Katherine Moore, a zoologist by training and a cycling writer by trade, has just launched a new bikepacking route through her home turf in East Devon. Besides the gorgeous coastal tracks and sleepy wooded trails further inland, quaint thatched villages, and colorful seaside towns, the East Devon Trail features a twist: linking up nature reserves and bird hides along its 115-mile length. While the release of this accessible weekender trail has been the cause of much excitement, its development sprung out of a much darker and unexpected place.
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Last February in the dark depths of the UK’s third lockdown I received the call that no daughter wants to receive. Just a few weeks short of her 60th birthday, Mum confided to me that her GP had referred her to the cancer clinic for a potential lung cancer diagnosis. Being based 90 miles away in Bristol, I promptly moved back home to help care for her. The diagnosis process took over a month with all the different tests, scans and biopsies, all with the looming uncertainty about Mum’s fate.
Though the tiredness was affecting her and her cough was pretty relentless, it was the emotional toll that was by far the worst at that time. All I could do at that time was stay by her side, listen to her worries, cuddle up and try to process our grief and worry together. The cancer verdict came in over the phone on her 60th birthday, while our full consultation with an oncologist came the following week, on my 29th birthday. The good news was that there was treatment available, though it would never eradicate the cancer, and wouldn’t work indefinitely.
Once we’d finally come to understand what was happening and Mum started taking her new miracle pills, things started to pick up remarkably quickly. The cough all but vanished in a number of weeks and we had newfound hope that we’d still have more time together as a family, albeit with this new reality and a newfound sense of gratitude. I started to pop out on my bike for an hour or two at a time. With the thought of Mum on her own at home on my mind, I didn’t want to be out for long, and for the first time I really felt that I could relate to my time-crunched fellow riders with families or partners at home awaiting their return.
Those few, sweet hours became a glorious respite, not only a distraction from the trauma of the past few months, but also a reconnection with the rural landscape of East Devon. This was where I’d grown up, learnt to ride a bike, and often returned when things weren’t going my way for grounding and reflection. The lowland heath of Woodbury Common was where we’d walked as kids, mountain biked as teenagers, and now returning on a lovely, wide-tyred steel gravel bike to experience it all anew. I was revisiting the seaside towns of Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton as well as the National Trust’s Killerton Estate, all places we’d enjoyed as a family in my childhood, bringing back some lovely memories.
Never happy just riding for the sake of it, I soon came up with a plan to give my little bursts of escapism some purpose. I’d been hugely inspired by the work of my friends; with bike designer James Olsen’s Torino-Nice Rally route and Outdoor Provisions founders Luke Douglas and Christian’s UK-based Second City Divide. If they could devise incredible bikepacking routes for everyone to enjoy, why couldn’t I?
East Devon was an obvious choice for me, too. When riders think of Devon, typically the wilds of Dartmoor National Park or the more verdant Exmoor spring to mind, yet in this much-overlooked patchwork of agricultural landscape, lowland heath and Jurassic coast there is plenty to be enjoyed; if you know where to look.
Through the previous few lockdowns, constrained to a narrow radius in Bristol I’d rekindled my love for wildlife, getting into birding and noticing a lot more throughout the seasons on my local patch. Moving back to Devon was a real treat in that respect, with the wonderful RSPB Goosemoor and Bowling Green just a short ride away, with muddy banks of the River Exe home to a whole host of waders, ducks and migratory birds. Seaton Marshes offered much more for birders a little further down the coast with many hides to peer out from, and with East Devon peppered with rare lowland heath, a crucial habitat for nightjars and Dartford warblers, among other endangered invertebrates, there was much to explore with a fresh perspective.
With a monocular and sandwiches stashed in my bumbag, linking up these gorgeous nature reserves and wild places became my mission, and a much-welcomed distraction. I’d return home and explain to my parent’s where I’d been, on recces that would turn up gems and boggy, no-go tracks in equal measure. As the weather warmed through spring we started to enjoy a few trips out together, so I’d take Mum to Sidmouth for fish and chips on the beach before an ice-cream from Taste (very important in the route testing), or we’d drive up over the Commons and I’d point out the tracks that the Trail was plotted along.
In May I invited some pals down to see what they thought of the route, by now a 115-mile loop from Exeter Train Station to Lyme Regis on the Dorset border and then back, heading out along the coast and back further inland. We had a whale of a time taking on the route over three days. That might seem a little excessive for 115 miles, but the steep hills of Devon cannot be underestimated!
One year on, with Tudor’s gorgeous photos to showcase the tracks and views of the East Devon Trail, we’ve finally been able to share the route. Most importantly, I’ve been able to enjoy a year of little day trips, celebrating special occasions and just chatting with my Mum, which back then all seemed so uncertain.
That’s why I’d ask anyone taking on the East Devon Trail to consider donating to FORCE Cancer Charity, our local Exeter-based charity that works tirelessly to support both cancer patients and their families.
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