The Taunton Loop
PUBLISHED: 16:03 22 August 2016 | UPDATED: 16:04 22 August 2016
Giles Belbin takes a return ride from the county town via Bishops Llydeard and the beautiful Blackdowns
There is nothing better than a trip into the countryside on two wheels to remove oneself from the pace of modern life. Cycling makes you slow down, giving you time to immerse yourself in your surroundings - to see the shaft of sunlight streaming through the trees, to hear the blackbird sing, to feel the breeze on your face. This route takes you out of the hustle and bustle of Taunton and circles Somerset’s county town, using quiet country lanes to drop in on a handful of picturesque villages with a few welcome diversions en route.
1. It is a Friday morning in late spring. Despite the forecast for warm temperatures there is a distinct chill in the air as I check my tyres and brakes in the shadow of Taunton’s train station. I’ve opted to travel light today and as I set off into the busy traffic with goose-bumps rising on my arms I begin to question the wisdom of wearing shorts and a tee-shirt and only packing a very thin, light rain jacket. Too late now. If nothing else it gives a good reason for working a sweat up quickly.
It feels a little incongruous to be starting a ride around some of Somerset’s most peaceful countryside amid the traffic jams, beeping horns and sirens of Taunton but quiet soon descends as I head north out of town, my route taking me through a couple of housing estates and then on to a quiet, hedge-lined lane as I wind my way towards Upper Cheddon.
After a short climb Hestercombe House and Gardens loom into view over to my right. The 50 acre estate is famous for its variety of gardens. Offerings include the Victorian Shrubbery, the Georgian Landscape Garden and the Edwardian Formal Gardens, created by the noted horticulturist and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll and architect Edwin Lutyens. It all adds up to a place with plenty of diverting opportunities for plant lovers. For me however it just offers a glorious backdrop to my ride as I swing towards Kingston St Mary.
2. The smell of wisteria and then cut grass pervades the air as I roll along a narrow lane. It is relatively easy going, the road dotted with the occasional handsome house and cute cottage, offering glimpses of well-manicured lawns and well-tended flower beds. It is quiet and the air is still. Birds sing and the sun starts to show itself at last, warming my skin. A wonderfully restored vintage VW Camper Van, painted in celeste blue, pulls in to let me pass, the driver offering a cheery wave. It’s all rather genteel and pleasant and frankly a wonderful way to spend a Friday morning.
After around eight miles of riding I enter Bishops Lydeard. I pass the striking, red sandstone church, which dates from 1450 and dominates the high street. Passing signs for Bishops Lydeard Mill, a working mill and museum that was restored and opened to the public in 2003, I’m bound for a brief stop at the West Somerset Railway.
After crossing the busy A358 and then struggling to ignore the signs for the Quantock Brewery, I freewheel down into the station and am instantly transported into a bygone age. Vintage posters promoting tea, travel and tobacco - ‘Craven A – made specially to prevent sore throats’ - adorn the walls and fences. There’s a museum to browse around and I’m contentedly mooching about on the platform when I hear the tell-tale sound of a steam train.
Rather fortuitously my stop has coincided with the arrival from Minehead of the Raveningham Hall steam engine. Built in 1944 and initially retired 20 years later, Raveningham Hall now takes tourists and steam enthusiasts along the 22 mile long stretch of railway from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead. I watch as the smiling passengers disembark and wander to the front of the train, snapping memories of their day as they go. I leave pleased at my good fortune.
3. I’m heading for Wellington, passing through Halse and Milverton on the way. The riding gets a little tougher, the road rises and falls a little more and the wind is picking up. I’m looking around me as I ride, keen to soak up my surroundings. As I return my gaze to the road I’m startled to find I’m heading straight for a sharply pointed branch, lowly hanging at head height. I duck just in time. I pass Ash Priors Common, where you can follow a trail through the nature reserve, and narrowly avoid a fledgling goldfinch hopping across the road.
Approaching Halse, I hear the distinctive hum of carbon rimmed wheels behind me. Sure enough a lycra-clad racer, sat aboard an expensive racing bike, speeds past with a “Hi there”. Five minutes later the speedster is stood at the side of the road as I meander by. I ask if he’s ok and it turns out he is just waiting for his daughter. Moments later the two of them zip by again.
A brief but difficult climb leads to short, sharp descent into Milverton. The pleasant village is quiet as I cycle through, just a couple of dog walkers and a postman to be seen. The clouds are gathering now and all of a sudden the sky looks quite foreboding. Fat raindrops begin to fall but thankfully amount to nothing more than an empty threat as I climb towards Wellington.
4. Wellington proves a stark contrast to Milverton, with traffic jams and heavily-laden lorries to contend with. I quickly navigate my way through the town and head out towards the Blackdown Hills.
I’m riding under the gaze of the Wellington Monument. The 175ft tall monument stands in tribute to the Duke of Wellington and his victory at the Battle of Waterloo and it dominates the landscape. Ducking under the M5 motorway I’m now skirting the edges of the Blackdown Hills and unsurprisingly the next few miles prove to be the toughest of the ride as the road kicks sharply up through the hamlet of Ford Street as I head to Blackmoor.
The road has fallen quiet again and, as always, the pay off for enduring the hilly miles are the striking views over the Taunton Deane district, followed by an enjoyable descent off back down to flatter terrain. Farms and cottages roll by before I cross over the motorway heading for the village of Trull and, at length back to my starting point.
The ride brief
Start/finish/parking: Start and finish at Taunton Train Station. The station has its own car park but there are a number of other options nearby.
Distance: 27 miles.
Terrain: Around 500m of vertical climbing, the majority of which comes as you enter the Blackdown Hills. Roads are mainly quiet apart from in and around Taunton and Wellington.
Beware: South of the M5 the ride gets hilly. The two mile section from Wellington to Ford Street is probably the toughest part. The route also crosses both the A358 and A38 where care must be taken.
Alternatives: To avoid the toughest section skirting the Blackdown Hills, after crossing the M5 from Wellington immediately turn left onto Gerbestone Lane and on to West Buckland. Turn right onto Silver Street and then left at the Primary School. At the end of the road turn left and you are back on the route.
Refreshments: In Taunton try the contemporary Cosy Club or Hideout. Options en route include: Bishops Lydeard – the Bird in Hand ; Halse – the New Inn; Milverton – the Globe; Langford Budville – the Martle Inn; Wellington – the Garden Café.