Words & Photography Barney Marsh
Before we begin, a quick word in your shell-like, if I may – because this is a ‘classic ride’ with a difference. Cannock Chase is a relatively small patch of greenery, and it already has some rather spiffing man-made trails built upon it. There’s more to it than that, granted – but to ignore the purpose-built stuff completely would be churlish, especially when an awful lot of it is so much fun. And, especially, as this is a ‘classic’ ride, rather than a ‘untrammelled trail’ ride, or a ‘bridle path only’ ride. It may include sections of purpose-made trail, but hey – enough explanations. All you need to do is head over and ride it yourself; you’ll see…
Preamble over, now for the Chase.
It’s perhaps a testament to an area that it’s possible to have huge amounts of fun despite dreadful conditions. That, even if your tyres, brakes, drivetrain, jacket and shorts are less than up to the task (I hate the word ‘chafe’ almost as much as the word ‘moist’, especially when either one is referring to shorts), you can still drive soggily away with the memory of a darned good ride, as well as shaking fistfuls of crisps.
It’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting too much from Cannock Chase. Before you start loudly booing, the last time I’d ridden there was around 20 years previously when visiting my (now extremely ex-) girlfriend in Birmingham, so perhaps I’d subconsciously associated the place with Birmingham’s infinite expanses of concrete, stressed undergraduate students and at least one (actually, possibly two, now I come to think of it…) extremely ill-advised love affair(s). And also in my defence, the trails I managed to find all those years ago were of the ‘gently undulating fire road’ variety. Not exactly stuff to get the heart racing. Plus it was raining.
Cannocking on wood.
So when photo-gimp Antony and I set off from the sunny climes of – er – Yorkshire, I was determined to change my opinions. I’d heard much about the trail centre stuff at Cannock – the vast majority of it positive – and I’d also heard some approving noises from certain quarters about the other trails in the area which were worth checking out. This despite the fact that the land can best be described as ‘undulating’ rather than properly hilly.
And indeed, when you take a look at the map of the area, it’s absolutely stuffed to the gills with bridleways – especially the northern section. And, while the terrain may not be mountainous or festooned with precipitous drops, it certainly looks well worth a squint, especially as the trail centre stuff to the south is also there to serve as an inducement.
Antony had spoken to an acquaintance, Steve Day, who had extremely kindly agreed to take a day off from TheBestJobInTheWorld™, designing motorbikes for Triumph, to show us around some of his favourite bits of both the dedicated trail-centre stuff and the more natural trails in the area. As we rolled up to the car park after quite a long time queueing down the M60, the M62 and the M6, two things swiftly became clear. One, while it wasn’t actually raining, it was extremely soggy, and two, Steve was something of a fit chap. A lithe, bewhiskered, singlespeeding, 24-hour-World-Champs-racing, has-his-own-coach sort of fit. Erk. So we were going to get wet. Oh, yes. And either I was going to get a monumental pasting, or Steve was going to have one of the slowest days he’d had on a bike for years. And, in all likelihood, both.
The Chase of Spades.
We set off from the main trail centre with the promise of a pretty gloomy day, and headed into some of the man-made stuff. It was extremely wet; puddles of bath-like volume were rudely torn asunder by the huge bow waves caused by two pairs of 3in-wide tyres (mine and Steve’s) only to slap back together rudely when the more sveltely attyred (see what I did there?) 29er ridden by Antony sploshed through them. Antony learned to pull back a little when we charged through, but not before his feet were nicely squelchy. Mwahahaha.
We shrieked through the trees in many senses of the word (speed, exuberance and very noisy brakes), and enjoyed the bermed corners, fun little drops and groomed trails of Follow The Dog. The terrain around here is hardly alpine; my previous description of ‘gently undulating’ still mostly stands, but the trail builders have managed to wring out as much altitude as possible, and there are some stiff climbs and steep descents to be found.
It wasn’t long, though, before we peeled off and started to see what else the Chase has to offer. Although the built trails are great fun, well made and with some nicely challenging bits, Cannock Chase, as I’ve mentioned, is peppered with bridle paths, and there’s really rather a lot of fun to be had. Even in the glop.
I hear you Cannocking.
The problem in winter with riding less ‘managed’ trails back to back with their more weather-tolerant cousins is often the contrast. Goodbye to the fast corners, the quick accelerations, the easy and immediate changes in direction. Hello to tentative leanings, wheel spins and the constant worry that one’s tyres have met their cornering nemeses. Hello, in short, to wetness, and to mud. And lots of it.
This started to become an issue for me, at least in technique, fairly soon. We rode alongside a fairly busy road to find a trail which seemed to give my more pointily tyred companions little trouble, but I delicately skirted and wafted my way around, over, and occasionally into obstacles like an overweight but determined spaniel with no sense of direction. I blamed the tyres, of course. Gradually I began to get my head around the fractional changes in weight which transfer the bike from ‘going straight no matter which way the bars are pointed’ to ‘turning a corner no matter which way the bars are pointed’ and I began to make a little progress.
Soon we hit forest road, and I could relax a little. The view opened up, and it was possible to see a little more of what makes this place tick. Cannock Chase was once a royal forest, which just means it was an allocated hunting playground for royalty, and often fee-paying noblemen, on which any other interference was banned. It didn’t have to have trees all over it (although plenty did), Cannock Chase is populated by deciduous trees and conifer plantations as well as heathland. Although, to put it mildly, it was somewhat splooshy under tyre, the sun started to break out, and we stopped in the unaccustomed warmth to have a look at the map.
As we darted undercover once again, it was clear that the meagre January sun was doing nothing whatsoever to dry the ground out. My fatso Chupacabras had seemingly met their match, although local Steve had chosen his Vee plus-rubber wisely, and still managed to corner his Lauf-forked Ti Travers (chichi, oh yes) with aplomb.
Steve was finding the going pretty – er – relaxed. Embarrassingly for Antony and me (OK, mostly me) he tells us he’s geared his singlespeed down for the day so’s not to tire us out too much, but he’s still behaving, and riding, like a chap who’s used to going much, much faster than we were. I was forced to wheel out that old standby excuse ‘my bag’s really, really heavy, with this big camera in it, and tools and water and stuff’, but honestly, when I’m faced with the sort of man who actually has training rides, it’s pretty much a Herculean effort just stopping my legs from immediately grovelling me over to the nearest coffee shop for the dual standbys of a Flat White and a Quiet Weep.
But still, we valiantly quested onward! So I bravely girded what loosely remained of my soggy loins, reiterated the Backpack Excuse (to rolled eyes and silent mutterings, I’m sure) and creaked glacially forward. While Antony gamely vacillated between the two of us, Steve hadn’t even broken a sweat, so I imagined he was getting a bit cold. I secretly hoped this might slow him down, but it didn’t. So I asked him to repeatedly ride sections for the camera, as much to give me a rest as to get the shots. I am a bad, bad man.
Chase of Bass. [Enough! – Ed]
Fire road followed conifer plantation trail followed open heathland followed plantation, and soon we were enmeshed in a wonderland of silver birch, bracken and sunshine. This is not what I was expecting, just north of Birmingham – when I spent time in Brum in pursuit of the aforementioned lady friends in the ’90s it was easy to imagine that there was nothing but concrete for at least a million miles in every direction, at least until you hit the Peaks. But this was extremely pleasant. At times it’s almost reminiscent of the Forest of Dean; it’s quietly rolling, the roads that cut through it do so only sporadically and there’s a real feeling of isolation and volume to the place. It’s easy to forget that enormous great swathes of the UK’s population are less than 50 miles away in pretty much any given direction.
The noises of the modern world started to fade away, and we were left with the click of our freewheels, the occasional dog walker searching for their missing pooch, and the sort of silence which becomes more acute when it’s only punctured by the occasional birdsong, or the shriek of brakes, or the increasing wind.
Ah, the wind. As we worked our way around the northern part of the Chase, the wind was alternately at our head, then at our side, then our backs. It seemed much more pronounced as a headwind than as a tailwind, as once we’d dropped down the hill it was dispersed by the trees into sighs and whispers. Any assistance with forward momentum was also annulled by the incline – if you drop in, you’ve got to climb out one way or another, and so did we. Steve and Antony danced on the pedals; I clumped. Steve was Fred Astaire; Antony was John Travolta, I was Tina Turner. Or possibly Chas and/or Dave.
That wind denoted yet another change in the weather and it was clear that more rain was inbound. Fortunately, we were on our way back to the car park, and the lure of a decent coffee and something cheesy and toasted (containing cheese and possibly more cheese), was strong. So with my last remaining energy we crossed back over the road, rode the tail end of the made trails and ended up at the cafe, just before it shut. We piled in, totally covered in – and dripping with – mud, and ordered hot drinks and paninis in what was hopefully, but doubtfully, a winsome and endearing fashion. Unfortunately we quite definitely didn’t endear ourselves to the poor lady who’d been cleaning the floor as a prelude to going home, so she had to start all over again. Sorry about that, ma’am. Although I’d probably be lying if I said it won’t happen again at some point…
Why bother, indeed. Well, apart from the legends of mysterious black dogs, Bigfoot, UFOs, enormous black cats (presumably sent in by Bigfoot in the UFOs to deal with the mysterious black dogs), Cannock Chase is a large expanse of green loveliness in an area which – let’s be frank – isn’t precisely renowned for such things. True, the Peaks aren’t too far away, but Cannock is oft overlooked as a destination in its own right, beyond the Monkey Trail or Follow The Dog – and this is a shame. As I’ve mentioned, it was once a royal forest, so it’s green, and open in places, and lovely, and is still home to sufficient deer that a sign on the road as we drove in suggested that in the past few years there have been hundreds of collisions between the pointy antlered ones and cars. Hundreds. There’s a trail centre selling food and decent coffee, there are the man-made trails, of course, and there’s a surprising amount of fun to be had in the areas where the ‘official’ trails aren’t. Take a look at a the map (OS Explorer 244), and you’ll see that the whole area is frankly flush with bridle paths in a wide variety of flavours – the route here is merely a suggestion; there is fun to be found all over. Wide, narrow – and, yes, if you go in January, rather muddy. But that’s not to get away from the fact that they’re a hoot. And what’s more, if you head over to Stile Cop you’ll find downhill trails, if you’ve got the commitment and (I’m assured the word is) steeze.
Frankly, if you’re heading past the Chase on, say, the M6 or the M6 Toll – and lots and lots of people do, stuck on the motorway to other riding destinations – it’s not so very far away that you couldn’t make a short detour; there’s more than enough to keep you entertained. Just from idle chat to riders, there are an awful lot of people who live nearby, who have never actually been, and who probably should.
Still not enough? Wikipedia and a few of the locals (I mix in select circles, you know) tell me it’s a notorious dogging hotspot too – although we saw no sign of that particular flavour of shenanigans, and we were looking very, very hard…
Distance: 21 miles
Time: 3 hours
Maps: OS Explorer 244
There’s lots to choose from in the Chase itself, nearby Rugeley or Cannock. For bike-friendly B&B, try Willow End, 01889 584800, willow-end.com. Camping-wise, there’s one pretty much on the Monkey Trail – the catchily named Cannock Chase Camping and Caravanning Club site, 01889 882166, campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk/campsites/uk/staffordshire/rugeley/cannockchase or you might try Pillaton Hall Farm 01785 715177, pillatonpools.co.uk
Cannock has a railway station, as does Rugeley, with links to Birmingham and Stafford. The roads are good, and it’s not all that far from the M6. Sadly, there aren’t too many helicopter landing pads nearby, but you could do a HALO drop if you were desperate.
There’s a great cafe onsite – the Birches Valley Cafe, 01889 574475, aecatering.co.uk, which does good coffee and paninis. There are also a few pubs dotted hither and thither.
Swinnerton Cycles is at the Birch Valley Forest Centre complete with bike hire, demos, a workshop and a range of good kit. 01889 575170, bikechase.co.uk