Local riding for local people on the edge of one of Britain’s busiest national parks. Jenn goes exploring Macc Forest’s charms.
There are quite a few ‘forests’ in the UK that have little or nothing to do with actual trees. The Forest of Bowland. The Forest of Pendle. Nottingham Forest. (OK, maybe not that last one.) There’s still a lot of them, though.
There were probably real forests with real trees in these places, once. Before the early British population worked out what the trees were useful for – namely, building and/or burning. Though it still says ‘forest’ on the map, it’s a throwback to a long-gone landscape. They’re just acres upon acres of grass and peat bog now. And – in between that – sometimes there are trails.
Ask a local
Macclesfield Forest is one of those not-forests. Yes, there are trees there. The place is thick with them in parts. Mostly close to the car parks. But when you’re visiting on two wheels you’ll not find much of the good stuff among the trees. When riders say ‘Macc Forest’, they actually mean the swathe of hill behind it, which rises up from the Cheshire plain before blurring into the edge of the Peak District, that has very few trees on it at all. This can be confusing to a newcomer, looking for a forest. But there is riding to be had in abundance, which is where we come in.
In the forested bit of Macc Forest, you’ll find regulation-width fireroad snaking between the trees. A couple of miles of permissive bridleway. Lots of conifers. Plenty of gloom. Convoluted loops of gravel. Climbing up the side of the hill beneath the trees feels a little like staging an escape bid from something unpleasant. The Trafford Centre, maybe. Death by beige. It’s dull. It’s boring. But it’s getting you places. Persevere, because the edge of the world reveals itself abruptly.
A squiggle of muddy, rooty singletrack underneath the trees, a squeaky gate, and then there you are – looking out over a drystone wall at the adjoining hill, with Manchester and the flatlands receding into the haze beyond it. For miles and miles and miles. On a clear day you can see all the way to the seaside. Certainly to Blackpool Tower. Perhaps on second thoughts it’s just a pylon. One day they might switch off Manchester and then we’ll see if it’s really true. Until then, let’s make do with the sunsets, and Jodrell Bank. Epic, smog-smudged, days-ending, sun-downers with a massive radio telescope sitting dwarfed in the middle of it listening for messages from outer space. You can’t finish a day out in the hills by riding into that lot and remain unmoved.
The mostly treeless ridge that impertinently calls itself Macc Forest runs north to south, with little but agriculture between it and the sea. It’s gritty. Sandy. Damp in places. Mostly weatherproof, though the same can’t be said of any brake pads that come into contact with it. Give thanks for disc brakes, because your old Mavic X717s wouldn’t have lasted more than a few wet months here. The trails are made from ground-up sandpaper tinted the nicest shade of dusty rose pink. The pink gets in your chain, sticks to your tyres, gets ground to dust in summer. Remember that? Warm, dry, humid summer…
Get ready for the good stuff.
So 2012, darlings. Autumn is where it’s at. The day we ride this loop starts chilly. Not quite cold yet – there’ll be frost tomorrow but a blanket of overnight cloud keeps Jack away this morning. Covered arms are soon unveiled for a final airing and backs of knee warmers are sweated into gently. There’s a bite in the air, though, and the leaves are on the turn. Winter is on the wind. How exciting. In a few weeks time, all this will be ice, crisping under tyre (and hip, as you slam to the ground…). All the moisture will be locked away for a few short weeks of white-rimmed, frosty mornings and dusk that arrives out of nowhere in mid-afternoon; tea and toast and Marmite, toes aching under the table, feet itching to shuffle themselves warm.
For now though, we’re sweating. The salt water infrequently doused from our noses by thigh-high rooster tails of spray from the ribbon of water that’s carved its way down Charity Lane. Charity Lane is one of those descents that guidebooks refer to as ‘exhilarating’ and ‘rapid’, without truly understanding why trails like this are so well-loved by locals. Taken at face value, as a one-ride stand, it’s mostly unexceptional. A sunken lane between two banks of stone and vegetation, a few sinuous ruts and drops to quicken the heartbeat. It’s short, and mostly over in a flash, and any modern mountain bike will nicely neutralise its charm.
The attraction for frequent users lies in the opportunity to ride something new every time you visit. According to the OS map, this is still a metalled road, though I don’t fancy trying to drive along it in anything but a Unimog. Nonetheless the dual battering dealt out by more diesel power than the humble bike can bring along and bigger weather than our geography can manage means this changes almost from day to day. Sections get scraped out and stoved in. Holes appear and are filled. Aggregate washes down the hill to be replaced by mud, to be replaced by more aggregate washing down the hill from above that. It’s an endless cycle of playthings laid out for us two-wheeled hooligans.
Thankfully we can hoon all we like today. It being Monday, the hills are almost entirely deserted, a rare treat for folk who should – perhaps – be in the office. At weekends the drag up to the Cat and Fiddle is less arduous, as the quarry lorries and artics stay safely out of the way of the motorbikes, waiting their turn ‘til the Monday’s business traffic comes around once more. The gradient gets no easier but the heart-stopping rush of air that’s dragged along behind a massive truckful of quarry stone as it winches up the hill is absent, and that’s a relief.
It’s the briefest of brief road sections though and grabs a good dose of altitude gain for remarkably little effort. Bowling along to Dane Bower once we’ve left the road (and the pub) behind, we’ve a cosy tailwind keeping the pace high. The view’s gigantic; true ‘I can see your house from here!’ stuff, but today we’ve only mist and layers of grey that float above the heather and grass. The blue skies and acid greens of midsummer are pretty enough but the muted reds and golds of autumn are easier on the eye. I would take this peaceful palette over high heat any day.
Ringing the changes.
More rattling descent, more tarmac, more wet. The drop through to Three Shires Head is both confusing to follow (what is it with farms that are all too keen to tell you where you can’t go, but never tell you where you can?) and desperately boggy. Is the high, dry line up the field’s edge, cheating? Not sure, but not being blinded by spray and sheep shit is a bonus. Ungulates scatter, then the singletrack arrives. The packhorse bridge at Three Shires Head sits tucked away between three threads of trail. No cars here, and no picnic tables either; eat your lunch off a rock, go for a paddle, watch the river float on by. We take one trail in, whipping and weaving our way between rocks and heather on a fast, sandy, ‘multiple line choice with a high penalty for failure’, sort of trail and then another out, attacking the ever-steepening ascent with the vigour that only a watching camera can provoke.
Just down the lane and round the corner is Knarr, bypassed today but still worthy of mention as someone, somewhere must be tempted to photobomb the sign with a large letter G… Instead of comedy poses though we are off and over the hill for the penultimate stretch of tarmac (all easy rolling and no real hardship now we’ve got the 16% leg opener out of the way within half a mile of the car park – this is one of those routes that makes the most of a disproportionately large initial effort by paying it back in smaller doses over the rest of the day), and then Cumberland Clough. Another of those unpredictably gorgeous descents awaits.
It’s worth stopping for a breather as the trail steepens here and leaves the wall. The track is old, well benched into the side of the hill and clearly visible winding its way down the valley like the sculptural pleats of Japanese tailoring. Sharp at the edges, blurred by wind-blown reeds, one corner after another becomes the focus of attention as riders appear and then disappear, only to repeat the rise-and-fall that little bit further down the valley. In the silence, it is spectacularly lovely and the sheep seem nonplussed, too.
It is worth bearing in mind at this point that this is farming country and there are livestock roaming around. Please, shut the gates, and be wary of what’s around the corners. You don’t want to be meeting mutton burger on the hoof when you are travelling at speed and they sure as hell don’t want to meet you, either.
Jewel in the Clough (sorry…)
Cumberland Clough is the jewel of this ride. Every ride has a best bit, the bit you’d take home and put in your pocket for next time. Like Charity Lane it’s never the same ride twice but what it is, every time, is lots of fun. Even when you puncture. It’s not a bad spot to fix a snakebite (“I should slow down a bit, this rear tyre is a bit th-BANGSSSSSSST-in. Oh.”), though consideration is given to climbing back up to the mid-point gate to try to retain some flow. It would be purely naughty to speculate just how much fun you might have were you to send three friends ahead, one for each gate and get a clear, uninterrupted-by-ironwork, run. The favour would be returned, of course. After all what are friends for, if not the selfless opening of gates?
If you wanted to finish your ride on this high point then you’d have parked in the Clough House yard at the bottom of the hill and done the last bit of the ride as your warm up. It’s a nice enough spot to end the day if you’ve packed your Thermos of tea and a cheese roll but if it’s a post-ride pint or a cheese and ham oatcake you’re after, then you’ve got one more hill to get over. A bit of road work gets you to the top of the ridge, and from here it’s (almost) all downhill. There’s just the small matter of a near-vertical exit from one of those down-and-up gravelly swoops that takes you to Nessit Hill. The chances of hitting it in the wrong gear are high if you don’t know it’s coming, and the resulting torque on your kneecaps is unpleasant at best. Not a time to engage in ‘ooops, was that your rear shifter’ shenanigans.
Thankfully the kindly folk at the Peak District NPA have furnished the top of the hill with a comfy seat for you to take the weight off; when we zip by there’s already a horse and rider busy admiring the view so we don’t stop today but it’s a truly ace place to contemplate Manchester airport’s landing stacks when the sun’s dropping low in the west and thousands of streetlights are coming on below.
From here it really is all downhill, and though you’re back into the well-trodden, synthetic, properly forestry bit of Macc Forest it’s still a pleasure to be able to coast all the way back to the car. And a beer. And some more sitting and looking at the view.
Staying there and eating there.
Your best bet for accommodation is Buxton, as it’s more of a tourist destination than Macclesfield itself. Try the tourist information centre for details:
Buxton Tourist Information Centre, Pavilion Gardens, Buxton
There are also plenty of YHAs further into the Peak District:
The Nice Nosh snack shack at the visitors centre near Trentabank reservoir should be your first port of call for great food and local produce, but only on weekends and bank holidays:
The Leather’s Smithy, near Langley is conveniently at ride’s start/end and serves a good pint, plus food at usual pub times:
Peak Cycle Sport, Macclesfield
Ordnance Survey OS Explorer Map (1:25 000) The Peak District – White Peak.
The Peak District NPA
- Macclesfield Forest Classic Ride.
- Distance: 23.5km
- Ascent: 664m
- Duration: Two hours or more
Treeless Forest Essentials.
Macclesfield Forest is easy to find. Go to Macclesfield. Aim for the trees on the hill behind the town. Then keep going until the trees are behind you and the Peak District is in front. It’s an odd place, geographically; you can ride here all day looping in and out of the deep-cut river valleys, never crossing your own path but never being more than five miles as the crow flies from your starting point. It has its own scale, too: from the top of the hill it looks like the top of the next one is miles away but you hop from summit to summit remarkably quickly, racking up the elevation as you go. Time passes quickly, but it’s a great place for a quick hit of sugary wilderness goodness as you nip up on t’moor and then down again within an hour or so.
Depending on when you pay it a visit, Macclesfield Forest has two very different faces. During the week it’s pretty much empty. There’s a fair chance you’ll have most of the trails, and the car parking to yourself, though the trade off is that the snack shack isn’t open. But its proximity to Manchester and the flatland sprawl means that, at the weekend, the world and his off-road pushchair descends upon the roads, trails and car parks, intent on making the most of their leisure time with a bracing walk around the woods. It can get crowded. Very crowded. Especially, and usually, when the sun is out.
That said, the age-old maxim applies: 90% of those visitors never venture more than a mile from the car park. (We might have made those numbers up but we’re sure they’re pretty close to the mark.) Like many routes in semi-wild places, it’s easy enough to escape the busy bits around the car parks when you benefit from the increased speed and distance of travelling by bike, instead of on foot. The problem is, like many beauty spots that are saddled with the national park tag near a major conurbation, there are a lot of car parks here. So you’ll notice an ebb and flow as your proximity to them, er, ebbs and flows. C’est la vie.
What you will probably see a lot of, is other riders. While we’ve written about this loop in the direction we usually ride it, which is the way we think it’s most fun, it’s not the only loop around and there is no one-way system in place. You are quite likely to meet riders travelling in the opposite direction to you. Be nice and give way to them rather than just blatting past, especially if they’re climbing – this is one of the unspoken laws of mountain biking, as old-fashioned as that sounds. You could even pass the time of day with them – who knows, maybe you’ll strike up a conversation and find out something you didn’t already know about the riding here. Stranger things have happened than locals sharing knowledge on the edge of a treeless forest.