Under dark skies

Situated in the darkest corner of England, Kielder Forest has wilderness riding unmatched by any other trail centre and starry skies to ride under.

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Kielder Forest: the trail guide

  • Green: Borderline 11km, 1hr
  • Blue: Castle Wood Skills Loop, 1km
  • Blue: Lakeside Way 42km, 3-4 hr
  • Blue: Osprey 19km, 1.5-2hr
  • Red: Bloody Bush 33km, 2-3hr
  • Red: Cross Border Trail 40km, 3-4hr
  • Red: Deadwater Trail 15km, 1-2hr
  • Red: Lonesome Pine 18km, 1-2hr
  • Black: Deadwater Black 10km, 1-2hr

Sleeping and eating

In keeping with its remote location, accommodation in Kielder itself is pretty sparse, and if you want to stay close there aren’t many options. Leaplish Waterside Park, just down Kielder Water has a caravan park (no tents though) and lodges for hire (leaplish.co.uk) and there is a B&B near the trailhead (twentysevenbbkielder.weebly.com). Other than that, a quick scan through visitnorthumberland.com will bring up more if you are willing to travel a few miles.

Eating nearby is limited to the Angler’s Arms pub (01434 250072) and the cafe in Kielder Castle (dukespantry.co.uk), both
of which fill a hole nicely and are right at the trailhead.

Fixing your bike

The Bike Place (thebikeplace.co.uk) is ideally situated at the head of trail, with a great stock of parts and bikes ready to go. Well worth a visit, Ian Bell, who owns the place — and its sister shop in nearby Bellingham — is a fountain of knowledge on the local trails and conditions. They have a healthy hire stock and are a main dealer for Haibike e-bikes, which you can hire for £30/4 hours.

What bike to ride

With rough surfaces, and more than a few technical trails on the Deadwater side, a short travel full-suspension bike is the ideal choice.

Best of the rest

One of the local’s favourite options is to combine the Lonesome Pine, Bloody Bush and Cross Border trails and climb over to the trails at Newcastleton. A bit of lunch there, then return for a 41-mile waymarked adventure.

Pick of the trails

With sections designed by Gary Forrest, a local downhill legend, Deadwater Black has the pick of the technical challenges.

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Kielder Forest, Northumberland trail centre guide

Article originally appeared in MBR May 2016 | Words & photos: Andy McCandlish

My lights chase Russell’s tyre as I struggle to stay on his wheel, climbing hard up stony singletrack, zig-zagging back and forth. Scrabbling for grip, I can hear Alex behind on his fat bike, calmly floating over the stones and cranking hard to maintain contact.

I vaguely register the sparkle of frosted grass along the trailside, caught by our beams — the temperature is dropping hard with the failing light — and suddenly we are onto the boardwalk. Russell slides, grips, moderates his pedalling and turns another wheel revolution on the icy woodwork, barely making progress. But he stays upright and just makes it over the thick frost to start pushing again, as does Alex.

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Sun-dappled forest singletrack is a rural rollercoaster ride

We climb some more, and after what seems like hundreds of metres of woodwork, at the top of the hill, he comes to a halt. As we pull up alongside him, everything stops, our breathing settles and the chatter slows as we look around. Silence.

Nothing. I mean literally nothing. Not a sound breaks the eerie quiet and, twisting around, I have to look very carefully to spot any sign of humans anywhere in our 360-degree vista. We are on our own on Planet Kielder. We reach into our hydration packs for the down jackets thoughtfully stowed for just this occasion.

Long climbs, sweaty clothes and sub-zero temperatures just don’t mix and, combined with a lengthy star-gaze, we would be getting dangerously chilled otherwise.

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Speed freaks nudge the needles as the trail drops through the pines

As the last glow of the afternoon light recedes, the inky blue sky finally envelops us. It is incredible. With just a hint of Newcastle’s street lighting smudging the south-eastern horizon with an orange glow, the rest of the sky is left to the stars. One by one they pop out, until there is a veritable mat of light above, the thick band of the Milky Way parting them right down the middle. It is nothing short of glorious.

Star spotting

Designated by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2013, the Northumberland Dark Sky Park is the largest area of protected night sky in Europe and home to the world-class Kielder Observatory, high on the nearby slopes. Light pollution is managed and kept to a minimum — in the few surrounding villages there are LED street lights designed to prevent upward spillage, among other measures, so the skies are kept as dark as possible.

It works, let me tell you. Of course it helps we are in the thick end of nowhere — the kind of nowhere that would have Ranulph Fiennes getting agoraphobia — with barely a house, never mind a village, visible from our vantage point. And that is the beauty of Kielder. It is a trail centre, but it is also right out there.

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Rolling forests stretch to the horizon

I am stood with Alex McLennan and Russell Stephenson. Alex has worked for the Forestry Commission in Scotland and England for more years than he cares to remember, but has always been at the forefront of progressing recreation in the forest with one of the finest can-do attitudes out there. He was with Pete Laing when the first picks were thrown in Glentress for the red route, and was involved with Innerleithen and Newcastleton trails among others.

“I came to Kielder from Glentress, and being honest I was really daunted on where we should construct our first singletrack trail, given Glentress is 1,000 hectares and Kielder 65,000,” he remembers as we crane our necks skyward. “But I took an evening ride up to the top of Deadwater Fell, over there, as the sun was setting, looked back across the Scottish Borders to Glentress to the north and the stunning 360-degree view; that was it, we MUST put Deadwater on the map.”

Deadwater is the area on the Scottish border where water doesn’t flow. To the north it flows to the Tweed, south it drops into the Tyne. Deadwater does exactly what it says on the tin.

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Flow is alive and well on Deadwater’s black and red trails

Pete Laing was brought in, fresh from his success in the recently constructed Glentress Red, to plan the initial trail layout in Kielder, over Deadwater and beyond. From the start Alex struck on a plan to involve local volunteers in the construction of the first trail, the skills loop, to give a sense of ownership, and the Kielder Trail Reavers volunteer group too was born.

Russell, a very active member of the Reavers, and deceptively recent convert to mountain biking, positively glows with enthusiasm as he talks about how riding has taken over his life. A hill farmer from nearby — hard as nails then — he cut his teeth on hire bikes from Ian Bell in the trailhead bike shop The Bike Place, progressing to his own full-suspension only about two years or so ago. He has since bought a lodge in the local area to be able to ride from his door — clearly a man who knows what he likes.

Deadwater thrill

Earlier in the day, Russell and another local KTR volunteer, Mart, had taken me out round some of their favourite sections in the daylight. Having ridden the area, way back, my memories were of less technical trails, more smooth and ranging into the local hills, but the guys brought me up to date sharply.

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Heading north from the trailhead we were immediately following narrow, winding singletrack onto the slopes of Deadwater Fell. With low winter sun slanting through the trees and a chill in the air, it was perfect riding conditions, crunching through the odd ice puddle where the rays of the sun hadn’t quite reached.

We patched together both the Deadwater red and black, having to avoid a few black sections where the trail was closed for maintenance, but keeping the momentum going through some beautifully flowing and fast trail.

The Deadwater black descent off the top was a cracker, more of a red grade with a few curveballs thrown in to keep you on your toes. Rock drops, the odd washed-out rut — a result of the incredibly wet winter — and some flat-out dashes through snaking woodland saw us grinning from ear to ear when we finally hit the bottom.

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Feathering the brakes for a scrabbly descent

For out-and-out challenge, the bottom stretch of the trail — Forrest’s Dive — was designed by local downhill legend Gary Forrest, and has been a key section in the likes of the Northern Downhill Series and Saab Avalanche Enduro. So yes, there is more to Kielder than pure wilderness hacking these days. Far more.

In fact, since those early days of the original Deadwater Red there are now over 100 miles of trail around the centre and, among other projects and ongoing maintenance, the guys are working alongside Carl and Phil from the Northern Downhill to create the longest singletrack descent in England. Exciting times for trail fiends, but it all seems to sit comfortably alongside the possibility of heading out the cafe door and hacking for a waymarked 40-plus miles over the moors.

All this comes from a terrific energy in the area, focused by the motivated Reavers and Alex’s great respect for these capable volunteers. “These guys are heroes, to my mind,” Alex nods to Russell in his Reaver capacity. “They have been going for nearly 11 years, meeting one Sunday every month to work on the trails. And the ground conditions here, they’re fierce!”

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Ridge riders create an ET-style silhouette

Russell’s silhouette nods against a background of stars. “There are 11 of us, but we would definitely welcome more.” I bet they would. A hundred miles of trails is a lot to cover, no matter how motivated the man wielding the shovel is.

Over the boardwalk

The cooperation between the two was evident as we rode round in daylight. At two or three points I noticed piles of hardcore or grit ready for use; if the Reavers ask for material, to maintain or improve a section, it is there quick as a wink, according to Russell, along with offers of power barrows and tools to back it up. Other forest areas would do well to take note, as it has led to these 10-year-old trails maturing like a fine wine.

With that in mind I look around me. We are stood at the top of Lonesome Pine trail, a maze of North Shore woodwork perched on top of the hillside. It jars a little with the wilderness feel.

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For peat’s sake: North Shore boards avoid that sinking feeling

‘Why DID you put so much woodwork up here?” I have to ask. I mean, I am all for the most natural trail possible, and — while still amazing to behold — this was far from it.

I can just make out Alex cracking a smile in the low moonlight. “Well, put it this way,” he points over his shoulder, “not far over that way there is still an excavator under 15 metres of peat from when we put these trails in.”

Yes, far from choosing to build this monument to joinery, there was no choice. A sea of peat meant there would be no firm base to build a traditional trail on top of, so it was either wood or nothing. That excavator had been only six weeks old, and before anyone had noticed, it had quietly slipped under the waves of heather and disappeared forever. A bit like a large, yellow Leonardo Di Caprio.

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Who needs the moon when you’ve got the sun on your bars?

Alex remembers well taking the insurance assessor up and pointing at a puddle with a steel cable sticking out. “That’s your excavator.” Before it had disappeared completely, they had attached it in case they could pull it out; 15 metres later and it became clear that wasn’t going to be an option.

A sliver of moon rises over the horizon as we slowly remember we all have homes to go to. With a shake of hands, Alex disappears into the night to ride back to his car further round the forest, leaving Russell and me to turn and head back to the village.

We choose the red singletrack down past the SkySpace art installation — a circular shelter with views out through the roof to the stars — to be our favoured route, and it turns out to be an excellent choice. We skim down, dropping off the fire road onto the trail, and I find myself chasing his wheel once more through the switchbacks. The trails have had a hard time over this wet winter, Russell shouts back, but I don’t get the impression he is too upset about it. They are still riding well, and he clearly relishes the added challenge of their loose, rocky surface, and the occasional rut, as he throws his Giant around.

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Kielder Trail Reavers leave their mark

Finally, we drop onto the road and turn our lights back to minimum power. I don’t know why, but we both do it. Maybe it is a nod to the environment, this pure and dark wilderness we have been enjoying so much. Another shake of hands and Russell peels off into the darkness, back to his local lodge, leaving me to soak up the last of the silence and stars in an appropriately pitch-black car park.