When riding a trail centre route I do not usually expect to find myself eating emergency bilberries. Sure, I might stop and pick a particularly enticing blackberry, or savour a few wild raspberries while taking in a view, but this is different. I’m picking every bilberry I can, not selecting the finest specimens, just pushing them into my mouth as fast as my increasingly purple-blue stained fingers can pick them. I have discovered that ‘trail centre’ does not need to mean a prepackaged microwave ready meal of a mountain bike ride: it can also be a proper adventure.
Just off the M4
The site of this undignified scene is the Neath Port Talbot area, which sits just off the M4 in South Wales. You’ve probably driven past it on the way to the busy tourist traps of the Pembrokeshire coast, or skirted round it heading to one of the popular bike parks that offer the promise of uplift, bacon rolls, and big hitting descents. But to do so is to miss out on a slice of British mountain bike history, and to overlook a trail network that harks back to the days when front derailleurs were still popular and mullets were still just a hairstyle. Give yourself a few days to explore here however, and you might find yourself looking at those riders of yore with a decent helping of respect. Indeed, for those in search of adventure, there’s a whole ‘Tough As Steel’ itinerary of activities for visitors to the area, ranging from riding to running, swimming and ropes courses.
Pick Your Start Point
That’s not to say everything in the Neath Port Talbot area is tough going – far from it. The Afan Forest Park is an extensive area, served by four separate parking sites, each with a slightly different level of visitor services, and with trails to suit pretty much all abilities of fun seeker. Closer to the coast, Margam Country Park offers all the accoutrements of a country park – miniature train, giant adventure playground, Go Ape course, ice cream – with the addition of a short trail network. The black route is at the lower end of technicality for the grading, though the turns are tight enough that you might want a couple of laps to get round them all neatly and at speed. The red route includes a long and tough climb which will certainly make you feel you’re earned your ice cream, though that half could be cut out by taking the double track route up to the final descent for a more child friendly red offering that’s a step up from blue and green routes at the base of the hill. The trails here have been recently expanded, regenerated and regraded, with the original red/black trail having first been designed by Rowan Sorrel in 2013 as a highly technical event specific trail, but never opened to the public. Only accessible during park opening hours, there’s a snack sized adventure for anyone looking for a day out – perhaps with the rest of the family, or while they explore the park’s other offerings.
Equipped with full suspension bikes and free from children for a couple of days, we head to the Afan Forest Park, leaving the exploration of the blue and green level trails from the large Afan Visitor Centre to families and day trippers. As we scope out the area – and struggle a little to orientate ourselves in this sprawling area of steep valley roads and patchy sat nav reception, we spot more family riders preparing to cruise along the riverside trails from Rhyslyn. But there’s a hint that there is more to be found in the form of a couple of enduro riders spinning along the fire road, muddy elbows and shoulders attesting to something a little more spicy lurking in the woods.
We follow the sat nav around and up the hill, along a forest track, to Bryn Bettws. It seemed a long way from the previous car park to this one, but there must be a short cut through the woods, as while we are doing the obligatory pre-ride faffing the enduro riders we saw in the valley below appear to conduct repairs to their bikes. A quick chat with them suggests to us that there is probably more fun to be had in this neck of the woods than our time allows, so we press on.
Old School, New Tricks
For a warm up, we head to the ‘bike park’ area. This is a series of jump lines and skills routes all starting from a single arena at the top of the park. A couple of the routes head down out of the woods, but most are short laps of the variety that are good for practising a skill or getting the blood flowing. Just eyeing up the log skinny is enough to make my heart pump a little faster. It’s all marked up as being ‘Extreme’ level, and if you hit them ‘properly’ and at speed they’re certainly challenging to get the timing right. However, there isn’t much here that couldn’t be rolled at low speed if you wanted to let your kids do short laps while you sat and supervised.
We swoop down one of the longer loops then spin back up the path beside the main fire road to eye up the wider trails. There is a whole world of trails out there, including the full 23km Y Wal Trail. We decide to tackle a portion of the route, Corker, rather than take on the whole thing. Cruising easily up a fire road at the sort of gradient at which you could easily push a small child with one hand while riding, or just sit up and spin on your own. A brief singletrack climb at the end of the road leads to a lovely wriggly trail that’s graded red, but with only one small drop that has a go around it could be easily taken on by kids on even a rigid bike. It’s the kind of old school gentle bermed descent that you can push hard on, swooping through corners and enjoying finding the limits of your tyres and talent. It’s exactly the kind of section I can imagine enjoying for the first few hours of a 24 hour race, only to find myself grabbing handfuls of brake and picking my way gingerly through 15 or so hours later.
The trail returns us to the trailhead, so this time we head a little further afield to Graveyard, another section that is part of the Y Wal Trail. Though graded red the same as Corker, it’s a touch more rocky and challenging. Slowly, there’s a risk that all those rocks suck your momentum. Fast, the risk comes from the boulders and stumps to the side of the trail – get your wiggle wrong here and you could catapult yourself off the steep wooded slope to the edge. It’s not really difficult, but there’s enough here to keep us on our toes.
Looking left off the trail, there’s a black optional route. This looks like the kind of thing our muddy elbowed acquaintances from earlier have been plummeting down. We have places to be, trails to see, and cameras to carry, so having explored the entry point to the black we continue along the red – the black options around here will take you down the hill, to be returned to the trailhead by fire road or red route singletrack, depending on your preferences. We prefer to not lose too much elevation so as to save ourselves a long slog back to the car and onwards to our new destination: right up at the other end of the valley. Here at Glyncorrwg lie some of the oldest trail centre trails in the country. And, as it will turn out, bilberries.
Up? Are You Afan a Laugh?
While Glyncorrwg also offers the slightly tempting promise of an afternoon spent fishing and relaxing by a pond, our business requires that we pedal once more. The friendly owners of the Afan A Blast bike shop happily tell us how everything is much closer on the mountain than it is by road, and so we shouldn’t be so daunted by the apparent distance we can see on the map and feel as we wound our way tentatively here under the intermittent guidance of both sat-navs and signposts. Of course, we found our way here as an advance party, during the quiet days at the height of Covid-19. Since then, the local authority has been quietly working to make navigation to and around the area a little simpler for visitors, and the car parks and visitor centres are now all labelled with ‘What Three Words’ tags to aid in navigation and identification. This also opens up the opportunity for spy games with your friends: ‘We meet at noon, at the attend stance select’.
In the shop, we’re told there’s the classic and original Skyline route – a big XC day out that is currently disrupted by logging operations. Then there’s White’s Level, but what we really want to do is Blade. When I suggest that it looks like a lot of climbing, my concerns are dismissed with a brush off of ‘if I get an hour away from the shop, I ride up Blade, nip along to Bryn Bettws, ride the blacks there, then come back down Peregrine’. I should have realised at this point that Jeff, owner of the shop, is likely a little bit superhuman – as is his grandson who can be found rolling round the carpark doing tricks on a trials bike with clip-in pedals. Needless to say, I miss the signs. I’m also a little over eager to press on, so I shoulder my camera pack and start the climb up the mountainside, following the little black ‘Blade’ arrows.
I spend the next long dark night of the soul convinced that I have misread an arrow somewhere and I am in fact climbing up the down trail. Everything before me looks like it would make quite a pleasing rocky descent. It’s only when I cross a fire road and signs confirm that I am indeed heading the right way up the trail that my thoughts turn to my mountain bike forbearers. As another technical climbing section makes me wish my dropper post worked a little better, I realise that when this trail was built, dropper posts weren’t really invented. I’d like to think that the era of the triple chainset explains the never ending up, but the reality is I have more range than riders of yore. I am just hot, and in need of an awful lot more water than I have with me. Which wouldn’t be hard – having been preoccupied with things like cameras, not food and water, when I left the car, I have left my water bottle…in the car. This not only makes me the biggest idiot on the trails, but also makes me reliant on the fact (or hope) that my partner quite likes me and wants to keep me alive.
By the time I reach the top of the main climb I am cooked, stewed, and obsessed with the idea of water. I take an unflattering selfie so others who conquer this climb can feel better about themselves in comparison. What I need now is a long continuous descent to return me to the car. Instead, though there are some fast and steeper sections down Helter Skelter and Hokey Kokey, we get mostly undulating descents that have you shifting down to accelerate only to round a corner and find yourself faced with a climb that needs the other end of your gear range. For the properly prepared, on fresh legs, this would make for a fine big day out, with changing surroundings that swap between dense forestry plantation, clear fell, lush hillside and mossy green under storey. There are fungi galore, and it’s only briefly that I consider chomping down on something that might put and end to my tiredness – either through death or a mind warping journey – but the thought is there. The gentle swooshing of wind turbines briefly creates the illusion of a cooling breeze, and little streams rushing down the hillside have my dry mouth twitching at the thought of their refreshing content. A far off rumble of thunder fails to bring any rain our way, and we continue onwards, losing height while contouring around the hill. A small recently fallen tree blocks the path, perhaps it rotted through in the rainforest like air, and it’s as we clamber around it that we discover the bilberry patch.
Having crammed as many of the sweet and juicy little morsels into my mouth as my loss of dignity will allow, I feel revived. Maybe it’s this or maybe it’s the descent that follows, but suddenly all the climbing seems to pay off. The Rock and Jetlag sections of trail lead downwards into a series of steep rocky chutes and drops. They’re all rollable if you get the right line, but if you’re powered by bilberries you can launch yourself off them too. It’s a fast descent that I would happily ride repeatedly if it were preceded by an uplift – or assisted by an eBike. It’s good enough to be worth seeking out on its own, if you haven’t got the time or inclination for a big day out on the whole Blade route. Or, while other centres are busily devising ‘ebike specific’ trails, Blade seems like the perfect route for an eMTB. Your mountain bike ancestors, with their poor suspension, put plenty of emphasis on making the up as interesting as possible.
Returned to the car park, we’re too late for cakes and cold drinks in the cafe, so I settle for warm water from our camping supply in the hot car and a little lie down in the gravel. I never really thought I wasn’t going to make it, but… well…
A short time later, with a food baby in my tummy of very nice food from the Afan Lodge – where the menu manages to be surprisingly meat and vegan friendly – plus a cold beer to rehydrate as the sun goes down, I’m feeling a lot better. There is nothing outdated about these trails, despite their age. The Afan Valley trails offer a bit of everything – gentler family options, riverside pootling, way marked winch and plummet, and big day out adventure.
As well a bit of something for everyone, Afan Forest Park offers a great opportunity for testing your skills and mountain craft. Not so condensed, pre packaged and crowded as some trail centres, yet not so remote as the unmarked mountains, you can ride here and build confidence in your ability to take care of yourself. Or, as in my case, expose any complacency in your preparations and planning. If you’re keen to progress your riding and challenge yourself, it would be an excellent choice – and there are coaching companies locally to help you on your way if you want some tuition.
With so many trails and a number of different car parks and access points, there are plenty of options for mixing up your routes, staying near to the comfort of the trailheads, or heading off into the wild. There are certainly more than enough trails to keep a rider busy for visit after visit, and still be covering new ground. The multiple choice trailheads mean that nowhere feels busy, and you’re likely to spend much of your ride with the trail to yourself. Charge your battery, pack a picnic, and (ahem) pack water, and go find your adventure.
Know Before You Go
Choose where best to park according to your needs:
- Afan – visitor centre, bike shop, bike hire, cafe and easy family trails.
- Rhyslyn – no facilities, access to easy family trails and a variety of red and black trails.
- Bryn Bettws – bike park skills area, camping, and access to a variety of red and black trails.
- Glyncorrwg – bike shop, bike hire, cafe camping, and access to a variety of red and black trails.
- Trails are only open while the Park is open.
- Bike hire is available on site.
- Trails for all abilities.
- Plenty of family friendly outdoor activities to be done other than riding bikes!
- A website with trail maps of routes across Wales.
- The official tourism website of Neath Port Talbot with visitor attraction and facilities listings and suggested itineraries.