The Trails Behind The Nationwide In Swindon

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Hannah goes in search of a myth and finds a reality that should be on everyone’s doorstep.

Words & Photography Hannah

“You know Morzine or Whistler?”

“Yes, but I haven’t ridden in either.”

“Oh, in that case, it’s exactly like Morzine and Whistler.”

So goes Nick’s introduction to ‘the trails behind the Nationwide in Swindon’. I’ve just met Nick in a car park, and I’m about to head into the woods with him. In other walks of life this might be odd, but in the world of mountain biking it’s pretty normal. I’m about to discover what this legendary trail is like.

‘The trails behind the Nationwide in Swindon’ is a phrase I’ve seen so often in the Singletrack World Forum that I assumed it was a meme. Like Baby Robins or Lawn Sausages, I thought it was an internet in-joke whose origins had been long forgotten. Not a real place. Imagine my delight when, in a moment of idle curiosity, I looked up ‘Nationwide’ in Swindon on Google Maps. I expected to see a high street branch, tucked in between a betting shop and Poundland. Instead, I found a huge, sprawling head office, and, just to the south of it, a recreation ground complete with a mountain bike trail called ‘The Croft’. And so it is that I find myself some months later, meeting Nick (whom I located via the Forum, of course), and preparing to be a mountain bike tourist in Swindon.

Gnarpooning

The trail splits off into red and blue options, and Nick leads me straight into the red. Dropping in through the qualifier – a double drop into a sharp banked turn – I wonder whether we should have started with the blue. A few decent gaps and a janky rock garden later, I’m questioning my life choices.

Of course, not all of this is true. I’m lying about the qualifiers, and the gap jumps. The trail is almost exclusively tame, and the few features there are have go-arounds. There are some janky rock gardens though, short sections apparently built from stones specially selected to be as slippery as possible. Lulled into a false sense of security by wriggly near-flat singletrack and flat turns, my first pass over one of these rocky obstacles wakes me up a little. I remember to ask questions, and soon establish that I am riding a Forum meme while also following one: Nick works in IT and owns a Santa Cruz (though today he’s on his Marin hardtail). He swears he doesn’t have a wood burner, though, and the pizza oven belongs to his wife.

Packed into the scrubby woodland here is a trail of around 5km. There’s hardly any elevation to be had, but it wriggles around and makes the most of what there is. One gear is just about enough, three would be better. This is a shame as I’ve discovered that my electronic wunder-gears are giving me one-and-a-crunchy one, not 12, or even three. This is not enduro-sled territory – a hardtail is enough. Nick signals to stop, and I wonder if perhaps we’ve finally come to a genuinely tricky obstacle that we should take a look at. But no – instead, he’s spotted a deer in the woods. By some miracle, I manage to get my camera out of my pack and take a couple of (poor) shots before it runs off. We carry on, and a few wooden kickers and bridges give the opportunity for a touch of air time.

More woodwork appears, in the form of some frankly terrifying northshore, though the roar of the M4 just beyond makes it very apparent that we are not on Vancouver’s Mount Fromme. I am a complete wuss when it comes to woodwork – no matter how close to the ground it is, I can feel the vertigo kicking in and the anticipation of slipping causing me to tense up. Nick flatly refuses to ride any of it (I have to admire his secure sense of self in the face of possible bike-journo peer pressure), and I am relieved to discover that there are enough rotten and missing sections that I don’t feel like I need to attempt it for the sake of a photo. 

It’s perhaps not surprising things are rotting, as the area suffers from flooding. A housing estate nearby has improved the drainage around the trail area so flooding is far less of a problem than it used to be, although in the fields towards the Ridgeway there are still patches that resemble paddy fields. We skip one section of trail that is lost beneath a giant puddle and squelch our way around another that’s only just emerged from the flood waters. A tight squeeze between some trees harks back to the fact this trail was built back in 2009 – possibly when these trees were saplings, and certainly before 800mm bars. And we’re done. Five kilometres in the bag – and time to do another lap.

This trail is exactly the sort of thing that is missing from where I live. It’s accessible to a beginner and would make a great level of challenge for young children. Instead, I have fantastic technical mountain biking on my doorstep. I know, boo-hoo for me. The thing is, whether you live somewhere with amazing mountain biking, or next to nothing, you still want this sort of trail on your doorstep. 

Nick describes how, although there is some good riding to be had beyond the M4 over on the Ridgeway, midweek after work a couple of laps of the Croft is easier to fit in. He saves the longer stuff for weekends or midsummer evenings. For their tech hit – and to give those Santa Cruzes an outing – Nick and friends have to head further afield, often to Wales.

I’ve never been to this part of the world before, and a solo exploration of the Ridgeway reveals a huge network of bridleways and BOATs (byways open to all traffic). Some of these BOATs could actually use a boat to get across them, so huge are the puddles that lie in them. It’s fun to ride around and easy to get the miles in, though none of it warrants much by way of suspension technology. Compared to many parts of the UK, however, Swindon is blessed*. There are miles of trails to be ridden just south of the town – and a reasonable amount of cycle infrastructure within it.

Even with that around and about, the Croft trail was created because something even more on the doorstep than the Ridgeway was needed. Riders and kids were using and digging in some nearby woods, which led to conflict between them and local residents and dog walkers. The Croft was a solution: create somewhere specifically for riding bikes.

Getting started, keeping going

Steve Smith from the Nationwide Building Society Cycling Club first started building a trail through what was then a field of nettles in 2007, using some National Lottery funding. Others joined him and by 2010 an official MB Swindon club was formed, allowing them to apply for grants and develop the trail further. The land remains owned by Swindon Borough Council, which has largely stepped back from its early involvement in checking up on the work being done. The brief the club works to is that every feature must be rollable and must also have an alternative path that bypasses it entirely. 

MB Swindon’s current chairman Steffan James told me: “Every now and then, someone decides that the trail is not gnarly enough, and takes it upon themselves to modify a feature. For example, one year we had one of our jumps dug out of the ground and raised by about a foot. A thrill for the daredevils who had done it, but a danger to the child who rode over it the next morning and came a cropper. It took half a day to put it right again. We’re also having to constantly block off shortcuts that people create. This one is hard to understand – if you have chosen to ride the trail, why take shortcuts that miss out parts of the trail you have chosen to ride?!”

For over ten years, maintenance for the trail has relied solely on the subscriptions of MB Swindon members. Most typical maintenance days are attended by a small group of regulars, with occasional ‘big build days’ attracting a decent crowd, including from the town’s other mountain biking club (SMTBE) and the wider cycling community. Who would have thought Swindon would be the home of not just one, but two mountain bike clubs? Maybe it’s more like Morzine than I thought. Steffan thinks it’s time, not money, that’s needed most. “Every now and then, someone will suggest on our Facebook group that we put up our membership fee to fund more work at Croft. Our response has always been that the problem isn’t a lack of money, but not enough people prepared to give up their time.”

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Author Profile Picture
Hannah Dobson

Managing Editor

I came to Singletrack having decided there must be more to life than meetings. I like all bikes, but especially unusual ones. More than bikes, I like what bikes do. I think that they link people and places; that cycling creates a connection between us and our environment; bikes create communities; deliver freedom; bring joy; and improve fitness. They're environmentally friendly and create friendly environments. I try to write about all these things in the hope that others might discover the joy of bikes too.

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Home Forums The Trails Behind The Nationwide In Swindon

Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
  • The Trails Behind The Nationwide In Swindon
  • 8
    kayak23
    Full Member

    Really enjoyed that. 🙂
    I’m not a million miles away so might check it out some time

    No, it is nothing like Morzine or Whistler

    Looking forward to the next dream-shattering article on Santa clause or the tooth fairy 😉

    3
    IHN
    Full Member

    Lovely article. I detest, like properly don’t like, trail centrey-built stuff, but I’ve ridden the Croft Trail quite a few times (what with being employed by a geographically adjacent retail financial services organisation…) and I really like. It takes me back to messing about on bikes in the woods with your mates as a kid.

    * “Swindon is blessed” – I know, said no one ever. But honestly, it’s worth a mooch around, especially if you like industrial heritage or trains. Or beer – there are quite a few brew pubs.

    “Swindon; it’s not as crap as you think” would be an incredibly apt slogan. I go down there about once a month now and sure, there’s a knackered town centre, but that’s not exactly unique, but there are some lovely parks, cracking pubs and great restaurants (including a lovely Greek one that I discovered on Tuesday night.). Plus oodles of gravelly/old fashioed XC stuff up on the downs and miiiiiiiiiiiiiiles of beautiful road riding. And, lest we forget, a really excellent network of dedicated, separated, cycle lanes around the town.

     

    reeksy
    Full Member

    Hmmm… You missed the gondola then Hannah?

    Jeeble
    Full Member

    Thanks for the article. These trails have long been a staple of Swindon MTB riding and the efforts of the local volunteers who first created and now maintain the trails have always been appreciated.

    Absolutely perfect in the dry for a midweek post work de-stress spin or short XC thrash.

    2
    findusomally
    Full Member

    loooll that is NOT the trails behind Nationwide. It’s the trails in front. The behind trails begin from the hotel car park and are cheeky.

    5
    didnthurt
    Full Member

    I sat with my new copy and mug of tea last night and thoroughly enjoyed that article, and have to say that this edition was one of the best I’ve read. 🤟

    2
    matt_outandabout
    Full Member

    In the next episode, Hannah finds herself in a teenage boys bedroom looking at blue DH pyjamas…
    😆

    10
    Full Member

    Well, as long as Hannah isn’t writing about the trails in Limon.

    ampthill
    Full Member

    So can anyone link to the original post where some one raved about the trails behind the Nationwide in Swindon?

    Great idea for an article and well executed

    Oh and how did it compare to Woburn?

Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)

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