Why you must not ride our route guide published in issue 118
As mountain bikers looking for new places to ride it’s easy to fall in to the trap of following lines on maps and apps and assume that since it’s been published, or someone has told us it’s ok to ride there, that it is in fact ok to ride there. This it turns out is a dangerous assumption and one that we here at Singletrack have recently fallen foul of.
In issue 118 we published a route guide that took in established trails ridden by thousands of mountain bikers for many years in the Swinley Forest region. It turns out we made a mistake. As a result, as some will have noticed already, we have pulled that route guide from all our digital issues. If only we could remove it from printed copies as easily.
In this particular case, not only did we draw a line on a map that is in fact specifically prohibited to ride on a bike but we also highlighted a jump spot that is a particular thorny issue for those riders in the area campaigning to gain official permission to ride at least some of the established trails.
The route guide in question was one that started at Swinley, south west of London, and headed into the Deepcut and Pirbright area. Our objective was to show that there was great riding to be had within a short travel from our capital. Swinley is a place that has been ridden by riders for years and the route in question is one that has similarly been ridden for years. Our instructions to our route guide contributors always begins with, ‘Make sure the route is 100% legal.’ Indeed in order to avoid exactly this kind of situation we also insist that if the contributor is not 100% familiar with the route and its legal status that they seek out local knowledge and take a guide with them. We are at least happy to report that this was the case here – however, our guide was wrong about the legality of the route and we ended up publishing it. Ultimately that’s our fault and we take full responsibility.
In short we put our printed foot right in it and caused a lot of people a lot of aggro. For that we wholeheartedly apologise and say this…
DO NOT FOLLOW OUR ROUTE GUIDE IN ISSUE 118 – IT IS NOT A LEGAL RIGHT OF WAY.
Established trails on the ground do not translate to permission to ride and no matter who tells you it is ok there is no escaping from the responsibility we all carry when we are out on the trails. Rest assured we will continue to check and double check any and all routes we publish in the future, taking particular care where the line on the map is not a bridleway.
To compound the mess we made, we’ve also now become aware of advocacy work by local riders and groups in the area and through talking to them we’ve become very much aware of their efforts to secure legal rights of access in the area. An in effort to try and repair some of the damage, as well as telling you not to follow our route, we’re going to tell you their story. It’s a tale about a corner of the Home Counties, but it’s illustrative of issues everywhere, and a reminder of why we shouldn’t just blindly follow a route guide, a map, or even our mates.
We set our correspondent Antony the task of finding out just what issues are faced by the Trail Access Group (TAG) and just how badly we have set them back.
Over to Antony…
The issues around Deepcut and Pirbright centre on a large area of land that is used by DIO [the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, a branch of the UK Ministry of Defence] for training. There aren’t bullets whizzing overhead (though there are some places nearby which are used for live fire exercises) but if you ignore the signs, you may well come across troops doing basic training, or army vehicles practicing manoeuvres.
There has never been any recorded right for cyclists to use the land, but for many years the size of the area and its lack of use meant that cyclists, as well as walkers and horse riders, had more or less unrestricted access.
“I’ve been riding the tracks in the area since 1978 – maybe 1976” says Simon Brown from the Trail Action Group, a collective of mountain bikers who are campaigning for recognised rights of access. “There are no formal trails, but there’s around 1,000 kms of track to explore. Around 5-10 years ago, the MOD conducted a review which recommended that more troops should be stationed around the area, which meant more training and less access. In the meantime the population has grown and there are more people mountain biking.”
Perhaps inevitably, MTBers using the land started to encounter soldiers undertaking military exercises there more frequently. If you’re trying to train for combat in Afghanistan, a group of cyclists can be a serious disruption, and often if exercises are interrupted they will have to be restarted, which creates cost and hassle for the army.
Andy Whincup is a local guide, and knows the issues well. “MOD training is the number one priority for DIO” he explains. “A lot of the activity is basic training with inexperienced soldiers, and according to DIO in the past there have been almost weekly complaints about it being disrupted by mountain bikers. One issue is that the way the land is booked for training makes it difficult to say which parts are and aren’t being used. Another problem is that just because you can’t see people, it doesn’t mean training isn’t happening.”
It wasn’t long before things came to a head, when a group of mountain bikers rode straight through the middle of a training exercise and, legend has it, told the commanding officer to “foxtrot oscar” when he tried to remonstrate with them. Mention this incident to anyone involved with the access issues in the area and, even over the phone, you can hear them shaking their heads.
“Some people seem to have an inherent sense of entitlement irrespective of what they are doing, and knowing it causes nothing but trouble they still carry on. MTB is not exclusive to this.”, says Simon, diplomatically.
The response of the DIO was to harden their attitude, which culminated in a perimeter fence going up around an 1100-acre area. “I’ve calculated that we lost open access to 64 km of track when they put the fence up”, Simon says.
Local mountain bikers began to organise, and although their initial requests for meetings were snubbed, a breakthrough was eventually made. A survey of riders in the area, carried out by Cycling UK and Trail Action Group, drew around 700 responses and the DIO began to realise they needed to broker some sort of solution. Simon from TAG sees this as a turning point: “We wanted some real hard data to dispel some of the myths, and to get a feel about who is actually using the land. It has given us strong metrics to help explain our cause and who is out there and riding. Cycling UK have been very supportive and their presence has helped enormously with dealings with the MOD.”
It’s a bit like the voluntary agreement on Snowdon: if someone comes in and ignore it then we all end up looking like right turnips.
The current situation is that DIO and TAG are working on some compromise solutions, including a network of permissive routes. Details of these have yet to be finalised but there’s a feeling that local riders might finally start being able to use the land officially, in a way that respects the needs of the military.
Andy Whincup also sits on the Hampshire Countryside Access Forum, together with representatives from the walkers, equestrians and landowners, and has found common cause with other user groups. “We’ve been backed up by horse riders as currently they also have access issues – they can ride on the land but they have to buy permits. Walkers are also keen to have their access rights extended. But we have to show that we are capable of being reasonable and amenable. It’s a bit like the voluntary agreement on Snowdon: if someone comes in and ignore it then we all end up looking like right turnips.”
When asked what the major problems are with mountain bikers using the land, both Simon and Andy have the same set of responses. “Night riding on the land is a real problem. The MOD carry out a lot of night time training exercises, and if you’re using night vision equipment, a bunch of mountain bikers with 2,000 lumen lights can be absolutely horrific.”, says Andy. “It not only ruins their exercise, there’s also a risk of injury to riders because the soldiers tend to put obstacles or tripwires on the paths up to their harbour areas.”
The issue of unauthorised trail building is also a flashpoint. “There are riders out there digging trails and doing it right under the MOD’s nose.”, Andy says. “It adds to the DIO’s perception that mountain bikers are a problem, whether it’s guys building 30-foot booters or a couple of people just out for a ride. It’s a bit like football – it can be hard to distinguish between the fans and the hooligans, so the easiest way is just for them to say no to everyone.”
Kieran Foster from Cycling UK has been involved in pushing for access, and is also trying to make the mountain bike community understand that their actions have repercussions.
“It might be great for the enthusiast MTB community to continue to sneak about and play ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ about where they can and can’t ride, but the bigger picture is that we are campaigning for more access and more bums on saddles. Off-road cycling is simply really good for people, with huge benefits for their physical and mental health and great opportunities to enhance their connections with the natural environment. If we want to encourage that then we need more access, including sanctioned and waymarked routes in areas like the urban fringe where they can attract those who need a bit more hand holding in order to explore the countryside.”
Despite the history of issues between the army and the mountain biking community, Simon from TAG is optimistic that progress can be made “We really believe MOD and MTB can work together, respecting the troops at work whilst having the freedom to roam and ride when the lands are not in use.“
Kieran from Cycling UK sums it up: “We need better facilities and better connectivity between rights of way. At the moment cyclists have far less legal access than either horse-riders or walkers. In my opinion we need to change that and open up more trails, and we need everyone who rides a bike to realise they have a role to play in securing and growing better access to the countryside, because doing that will benefit all of us.”