Cycling at Bedgebury Forest, UK

If you Google ‘Bedgebury’ you’ll see that this is the National Pinetum and has been the UK’s finest collection of conifers since 1925. Which is gorgeous, but not if you are my teenage boys, who sort of lost me at ‘pinetum’.  If you scroll down a bit, however, and this is the point where my lads zoned back in again, you’ll find a load of cool videos of skilled mountain bikers taking on the singletrack trails of one of South-East England’s most exciting forest enterprises.

photo: Catherine Mack
photo: Catherine Mack

Because Bedgebury, with its two thousand acres of pine and broadleaf forest, managed by the Forestry Commission, describes itself pretty succinctly in its publicity material as “An adventure in a world of trees”. With lovely playgrounds and family cycling trails it is the hard core, off road mountain biking that gets our attention these days, however, having moved on from the wooden play areas and Gruffalo orienteering areas.

We live in London and we all need a quick urban escape from time to time, and Bedgebury on the Kent/Sussex border, is fast becoming one of our favourite days out. And one that I can still persuade my teenage boys to join me on. One problem though – both hipster wannabees, they swapped their hybrids for cool vintage road bikes a year or so ago. Here is where Quench Cycles stepped in to save the day. Renting out state of the art mountain bikes on site and offering top notch customer service too, advising us which trail to take on (red all the way), reassuring us that we weren’t being a bit ambitious for relative newbies and having the lovely job of hosing down the bikes when we get back.

photo: Catherine Mack
photo: Catherine Mack

I decided I was being a bit ambitious, however, and headed off on the blue family trail, the long version though, happily cycling the rich wooded nine kilometres with enough ups and downs to feel like I had done a proper workout. In fact, it took me an hour, so I went round one more time as the red route took the boys two hours. And they certainly had their workout by the end of it, arriving back at our meeting point at the lakeside cafe (with a good mix of healthy options and the all important chips) totally exhausted but definitely exhilarated. No question of them going round one more time however. They may be teenagers, but I still smile when I get that feeling I used to get when they were young of ‘well, they’ll sleep well tonight”.

I can count on one hand the number of activities and days out that we all enjoy doing together close to London now that the boys are older, but this is definitely one. Getting the hipster bikes out and cycling down the Regent’s Canal was another one recently. Bedgebury isn’t cheap, however, costing £10 for the car park (it is the National Pinetum after all) and then £22 per bike for two hours. They also have a full range of tag alongs, electric bikes and so on, for the standard trails that is, not the mountain biking ones. However, they are brilliant bikes, and it is often the case that one family member has a decent bike and the other’s is a goner, so you can always just hire one if necessary.

photo: Catherine Mack
photo: Catherine Mack

Anyway, this stunning wooded landscape, part of the High Weald’s designated Area of Outstanding Beauty, beats a day out at a theme park and at half term we tend to do one treat day out if we are staying at home, and Bedgebury is a worthwhile treat.  It would be even more of a treat if it was more easily accessible by public transport, however,  which always strikes me as a shame. One day they might consider running a shuttle bus during peak times for people arriving to the nearby railway station at Etchingham, with a trailer for their bikes. Or, even better,  just do a train and bike hire package. Some green food for thought.

Another point to note, even though it was half term, they have an overflow car park so there was no queue to get in. And once I got past the first kilometre on the family trail there was hardly a soul to be seen. The boys said they saw about three people on the red trail. I imagine the hard core mountain bikers have the sense to stay away at half term anyway. And Quench had no shortage of bikes either although you may want to phone to book in advance, just in case.

photo: Catherine Mack
photo: Catherine Mack

Getting there

To get to Bedgebury by train, the nearest station is Etchingham, travelling with Southeastern. It’s about a 30 minute cycle ride up the A21 from there for those who want to brave it. For more information on cycling in The Weald, see Visit Kent.

Quench, the bike hire company at Bedgebury offers mountain biking courses.

For more information on Bedbury, see the Forestry Commission website.

HF Holidays – fine fellows celebrate a hundred years of outdoor holidays

Catherine near the top of a snowy Pen-y-Ghent
Catherine near the top of a snowy Pen-y-Ghent

Long before the words ethical or eco started creeping into the tourism industry’s boardrooms, there was one man who was quietly laying the foundations of fairness in travel. Thomas Arthur Leonard (or TA as he was known)) founded HF Holidays in the UK a hundred years ago and, although his achievements have been relatively uncelebrated to date, the centenary of an organisation which still remains the only UK holiday provider that is a truly co-operative society, gives us a good opportunity to take stock of this pioneering philanthropist’s achievements (www.hfholidays.co.uk).

I found there was no better way to get to grips with his greatness than by hiking up to the top of Pen-y-Ghent, one of the three peaks of the UK’s Yorkshire Dales, on an unseasonably freezing day. So cold, in fact, that I was sure the HF Holiday guides would cancel the walk, with snow flurries concealing the summit. But no, they are made of stern stuff at HF Holidays. This organisation was created in 1913, after all, seeking to, against all odds, get people into the outdoors so that they could still enjoy the landscapes all around them, in spite of a growing sense of worldwide angst. And also, to do so on the cheap. Leonard had already created the Cooperative Holiday Association in 1894, but feeling that this had been swamped by the middle class, he created the Holiday Fellowship (HF), a Society which sought to provide basic, accessible walking holidays at in the UK and abroad. In the 1930’s he also helped create the Youth Hostels Association, keeping rambling real for generations to come.

Although HF has moved on from single sex bunk rooms to superbly equipped country manors, such as Newfield House in Malhamdale, Yorkshire, the base for my Yorkshire Dales walking break, there is still one core ethos of this walking society which has stuck with HF Holidays. All their guides, or ‘leaders’ as they call them are volunteers. Or good fellows, Leonard might have called them in his day.  Many of them have grown up with families who went on HF walking holidays, and now they want to share the love. They are all passionate about walking, cycling as well as a plethora of other outdoor activities.  They are also all warm, generous people who celebrate the notion of ‘fellowship’ without being in your face, let’s all hold hands and thank God for life sort of people. In fact, if I could sum these guys up, they are what you imagine the perfect grandparents to be and, if I could, I  would like to adopt each and every one of the guys who led us around the Yorkshire Dales for that role in my children’s lives.

Newfield Hall, Malhamdale Photo Credit: HF Holiday
Newfield Hall, Malhamdale Photo Credit: HF Holiday

So, as much as this centenary is about celebrating the achievements of TA Leonard, it is his legacy that lives on through people which what makes HF a very special company to holiday with, if outdoor activities are your thing. And of course, their walking leaders are hard core, which you need in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia or Glencoe, just to give you that added incentive to climb the next stretch which, in our case, we couldn’t actually see because of snow. But on we trekked, feeling with every step that we were in very safe hands, the route being judged with expertise along the way.  We took a steep, slow climb up to the peak, but due to the extreme and icy conditions our leader guided us down a gentler route down Pen-y-Ghent.

The rather stark, boy scout feel that HF Holidays had in the past has gone a little softer round the edges in modern times,  however, as we all jumped into the swimming pool at Newfield House on our return, pampered ourselves with a little pilates, and massaged those well stretched muscles with a petit Pino Grigio by the fire. Not sure if that would have passed TA Leonard’s middle class radar, really. Not to mention the fine selection of packed lunches, with poached salmon sandwiches and fine local cheese.

International walking holidays was also part of TA Leonard’s vision and this has now become the biggest growth area for the organisation. An organisation which is still, by the way, a truly cooperative and non-profit organisation. You can sign up to be a member and shareholder, attend the AGMs and have your say in how they move things forward in a world that is being swamped by 1 billion travellers, the majority of whom are still being seduced by pure profit driven travel. HF Holidays also realises that it needs to sustain its set up for the next generation, and so it has created a young person’s membership which adults can sign up to on behalf of anyone under 16. Too cool for school, really.

Double ladder stile on Pen y Ghent - in summer. Photo: HF Holidays
Double ladder stile on Pen y Ghent – in summer. Photo: HF Holidays

Another development is the (great value) Freedom Break, whereby you just use one of HF’s accommodations as a base for independent walking, but get full board accommodation, an OS Map and plenty of detailed information on best trails etc. These are just applicable to a certain number of UK locations at the moment, however, such as the Isle of Wight (superb coastal walking just a couple of hours from London), the Cornish Coast Path or the Lake District.  However, I was glad to be in the safe hands of a group and our superbly informative and affable guide, Mervyn Flecknoe, as we climbed up Pen-y-Ghent.  As we took our final steps down from the peak, we strode  across some massive flagstones made from local limestone. For an organisation that proudly promotes ‘Leave No Trace’ as part of its outdoor ethic, this is one impressive exception. Because, although they don’t shout about their conservation and care practices at HF Holidays, there is a lot going on behind the scenes. These flagstones, which prevent erosion caused in hiking hot spots, were funded by HF’s Pathways Fund, a charity which guests can donate to, and which not only works with leading conservations charities to protect landscape but also provides assisted holidays to those who could not otherwise afford one. Like I said – Foundations of fairness. For a hundred years. Fair play, HF, and happy birthday.

For more details of HF Holidays, including walking, cycling and outdoor activity holidays in varied locations from Barbados to the Brecon Beacons, or Kenmare to Kenya, see www.hfholidays.co.uk. Or follow them on Twitter @hfholidays or on Facebook (HF Holidays).

 

Smile, you’re on a bike

smile-youre-on-a-bike2Just as Dubliners and its visitors are now discovering, with the arrival of Dublin Bikes, cycling definitely makes us smile. Is it that ‘get back in touch with nature’ vibe (albeit not really a feature of Dublin), feeling like a child again, or just slowing down to take in the world, that makes us feel good about ourselves? If you are enjoying the new Dublin Bike scheme, then start thinking further afield.  Cycling holidays are about as green as it gets, not only by their carbon neutrality, but because bikes often take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise explore, bringing much needed tourist income to those areas.

 

I am not talking yellow jersey 200k a day cycling holidays either. You can find those in any cycling magazine. But the sort of cycling holidays where you just pack a couple of panniers, put your bike on a boat or train, get off at the other end, and discover the powerful peace to be found in pedalling your way into unknown territory.

My most recent experience of this was in Scotland, (as featured in The Irish Times, 16.05.09), when I travelled with Scottish cycle holiday company, Velodays (www.velodays.com) and spent an amazing few days exploring Perthshire.  I was met off the train with a Veldodays bike and GPS, transferred backpack to panniers, and took on 50k-ish a day adventure, full of the highs only the Highlands can provide.

 

If you want to treat yourself to a bracing break in the saddle before the clocks change another option is to put your bike on the Rosslare ferry and head for Fishguard, which is the start of Wales’ Celtic (West) Cycling Trail (see www.sustrans.org.uk for maps). A great eco-location to stay is Preseli Venture Eco Lodge, located 10k from Fishguard, with pickups arranged if necessary. You could just stay there, but as they are activity specialists, you could get your bikes there and combine cycling with coasteering, for example, for really getting down, dirty and drenched (www.preseliventure.co.uk).

 

Closer to home, if you haven’t discovered Strangford Lough in County Down yet, then get those panniers packed. The Strangford Lough Trail leads you around the back roads of this exquisitely tranquil, and utterly underrated part of Northern Ireland. Starting in Comber, County Down, the trail (132kms circular) is made even more accessible now by the Comber Greenway, an 11kms cycle track along a disused railway, from Belfast city centre to Comber. Spend a weekend doing this trail to really enjoy the Loughscape – I recommend one night at top notch eco-B&B Anna’s House (www.annashouse.com), just outside Comber, with the best breakfast ever to put you on the road (the only danger is you might not want to leave), and the second at the Portaferry Hotel (www.portaferryhotel.com), a family-run institution right on the Lough’s shores, where you can see the eponymous ferry arrive to take you across the Lough for more exploring. See www.cycleni.com and order their excellent book on all NI cycling routes.

 

For the more adventurous, put your bike on the ferry at Rosslare (Irish Ferries carry bikes, €5 each way), and head to Cherbourg. One hitch is that you can’t put your bike on the Rosslare train at the moment. Go figure. So try Bus Eireann instead, who, depending on space, will stick it in the boot for €11. It’s a great buzz cycling down the ramp ahead of all the cars, navigating your way through Cherbourg, and onto the Cherbourg Cycling Trail, or La Manche à Vélo – 230kms of off-road cycle trails (Voies Vertes) on disused railways or towpaths, 35 cycle loops, each around 20kms long. The first Voie Verte starts at Rocheville, 20kms outside Cherbourg. For details see www.mancherandonnee.com, but there is also great English language info on this trail on www.brittany-ferries.co.uk website, (but note that they do not actually sail from Ireland to Cherbourg, only to Roscoff in Brittany).

 

The list of Euro-cycling opportunities is endless, and I confess I have a bit of a habit of collecting cycle maps just to escape in my dreams, if not always from my desk. If you want to do the same, a great starting point is Eurovelo, the European Cycle Network. You can get more info on their work at www.ecf.com, but their website is a bit heavy going, so I recommend buying their maps from UK’s cycling organisation, www.sustrans.org and start planning your next expedition.