Travel: Go West this winter - by bike

UK Outdoors: The best time to explore Dartmoor and Exmoor is out of season. And preferably on two wheels. By Rupert Isaacson

The west Country is always a relief after too long in the city. Soft, green hills comfort the eye. Fast-flowing streams splash down from the moors. Quiet villages nestle in the valleys. All very healing. The only problem is that in summer the narrow lanes are clogged with holiday- makers, and in winter the weather is too rough to get out and explore the countryside.

Or is it? Granted, the high tors and exposed ridges of Dartmoor and Exmoor are best avoided in the winter - hypothermia and getting lost in the mist are real dangers. But in the sheltered valleys below the moors, winter hits less hard than it does in other parts of Britain. Between November and May this countryside is devoid of tourists and you can have the place pretty much to yourself.

Probably the best way to explore is by bicycle - you can cover more ground than on foot, and get to the pubs quicker. If you want to get some fresh air into your lungs, but don't want to kill yourself with exercise, biking around the quiet low country is an excellent thing to do. The Tarka Trail runs along the disused Southern Railway line south of Dartmoor - a beautiful, relatively undemanding ride along the banks of the river Torridge and on to its estuary - a stretch of country made famous by Douglas Adams' novel Tarka the Otter. This requires neither the stamina and grit of mountain biking, nor the hassle of dealing with traffic that comes with cycle touring on country roads. Instead, the old railway line winds through the heart of the quiet countryside, with regular jumping-off points if you want to get to a village pub.

Bideford Bicycle Hire, operating from the old market town of Bideford, hires out bikes for the Tarka Trail. Choose between 18-gear mountain bikes, trailer bikes that let you tow a child behind you, tandems and even a wheelchair tandem that allows you to push a wheelchair-bound friend along in front of the handlebars. Whatever bike you use, the Tarka Trail can be comfortably ridden in a day. The surface is a good one - a cinder track, rather than muddy turf, allowing you to cycle smoothly no matter how wet it is, without slipping and sliding and getting stuck in other people's tyre-tracks.

If you want to venture out into the surrounding country, Bideford Bicycle Hire will help you to book local accommodation and supply maps with your chosen route clearly marked on them. Worth trying are the Camel Trail in Cornwall, which follows another old railway line from Bodmin to Wadebridge or the coastal country around St Austell, also in north Cornwall.

Winter cycling is relatively painless - as long as you have good waterproofs you are insulated from the weather, and you tend to stay warmer than when walking because of the mild exertion involved. Remember to dress in layers, so that you have something warm and dry to put on when you stop for a pint. After that it's just you and the countryside, wide and empty under the winter sky.

Rupert Isaacson is the author of the "Action Guide to Britain" (Harvill, pounds 12.99).

biking fact file

Basics

Mountain Biking & Cycle Touring, Bideford Bicycle Hire, Torrington Street, East The Water, Bideford EX39 4DR. Tel: 01237 424123; Fax 01579 351113.

Season

Open all year.

Disabled Facilities

Wheelchair tandem bike and other special equipment for disabled clients.

Accommodation

The centre is right next-door to the Bideford Tourist information office (01237 477676) which can help with accommodation.

Food

Not available - stay in B&B and eat in pubs along the way.

Children

All ages welcome. Children's bikes, trikes, seats and trailers available. (A trailer for dogs is also available.)

Insurance

Guests should provide personal insurance coverage if desired.

Safety

Staff trained in first aid.

Tariffs

A variety of bikes available for use on the Tarka Trail, some examples are: Children's Mountain bike: pounds 8 per day; Children's Trailers: pounds 8 per day; Recumbent bikes: pounds 24 per day; Tandem bikes: pounds 20 per day; Adult tourer: pounds l0 per day; Adult Mountain bike: pounds l0 per day. Group rates available.

Getting there

Off the A386 in Bideford. Trains to Barnstaple buses to Bideford, easy walk to centre from station.

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