A Weekend Riding in Shropshire
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.
Climbing would be inevitable but I was advised that the fire road climb through the forest was the lesser of the evils.
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/