Singletrack `magazine Issue 118: Surrounding Swinley

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Words & Photography Geoff Waugh

Fully paid-up southern mod, Geoff Waugh, takes on a tour of this riding gem within a short distance of London. The fact that it goes near his hero Paul Weller’s house is purely coincidental. Apparently. 

‘There’s no mountain biking in London.’ How many times have us southerners heard that one? Fact is, no, there isn’t any mountain bike riding to speak of inside London unless urban shredding is your bag, in which case may we suggest a BMX would be a better tool? But riding on the outskirts of the capital is a completely different matter. There is a surprisingly large network of trails ready to accommodate the most avid dirt freak. All points of the compass have something to offer – north-east there’s Epping Forest, south-east has Penshurst trail centre, head north and the Chilterns and Aston Hill are waiting. But it is the south-west quadrant of land, roughly between the M4 corridor and stretching almost to the M23 motorway, where most of the really golden stuff lies. 

The three counties of Surrey, Berkshire and Hampshire brag the lion’s share of the riding and the geographical make-up of the land means you could be hacking through fresh and bouncy loam one minute, and up to your axles in soft sand the next. Your mates could be cursing the mud, while you are happily shredding some heathland trails that feel like summer never left the building. 

And what better place to start a ride than what’s become the south-east’s premier trail centre – Swinley Forest. 

Part of the Crown Estate, Swinley Forest has been a mountain bike destination since well before the official trails were made. But like most locations, local knowledge was key to opening the door marked ‘fun’. Tip up without it and you would find yourself riding in ever-decreasing circles cursing whomever said it was ace. These days, Swinley is a well-known spot and riding the marked trails means you are never alone. And it’s not that we’re antisocial or anything, but my riding buddies Simon Adams and Pete Lawrie decided that a route that took us through the waymarked tracks and out into the ‘wilds’ would be A Good Thing. Obviously, being so close to suburbia dictates short road stretches to link trails once outside and away from the numbers, but that’s a small price to pay. Just keep your eyes peeled for the entries and exits and you are good to go.

Entries and exits. 

So it came to be that this ride started in the Swinley Trail Centre car park, as good a place as any in an area where parking can be sensitive and it’s also easier to navigate back to. Simon had cooked up a ride that enters Swinley’s Blue trail and then exits the forest completely to head south on an outward leg towards Tunnel Hill. If names like Crowthorne, Bagshot, Deepcut and Pirbright seem vaguely familiar it’s because these are all venues used for the ever popular Gorrick cross-country races. The fact that Gorrick recently celebrated 25 years shows the quality of the singletrack on offer. The route is a kind of double-headed lollipop shape, like a dumbbell of the old-fashioned strongman variety. 

It’s good to see some old faces again and we strap up and head onto the man-made Blue trail. It’s all friendly chit-chat until the embedded shingle, fresh with its coating of morning dew, tries to steal away your front wheel and then you shut up, sit up and pay attention. Eyes front. The Blue trail is a smidge over 10km, although we won’t be doing all of it. The track slices through pine forest so typical of the area and one of the reasons the sandy soil drains so well. When trail building guru Rowan Sorrell built the Swinley tracks, huge hucks, rock gardens and pure tech was not top of the list. Instead, the Blue centres around undulating, berm-ridden trails that encourage a speed-through-pumping approach. 

Expect very short steeper sections and be prepared to laugh in the face of braking bumps caused when half the population of London grabs an anchor or two of a weekend. And don’t forget to look around – there will be fun diversions like small bomb holes that beg to be railed before you get back on the route proper. At the Devil’s Highway path we deviate from the Blue to the Red and the singletrack heading towards Tank Traps. This is one of those sections irresistible to mountain bikers. A deep gulley some two hundred metres long that the trail ducks in and out of like a vast dirt halfpipe. Like a halfpipe? That’s exactly what it is. Ride it and then ride it again. You will. I just know. You can’t miss it either because the section is in a deforested portion of land. And there may be other riders doing the same.

Leaving the tanks behind. Or do we?

Out of Tank Traps and turn left to follow singletrack that runs parallel with the fire road. Head past the underground reservoir on your right and dive back into the woodland greenery. There are many trails in here, but yours will still be heading south and eventually break out onto a fire road. Take the steep climb right that leads to a small plateau and the Baby Maker trail – a good thing to know should you get off route and need to ask a local for a landmark. The clearing here is a natural rest spot for riders before they choose one of the technical descents that lead to the Labyrinth – a great example of how to pack maximum fat tyre joy into a very small area – but we’re not here to do that. If you are new to Swinley then you should ride the Labyrinth – just be sure you find your way back up to the Baby Maker. It’s not that hard. 

With your back to the Baby Maker look for a gap in the hedgerow. Take it! The scenery instantly changes from tall pine trees to heathland scrub. The singletrack narrows and the surface is more compact and earthy. The foliage is low so you can see further. It begs to be hacked. Look out for the BT radio mast and pass it on your right on double track to eventually cross an electrical pylon clearing and pop out onto the Esher Road with tall houses on your right and residents’ parking on the left. As Esher Road bends right, look for a further very short section of trail directly ahead that comes out onto The Maultway North. At the end of this road we cross the A30 London Road. As you reach the T-junction, look right and you will see the American Golf Camberley shop. Don’t go in there – therein lies golfing. Cross the A30 and head straight up the road signposted to Deepcut. 

If jumps are your thing, find the gap in the fence at the end of the railway bridge and follow the trail to see big doubles. If not (they are quite large), or you miss this entry, ride up the road until you see a dirt car park on the left and enter into Bagshot Heath. Cross the pylon clearing and veer right over the hard standing. In my case, reminisce about past cross-country races or simply ride right through to pick up the tracks that lead down to the M3 motorway. There are some wickedly fun trails in Bagshot, a contrast to those in Swinley with their naturalness – pine needles and soft loamy lumps abound. All tracks head downwards so you can pick and choose, but there is only one way across the motorway and that is through the tunnel. On the Lightwater side of the motorway, exit the tunnel and look left. See that big sandy natural halfpipe? Go and ride it. Fill yer boots with swoopy fun. If you are a grouch, then the route actually heads directly right from the tunnel and roughly follows the motorway. Don’t surprised if a dirty great military vehicle rumbles past though: it’s slap bang next to the army’s speed test track! 

The three counties of Surrey, Berkshire and Hampshire brag the lion’s share of the riding and the geographical make-up of the land means you could be hacking through fresh and bouncy loam one minute, and up to your axles in soft sand the next. Your mates could be cursing the mud, while you are happily shredding some heathland trails that feel like summer never left the building. 

And what better place to start a ride than what’s become the south-east’s premier trail centre – Swinley Forest. 

Part of the Crown Estate, Swinley Forest has been a mountain bike destination since well before the official trails were made. But like most locations, local knowledge was key to opening the door marked ‘fun’. Tip up without it and you would find yourself riding in ever-decreasing circles cursing whomever said it was ace. These days, Swinley is a well-known spot and riding the marked trails means you are never alone. And it’s not that we’re antisocial or anything, but my riding buddies Simon Adams and Pete Lawrie decided that a route that took us through the waymarked tracks and out into the ‘wilds’ would be A Good Thing. Obviously, being so close to suburbia dictates short road stretches to link trails once outside and away from the numbers, but that’s a small price to pay. Just keep your eyes peeled for the entries and exits and you are good to go.

Mr Weller, I presume?

The trail will spit you out onto the road after half a mile or so and you will see a roundabout – keep ’em peeled for an entry point in the trees on the far side of said circular junction that, again, continues the off-road parallel with The Maultway. You are now on the ‘handle’ of the dumbbell. This may be the straightest stretch of the ride, but it is by no means dull. The surfaces are mostly sandy tracks that run alongside a high link fence which separates you from the MOD’s land. From the high vantage point you can look left at the hallowed spires of Woking – home of the Modfather himself, Paul Weller, and spiritual home to a thousand lonely housewives. Crane your necks and focus and behold there is the fair capital of England, its pavements glistening with gold. Or something. (You can’t actually see the pavements OK?) 

This trail gets twisty towards Deepcut village as it ducks into a birch copse and onto some singletrack that was once part of a Gorrick racecourse. This is classic rooty, leaf-strewn south-east riding with flat 90 degree corners to test your tyre edges and your technique. The trail skirts Deepcut village centre and you will see the Stickledown and Bisley shooting ranges on your left as landmarks. 

And here navigation is crucial, so pay attention! Access issues have seen a new fence erected over our original route. When you arrive at a large, sparkly new chainlink gate, take the right-hand fork so the fencing and woods are on your left. This will pop you out on a road called Alma Gardens and here we are forced to use the tarmac diversion rather than feel the wrath of the landowner. Turn left onto Cyprus Drive and then right to Newfoundland Road. Take a left onto Deepcut Bridge Road and you are back on the ‘handle’. Pass the Deepcut Telephone Exchange and cross a mini-roundabout, then look for a sharp left back into the woods. If you reach the bridge over the railway tracks, you have gone too far. Turn again Whittington. 

The next section gently descends to a lock-keeper’s cottage and over the lock onto the Basingstoke Canal. Turn left as you leave the lock bridge and roll along the towpath. And, if it is as nice as when we rode it, soak in the stillness and the colours of nature and the water like a diamond black mirror. At the Brunswick Road bridge we get off the canal and head right across the railway tracks and then dive immediately right down a steep chute and into the bracken and scrub of the Tunnel Hill area. The railway and Hodge Brook are on our right as we pedal into the network of fire roads and singletrack, then bear left to take in the Tunnel Hill proper. Riding this woodland is largely confined to mostly fire roads, but it could never be called dull – mostly because of the fast-rolling hardpack sand. And recent felling would make any excursion into the trees a pretty futile experience anyway. Follow our route in a lazy horseshoe loop and you will find yourself exiting onto the Old Guildford Road. The temptation is to cross here directly, but the track is a footpath. 

To circumnavigate this, take the road left and then turn right onto the Guildford Road (B3012) – with the next left you are back on the Deepcut Bridge Road. Cross the railway and the canal again for the return leg. From this point you have two choices: the off-roaders’ method which is to retrace your tracks parallel with The Maultway, or use the road itself to get back to Swinley Forest and eventually the signposted trails that will take you onto the Blue trail and back to the Hub. 

For us, deteriorating light and a photographer’s e-bike battery that might as well have flashed ‘PANIC’ caused us to opt for the tarmac at the end of the ride. Our last five miles were powerless and painful, but not enough to wipe the smile off our faces after this south-east mini-beast. 

The Knowledge

Distance: 35.2km

Total Ascent: 403m

The nearest railway stations are Bracknell, a two and a half mile ride away, and Martins Heron, which has a dedicated cycle track leading directly to the venue. Bonza! 

Maps

OS Explorer 160 (1:25 000) Windsor, Weybridge & Bracknell.

Food

The Look Out Café next to the Bike Hub is good for pre/post ride sustenance and offers hot and cold food. En route, there are opportunities to fuel up in the Deepcut café at 63 Deepcut Bridge Road, Camberley, GU16 6QP

And at the furthermost point of the ride, the Basingstoke Canal Visitor centre in Mytchett. Mytchett Place Road, Mytchett, Surrey, GU16 6DD. This independently run cafe overlooking the water is a favourite with road riders in the area and is open from 9.30am until 3pm weekends and most weekdays. 

Bike Shops

Central to the ride is the Swinley Bike Hub, which is situated in the Look Out Discovery Centre car park on the B3430 on the south side of Bracknell, Berks. 

Swinley Bike Hub, Swinley Forest, Bracknell, RG12 7QW

T: 01344 360229 • swinleybikehub.com

The Hub stocks all the spares and accessories you will need and also hires bikes, but bear in mind it closes at 6pm if you plan on a longer ride. Car parking costs £4 a day. 

Accommodation

Bracknell is the nearest town to the forest and has plenty of accommodation in the shape of the standard, but reliable, Travelodges and Premier Inns. If a B&B is more your style, look at The Holly House, Gough’s Lane, Bracknell, RG12 2JR

T: 01344 411750 • hollyhousebracknell.co.uk

The Deepcut Lodge B&B is situated roughly halfway along the ride, so you can strike out to ride in either direction or, if with vehicle, drive up to the Swinley Hub, 105 Deepcut Bridge Road, Camberley, GU16 6SD

T: 07586 270722 • deepcutlodge.com 

Why bother?

If you enjoy singletrack that varies from hardpack, berm-busting shale, hemmed in by tall, sweet-smelling pine trees to foot-wide dark ribbons of trail that snake through gaps in silver birch trunks that are sometimes just wide enough for your bars, then this is for you. The trails in the Swinley Forest are definitely good for building cornering skills; some of the berms are almost 180 degrees and require concentration to ride fast. Yes, the climbs are short and not too taxing, but there are enough to break a bead on, and the short twisty descents are guaranteed to make you grin like an idiot. Likewise, some of the tabletops and drops will keep you on your toes. Not at all intimidating, they’re built to be rolled by all but aired out by riders with the requisite skills. All trails can be handled with ease on a regular hardtail, although you will see every kind of machine here, from singlespeed to e-bike. You will never feel ‘undergunned’.

Still, beginners and novices looking to improve or brush up their skills are catered for too, with Swinley Hub offering coaching days to put you on the Path of Shred. 

The changes in scenery are quite pronounced, from evergreen to deciduous and, dare we say it, some look quite Canadian, whereas the serene and tranquil Basingstoke Canal stretch with its russet colours had me thinking of Scotland. Of all the riding locations around London it is the south-west area that seems to handle wet weather the best. Obviously Swinley’s trails are designed to drain, but out in the natural stuff the make-up of the soil means deep claggy mud is rare. That has to be attractive! 

And getting to Swinley is so easy. No tiptoeing down narrow and seemingly endless twisting lanes for this gem, oh no. Roughly equidistant between the M4 at junction 10 and the M3 at junction 3, Bracknell serves not only London, but also anyone coming from west and south-west. Granted the M25 can be a proper pain in the posterior, but once past the bottlenecks it is pretty plain sailing coming from the north and easterly directions too. 

If our ride is not quite long enough, then big days out can be planned that take in more of the expanse of natural heathland and woodland that cover a vast area.

Planning on staying over to explore more of the south-east? Then the rightly lauded North Downs ridge of hills should be your next port. Only 50 minutes from Bracknell, the North Downs, or Surrey Hills in the modern parlance, are a veritable feast of loamy trail excellence. Punch Peaslake into your satnav or ask in the bike shop (there’s only one and you will find it easily). You will head home knowing you have sampled the best riding this congested area of the country has to offer.

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