It’s the Long Mynd Jim, but not as we know it. Tom Hutton proves there are still real classics out there just waiting to be discovered.
Mountain bikers are creatures of habit. Even the more pioneering among us, those of us who are still happy to grab a map and a compass (Google it if you’re not sure) and head out into the mountains and moors, still return again and again to the same trails.
Why? Because we know they work. They’re fun; they’re the right level of challenge for our limited ability. And most of all, they pay back. Those of us with limited spare time (probably all of us) want to ride, not push. We want flow, not gates. We want smiles, not grimaces. In short, we’re looking for maximum downhill bang for our hard-earned uphill buck. Some dashes on a map or a second-hand GPX we haven’t tried before could lead to our one chance to get out being wasted.
So when someone suggests we spend Sunday on the Long Mynd, my first reaction is to smile – this is a great area with some awesome riding and it’s definitely somewhere we don’t get to often enough. Next up though, my mind migrates to those same old trails. Yup, the ones everyone rides and the ones we’ve ridden so many times before. After all, they really are fun. And we don’t come here often enough to gamble on something that just won’t ‘go’.
But wait. Paul’s a local and he suggests there are plenty of awesome Long Mynd trails that we almost certainly won’t have ridden before. Sinuous singletrack, he promises, that weaves around the super-steep hillsides interspersed with rough and ready doubletrack that sees few tyre tracks.
Much of this has been upgraded from footpath to permissive bridleway, thanks to some progressive thinking by the National Trust that owns most of the land here. Some of it isn’t even marked on a map, but is well worth seeking out and, again, benefits from permissive access courtesy of the forward-thinking landowner.
So a gauntlet is thrown: let’s ride the Long Mynd on Sunday, but let’s not do all the old faithfuls. Instead, let’s carve a top-notch ride out of some of this new stuff. If it’s as good as Paul says it is, we’ve got ourselves a new classic.
Having so clearly set out our stall, we immediately backtrack a little by choosing Carding Mill Valley for the opening climb. We have our reasons. Firstly, there’s easy car parking right at the foot of the trail. Then there’s a café for a caffeine shot before we get on the pedals. And finally, there’s just the plain simple fact that we all love a challenging, technical climb [We do? Ed]. And Carding Mill is definitely this. I’ve never cleaned it, Steph’s never cleaned it. And nor have David, Craig or Paul. Perhaps today’s the day?
It’s busy though. We’ve chosen the first sunny day for a long time and the road and verges at the foot of the steep-sided valley are teeming with walkers, hackers, tourists, café visitors and a variety of canines. It looks chaotic at first glance, but it’s nothing to worry about – this climb is so steep, we won’t be going any faster than our pedestrian friends anyway.
As if to prove this point, a couple of scrawny fell runners scoot past us the minute the gradient tips upwards a bit. In fact, the only walkers we got to say hello to on that whole opening climb were those who’d stopped to gather their breath. It was good to see we weren’t the only ones struggling.
Carding Mill Valley is nearly 300m from bottom to top. And nearly every one of those metres is hard won, with brutally steep sections, rocky steps and more than the odd loose patch too. It’s one of those places where you really do feel a sense of relief when the gradient finally relents. Once up though, the views more than make up for the toil. And the easy spin along the ridge top to Pole Bank – at 516m, the highest point in the Long Mynd – provides some welcome breeze as well as a credibility-rescuing increase in our average speed, which until now had been close to walking pace.
With Pole Bank in the bag, complete with customary summit shots and a quick snack, it’s now time for new trail number one: a permissive bridleway that runs off the main drag to cross the appropriately named Round Hill.
It starts easy enough – broad and grassy, not unlike many areas of the Brecon Beacons or the Clwydians or even Mid Wales. Then a full-pelt bumpy plummet into a grassy col leads to a welcome narrowing of the track and a short, sharp climb.
With a very steep drop immediately to our right and big hills crowding us in on all sides, this is one of those sections of trail that really does need savouring. Gradually it tracks eastwards, straddling a small niche in the ridge that now puts that steep drop on the left. And this leads to a short but sweet rocky spine that’s just perfect for popping some neat little jumps off.
So good, in fact, we do it twice.
From here, things become a little more technical, with loose rock in places, ruts in others, and all the time that steep drop down to the left to remind us that a mistake wouldn’t be a good option. A final fast ramp leads to a gate, and a lane leads easily down to Little Stretton, where a pub stop awaits.
If you don’t like climbing on a full stomach, then the Ragleth Inn is not the place to have lunch. All the altitude gained in that opening grapple with gravity has been snatched back by the descent and the next few kilometres are totally dedicated to getting it back in the bag again.
It starts easily on tarmac but soon steepens before a forest road takes over, winding a harsh but pedalable line all the way up to the glider club at the top. This is another great place to stop and catch our breath. The views now are to the west towards Wales, where a moody sky casts huge shadows over the verdant green valley below.
Some fun skyline riding ensues – it’s easy-going for a change and allows plenty of time to look around. At a low marker board, we swing left, following a permissive access track around the perimeter of the glider club, rather than taking the bridleway across its middle. A little further on, Paul plays his ace card – the Glider Club has a café! It would be worth it for the break from the breeze alone!
We take a quick detour, wolf down some tasty flapjacks and a mug of tea, and then pick up the trail again to continue along the ridgetop. The breeze is definitely in our faces now and deters us from a second clamber up to the top of Pole Bank. The road provides a convenient bypass to the heather-covered high point and carries us north, soon passing the top of the Carding Mill Valley – the place where more breathless versions of ourselves had emerged just a few hours earlier.
The next off-road section is really quite bizarre. It’s wide, grassy, downhill and totally open, so line of sight is almost infinite. It’s one of those very few places on a public right of way where you can really hit warp speed. If you have the guts. Disclaimer here: it ends with some big ruts and bumps that you probably don’t want to hit at the speed of sound.
A short boardwalk follows and then the trail narrows and drops away. This is fun! A short, sharp, loose, rocky ramp, quite different to anything else we’ve ridden today, plummets from the plateau into the valley. It swings sweetly right at the bottom and Paul yells ‘right’ at a fork just a few seconds later.
This section feels like we’ve just died and gone to heaven. It’s as good as any ‘natural’ singletrack anywhere. It opens by hurdling a rocky rib on a pronounced shoulder. It then dips like a narrow dusty slackline slung between a pair of rocky anchors with a huge drop to the left. At the furthest point, it swings left to add to the fun and then it steepens slightly to continue over more rock steps, eventually spilling us out at a wide grassy junction.
Wow – if only we had the energy to ride that one again!
We stop and gabble in gibberish for a few minutes about just how good it had been. It had only been a few hundred metres, but I reckon we’ll all remember it for a long time. We then press on. More goodies await.
The next section has us all baffled – it’s not even marked on the map. It’s fun though: another narrow singletrack that climbs steeply up before swinging right and around a tight blind corner. This is another one of those technical climbing challenges that we all relish. Although it’s not quite the same league as Carding Mill and we all manage easily enough.
It soon levels out and then undulates sweetly around the foot of the open hillside. More short, sharp challenges ensue, both down and up. All cleanable, but there’s really no time for a rest along this section. Eventually we drop steeply to a road – a good spot to regroup before the final fling.
A steep grassy climb leads up from the asphalt and I’m beaten. I can do technical climbs; I can even do steep technical climbs on a good day. But I can’t do steep, grassy climbs – ever!
It’s no big deal – we’re all feeling pretty tired, considering the modest distance we’ve covered. I muse that it might have something to do with the near 1,000m of climbing we’ve notched up, but it’s been a good pace too. And I’m definitely the weakest link on the uphills.
We follow the contour lines for a bit as we pass the edge of the golf course. Then passing above the clubhouse, where there’s a definite smell of chips wafting into the afternoon air – ooh! – we reach another high point and see the Carding Mill Valley road away down beneath us.
So this is it. Just one steep, slender singletrack descent between us and a celebratory coffee. It looks as much fun as all the others though, and it rolls sweetly with enough twists and turns to keep us working to the very end. There’s enough exposure too to keep us on our toes.
And then it’s over. What a great ride that was. Paul was absolutely right and we’d definitely just created a new (to us anyway) classic. My imagination is working overtime by now. What if we linked that little lot with one or two of the other classic descents in the area? What a route that would be.
Could I cope with double that 1,000m of climbing though? For riding that awesome, I’d have a darned good go…
- Distance: 20 miles
- Elevation: 955m
- Time: 4 hours
- Maps: OS Landranger 137
- Guides: Wales Mountain Biking by Tom Hutton from Vertebrate Publishing
All the villages have a selection of B&Bs and guesthouses. The Buck’s Head in Church Stretton is a great pub near the start
There are couple of good budget options with the YHA Bunkhouse at All Stretton
or an independent hostel at The Bridges
For camping try the Small Batch Campsite in Church Stretton • smallbatch-camping.co.uk
It’s just a short drive from Shrewsbury to Church Stretton and the M54 and A5 will get you there on good roads. There’s also a rail station in town if you’re using public transport.
Food and Drink
On the ride, there’s The Ragleth Inn at Little Stretton, which is just a few minutes off the route. Or there’s the Glider Club, which has a café and serves non-members, even if this isn’t obvious from the outside! In Church Stretton, there’s a good National Trust-run café at the start/finish and also good options in town with both the Holly Bush café and Mr Bun, doing decent coffee and good breakfast options.
Shropshire Hills Mountain Bike Centre
Finally, Blazing Bikes in Marshbrook features a bike shop, pod camping AND a pub!
The more popular riding in the Long Mynd is well documented and excellent. Minton Batch is an absolute classic, even if it’s become a bit of a victim of its own success these days and is best left for a good dry spell and a quiet weekday morning if you really want to enjoy it. To the west, there’s the Stiperstones and the east, the Caradoc – both of which have more trails to play on if you fancy an epic.
But to answer the question for this particular route, it’s easy: it’s just awesome. It’s really hard to think of many places where such a large percentage of the route is made up of truly sinuous, technical, but not too technical singletrack. And it’s also hard to describe the amazing Long Mynd scenery, perhaps at its finest on the first descent but omnipresent and gobsmacking throughout.
All the trails described here and most of the classics drop from a single ridge so it’s really just a case of choosing a route to climb and climbing it – usually between 250m and 300m. And then choose a descent and send it. Although our final trail breaks with tradition a bit and undulates around the hillside rather than drawing straight lines up and down it.
If you ride this route, you’ll come away with a grin on your face. If you ride some of the better-established trails, you’ll be smiling too. But, if you’ve got the legs, lungs and stamina to combine them all, you’ll have one of the best days you’ll have on a bike in England. You’ll also ache…