When I was about 10, I went on a family holiday to the Netherlands with an outfit called Cycling for Softies. We rode up what felt like the country’s steepest hill, far exceeded the number of miles expected and at one point crossed the border into Germany. In short, there was nothing “soft” about it.
This, it appears, is a common feature of cycling trips. And thank goodness – because if you had a better idea beforehand of how strenuous a journey you were about to undertake, you might never go – and you’d miss out on something brilliant.
The Dartmoor Artisan Cycle Trail is not easy, but it is worth it, offering a glimpse inside the workshops, farms and forges of Dartmoor national park’s extensive artisan community, from woodworkers to cider makers. It’s also an opportunity for desk-bound city dwellers (in my case, at least) to try their hand at various age-old crafts. Less strenuous guided tours (by bus or car) were launched earlier this year, but the self-guided cycling route, tailored to your interests and available time, is the most recent option.
The artisan trail began life as a photography project for founder Suzy Bennett, inspired when she visited the 150-year-old forge owned by blacksmith Greg Abel, to order some curtain poles for her nearby cottage. There are now 18 artisans on the trail – some within a more feasible cycling distance than others.
Armed with detailed directions, as well as an Ordnance Survey map and a bag full of snacks, my friend Rebecca and I set off on rented hybrid bikes from the pretty village of North Bovey, on the south-east side of the park, planning to cover eight miles of Devon’s narrow bumpy lanes, with several challenging hills en route.
Our first stop is the barn of Sharif Adams, woodturner, spoon carver and member of a “wood culture renaissance”. He tells us green woodworking (using unseasoned timber) is having a bit of a moment, and it’s not hard to understand the appeal of “humanity’s oldest machine”, the pole-lathe.
He shows us how to spin the not-yet-a-bowl using a treadle (four hours, £75pp, maximum two), shaping it into the kind of dish that would look at home in a rustic cottage kitchen. Watching him is hypnotic, and my clumsy attempt further highlights his talent. I take great lumps out of the bowl’s sides, but using the ancient contraption to shave off long curls of wood is still truly satisfying (and Sharif is on hand to – quite literally – smooth over my mistakes). I leave with a nice-looking bowl to take home and boast about having made.
Next it’s a quick stop at Stuart Coote’s upholstery workshop, a 45-minute pedal away in a beautiful listed building near the village of Chagford, where he has chamber music playing while he works.
Most of the trail’s artisans welcome drop-ins and give visitors a quick insight into their craft at no extra cost but longer, hands-on experiences can be booked, such as our next stop-off in Chagford itself: a jewellery making session with Miriam Boy (£60pp for two hours), who often runs workshops for couples looking to make their own wedding/engagement rings. From flat strips of silver, Rebecca and I make interlocking rings.
There are still a few more sweat-inducing hills to conquer before our lunch stop: Chagford Community Farm, founded by organic dairy farmer Sylvan Friend and operating in partnership with his brother-in-law Ed Hamer’s project, Chagfood.
Day-to-day, this means volunteers picking produce and supporting the local food economy through organic vegetable box schemes – as well as meat, eggs, goat’s cheese and honey – but for us it mostly means filling up on wood-fired pizza, taking a quick tour of their upcoming projects (including a fascinating “cheese cave”) and an unexpected visit from a swarm of bees.
After lunch, it’s back on the bikes for an hour’s ride to the small market town of Moretonhampstead, where we find blacksmith Greg Abel’s impressive stone forge. Working with a coal fire, Abel (who used to design computer software before switching to this more ancient profession) heats the metal until it’s white hot, before hammering it into shape over an anvil.
Sparks fly as I attempt to stretch and shape the stick of steel into something resembling a coat hook – it’s exhilarating, if not at all as straightforward as it looks (£60 per group). Miraculously, I leave with an entirely serviceable, even elegant, creation; thankfully the artisans are an incredibly patient bunch, very willing to assist those less adept.
Suzy Bennett, who now co-ordinates the trail, suggests visitors attempt no more than three stop-offs during a day-long cycle tour, but while in Moretonhampstead, we also manage to stick our heads into the workshops of ethical shoemaker Alison Hastie, ceramic pot and tile maker Penny Simpson and felt maker Yuli Somme, whose beautiful chapel studio feels apt for the UK’s only remaining maker of burial shrouds. Then, finally, it’s off to the pub, for a well-earned drink and a good sit down.
Way to go
Visits to artisans on the Dartmoor Artisan Trail are free, but some must be arranged in advance. Guided group tours cost £80pp with lunch and visits to six artisans; workshops start at £30 per group. Accommodation was provided by Moorland View Cottage in North Bovey, which sleeps four from £140 a night including bike hire. Devon Cycling Holidays offers a bike delivery service from £25.50 a day, including helmet and lock. Train travel from London to Exeter was provided by ticketclever.com, which uses a algorithm to find cheap fares – from London Paddington to Exeter St Davids starts from £37 return during August