Barney takes a trip where few bike journos have dared to tread – Cornwall.
Words & Photography Barney Marsh
Ah, Cornwall! Last gasp of Great Britain westward before the relentless, unyielding expanse of the ocean. Kernow (in its local tongue) has long been spoken of in hallowed terms by the sunshine-seeking surfers unwilling to leave these shores (and unrelentingly conservative OAPs…).
But it is also as beloved by the history buff as it is by the flaxen-haired wastrel and as much by the gourmand as the grandma. It is festooned with hills, with woods, with rolling countryside; there are as many heart-stopping views as there are high-sided lanes and dark, dingy crevices. There are caves, there is coastline… there are moors, beaches, hills and dales.
So why is it largely overlooked by the mountain biking community – or at least the media? As far as they are concerned, Great Britain ends in Devon. Any further west, and you’ll find mountain bike journos looking askance at each other, nervously shuffling their feet, and muttering ‘no lad, for there be dragons’.
But why? What’s with the thorn wall around Cornwall?
The rote answer that has oft been hauled about is that the bridle path network in Cornwall isn’t up to snuff. Or “There are no big mountains.” “People just don’t mountain bike down there.” And it’s also possible that Cornwall suffers from its proximity to its illustrious neighbour, as there’s so much fantastic riding in Devon. Exmoor and Dartmoor between them provide some of the finest riding to be had in England, so why bother going further west? Unconvinced, I decided to investigate. It’d take a few days, but I felt it’d be worth it.
The journey down from Yorkshire was taken in one gasping hit, starting at 4.30 in the morning. It finished at around 11am, after innumerable coffee stops, astonishingly bad rain and crawling motorway speeds that made me wonder if I might as well just abandon the van and start cycling from there (looking at you, Birmingham). But as I pulled into my first destination, Cardinham Woods, the weather finally broke, and I gratefully put the bike together for a lap or two of Blue, with a light smattering of Red. And some puddles.
Cardinham and Munki.
Cardinham Woods first opened as an official trail in 2012, although of course there was much cheeky riding going on before that. The decision to make an official trail, though, was not easy. According to Chris Mason, Forestry England’s Ranger for the woods, it was initially deemed not big enough, so they went into partnership with nearby Lanhydrock (run by the National Trust), to get Cardinham built. Lanhydrock offers trails for the beginner, and Cardinham then takes over with some more intermediate ones for the complete offering. It was all put together by Hugh Clixby (who also designed Cannock and Dalby, fact fans).
Hugh and the trail builders have done an excellent job. Smooth and flowy, it’s all that a blue trail should be (you can wring tons of enjoyment out of it if you ride it faster) with some optional red sections to make it a little more spicy. There are some fire road bits, but Chris tells me that these are likely to be substituted for new sections in the future, and that other redesigns are planned within the site.
The price is tight.
I’d always assumed (with, to be fair, no evidence whatsoever) that as you went up the difficulty grade, the trails became more expensive. But to my surprise, Chris said that red trails at Cardinham are actually cheaper to make, thanks to the soil.
“We’ve got great soil for red grade trails – we basically overturn what’s already there. Just under the soil layer, we’ve got Cornish shillet of just the right consistency so that we don’t need to import any. For the blue trails, though, we bring in stuff that’s a bit more crushed, from the local quarry, so it costs a bit more.” Which is clearly good news for those Cornish folk who hanker for more spice in their Cardinham.
Looking online at various user groups, and keeping an ear to the ground, Cardinham seems to be a key go-to venue, but Chris told me that as well-used as the woods are by mountain bikers, only around 12 per cent of users are cyclists, so there are substantial shared-use issues which the new crop of building is hoping to address.
Even so, the official trail opening seven years ago also kick-started other companies; a nearby bike shop, Trailmunki, initially started renting out bikes from a tent in the Cardinham car park. Owner Alex tells me that, although they still rent out bikes from their small store a couple of miles from the trailhead, they usually focus on bespoke bike builds these days; the likes of Kona, Orange and Ragley all pass through their doors regularly. It’s clear that there’s a strong desire for nice bikes here, partly thanks to those official trails.
But Cardinham, of course, isn’t the only place in the area to ride a mountain bike. A triptych of woods – Grogley, Bishop’s and Hustyn – collectively given the sobriquet ‘GBH’, is also a favoured local Bodmin spot, which is privy to some more wild trail adventures than the well-surfaced, all-weather Cardinham. Perhaps surprisingly, it too falls under the aegis of Forestry England, as Chris explained: “Forestry England owns GBH, but doesn’t manage it. We tolerate and monitor the trails, and occasionally move in to make them safe, but that’s the extent of it, really.” Sort of ‘officially unofficial’. I see.
I was kindly shown around GBH a day or two later by Antonio Fiore, from bike distributors Silverfish (which is based just down the road in Saltash). We started in a pub car park (which always augurs well) before spinning for a couple of miles along an old railway path and up into the woods. The trails he showed me here were wonderful: dappled, swoopy, rooty, occasionally open, steep, flowing and all heavenly points in between. A couple of kicks of the pedals had us sailing through foxglove-festooned glades one minute, and plummeting down narrow, root-infested gullies the next – before, improbably, stopping to give some directional assistance to an older couple who were walking up the mountain bike trails. After showing them a somewhat safer way up the hillside, and one that was easier on their knees (“Two new hips and three new knees between us! I feel fresh as a daisy!”), we departed for a couple more runs of the good stuff before diverting to a café along the railway path for well-deserved pasties and cider. Marvellous.
What’s mine is yours.
These old paths that link so much of Cornwall together are actually pretty fantastic. Disused railways, such as the one that runs along the bottom of GBH, combine with old mining tracks – which were also often old railways – to generate a network of largely off-road flat trails that link many areas. Combine these with quiet minor roads, and you’ve got the skeleton of some pretty good riding. Granted, there’s little (actually nothing) technical about them, but they’re off-road, the views are often spectacular and they give you a fine impression of what Cornwall in all its multifaceted splendour is about. And (and here’s the key thing) you can use them to link more exciting areas together.
In Bissoe, a tiny hamlet not far from Redruth, lies an old arsenic works. Not the most auspicious place to ride a bike, you might think, but Bissoe Valley, as well as being a beautiful nature reserve, houses a large bike shop, rental and café business called Bike Chain Bissoe. Proprietor Richard Pascoe, or Ricci, has big plans to make Cornwall a cycling county. He’s already established the Saint Piran professional road cycling team, which aims to develop Cornish road riding talent, and Cornish mountain biking is also on the agenda. And there are plans to expand the Bike Chain bike shop/café hubs across the county, which would also serve to further consolidate the cycling mindset within Cornish culture as well as attracting new bike-related tourism to the region.
Right now, though, the Bissoe Valley trail leads northwards to the Poldice Valley, which is utterly covered with astonishing – and frequently huge – jumps, as well as a variety of other less airborne (but no less technical) downhill trails. Many of the larger features have been strengthened with local stone, and have a look of solidity that frankly I’ve not seen before. Half them look like they were made (and made properly) a couple of hundred years ago. Many of these were made by another Bike Chain Bissoe employee, known as Australian Josh. He tells me he’s a Kiwi, but everyone calls him Australian just to wind him up – which says as much about the Cornish sense of humour as it does about Josh’s laid-back demeanour. I didn’t get a chance to ride with him (he was too busy working the shop and making excellent coffee), but from the scale of the jumps at Poldice, he’s clearly pretty handy.
And where to next? Well, from Poldice, it’s possible to strike north along those mining trails to Portreath and the coast (Portreath also boasts The Track’s dirt jumps), or west to Carn Brea – or you could head south and find your way to Falmouth with its Bike Park or the Trescobeas Pump Track. Everywhere you look you can find little pockets of riding.
Underground, overground, ambling free.
And not forgetting the simple joy of getting out and having an explore. On the first evening of my Cornish sojourn, I was shown a selection of trails up on the moors that it would’ve taken me months to find if I was on my own – the good people of Silverfish and their mates (hello, Ross and Cadja!) soon saw me right, while leaving me in their dust on a very regular basis. There’s only so much ‘pretending to take photos in order to have a rest’ that people will turn a blind eye to, after all – and I confess that much of the truly terrific stuff was left unphotographed, as I was having too much fun. Open moorland, bleak tors, bracken-strewn singletrack-fests, deep wooded valleys – unsurprisingly the terrain has more than a hint of the Quantocks or Exmoor, although it’s peppered with old mine workings and ruined engine houses. The light gradually dwindled, and as we realised it was nearly 9pm and none of us had eaten yet, I came to the rapid conclusion that the riding in Cornwall can be bloody brilliant.
But there was more to come…
Jumping the ’wall.
When I first considered a piece on Cornwall, of course, the first thing I did was turn to Google. Literally the first location that came up was Woody’s Bike Park, so naturally I had to head over. Fowey isn’t the most gnar of towns, to say the very least, but Woody’s has clearly benefited from some serious investment. There’s a large room/café area and uplift vans to cater for some spectacular downhill and freeride trails designed by Nathan Durston and ex-motocrosser Jasper Flashman – chaps who, it’s fair to say, know what they’re doing. There are trails ranging from the bermed, table-topped trails of Es Ol and Blue Jump up to the frankly terrifying Digger pro line.
Woody’s opened in 2017, and is managed by owner Jon Wood’s brother, Patrick – a man of substance and limitless charm – with a background in the Midlands and customer service. He regales me with stories of idyllic evening barbecues at the bottom of the Valley of the Bones (where the best jumps are), the origin of the ‘Bones thing’ (it’s to do with soldiers hundreds of years ago), whether e-bikes are welcome (they are) and a host of other tales and joshings with a couple of regulars – Will Williams from FullyGassed apparel, and local ne’er-do-well Mawgan Pownall.
These two obligingly swung legs over bikes and let me take photos while Patrick and I nattered. They made jumping the red-black lines look hilariously easy until I wandered up to one of the doubles and peered over the lip at the landing slope far, far (far) below. I think I’ll stick to the blues for the moment.
That’s the great thing about places like this – the blue trails are easily rollable, and are perfectly as able to accommodate the average ten-year-old as they are the more experienced among us, if ridden with a little more pep. And then there are the reds, still rollable for the most part, but bigger – and the blacks. Which – uh – aren’t rollable at all. And then there’s the pro line, which – well, it looks more like a few casual but enormous scoops out of the ground, interspersed with preposterously wide swathes of field.
It’s far from alone, these days. Old Hill Bike Park, a half-hour drive away, opened in September 2018. In contrast to Woody’s uplifts, it’s a pushup-only park in a field, with lines designed by the same Jasper Flashman who created Woody’s. The slope is less severe, for sure, and so the speeds aren’t as high, but owner Johnny Brown’s son Jasper showed me that there’s plenty of air on offer as he launched off the wooden structure that serves as the start for the trails. (I’m sure this has an official name; I’ve got no idea what it is). There are plenty of rollable trails for youngsters, and plenty of more hefty ones for the slightly more fearless.
It appears that there might be more bike parks springing up all over the place – but far from being a problem, it seems to me that such centres can only encourage riders to head to the county to sample what’s on offer. Because there’s clearly quite a lot. It doesn’t have the expansive trails of Devon, and the bridle path network isn’t as extensive as it should be, and Cornwall is surprisingly populous for such a rural county – but writing her off would be a mistake. There is an awful lot more here to enjoy, and I will be back once again – with a little more time, perhaps – and a bike.