For Queen and country
Queen Elizabeth Country Park blends nature and nurture as skilfully as any landscape gardener. Opened by the Queen, maintained by the Collective.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park: the trail guide
- Blue: 6km/35mins
- Red: 7.5km/45mins
Queen Elizabeth Country Park is easily accessed by road and not hard to find; it’s directly off the A3, four miles south of Petersfield, Hampshire. South West trains run regular services to Petersfield and a cycleway runs south from the park towards Clanfield. Parking costs £3.50 for the day.
Sleeping and eating
The cafe in the park is open daily, all- year-round and serves tea, coffee, cakes, sandwiches and jacket potatoes.
There are a variety of places to stay nearby, from local pubs and B&Bs to Premier Inns in both Petersfield and Portsmouth.
A traditional country pub with good food, ales and self-catering accommodation, The Five Bells in Buriton is 10 minutes away, 01730 263584, fivebells-buriton.co.uk
Basic camping (a field with Portaloos) is available for £10 per night at Ridge Farm Campsite. Ridge Farm Campsite, Stoner Hill, Steep, Petersfield, 07850 873055
Fixing your bike
If you’re looking for a well-stocked shop with knowledgeable staff, your best bet is to head south to Portsmouth to one of the three branches of Solent Cycles. Book in for a test ride, get your bike fixed or stock up on spares, 01329 822608, solent-cycles.co.uk
The visitor centre at Queen Elizabeth Country Park sells very basic spares and has a bike stand with a tool station and pump that are free to use.
What bike to ride
As the Blue trail is so user-friendly, pretty much anything goes, from families riding all kinds of bikes to cross-country riders getting in some sprint training. The Red trail could be ridden on a fully rigid bike or a hardtail, though we felt most comfortable on a trail bike.
Pick of the trails
With only 13km of trail at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, there is no excuse for not riding it all.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Hampshire trail centre guide
Article originally appeared in MBR August 2016 | Words: Juliet Elliott | Photos: Roo Fowler
Exactly 300 years ago, the first celebrity ‘gardener’ — Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown — unveiled his visionary new designs for the 1,000-acre park surrounding Chatsworth stately home. Tearing out the formal gardens, so beloved by those who came before him, Brown instead saw the landscape as something to work with and improve, sculpting and shaping what nature bestowed and introducing flowing contours, as he believed ‘nature abhors straight lines’. Additionally, Brown was a firm believer in creating parks for enjoyment and interaction, rather than just for visual pleasure, seeking to add lakes for both swimming and beauty, and woodland for hunting.
Looking back as a mountain biker on this tercentenary, it’s obvious Brown was a visionary, articulating the principles on which all the best trail centres across the UK are founded. Opened by (who else?) the Queen back in 1971, Queen Elizabeth Country Park consists of six square kilometres of downland and woodland, including the highest point on the South Downs — Butser Hill — and part of what used to be known as Buriton Forest. Weaving between the native beech trees, inspired minds and eager hands have been at work in a 21st century interpretation of Brown’s landscape gardening, crafting swooping curves and robust berms and installing rock gardens to complement the artistry. Luckily for us, rather than being reserved for the sole pleasure of the landed gentry, a la Chatsworth circa 1716, Queen Elizabeth Country Park is also open to the common people.
In a familiar story for so many of the best trails in the UK, it was the passion of local riders that saw the development of mountain biking within the park. The sport first made an appearance there back in the early Nineties as an XC venue for the British series, but in the following 20 years, little was done and the trails fell into a state of disrepair. And this is how they remained until five years ago. Realising the trails were getting dangerous, locals met with the country park to request permission to repair them, and with its blessing, began to sort out a few dangerous pinch points. The county council was impressed (or realised it had a ready-made labour force willing to work for free) and actually encouraged them to organise regular dig days. Hence the QECP Trail Collective was born.
The resulting trails — a blue and a red — are small but well-maintained, offering plenty of scope for fast-paced training laps or a casual after-work roll. Granted, with just two official tracks, it’s not the Forest of Dean, but the trails are a good place to start if you’re short of time. It also boasts a location right on the South Downs Way, allowing you the option of book-ending a big chalky bash with a couple of laps around something more sinuous. Considering the 160km-long (99 miles) South Downs Way is the longest bike-friendly trail in the UK, QECP is your gateway to a world of potential.
Arriving at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, it’s not initially clear where the trails begin — there are several car parks and picnic areas and directions are somewhat scarce. Carry on past the visitor centre, and the first couple of car parks, and you’ll eventually come to the start of the Blue and Red, both of which are circular and begin from the same point, though that isn’t immediately obvious either.
A tale of two trails
The Blue trail heads off along open fire road and crosses a picnic area before heading into the woods for some gentle, cruising, singletrack. Being a blue, it’s not especially challenging but the track is well maintained and weatherproof, so it’s perfect for families — of which, being so close to Portsmouth means there’s no shortage — cross-country riders, or those seeking a fun, easy blast that will leave a smile. We used it as a relaxing warm-down loop after riding the Red, pottering along listening to the birds on a warm summer’s evening. Even on a beautiful Sunday in July the trail was deserted and it felt like we had the forest to ourselves.
The Red trail incorporates many more features, as well as plenty of steeper sections. Largely based on the footprint of old existing trails, it was officially reopened in 2012, after the team deleted a load of fire road in favour of singletrack, doubling the length of the original track. The main climb now winds through the dappled shade of the beech trees, which makes getting to the top a lot more interesting than just plodding up a forest road.
The QECP Trail Collective has poured numerous hours into making the most of its modest 7.5km length, adding berms, roll-able tabletops and rock gardens to complement the natural singletrack on which the trail is based. Different sections have a different focus: ‘Snakebite’ is a series of bermed switchbacks that are good for finding your rhythm and polishing up your pumping technique. Jumps and drops are rideable for most skill levels, making the Red a great track for improving riders, and it’s possible to loop back, via a short section of fire road, to have another bash at railing the berms perfectly.
Trees dominate the rolling terrain at QECP, and along with the unique geology of the South Downs, have a huge influence on the riding experience. During the summer, the dense woodland offers great respite from the heat of the day. On the hot, dry summer’s day that we visited, the part-weatherproofed Red was running fast with plenty of grip, thanks to the hard-packed stone that makes up some of the manmade sections, so speed and flow were the name of the game and we were able to let rip. The South Down’s chalk was as hard as concrete in some places meaning we could really give it some welly in the corners.
But the contrast between summer and winter is perhaps the most pronounced of any trail centre in the UK. And, the combination of roots and chalk make wet weather riding a completely different kettle of fish — according to one local, come winter QECP is ‘vicious!’ Fortunately, during our visit, the rooty off-camber sections were easily navigated, as it was completely dry, with curiously little dust.
The QECP Trail Collective has done a great job of developing and maintaining these fun trails without any help from governing bodies or outside sources. The core team of three are assisted by around 20 regular diggers, and estimate they’ve received assistance from around 100 riders over the five years they’ve been in charge of the trails, all of whom are motivated by a simple appreciation of, and pride for, good singletrack. That’s an impressive number, especially considering how tough it is to work with the chalky, root-infested terrain of the Downs.
The Blue trail was built entirely from scratch, using funds raised by the collective, and leftover materials donated by the council. It was a big commitment, which is easily dismissed without the benefit of witnessing the inner workings of running such an endeavour, the culmination of which is a regular summer race that funnels 100 per cent of its profits back into the trails.
This year saw the launch of the Southern Enduro, a series that grew out of the Collective, and builds on the success of previous events. Like most things with ‘enduro’ in the name, it sells out quickly. Now a commercial, standalone venture, the organisers still donate all the money from the QE park round to the upkeep and development of the trails, for which they have big plans over the next few years.
This year’s race took place in a separate part of the woods next door to the country park, and it showcased the team’s fine eye for sculpting natural trails. The four stages ranged from tight, rocky, flat switchbacks to long, fast, open hard-packed trails through the woods, all linked by an arduous climb that was made 10 times worse by the heat. Like the permanent trails, these race stages were manageable for most riders — the degree of difficulty rising sharply once the speeds increased.
Rich with banter
With all the stages beginning in the same area at the top of the climb, the atmosphere was rich with banter. Tracks were discussed, lines were compared and stories of success and failure were shared. The characteristics of each stage were varied, but the uniting factor was a high demand for fitness thanks to the length of the tracks and extensive pedally sections. With riders setting off every 20 seconds across four different tracks, it was certainly an intensive couple of hours, made all the more fun by the friendly, encouraging marshals and the QECP family.
Track three was particularly tricky, as it differed wildly to the others — the sharp, loose rocks making it hard to carry speed on the flatter sections, and in the end it shook up the women’s results with both myself and Morvélo Test Team rider and series leader Francie Arthur taking tumbles. The remaining tracks were a fun combination of fast, flowing woodland trails, dry, loose corners, roots and pedalling.
Much like the Blue and Red routes over in the official trail centre, the race was a great advert for the QECP Trail Collective, its vision and its trail-building prowess. For a trail centre at the smaller end of the spectrum, it’s obvious there’s a big heart beating within, driving it forward. Indeed, following the event, the team enjoyed a positive meeting with rangers and councillors, meaning growth is on the horizon, and the Collective and its merry band of helpers will definitely be kept busy over the next few years. There’s plenty of scope for converting more of the historic and unofficial trails into something that will meet the needs of the masses, so the future for Queen Elizabeth Country Park and its local mountain bike community certainly seems bright.