12 Days of Christmas: Day 4 – Poachers Turned Gamekeepers

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No, we haven’t lost the plot, that title is right. On Boxing Day 2016 the valley where we’re based was hit by devastating floods. This weekend will be 6 months since they hit, and businesses and families up and down the valley are still recovering. As part of the drive to boost the recovery of the area, and as a general spirit raiser, this weekend sees Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd celebrate their ‘Alternative Christmas’. So, in support of all those whose Christmas was washed away, we’re bringing you our 12 Days of Christmas Big Reads again.

Why are pirates called pirates? Because they just aharrr…Sorry. Flashbacks to Christmas Day crackers there. Join us for day 4 of our big reads from the archives: From issue 81 – When pirate trailbuilders become pillars of the community. Whether they like it or not…

Poachers Turned Gamekeepers.

Words by Chipps.
Pics by Sim.

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

It was when the police called at his front door that Wayne began to suspect the secret trails he was building in the woods weren’t so secret. They’d come round, they said, because there was a car parked at the gates of the woods with a bike rack on. It had been there a day or so and they were concerned that a rider might have been injured. Did Wayne know who might own the car?

“So why are you asking me this?” he replied, innocently. “Oh, that’s easy,” they said. “Everybody knows that they’re your trails. So we assumed you’d know who was riding them.”

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After they’d gone, Wayne considered his options. He could just give up and stop building the jumps and berms in his local woods. Someone else would surely keep them going anyway. Or he could just carry on. After all, it wasn’t like the police had told him not to dig there.

Not long after that, he was in ‘his’ Cockhill woods fixing something or other when some hi-viz jacketed official-looking forestry men walked up to him. They’d been trying to track him down for a while, apparently. The trails he was building were being built without permission of the landowner and they’d have to get torn down. Wayne’s first reaction was to deny everything and run away. The trails would get flattened anyway. He’d even read about people being given bills for reinstating woodlands after trails had been built, so he wasn’t keen to get involved.

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However, he isn’t the kind of man who backs away from a challenge, so he got in touch with the company that manages the forest for the landowner. It turns out to be Tilhill, the company that happens to manage Llandegla and it has been known to be quite pro-bike in the past, so it was worth a try. Wayne had previously talked seriously with one of the other trailbuilders about ‘doing something properly’ with their trails. They’d ridden many other official trails around the UK and always came away with ideas on how they’d have done things better, given the chance (and the land).

So he stood his ground and gave his details to the forestry workers. “I then explained things to the wife and got a slap on the wrist. She then asked, ‘Why don’t we get in touch with the head man?’, who turns out to be the great David Brown [of UPM Tilhill] who’s been fabulous all the way through it and since then – it’s been really good.”

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

I said: “Look, here’s what we’ve done. We knew it was wrong, sorry. Then we entered into negotiations. Negotiations started at ‘flatten everything, take all the jumps down and stay out of the wood’. But I negotiated with the landowners and the landowners were up for it and always wanted the community to do something in the forest. We got the contract drawn up and away we went.”

Sounds simple enough. But this was where the real work began. Firstly, there was a contract to be drawn up, leases agreed, insurance found and solicitors to handle much of it. Luckily Wayne found a local solicitor who was happy to work pro-bono for the good of the community. And then, once the keys were handed over to the wood, Wayne and friends began to realise the scope of their undertaking.

“Once the work started properly, there were some really low bits in the trailbuilding work. Unless you build trails for a living, it’s totally alien to you. You can only think about what it’s going to be like. You can’t imagine that you’ll be sat behind a tracked dumper for 50 minutes to do six foot of track. It was just constant.

“We had a bit of a deal on with the plant hire company for the weekends and we had to get as much done as we could then, so we were working in the dark under lamps with generators.”

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

Let’s all build a trail! Hello? Anyone there?
Of course, everyone wants to build their own trails. And, initially, lots of riders turned up to help build. Many of them probably expected that a half hour of patting down some dirt (like they do in the Red Bull films) would give them access to an afternoon of post-dig shredding. But when there aren’t any trails yet, there are no trails to ride. When the payoff is months in the future, many would-be trailbuilders aren’t keen to invest.

Wayne initially had a good crowd turn up to dig. “Oh yes, we soon wore them out. Some only lasted… hours, before they went home again. But then it’s easier once you’ve made your group into this formidable workforce. Everyone knows what to do. There are some young lads there – their mum drops them off as slaves every weekend and it’s brilliant. They’re really good – and now we go out to other trails as a group – to Llandegla and up to Scotland. It’s all positive.”

As we looked around the would-be trails, one of those mums came round too. She’d been dropping her boys off and picking up their muddy, tired selves eight or more hours later every weekend. She’d brought her camera along as she’d become the unofficial trail centre biographer, charting the progress of the trails and the swing of the seasons. There have been days when it’s taken an hour to free the tracks of the tracked wheelbarrow from ice, and yet the core of builders has continued to turn up. When the trails are finished, they will own them in many senses of the word.

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

I met up with Wayne, having spoken to him over the phone a couple of times. I probably imagined a younger, ‘radder’ character than the greying bear of a man who crushed my hand in his at the door. In his 50s and with the sparkling eyes of a true enthusiast, it’s easy to see how you might agree to rent him one of your woods that you weren’t really using that much, or agreeing to spend the day shifting rocks for no reward apart from the sense of a job well done.

Wayne exudes confidence and charisma and the young, and not-so young lads he has working with him regard him as a benevolent uncle type. It seems certain that the organised layout of the woods, with sturdily built bridges and access tracks, tools and building know-how wouldn’t have existed without him. Not to mention that he’s bankrolled much of the build out of his own pocket. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Time to go back in time.

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

How did it start?
So how did it start? Like much woodland around the UK, through the years, there have always been trails in these woods. There are deer trails, there are a few fire-roads (one of which Wayne helped build, a generation ago) and then a few berms and drops appeared, ones that appeared to have always been there. Wayne and his riding buddies had originally started racing each other on a track on the other side of the valley.

“We’ve always liked downhill racing and we have a track on the other side of the valley – an open flat-out track. That’s ‘semi permissive’. The landowners have given us verbal permission to ride there. Nothing written. The farmer who rents the land is not that keen on bikes, but he’d much rather have bikes than dogs.

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

“We asked the farmer ‘Can’t we just give you a sweetener to use it?’ Nope. He didn’t want to get into that, so we asked the landowner how much it was to rent. £8,000 a year… See you later!

“My pal got injured and couldn’t ride a bike for a while, so he went up to the woods across the valley and he found the old stuff, the tracks and jumps that people had done. Everybody says they’d built stuff in the woods, yet of the five different people all claiming to have built tracks in the woods, none of them knows each other, so who knows.

“My mate, he’s very good at treading a path through the woods and we just follow the trail he’s plotted and make it a bit more rideable, slacken the corners a bit and so on. His building work’s a bit shabby… With [downhill] trailbuilding you’ve got to build upside down. You’ve got to have the big rocks on your jumps so that they don’t wear out, whereas he’d have his softer stuff on the top of the trail and it would chase you down the hill.

“He started walking this trail and asked me to have a look at what he’d made just by clearing a trail with his bow saw. That was going back about four years ago. It got lots of people interested and they all joined in and we built a continuous track halfway up the hill. We had this line that you could get five runs in of an evening. Then people started buying bigger bikes as their trail bikes started snapping and then it went up to the next level. We kept building more stuff, going back up the hill until it popped out at the top of the forest.

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

“We had some ‘mates’ races’ and we were overwhelmed by the amount of youngsters that were turning up. We couldn’t believe the conditions they’d ride in. The more they fell off, the more they loved it. They absolutely loved being caked in mud. I’ve been riding since the late 80s, early 90s. I’ve spurred on a few lads to start riding and although I’m starting to slow down now, that’s what’s keeping me fired up. Getting them buzzing, getting them riding and racing and winning races.”

So how dark is your red?
Given the low-key, low-budget, medium-risk trails that used to exist in the woods, did Wayne and crew have to think more sensibly about the ones they replaced them with?

“Right from the word go, the plan was to put the two major trails back in. One is the freeride and one is a 1.2km downhill trail called the ‘red’ run, although it’s more of a dark red… And to make sure they could be ridden all year, fixing stuff that wasn’t right on the previous trails. We could get machinery in there, we could get boys in, digging. We soon got tired of that though and got some diggers in and made some real mess, then we tidied it up after. Everyone’s learning skills while they’re at it though. They’re learning to drive diggers and dumpers and how to move trailbuilding material from A to B.”

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

Everyone has an idea of what is a ‘fun’ and a ‘rideable’ trail and it’s Wayne’s job to make sure that the trails remain at the skill level they’re built for, and that a red trail doesn’t have an unannounced 20ft gapper round a sharp bend. The freeride trail, meanwhile, will have all sorts of aerial nonsense, but again with a consistency so that a rider will know what to expect.

“It’s our interpretation of a (good) trail. It’s difficult as we’ve got a mixed bunch of riders. I’m one of the oldies, but we have some young lads who go massive. This is the trouble we have. Apart from the [limited] parking, my other worry is with some of the gaps they’re making (in between the trees). They’ll happily ride gaps with trees either side. It’s our interpretation of what we think it should be. The trail’s already there, so it’s more like a drawing that we’re colouring in. It’ll change as we learn more about trailbuilding and about how to get things around our own forest.

“I started at the top of the hill, because the top was going to be harder than the bottom. They all slated me because they wanted to start with the easy bits. We looked at different methods of getting the building materials to the top of the hill. We even priced up the local guy with a big helicopter who does building work. He was working up the road and came down to talk about it, but there were electric cables everywhere we looked. There was a spot, but the access was rubbish. He was keen to do it, but it was £1,000 an hour, plus we’d have to get the stone to the take-off area, fill ton bags before you start. As it was, a mate of mine has donated a hundred ton of hardcore to get us started. We used a lot of rock and built an access road to get the dumpers up the hill.”

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

As luck would have it, they discovered an old disused shale quarry in the woods. “We had a machine driver in, a real guru – he could comb your hair with it – but he found this shale in the old quarry there that we’ve used for a lot of our trail topping.

“Tilhill sent a scout out to see what we’d been doing. And he said that it totally exceeded what he was expecting us to have done so far. Turns out that this guy is actually a Megavalanche rider, so know what he’s on about. He reckoned that this kind of project could even be rolled out to other places where there are local woods.”

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

Uncle Wayne
Not every bunch of downhillers has an Uncle Wayne though. To achieve the kind of semi-pro finish that the trails currently have takes time, organisation and, unfortunately, a fair amount of money. Due to the fact that the woods are only on a three-year rolling lease, they’re currently ineligible for many of the grants that established forestry centres can get. Simply put, no one wants to give money to a project that might not be there in a couple of years.

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

So who’s paying for all of this? “Dirt-Trax Ltd. And that’s me. Heh heh,” replies a surprisingly cheerful Wayne. He estimates that it’s probably cost him £10,000 so far, with insurance alone being £1,800 a year and rent of the woodland nearly that. Then there’s the plant hire and tools, not to mention the big lumps of rock.

Wayne’s main ambition is to get the crew out there, prove themselves, look professional and then they might be able to extend the contract so that the landowner sees them as a proper tenant and they’ll be eligible for some of the rural regeneration grants that they well deserve.

The pool of volunteers comes from word of mouth and from a website and Facebook. The local bike shops put the word out too and keep the interest going. “We get people come and help who normally work in offices, who wear themselves out, hauling on a steel bar, getting shale out of the pit, but they love it! They say ‘I’ll be able to hold on to my bars harder now’.”

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

The plan at the moment is to open in September 2013, a year since getting the keys. Before then they have to get the trails finished, let them settle, iron out all the mistakes and get it ready to open without any curious riders sneaking in to ride the still-soft trails before they have a chance to harden. The plan is to make it a ‘pay to play venue’ with club members and day passes. Not long after they open, they’ll have to start running downhill races and training days, purely to get some money flowing back into the club and the gaping hole where Wayne’s bank account used to be. And yet, this genuinely doesn’t seem to be why he’s doing this, in the woods every week, lugging tons of stone around, up to his knees in mud.

“I don’t want anything out of the trails. Don’t get me wrong, I need to have something coming out of the trails to pay me back, but I’m not in it for the £50K a year. I’ve got my own building business that pays me. Even if it were a big flop, it’s been a great learning curve for me. At this point in time I’ve not had to borrow any money, I’ve just put in what I have – and I’ve learned more than having been to university. I’m a master craftsman anyway, I have a lot of skill, but this, the coordination of volunteers, shifting tons of rock around, solving problems, is the limit!

“I’ll be waiting for the dumpers to come up the hill and someone’ll run up and say ‘They’ve put petrol in the diesel engine and diesel in the petrol’ – they’re only young. They don’t know the difference, so you can’t get annoyed with them.”

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

Opening time.
And once the trails open, the worries don’t end there. The forest currently only has limited access through a farm gate. There’s limited parking and very limited space if you’re not in a 4×4. The busier the trails, the more he’s going to have to worry about building a car park. And then, how do you control who rides your trails and who’s paid to be there?

“Initially, I’m going to have to go up in person every day. The members who build there will become my sheriffs. You’ll always get people who want to ride for free – who don’t care that you’ve put your life on the line to build the trails. They don’t even want to pay £2 to park at the bigger trails. I’d love to be able to charge for parking – as you only have to patrol the car park then. I’m relying on people thinking like I do. I want it better. I want to be able to drop the yearly memberships, I don’t want to have composting toilets for ever – I want proper toilets.

“We’re doing a lot for the community. We’ve had 70 people for mates’ races up here – over 50% were under 16. In a way, that’s helped us swing things with the forest. I love to do it. If I wasn’t doing it there, I’d be doing it somewhere else.”

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

Nearly there.
It’s still early days, and there’s a lot of hard, unglamorous, manual work ahead of them before the trails are even rideable. However, British Cycling has already been up there to see about it as a potential race venue. Red Bull has been up to see about it being a potential jump comp venue and many local riders are waiting to see how it’s going to turn out.

Wayne and the other Cockhill builders just want to build trails and for people to love to ride there. If enough people share that dream, then they’ll get their wish. And then we’ll see what they have planned next.

Many thanks to Wayne, Rebecca and the trailbuilders of Cockhill.
For more information on their trails, visit dirt-trax.co.uk

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

Black Canon Collective.

One of Wayne’s inspirations has been the similar story of the Black Canon Collective. It currently operates a ‘pay to play’ series of woodland trails in the Longleat Estate. Here’s what founder member Al Mackinlay had to say about their beginnings:

“It started because a bunch of folk had been building little downhill trails in the woods for years, nothing official, just mates making a few berms and jumps in a seemingly unused bit of forestry with a nice gradient. The trouble was that it got quite popular and with the rise of internet video (and a couple of other things) the then head of forestry for Longleat could no longer turn a blind eye to it. So one Saturday riders turned up to find Longleat security at the trails telling them they were no longer allowed to ride there and that they must leave the area immediately. Word spread and a bunch of folk got together in a pub (like all good meetings!) and decided to approach Longleat to discuss the possibility of the trails going legit. Long story short, we set up the club, leased the land from the Longleat Estate and got back riding. We had to remove the shonky jumps and the ‘oh my god I’m going to die’ road gap too, but building the stuff again more sensibly and properly out of dirt (and not rotting wood) means things are a lot better to ride now.”

The club worked to build and maintain trails in the woods, with outside riders strongly encouraged to join the club, or pay a day fee to cover insurance and trail maintenance. Currently, the future of the trails is uncertain, as Longleat is undergoing some major changes. The BCC riders, however, are still optimistic that a solution can once again be found.

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

Here are Al’s tips for riders looking to approach landowners, or forestry managers about building or riding trails on private land:

“It’s important to get organised early and to have a small group: two or three people only, liaise between the club and the landowner. A lot of it comes down to the parties getting on and understanding how they can exist together. We wanted to ride, Longleat wanted rid of a liability issue, so it worked out for both groups. Keeping that relationship going is key. We lost the connection for a while because our Chairman stepped down (the only chap who dealt with Longleat. Mistake.), and Longleat cut their staff quite a bit (including the two chaps we’d been working with), so rebuilding the relationship really is like starting all over again. It’s worth the effort though, despite the groms who don’t like the rules and walkers who don’t like the bikes.

“The main thing I’d say to people in a similar situation is that it’s always worth asking, just don’t forget it’s not your land and you need to be proactive in telling the owners what you can do for them. Most landowners do not want to have to manage riders, so having a contact who will do that for them and who they can trust to keep things safe, and keep things the right side of a liability claim, is a big thing. CTC/BC club insurance is a really helpful there.

“True enough, it’s not always easy and as we have found with Longleat, it’s not always a smooth road. A landowner is never going to make money from a bunch of mates’ trails, and forestry operations or expansion plans will always come first for them. No point in crying about it, just move on and find somewhere new (which we’re hoping not to have to do, I should add).”

singletrack magazine cockhill trail building

We asked a spokesman for the Forestry Commission what its attitude is to un-approved trailbuilding in its forests:
“This is certainly not about the Commission being the ‘fun police’ or criticising how other riders build their trails or timber features.
“The bottom line is that there is a clear public safety issue here and we have a responsibility to all the other users in the forest who may come across these trails. Overall, mountain bikers only make up a small percentage of visitors to the national forest estate so we need to take that into account.

“We would always advise mountain bikers to speak to their local office about trails in their area. It’s far better to try and work with us and see what is possible. We don’t enjoy taking down trail features and it is a drain on our own resources, but at times we have no other option to do so.”

Features like this are available in every issue of our magazine, and subscribers can access the entire digital archive whenever they like. If you’d like to read more of this kind of thing, head over to our subscriptions page, where digital-only subscriptions start at just £1.49.

Comments (1)

    Sad to read that the BCC had to hand the licence for their trails back to the Longleat Estate due to no one being “up for” the job of managing it.

    Good work Wayne. I hope the investment continues to enjoy local support.

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