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.

At home on a bike

kingfisher-shot-optIreland’s first National Bike Week starts tomorrow (14-21 June), which not only gives us the excuse to dig our bikes out from the back of the shed, but also to see where we can enjoy riding them.  At last, the wheels of change are in motion for Irish cyclists, as National Bike Week is part of a new National Cycle Policy Framework, the aim of which is to get as many of us as possible back in the saddle again. For details of this week’s events see  http://bikeweek.ie.

 

I am using National Bike Week to celebrate Ireland’s first long-distance trail, The Kingfisher Cycle Trail,  a must for anyone who wants to discover the hidden gems of the North-West.  The Kingfisher is an appropriate name for it – this elusive little bird is associated with lakelands, and the 370kms trail twists in an out of the extraordinarily endless lakes of Cavan, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Monaghan,  giving the Kingfisher (and us) a superb choice of shores to rest upon. 

 

The Trail is designed as a figure of eight, divided into two loops. The northern loop circles Lower Lough Erne, then moves alongside Loughs Melvin and Macnean, stretching out as far as Ballyshannon in Co.  Donegal.  The lower loop is bordered on two sides by Upper Lough Erne and Lough Allen. A good starting point for the southern loop is Carrick-on-Shannon, from where you can travel east, along backroads through the patchwork quilt-like landscape of tiny lakes. On this route, an ideal picnic stop is at Newtownbutler where, if travelling anti-clockwise, you have to phone the ferryman to help you back on your journey across the lake to Crom in Co. Fermanagh. For the northern loop section, hire bikes at eco-friendly, family-run Corralea Activity Centre (www.activityireland.com), or base yourself here for a few days. Then go further north, and check out the extra Atlantic mini-loop from Belleek or Ballyshannon to the sandy beach at Rossnowlagh. Creevy Cottages, overlooking the sea, are the perfect stop-off for this bit (www.creevyexperience.com).

 

The Kingfisher Trail’s map is excellent (€6, www.cycletoursireland.com), offering several different ways to break up the Trail, as well as day routes and attractions along the way. It also points out some of the busier sections of road, warning cyclists to take caution, but there are few of these. Other fine eco-friendly places to stay along the Trail, which either offer bikes free of charge to guests, or arrange bike hire, include The Old Schoolhouse, Meenaslieve, County Cavan (www.theoldschoolhousecavan.com), or tie your bike up beside the tipi at Orchard Acre Farm (www.orchardacrefarm.com).   Two lakeshore accommodations which offer bikes and a boat free of charge are Little Crom Cottages on the shores of Upper Lough Erne (www.littlecromcottages.com), and Trinity Island Lodge, at a beautiful island hideaway near Killeshandra, County Cavan (www.trinityisland.com). You can have a superb massage after a day’s cycling if you stay at the Blaney Spa and Yoga Centre overlooking Lough Erne (www.blaneyspaandyogacentre.com), and you can reward yourself with some of Donegal’s finest fare at Ard Na Breatha, which won Georgina Campbell’s Best Guesthouse this year (www.ardnabreatha.com).

 

The new Cycling Framework also aims to integrate cycling into the public transport network, and not before time. At present, there are only certain rail routes which cater for bikes, and for details of these see www.irishrail.ie. If you want to leave the car at home, you can also think about taking the bus, as both Bus Eireann and Ulsterbus will take bikes in the boot, if there is room, on a first come first served basis.

 

For some more excellent cycling options abroad, check in with me in a couple of weeks time.

 

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 13 June 2009)

All the magic of Paris without Mickey Mouse

copy-of-000_2145Don’t get mad, get even. That’s what I decided to do when my seven year old son came home from a friend’s house telling me that he had learned some French.  The Francophile in me beamed from ear to ear.  “Disneyland Pareeeees!” he announced proudly. This was not the time for a lecture on cultural globalisation.  It was time to show him one of the facts of life.  Paris is not made of glittering castles or run by big-eared mice. (I resist the urge to digress at this point).   But beating Disney isn’t easy – unless, like me, you have a child who loves his bike more than Bambi.  “How about coming to Paris with me for a couple of days, I asked?”  He beamed.  “But No Disney”, I added.  He frowned.  “How about we go on our bikes?” I proposed hesitantly.   He screamed.

 

You do have to pay an extra £20 per bike on Eurostar, but a promise is a promise.  (Borrow a Brompton and you take it for free, however).  Next is finding suitable accommodation for the would-be yellow shirts.  The school boys’ guidebook says that the only place to stay in Pareeeees this year is Davy Crockett’s ranch in, you guessed it, Disneyland. Huttopia, which sounds ironically like a Disney cartoon, is the perfect antidote.  We had already spent a summer holiday at their woodland haven in The Loire and now we were ready to sample their wooden chalets in a forest in Versailles. 

 

What a wonderful feeling to board a train in South London, cycle along the Thames from London Bridge to the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo and arrive at Gare du Nord in time for lunch. We resist the temptation to pop into Monsieur MacDonalds and keep going on the RER to Versailles.  This turns out to be the right decision, because when we get out at Porchfontaine, a small suburb of Versailles, there was the perfect Boulangerie and Charcuterie greeting us with open doors. The first French lesson of the day is to buy a baguette, jambon and bottle of rouge and little Louis braves his first “merci, Madame”  A few hours ago we were on a suburban London train, now we are cycling into a forest in Versailles, with baguette in pannier. Eat your heart out, Walt.

 

The wooden chalet is perfect, neatly nestled into the forest environment, and is better equipped inside than our own home.  I warm my out of condition cycling muscles by the wood burning stove and wait for the expresso maker to bubble on the gas one. Louis makes himself at home in his little mezzanine den with a cabanehuttopiaversaillessecret stock of those delicious French crisps while I set up our picnic on the decked terrace. This is a real campsite with ‘proper’ campers and tents, but I suffer no guilt here for taking the easy way out.  Cycling to Paris is one thing, but taking a tent and all the gear was out of the question.

Revived and rejoicing in this secret hideout, we jump back on our bikes in search of Louis’ namesake’s Chateau (and ice cream).  We didn’t get very far, though.  The campsite’s swimming pool was blue, shimmering and empty, with enough steam rising into the cooling September air to reassure me that it was heated.  I reminded myself that a swimming pool would always have taken precedence over a Chateau when I was seven and, after all, I had denied him Disneyland.  We dive in and amuse ourselves endlessly diving for the acorns which were starting to fall from the trees around the pool.

Dressed and back in the saddle, we are distracted by an intense game of boules between two ten year old French boys.  They ask Louis to join in, and shyly he agrees.  French lesson number two complete. Boules turns to table football, then to table tennis under the trees and as they run to the climbing frames I realise there is nothing to do but open that bottle of red.  I overhear, “Je m’appelle Louis” and raise a glass to the best French lesson in the world.

 

The Chateau is put on the long finger, but the day was not going to end singing songs around a campfire either. We sample the home-made delights of the campsite pizzeria, get back on the bikes determined to end the day in style. Dab hands at putting the bikes on and off the RER at this stage, we take a twenty minute journey following the Seine into the city centre.  Emerging from the station Champs de Mars at dusk, Louis is dumbstruck as we turn the corner and there it is, poised elegantly right over our heads.  The glorious Eiffel Tower must have held his silent smiling gaze for minutes. We lock the bikes, join the queue and decide to take the lift to the second floor.  Seeing any cityscape from a height, and at night, is always exciting.  But when the Eiffel Tower suddenly explodes into a cascade of white flashing lights, it is heart-stopping. Looking into the eyes of a loved one and seeing the reflections of this generous Parisian spectacle reminds me why this city seduces young and old. It was, I admit, a bit of a Disney moment.

 

And so to the confessional – we never made it to the Chateau de Versailles.  Cycling in the nearby forest, playing table tennis and boules became the dictating themes of this trip. On our last afternoon we took the bikes into Paris, and decided to explore by saddle. Bravo for a city that welcomes cyclists and closes several of its main arteries to traffic on Sundays.  This traffic-free initiative is aptly called “Paris respire” or “Paris breathes”.  We breathed in all the sites along the Seine, starting by the Louvre at the Quai de Tuileries, and continued down the Right Bank as far as, and imagine the excitement, Ile St. Louis for crepes.  The bells of Notre Dame invited us to Evensong, where we briefly did our Sunday bit, before hitting the Left Bank.  The art of free running or ‘parcours’ upstages the more traditional art in the Open Air Sculpture Park on Quai St. Bernard. We had our own private exhibition of athletic showmanship in this exquisite park before cycling the last few metres to Gare d’Austerlitz to take the RER back to the burbs of Versailles. Back at the cabin, wrapped up in blankets and drinking hot chocolate under the stars, Louis smiled and said, “Disneyland could never beat this, Mum”.  I knew I had got even.

 

As for the Chateau, it is, allegedly, round the corner.  Luckily, the Easter holidays are too and Cabane number three has our name on it.

 

 Catherine travelled with Eurostar Tel: 00 44 1 39 51 23 61 or www.eurostar.com.  Return journeys from £59 for an adult and £50 for a child, plus £20 for bikes.  To join the 500 cyclists who take over the streets of Paris for a night cycle on a regular basis, see www.parisrandovelo.com

 

 A wooden cabane at Huttopia Versailles costs from €99 to €159 per night. Huttopia re-opens 30 March after the winter break.  See www.huttopia.com for details.  Bike hire at Huttopia also available. For more information on cycle routes in Paris see www.rouelibre.fr

(This article was first published in The Observer, 4 March 2007)