As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to Dartmoor National Park, Paul Bloomfield saddles up to follow the Dartmoor Way cycle trail and finds that tackling the tors of Dartmoor doesn’t have to be thigh-bustingly tough – if you hop on an electric bike and let the battery power your ascents.
The first animal I spotted on Dartmoor was the last one I expected to see: an alpaca – or, rather, a trio of the shaggy-coated mammals. Ponies, yes; sheep, certainly; possibly even a peregrine falcon diving in a sharp stoop above the moor. South American camelids? Not so much.
But then my foray onto the south-eastern uplands of the national park was always going to be a little out of the norm. I was about to experience one of the newest, and most leisurely, modes of transport on the moor: electric bike.
The appeal of Dartmoor to cyclists – at least, energetic ones – has long been obvious. Its testing climbs and descents, dramatic tors and sweeping views are manna for hardy bikers with a taste for wild rides, and with the creation of the 95-mile circular Dartmoor Way last autumn – much of it on dedicated paths or peaceful backroads – there are now even more reasons to try a two-wheeled adventure.
Being less confident of my calf muscles, I had chosen a softer approach. Inga Page and her business partner Luke launched Dartmoor Electric Bicycles last year, offering guided tours and self-guided trips on various routes aboard high-quality Swiss Flyer e-bikes. The benefits quickly became clear as we whizzed down from their base at Higher Hannaford Farm, crossed the River Dart at New Bridge and climbed past Holne onto the High Moorland Link of the Dartmoor Way, the 27-mile route that crosses the southern part of the moor between Buckfastleigh and Tavistock.
“You can choose from three levels of power, depending on how energetic you’re feeling,” Inga observed. “But I’d always advise a low gear and setting power to High for the hills,” she chuckled. And why not? This isn’t cheating, at least not completely – you still need to pedal. You just enjoy a little help, like a faint nudge from behind just when you need it.
Up on Holne Moor, pausing to drink in views across the wooded Dart Valley to the aptly named Sharp Tor and the long ridge of Corndon Tor, I discovered another perk to the guided approach: Inga’s wealth of knowledge of Dartmoor’s ancient history.
“Up to the left you can make out reaves – stoney banks – bounding Bronze Age field systems,” she pointed out, “and the line of the leat (manmade channel) threading across the hillside, following the contour lines and carrying water down from high springs to farm enclosures.”
Dartmoor is, of course, littered with prehistoric monuments, from cists (burial chambers) and cairns to stone rows and these ancient field systems. Drawn to the moor by easy-to-access tin – vital component of bronze – some 10,000 people occupied a warmer, more fertile Dartmoor 4,000 years ago. Bleaker and less wooded it may be today, but it’s no less entrancing for all that.
Down and across Venford Reservoir we freewheeled, then over lichen-clad Hexworthy Bridge before hopping off at St Raphael’s Church in Huccaby to admire the snowdrops that burst from the banks of the churchyard like so many strings of fairy lights. Continuing along to Dartmeet, crossing alongside the remains of the ancient clapper bridge, we girded out loins for the long haul up to Yarntor Down. Except the demands of the hill were almost disappointing, the gentle hum of the electric motor taking the sting out of the climb. What did sting were the hailstones that clattered onto my helmet in a sudden squall – though when I reached the top and paused to admire the rainbow arcing over my left shoulder, I barely noticed the icy pellets.
This was the highpoint of my ride, figuratively and, at about 360m, literally. Sharptor loomed ahead, the foreground grazed by Dartmoor ponies. Behind me, a skylark serenaded us with a thrilling burble from its looping trajectory. And the gorse- and bracken-speckled heath was bathed in a warm, golden soup of winter sunlight. Bliss.
At the start of the ride, Luke had told me: “You’ll get out what you put in.” He was referring to the effect of the electric motor on the bike, but his comment could equally apply to the ride itself. The farther you pedal, the more you see, the greater the rewards. I felt as if I’d been gifted much more than my modest exertions deserved.
Dartmoor Electric Bicycles offers a range of guided half- and full-day tours as well as sunset and tea rides with stops at a country pub or tearoom. Helmets are included in the price (from £35/60 for a half-/full-day ride).