A Motcombe outdoor leader is helping visitors discover the stunning scenery of Shaftesbury and the Cranborne Chase on two wheels. Dan French is applying his experiences from his award-winning Exmoor Adventures to his new North Dorset-based adventure business.
Shaftesbury has a long-standing connection with cycling. Decades before Ridley Scott filmed a boy pushing a baker’s bike up Gold Hill’s cobbles, Victorian cyclists embraced our challenging slopes and stayed in specialist riders’ accommodation on Salisbury Street.
The evolution of the electric bike is potentially a game-changer, opening up our stunning slopes to enthusiastic but less robust riders. Dan French is determined to embrace this opportunity and apply the lessons learned from his adventure sport experiences on Exmoor.
“I’ve been in the outdoor industry now for about eighteen years, and ten years ago I set up a company in West Somerset called Exmoor Adventures. We deliver a range of activities – mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding and archery,” said Dan.
He clearly understands what visitors want. His West Somerset operation has been awarded a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor and he’s been highly commended at the South West Tourism Awards. His activity centre work has taken him to Cornwall, the United Arab Emirates and Spain, but Dan’s heart is now in North Dorset.
“A couple of years ago I got married and my wife Emma is from this area and is heavily involved in her family business. It would not have been easy for Emma to move. I was up for a change. The business on Exmoor is established and I have a good team of people helping me, so I decided to move near Shaftesbury, run things from here and set up a new business while I was at it,” said Dan.
Although Exmoor is stunning, Dan says the scenery on Shaftesbury’s doorstep is also magnificent for mountain biking. “Exmoor is possibly better for mountain biking but there is loads of good stuff over here and the more I am getting out on my bike and exploring, the more I find. There are some brilliant landscapes here to explore.”
On Exmoor, Dan offers some sea and river-based activities, such as stand-up paddle boarding. Although he is keen to offer adventure experiences on North Dorset’s waterways in the future, the bulk of his local business will be bike based.
“Mountain biking is our core activity. It is my true passion really. I have mountain biked since the early 1990s,” said Dan. “It may be that people want to try mountain biking, so we can offer packages where people can come along for the day and give mountain biking a go. We will teach the core skills and take people on a guided ride. We can show you where to go, provide the bikes and all of the equipment.”
Dan has identified the most thrilling rides around North Dorset and the Cranborne Chase. “Around the Cranborne area, in the woodlands, there are plenty of trails. Hambledon Hill and Hod Hill are good. There is a nice ‘figure of eight’ we do around those ancient settlements. That is really picturesque on a nice summer’s day,” he said.
Dan says that the efficiency of electric bikes has improved markedly in the last few years. “These days, they are fantastic. Each year they get better and better. They sell more electric bikes now than standard bikes. It is a massive industry and the technology is there. We have people who may not have done much cycling before, but if you take them out on a guided tour, they are whizzing up these hills and it opens up areas for cyclists that may not be as experienced.”
You can’t get an e-bike to do all the work for you, but Dan says it does take the strain out of cycling up our slopes. “You still have to cycle. You still have to pedal. It’s like somebody walking behind you and pushing you along on the bike,” he explained. “It’s a gentle assist. It just means you generally can go further and in a shorter space of time. It keeps the groups together. You ride along these hills and everybody gets there together, chatting away with big smiles on their faces, rather than puffing away and not enjoying it so much.”
Dan avoids the busier roads where lorries might thunder past. “I prefer to stay off the roads. Certainly, the quiet back lanes are a lot more pleasant to cycle along. I like getting on those bridleways and off the road as much as possible.”
Dan tends to take his riders to the start of the scenic trail, avoiding the traffic. “I will meet groups at a location and then we can set them up on the bikes and take them from there. We’ll meet somewhere nice with a car park and a café, somewhere like Compton Abbas airfield would be perfect to start. Then we can drive out on the road and onto the trails.”
On Exmoor, an established holiday destination, many of Dan’s clients are in the area for a week or a fortnight’s break. He recognises that there are different opportunities in and around Shaftesbury. “Over here, we will be targeting families and residents who live in the area. We are also targeting visitors who might be here for a night or so, or for a weekend. That is definitely a market. There are some of the local school groups. There are plenty of schools around here. We are going to see if we can get involved with their activities,” he said.
From his experiences of leading mountain biking tours around North Dorset so far, Dan understands that many of his clients are not mountain biking novices. “Those people who want to hire bikes are cyclists themselves and know what they are doing. They just want to grab some bikes and head off. People who want a guided ride tend not to have done as much. There tends to be mixed abilities within the group. Those are the people who want to learn some skills and go out with an instructor to show them the trails and have a good time.”
Dan has noticed that social media marketing has spread the word about his service here. He uses Facebook and Instagram. He has also successfully promoted his North Dorset mountain biking tours to clients of his Exmoor-based company. “Sometimes you get people on Exmoor who are on holiday from Dorset, so it is just telling people when they are doing activities,” he said.
You can find Dan online at www.dorset-adventures.com.