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An Exmoor bike ride with Rob Leslie to discover more about the region's outlaws and villains

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: December 20, 2012

  • ON THE RUN: Rob Leslie, Fergus Rougier and Ian Sherman. Picture: Mike Southon. To order this photograph call 0844 4060 269 and quote Ref: BNMS20121127B-009_C

  • REFRESHMENTS: Rob, Ian and Fergus join the North Molton Mothers' Union for a coffee morning, with treasurer Eileen Loosemore. Picture: Mike Southon. Ref: BNMS20121127B-012_C

  • HISTORIC: Oare Church, made famous in the book, Lorna Doone.

  • NOVEL: Lorna Doone.

  • AUTHOR: R.D Blackmore.

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HILE the Queen's Theatre pantomime production about Robin Hood is in full festive swing, this ride around Exmoor celebrates some infamous rogues of enduring local legend. We tackle the wild beauty of Exmoor made famous by R.D. Blackmore in the classic romantic adventure novel, Lorna Doone.

Just for the hell of it, the theatre has kindly loaned period costumes to help Fergus Rougier, Ian Sherman and I get in the revelry-making mood for a two-wheeled raid over once notorious lawless highways and byways. At North Molton, only the Mothers' Union stands between us and our quest towards ill-gotten gains.

We are immediately outnumbered by a Mothers' Union that is reinforced by some of the village's menfolk, who demand a financial ransom of one pound per cup of coffee in return for our liberty. Clutching trouser clips and custard cream biscuits, we flee for our lives towards Exford where the Doones committed one of their most chilling crimes.

Our fearless leader Fergus tosses my request aside to procure extra rations in chocolate from the village green shop, instead declaring that refreshments shall be plundered at will en route.

First is the long ascent north via Edgcott to earn an amazing view over the Bristol Channel of Glamorgan. Stop anywhere up here, however, for a rapturous 360-degree snapshot of scenic square mileage also taking in Dartmoor and Somerset.

It feels like we virtually have a kingdom to ourselves, because no other vehicles can be either seen or heard until the passing of a Christmas shopping tourism coach at the listed AA emergency telephone box on the Porlock Hill section of the A39 road for Lynton.

Travellers in days of old were at risk of violent robbery near here, such as those committed by the savage Gubbins tribe in 16th century Lyd Valley. More infamous of course, are the atrocities a century later by the Doones depicted in R.D. Blackmore's novel.

Apparently, during a house robbery at Exford a servant girl is mortified to hear her employing family's young boy is the victim of cannibalism:

"If any one asks who 'twas that eat thee,

Tell them – the Doones of Badgeworthy."

The country lanes are stunningly beautiful to cycle through, but criminal folklore set around the South West presents a deeply macabre contrast. Gruesome tales would have reached here in the 18th century about the cannibals of Clovelly, namely the cave dwelling Gregg family who dined on the butchered remains of their victims.

While sheep look perfectly content with the rich wetland grazing, Exmoor life is undoubtedly hardy in winter. The cycling is tough too, because I resort to using every single one of the 20 gears that my cross-country bike has to offer.

Tackling this 25-mile circular route anticlockwise means one 25 per cent gradient is thankfully a descent of Hookway Hill, which still sets the pulse racing to remain upright over slippy leaves and mud around tight corners. The longest of numerous steep ascents after Malmsmead is so respiratory demanding that it takes a good 10 minutes for Ian to eventually break the united recuperating silence by highlighting our inability to commit any mischief yet in the thick of bandit country. And there are only another 12 miles left.

The next six miles of the B3223 carry us over the open moorland before the steep descent into Simonsbath and the Exmoor Forest Inn, where Snickers bars and tea are all that's required to revive our buccaneer spirit. This is where I learn from my companions about the renowned highwayman Tom Faggus from North Molton, who like Robin Hood stole from "none but the rich with entertaining charm to redistribute among the poor, drew not a drop of blood from victims, nor inflicted any violence or cruelty".

Apparently when Tom intercepted, by sheer coincidence, the very man responsible for cruelly inflicting the financial hardship that had forced him in despair to a life of crime, he declined the potential booty handed over from trembling hands:

"Permit me the pleasure, sir of honouring the custom that a robber never robs a robber."

It is a steady ascent from here to ride between hedgerows before the fast descending B3224 return to Exford where Fergus passes me an old library book about the history of local rogues and outlaws. While he and Ian gather together the remarkably realistic and in turn highly dangerous "fake" weaponry on loan from North Devon Theatres' prop department, I am cautious to check that the book's library return date is not overdue.

I suppose three vegetarians mounted upon ecology-friendly bicycles cautious of returning a library book on time will never make convincing outlaws.

A seasonal stuffing of merry mischief is promised however by the Robin Hood panto cast at the Queen's Theatre in Barnstaple until January 5. Box office: 01271 324242.

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