I love cycling, both on and off-road. It costs relatively little, is great exercise and the off-road stuff in particular means being able to escape from motor traffic and explore the natural beauty around us, even in heavily populated SE England. For me, it’s definitely not about riding like a crazed lunatic and taking unnecessary risks, it’s about testing my skills, recognising my limits and respecting others when our paths cross, be they other riders or walkers out with their dogs and kids.
At present, I live on the SW side of Bracknell, Berkshire. Swinley Forest - a large wilderness south of Bracknell owned by the Crown Estate - contains a maze of winding trails with varying rideability (often depending on recent rainfall levels). Every ride can incorporate variations in routes, and this variety is precisely what makes the riding there so interesting.
Even on sunny summer weekends, the NW side of the forest nearest where we live has never been that busy, partly because the place is so huge, but mainly because the more ‘exciting’ stuff that draws hardened MTBers is down toward Bagshot on the opposite SE side of the forest. Out of summer you could ride for hours and see no other riders at all.
Now the Crown Estate have decided that the new one way graded trails they’ve recently developed will be the only trails bikes can use other than the wide fire roads, one of which can be seen in the picture above. (Everything was previously two way, though some of the trickier routes only really worked in one direction.) At a stroke, this decision makes many miles of singletrack off limits to bikes, including most of those near where I live. Trail centres of this type are common in wilder areas of the UK, and are great for encouraging speed (if that’s your thing), ensuring that weather is of no real concern (they are always rideable), and guiding riders unfamiliar with the forest. For anyone local though, restricting riders to set trails is simply a straitjacket.
Allegedly this is to counter legal claims from compensation by injured riders, but surely people ride at their own risk? I don’t understand how any claim of negligence on the part of the Crown Estate could possibly succeed. It’s not like riding a roller coaster at a theme park: the rider has to be responsible for their own safety based on the conditions, their bike and their abilities.
There are also some issues cited with protected species during March-August, Swinley Forest being a designated SPA. But the birds in question - the nightjar, Dartford warbler and woodlark - nest in the more open heathland areas where there are relatively few trails. Any such trails could easily be closed off during that nesting period, so really this seems just as spurious as the legal compensation argument.
All in all, it’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and probably unenforceable considering the size of the place. But neither me nor my keen off-road riding partner exactly relish the thought of becoming trespassers when we’ve been cycling there legally for years by paying for permits (which contributed to trail maintenance and improvement, mainly in the more popular areas). This permit scheme is now being withdrawn in favour of car parking charges at the Look Out centre, which - being local - we don’t use.
England is already very restrictive about where bikes can legally be ridden owing to its rather archaic designations of bridleways and footpaths. This makes areas such as Swinley Forest with its maze of paths all the more worth preserving as an area for exploration. Because walkers tend not to venture too far into the forest, interactions are rare, and I would always slow down and give a walker right of way in any case.
Unfortunately the Crown Estate plan seems to be set in stone, and because I’m still recovering from my collarbone break late last year, I can’t even do one last non-trespassing ride for old time’s sake. (Not that the snowy weather is massively inviting today!) So there we have it. Another little piece of freedom chipped away in the name of creating a ‘centre of excellence’. There’s progress for you.