Hopton's Heaven

Shropshire’s Hopton Woods blend nature and nurture so skilfully you’ll be instantly hooked; we almost never left…

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Hopton Woods: the trail guide

  • Blue: Warm-Up – 1.1km, 30 minutes
  • Red: Qualifier – 1.7km, 40 minutes
  • Blue: Hopton Blue – 4.0km, 1 hour
  • Red: Pearce XC – 12.6km, 3 hours
  • Black: DH trails – varied

Getting there

Hopton Woods sits a couple of miles from the Welsh border, halfway between Shrewsbury and Hereford.

The forest itself isn’t well signed, so does require a little act of faith. Tap SY7 0QF into a sat-nav and keep following the singletrack road until you come to a sign on your left pointing you towards the forest car park.

Sleeping and eating

Shropshire is a beautiful part of the world, so attracts a large number of tourists, which means that there’s plenty of places to booze and snooze. Craven Arms is the nearest town, and has a hotel (the town is named after it), supermarket and restaurants. shropshiretourism.co.uk

Fixing your bike

Pearce Cycles in Ludlow is responsible for helping create the trails at Hopton and has a solid reputation as a bike shop, staffed by all-round good guys and worthy of your custom.

What bike to ride

If you have a mid-to-long travel full-suspension bike, bring it. While the red route doesn’t demand it, you can really make the most of both the bike and the trail. The DH trails will also be all the more enjoyable, although with plenty of rollable sections, you can get away with something a bit less aggro.

Pick of the trails

The Pearce XC red route and a couple of runs of the black DH tracks will leave you grinning, satisfied and planning your next visit to Hopton Woods.

hopton woods

Hopton Woods, Shropshire trail centre guide

Article originally appeared in MBR August 2016 | Words & photos: Sim Mainey

I feel I need to start with an apology, or rather, I feel I need to start with sort of an apology. This trail guide was supposed to be a look at two of Shropshire’s most iconic trail centres — Hopton Woods and Eastridge Woods. But, it’s not. So, for that I apologise, but only sort of. Allow me to tell you why you’re only getting half an apology.

Many moons ago, I was introduced to riding in Shropshire by mbr’s deputy online editor, Benji Haworth. The two of us, along with bikes and riding paraphernalia, squeezed into his Renault Clio and drove down from West Yorkshire to the Welsh border. Benji assured me that the riding in Shropshire was some of the finest in England. And he was right. The trails around Church Stretton rank as some of my all-time favourites — fast, flowing, with great views and a decent cup of tea at the bottom.

hopton woods

Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! …Dan! He’s not heard me… I’ll get him later

So, it was with a little trepidation that I accepted the challenge to go and report on two trail centres just down the road from those great trails; after all, a trail centre can’t beat natural trails can it, so why bother?

Today I’m making the trip down in my car with Dan Bladon. A supposed three-hour journey turns to four thanks to the ‘upgrading’ of the M62, combined with rush hour traffic, and I’m more than a bit apprehensive that we’re not going to manage to fit two trail centres into one day while we fritter away time sat stationary on a motorway. We eventually manage to break free from the shackles of commuter hell and strike out cross-country towards our first port of call, Hopton Woods.

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Eastridge you’ll have to wait… Hopton casts its spell from the get-go

The car park is empty, which, for a forest with mountain bike trails is never a good sign — after all, mountain biker’s are notorious skivers, so if the trails here were any good surely the car park would be stuffed with riders all ‘working from home’. There’s no actual trail centre here — no cafe or facilities — just a map board. According to the map, the red trail is 12.6km and there are three downhill runs. Sounds good. We’ll get all that polished off by lunchtime and then drive 45-minutes north to the trails at Eastridge Woods. Let’s go!

After just 200 metres of trail, I’ve already sacked-off the idea of going to Eastridge. I just know that we’re not going to want to leave this trail, and if it continues as it has then we’re probably going to be looking at doing a second lap rather than jumping in the car and hitting the road again. I try not to get too over-enthusiastic at this early stage, but it’s a struggle. I’m smitten.

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Hopton’s wild trails flow like water thanks to Pearce Cycles

Perfect design

For me, a great trail is all about great corners. Get the corners right and you’re guaranteed smiles. A well-built corner takes into account the speed you’ll be entering it and the speed you want to be exiting it. It links the trail before and after seamlessly, so you never feel you’ve lost anything, and usually feel like you’ve gained a great deal. It should be big enough to hold you at speed, and consistent throughout the turn — not too tight or too shallow — and it should be free of gravel and loose stones that might send tyres skittering.

The corners at Hopton all get my tick of approval. They are the work of people who can really ride bikes, and know what makes a great trail. Those people are Pearce Cycles.

Pearce Cycles in Ludlow is legendary. As well as being a quality bike shop, it also organises hugely popular DH races and uplift days, and it seems it also turns its hand to trail design and building. I make a note to visit the shop when we’re done and shake the hand of whoever is behind the trail.

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A wide choice of lines keeps things interesting

This gets Dan and I talking about what makes a good trail centre. An onsite cafe and bike shop are handy, but not really essential. A choice of routes is always a good thing, but if you have one good trail, we’ll take that over a selection of average ones. We want descents that have a bit of line choice, but aren’t too wide; flowing without being too smooth; climbs that aren’t fire-road slogs but also don’t meander too much — we want to get them over with to get to the next descent; and we want trails that are natural feeling with a slightly raw edge, even though by convention, if not definition, a trail centre is not natural. Which just about summarises a modern day Enduro race course. It also describes the trail we’re on. Corner into corner, drop-off, corner, climb, drop — it all comes together in an effortless way, that not all trail centre trails pull off. It feels like it’s a trail built less by committee and more by the committed.

The trail subtly changes from hard-packed dirt to surfaced rock, to loose rock and back again, constantly surprising you. Just when we think we’ve worked out a pattern, things change. The smooth trail suddenly morphs into a rooty, multi-line descent, challenging us to find the right combination of roots to hop over, pump and soak up to hit the next corner and start the process again. In a very un-trail centre way, Dan and I push up and ride this section time and time again, getting smoother and faster on each run, with the fun factor staying constant.

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Hard-pack hammering is a speed freak’s dream

How could it get any better?

A narrow trail takes us onwards and downwards. Tightly packed trees line either side, forcing us onto the small jumps and into the single-line rut, keeping us on our toes before opening up into a wide, open root-fest which then narrows again, funneling us towards a pair of tabletops. “Why can’t all trail centres be like this!” exclaims Dan. The issue a lot of trail centres have is that they can sometimes feel like they were built for a period of mountain biking that’s now passed. They are still fun, but they don’t always offer the thrills or the challenge that the new generation of riders or bikes want, or are capable of. Hopton feels very current, a trail centre for riders looking for a real challenge, and who are looking for that blend of man-made features and natural feeling singletrack.

While the red trail has definitely got our juices flowing, we’re more than a bit eager to see what the downhill tracks are like. For racers, Hopton Woods is best known as a classic DH race venue, and classic DH tracks make for superbly technical trails on 160mm bikes. The progress in suspension and geometry of long-travel trail bikes means you are at no disadvantage, compared to someone on a DH bike. There are plenty of opportunities to ‘go big’, with road gaps and doubles expertly placed, but all of them are rollable, keeping things fun for a wide range of abilities. There are three official DH trails, but there are alternate lines everywhere. We follow our noses down what starts as a vague line, but develops into a stunning trail that pushes me technically without scaring me outright. It’s nigh-on perfect, a trail I doubt I’d ever get bored of. Pushing back up the hill reveals a whole host of other runs lurking in the ferns. Some look neglected while others are heavily rutted from weather and wheel — corkscrews and fade-away jumps lined together by pedal-deep grooves in the ground.

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Hopton, skip and jump: roots offer a skills test

As we get to the top of the trail for ‘just one more go’ a Land Rover Defender comes round the corner. The driver gets out, waves, and gives us a cheery hello, then starts strimming the side of the trail. There are no Forestry Commission logos on the car or on his overalls, so it seems a bit odd. Not that we’re complaining — the recent spate of rain and sun has meant some of the lush trailside foliage has turned our wide bars into scythes, and thorns need to be removed from our knuckles.

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Fire up the strimmer! This meadow is out of control

Making excuses

By this point, we know we’re not going to be going to Eastridge today, so, I start to think of excuses I can give to you, the reader, for this singular trail guide. In the end I decide that I’ll just come clean. We don’t want to leave. The red route might ‘only’ be 12.6km, but it’s a quality 12.6km, and combined with all the downhill tracks, Hopton is somewhere you can easily spend more than a day riding. It looks like this day might be coming to an end though — we’ve run out of water, we’re a bit sunburnt, our legs are tired, and our arms throb from nettle stings, and we’ve still got the rest of the red route left to get back to the car. Time to leave the downhill runs for another day.

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Pinball corners light you up inside

The friendly strimmer man clearly hasn’t got round to the next section of trail, as shoulder-high bracken and grass stops us seeing past the apex of the corners, but by this point we have complete faith in the trail builders, so we barrel into them without thinking too much about what is on the other side. Just when we think we’re going to have to endure a fire-road slog, another piece of singletrack is thrown into the mix – even the long uphill climb is both beautiful and brutal in equal measure. We get back to the car happily broken. If we had the energy we’d have gone for another lap, but we’ve got nothing left in the tank. It’s now six o’clock, Pearce Cycles will be closed, and as there’s no point driving to Ludlow to thank the trail builders for their fine work, we decide to head home.

The drive back takes the allotted three hours, and is spent talking about returning to Hopton, maybe for a weekend, in order to really get the most out of the trails. Day-dreaming about the dusty trails, something clicks in my brain — I recognise the face of the trail strimmer. It was Dave Pearce, owner of Pearce Cycles. Despite not getting to give his hand a good shaking, I hope our smiles gave him some idea of our gratitude to him and his team.

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Out of the woods and into the open country

So, to return to the opening paragraph, a sort of apology. I’m sorry this isn’t a Hopton/Eastridge double whammy, but I’m actually not that sorry, because, frankly, Hopton is amazing and has reinforced my opinion that Shropshire has some of the best riding in England — natural or otherwise. However, I don’t like leaving a job half-done, so I feel I should probably now go back and check out Eastridge Woods too. Please?