This week we have had mountain bikers, both local and from further afield complain about how they (in this instance “they” are National Trust and Shropshire Council working in partnership) have surfaced the track from Pole Cottage to Pole Bank and down to the Medlicott junction therefore ruining it for mountain bikers. Having ridden the freshly surfaced track I happen to agree, as a keen mountain biker the trail now lacks any real challenge, sanitized of its natural features, a real shame.
However, we need to get some perspective on the matter. Firstly the Long Mynd is not actually exclusively a Mountain Bike centre, we (as Mountain Bikers) are only a small party of users, and many different people use the hill for recreation and a place of work. So why bother re-surfacing? The path is a public right of way and is a bridlepath. The surface was not conducive to horse’s feet with large loose stones. The main issue is that the path is getting wider over time as users move into the heather in order to avoid stones. We have seen this before in the 1990s when two or three paths become opened up and what was once a beautiful looking hillside looks scarred and damaged. The new wider, smoother path will now also allow access to Pole Bank for less active and less able users.
If making a mile of Long Mynd trail less interesting for some Mountain Bikers means that Pole Bank is accessible to wheelchair users and families then what’s the problem? As a consequence of this work potentially more people will be able to enjoy the view from Pole Bank and more people have an introduction to the great outdoors and might be inspired to get into Mountain Biking.
The management of Long Mynd is nothing new, many a trail has been surfaced and maintained to improve access and manage erosion. Many people comment on the natural beauty of the area, however it’s no longer natural, if it was not for the bracken burning and the grazing the beautiful heather would disappear, all the bridleways we ride are manmade, evolved from drovers roads and used for access for many years.
These trails and countryside need to be managed for all users, both people that work the land, and recreational users. It’s a job that requires finding a balance between conservation and development work like this. It’s a job that we appreciate as on the whole we benefit from the work. It’s also a job that we are glad we don’t have to do because you can’t please all of the people all of the time, we just hope that they are considerate and appreciate the common goal.
The day started early, for a Saturday. I awoke at 7am and wandered downstairs to make a cup of tea. I had slept badly, probably due to the anticipation of the day ahead. I drank my tea and made some toast for breakfast, wondering if I should be having toast before such an event. The weather looked rather changeable. It was dry but cloudy and the forecast was saying that there could be some heavy showers.
After double checking that I had everything I was likely to need, I loaded my bike onto the car and set off to pick up my friend from his house. We added his bike to the bike rack and drove to Norbury Village Hall, which was to be the starting place for the 2013 Long Mynd Batch Burner. After a bit of a detour down some country lanes we arrived at the venue. With still nearly an hour to go before the start, there were already over 100 riders present.
The venue had been professionally set up, with ample car parking in an adjacent field and the registration area in the village hall itself. Outside the hall there were marquees, sponsors’ stands, a refreshment stall and a stage for the afternoon’s entertainment.
After registering we applied our official numbers to our bikes and found our friends who were also taking part in the event.
At 10:00am we all made out way over to the starting point and listened to some final instructions and guidelines. After a countdown by the children of Norbury Primary School, we were off, on the first leg of a gruelling 30 mile trek up and down the Shropshire Hills.
With a group start of over 200 riders, it was a case of making sure you didn’t crash into one another at the beginning. Some riders got away and were setting a very fast pace. Those of us that have cycled these hills every week smiled wryly, knowing that it was more important to pace oneself for the duration.
After three miles of country road followed by a farmer’s track we arrived at the first of four climbs, a long steep rocky track which took us from the west side of the Long Mynd to Pole Cottage. The mile long climb was around 800ft and lasted for around 20 minutes, but it was tough and some people found it too much and had decided to walk it. I got into a rhythm and although my legs were burning I forced myself to keep going, despite the rocks trying their hardest to disrupt me. This is what I had trained for and I knew I could do this section.
As we were climbing, the sun came out and I quickly felt over dressed. Finally the end of the climb was in sight and we arrived at Pole Cottage to be greeted by a team of marshals who shouted encouragement at us for completing the section. We decided to regroup and wait for all of our group to arrive there and I was able to jettison one of my layers to one of the marshal’s vehicles.
Next followed a short climb to Pole Bank, the highest point on the Long Mynd and the fourth highest point in Shropshire. That meant that there had to be a downhill section to follow and indeed there was. We accelerated down the trail to Shooting Box and then along towards the Port Way. This was fast dry trail and we were soon at the Batch Valley section of the event, specifically Jonathan’s Hollow, a section that had been granted special access for the day by the National Trust.
Jonathan’s Hollow is a narrow trail, which is technical in places. It involved a hairpin turn on a steep slope, at the start and a marshal was warning us of the sharp left turn. Just after this was a tricky rocky section which had been made even trickier by the previous days’ rain. It was here that I had my only mishap of the day, when my front wheel decided to stop dead whilst I carried on over the handle bars. Fortunately I didn’t sustain anything more than bruised knees and a bruised ego. I was soon back on my bike and continued down the windy track to the bottom of Batch Valley.
Next followed a windy singletrack section, climbing up over Novers Hill and down to the back of the Water Factory. Then we crossed the golf course and descended into Cardingmill Valley.
None of us was looking forward to the next part of the route. The climb to the top of Motts Road was extremely difficult at the best of times. There are parts of it that none of us have ever cycled, due to the rocky terrain and the gradient of the track. The wind had increased significantly and this had made it even more difficult. I was happy to walk this part, although even this wasn’t easy fighting against the wind.
Once at the top of Motts Road, we followed the trail back down to Pole Cottage where we had our official food station stop. Much needed nourishment was taken on board in the form of flapjacks, jelly babies and bananas. By this time the wind was bitterly cold and rain was definitely in the air.
After our brief refreshment break we set off down Callow Descent towards Little Stretton. A group of us had completed some trail maintenance on this section a week prior to the event. This had made the track much faster, by getting rid of the surface water and ruts that spoiled this particular trail. This section has to be one of the most picturesque parts of the Long Mynd and it is always difficult to keep ones eyes on the trail because of the wonderful view.
At Little Stretton we joined the road for a mile or so of tarmac finishing in a steep climb up to the top of Minton Hill. After a quick regroup, we headed up through the gate and began the climb of Packetstone Hill. The first part of this was not cyclable. I would describe it as resembling a bomb crater, so a dismount was necessary for the first part. Once past this initial section we climbed back on and began the ascent of this steep hill. Whilst I was climbing this section, it dawned on me that we were well over half way and the reminder of the route was relatively straight forward. After all it was over an area that was very familiar to those of us that regularly cycle the Long Mynd.
Twenty minutes later we reached the top of Packetstone. We decided to regroup again. However at that moment we were engulfed by a squalling shower of rain and hail, made worse by the bitterly cold wind. We therefore decide to wait until we got to the bottom of the next decent before regrouping. We then followed a mile or so of windy singletrack across Yapsel Bank to the top of the infamous Minton Batch. Here stood a marshal warning us of the tricky nature of this part of the course.
Minton Batch is a rocky, uneven, twisting trail that requires undivided attention right from the word go. With the exception of a small wooden bridge that crosses some boggy ground it is an entirely natural descent. In places you really have to have your wits about you, as one mistake could see you tumbling down the bank into the stream that runs adjacent to the trail.
It’s always a relief to complete Minton Batch unscathed and as I tend to take things quite slowly descent wise, I found the rest of my group waiting for me at the bottom.
After a quick drink we continued along the narrow country lane towards Hamperley and then up to Priors Holt. There we picked up the forest trail, which is a mile long stoney ascent towards the West Midlands Gliding Club. Whilst not particularly steep, this section always seems to take longer than it should do. However we knew that this was the last climb for the day and once at the top, it was literally all down hill to the finish.
Another regroup at the top of the forestry and then we set off down towards “Trail 2”, which is a narrow zig-zag descent with several hairpin turns in it. This is a fun track although full concentration is needed down here or it is possible to get carried away and have a nasty spill. At the bottom of this section a kind marshal gave us some encouragement and told us that there were only three miles to go.
These three miles were a mixture of narrow road and unmade farmers tracks. Just when we though we’d had the worst of the weather, the heavens opened, while we were crossing an exposed area of farmer’s field. The wind drove the cold rain into our faces stinging like hail stones. It didn’t matter. We were nearly home, after 4 hours, 30 miles and 4000 feet of tough biking.
When we turned into Village Hall grounds we were met with applause and cheers from parents and children. I felt a great sense of achievement having completed what was probably physically the hardest thing I had ever done.
After checking in, we were given a “goody” bag each and we tucked into a well deserved hot dog and pint, whilst listening to music from Fight the Bear, whose album was the official album of the 2013 Long Mynd Batch Burner.
The event had been superbly organised by Norbury Primary School, with the route planning by Plush Hill Cycles and a massive thank you must of course go to all those involved in the arranging of the event.
I would definitely recommend that anyone who is interested in mountain biking should enter next year’s event!
Up until last weekend I was guilty of thinking that Shropshire was that county that you pass through when you’re on your way to Wales for a weekend. I’ve passed through Shrewsbury dozens and dozens of times without ever really thinking about what was close by.
But lately I’ve been hearing the words ‘Minton Batch’ far too often to not go exploring.
The Long Mynd (Welsh for Long Mountain) lies just 10 miles south of Shrewsbury with the nearest town being Church Stretton. The area is known more for its glider club than mountain biking but local business ‘Blazing Bikes’ is quickly changing that.
Based in Marshbrook, just a few miles south of Church Stretton, Blazing Bikes have a fully stocked bike shop, bike hire service and well located campsite complete with traditional pitches as well as a few camping pods.
The campsite was our home for the weekend and as tempting as the heated pods were, we opted for traditional camping.
Arriving late on the Friday it was too late to head out to the hills by the time the tent was pitched so there was nothing left to do but light the BBQ and open a beer.
Saturday morning arrived and bacon sandwiches were consumed as the trail map was studied. With two relatively inexperienced riders joining me I headed in to the bike shop to discuss routes, my one stipulation was that the ride must include the ‘Minton Batch’ I had been hearing so much about. The staff were happy to advise me and between us we worked out a route that wouldn’t be too tough on the legs.
Heading out of the bike centre at Marshbrook we followed the road past the campsite and towards the hamlet of Hamperley, here we turned right and were soon on the forest track. At this point the tree line disguised the magnitude of the Long Mynd and the climb ahead.
The majority of the land on the National Trust owned Long Mynd is a heathland plateau, so taking the forest route is the best way to add some diversity to your ride.
The climb started gently but soon began to steepen as the track wound its way up the hillside. The legs were burning already and with dense forest all around us we had no idea of how much distance we had covered, or more importantly, how much of the climb remained. The only indication of the height we had gained came when a backwards glance revealed a gap in the trees and the views in the distance.
The climb had become too much for my fellow riders and they were off their bikes and pushing. I began to feel pangs of guilt about leading them to such a climb as an introduction to mountain biking. I only hoped that the descents would make amends and that I hadn’t put them off for life.
As the landscape changed and we rose above the treeline, the silence was occasionally broken by the sound of the gliders above. In regular intervals they were winched up into the Shropshire sky and soared over our heads with the wind screaming around their wings.
Despite it being August it was decidedly cold once we were away from the protection of the trees and onto the moorland. I hung my head in shame as the experienced mountain biker shivering in just a T shirt while the other put their jackets on.
The glider club was in sight, as was most of the West Midlands and Wales. On a clear day you can see as far as the Malvern hills in one direction and Snowdon in the other. It’s no wonder the Midland Glider Club chose this location for its home, Midland Mountain Bike Mag may well do the same!
We rested for a while and watched the crazy folks taking a running jump off the hill; that is a hobby that I definitely won’t be trying any time soon.
Rested and ready to take on the descent we headed to the top of Minton Batch. This descent is one of the most talked about natural descents in the UK; a simple Google search will bring up countless forum discussions on the area. Some of these threads included pictures of various injuries suffered on the way down; this was playing on my mind as we lowered our seats in preparation for the descent. If the climb hadn’t already put them off for life; the loss of blood would.
Immediately the trail began living up to expectations; singletrack of the highest calibre. A rocky, uneven, twisting trail that demanded your undivided attention right from the get go.
With the exception of a small wooden bridge that crosses some boggy looking ground it is an entirely natural descent. There is undoubtedly evidence of its popularity in the form of ruts that try to pull your front wheel away from your grip. As unfortunate as the damage is to the trail it also adds to the challenge.
In some places the trail narrows to barely the width of your tyre; one misjudged line could see you falling down the embankment and into the brook that the trail runs parallel to. The second you pick your line for the few metres ahead of you, you have to change it again as you notice a jagged looking rock waiting to destroy your tyre. No trail centre I have visited offers the intensity of this descent. The mind works overtime routing and re-routing the path of your front tyre. Like a sat nav analysing a thousand roads in a few seconds, the rider must analyze a thousand rocks to determine the safest way through.
Eventually the trail eased to a gentle gradient and meandered alongside the brook, we had made it down pretty much unscathed and with Cheshire cat grins on our faces. Only one of us had become a victim of gravity’s wrath, and it was only a minor incident.
We didn’t realise how much height we had lost until a look behind us revealed the mountain looming over us and the top where we were just a few short minutes ago now seeming a very long way away.
The rest of the ride was an uneventful journey back to the campsite, although the smiles didn’t fade all afternoon.
There is a sense of freedom to be had in riding in places like this. Most of us are guilty, on some level, of forgetting the origins of mountain biking. Trail centres are not the history of mountain biking and ultimately won’t be the future of mountain biking. They are merely a commercially viable weekend convenience, eventually the tide will turn and we will all return to the hills in search of that sense of exploration and solitude. New ‘batches’ will be found and internet forums will be alive with threads titled ‘I just found the best descent ever’ instead of ‘what’s your best lap time for trail centre X’.
We only saw two other mountain bikers all day on the Long Mynd, I doubt that we were the only parties out there on a sunny Saturday morning in August so that means that the locals in the know were riding some other part of the long mountain. Where? I don’t know. So,there are two ways for us to find out; endless trawling of forums or endless exploration of hills and mountains.
I’ll see you up there!
Article copyright Midland Mountain Bike Magazine – http://mmbmag.co.uk/