix (restricted to lower gears) but it needs saying – there is a community of cycling enthusiasts out there who are just really lovely and who go above and beyond to support other cyclists. My friend from Launceston – if you see this, thanks, you are a star!

Widecombe Way - Ride 23 (Devon)

Hemsworthy Gate and Rippon Tor

Photo: Hemsworthy Gate and Rippon Tor

Commentary from a social media post:

Quite a tough cycle ride over Dartmoor today. The route was taken from the cycling book Lost Lanes West. The Widecombe Way route starts and finishes in Bovey Tracey although I took the train to Newton Abbot and started along the Stover Canal route to get to Bovey Tracey (about 4 miles). The route starts with the climb through Ilsington and on to Haytor which is quite a relentless climb but once done the major hill climbing is out of the way. I stopped on the way to Widecombe to have a rest and take a look at the large Seven Lords' Lands Encircled Cairn - also a pic of my bike with Rippon Tor behind. The route took in Widecombe, then on up passing Hamel Down and Grimspound. I didn't have time to get off today as I left quite late. On to the pretty villages of North Bovey and then Lustleigh and from there the Wray Valley trail back to Bovey and on to Newton Abbot for train home. The distance was not huge 38.4 miles - but the hills were quite tiring. Stunning views though and also the wildlife.


Leslie Grinsell wrote in the introduction of his Discovering Regional Archaeology South Western England (1970) "As with the other guides in this series, this has been written with the motorist in mind: yet the author has always been essentially a walker, and only recently has he been driven, by pressure of other commitments, to visit archaeological sites to any extent in friends' cars. This guide should therefore be equally useful to walkers and cyclists"

The archaeologist Leslie Grinsell would not use a car if he could avoid it. I didn't know that when I incorporated his 1978 list of Dartmoor cairns in the database of this website. He worked with people like Joe Turner who helped to establish the Two Moors Way. They were both passionate about access and the environment. As an author I feel the same and I do what I can to encourage people to use a bike or public transport.

I have missed out in this account 3 of the Devon routes one down Totnes way, one taking in Exmoor and finally the Tour of Dartmoor (Ride 24). I have not cycled these yet and I do not want to delay publishing this review. I will say that there is an established Dartmoor Way route which I have cycled between Bovey Tracey and Ivybridge and that forms part of the circular route around southern Dartmoor which loops up through Princetown and back around to Ashburton.

This is a fabulous cycling book and I am happy to promote it. The author has built into most of the routes a train station so it is possible to do these rides without a car which is awesome and I will be doing that to reach some of the rides in other counties. Many of the routes will be a bit challenging for beginners. If the routes are too long for your ability you can adapt and shorten them or use a train. I think this is the best cycling book that covers Devon and Dartmoor that I have seen. I thoroughly recommend this book. Enjoy!

Page last updated 06/07/22