Boyz (and girlz) 'n' the hood

The Forestry Commission sometimes get a bad rap but in Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Pines they’re enablers rather than enforcers.

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Sherwood Pines: the trail guide

  • Red: Kitchener Trail, 13km, 1 hour

How to get there

Sherwood Pines Visitor Centre is a 40-minute drive east of the M1, just outside Mansfield. Sticking NG21 9JL into your sat nav will see you right,

Sleeping and eating

The onsite cafe does a fine bacon and egg muffin, among other things,

Being a prime holiday hotspot, Sherwood doesn’t suffer from lack of accommodation, although during school holidays things might get busy.

Sherwood Forest Lodge offers B&B, self-catering as well as pitches for tents or motorhomes,

If you want to make a week of it, and also fancy lounging around in a hot tub, Center Parcs is right next door,

Fixing your bike

The onsite bike shop, Sherwood Pines Cycles, stocks everything from basic to boutique parts. They have a number of demo and hire bikes if you don’t fancy riding your own,

What bike to ride

With no super-technical features and a trail designed to make you go as fast as possible, a hardtail or short-travel full-suspension bike is the weapon of choice for Sherwood Pines. Fast-rolling tyres and a willingness to pump every little undulation will also help.

Pick of the trails

Unless you’ve come for a ride with the family, the red Kitchener Trail is the only trail you should be interested in. Keep an eye out for off-piste action though — there’s plenty of good stuff in those trees.

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Sherwood Pines, Nottinghamshire trail centre guide

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

We’ve come to expect a certain standard from the UK’s trail centres — a choice of well-maintained trails, a mixture of features and challenges to suit our mood and ability, adequate parking along with somewhere to get a coffee and hose down our bikes. For the most part these amenities are provided under the umbrella of one organisation: the Forestry Commission.

Responsible for managing the UK’s publicly held forests, the Forestry Commission has become a bit of a bogeyman in certain circles.

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Winding singletrack cuts through the towering pines

For some it represents the nanny state interfering with our sport, preventing anything fun being built, limiting our access, dropping trees across our trails and destroying scenic views with programmes of mass felling. It is ‘The Man’ and it doesn’t understand us.

There is, of course, another side to this particular story, so it seems only right that mbr’s Trail Centre Focus gives the FC a chance to put across its view, and maybe help us see the wood and the trees. The spokesman for the green team is Neil Barnes, Recreation Sheriff, sorry, Ranger at Sherwood Pines.

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What Sherwood lacks in elevation it makes up for in flow

Sherwood Pines? I have to confess, up until Neil got in touch to invite us along, I was unaware there were trails at Sherwood. While the forest might be best known for a group of medieval tight-wearing communist terrorists, these days it’s a popular leisure facility with over 600,000 visitors a year.

Where some forests are trail centres with other attractions bolted on, Sherwood is a bit more of a forest park with trails in it. This is borne out in the car park, where runners, families with prams, schoolkids and Segways outnumber the riders. Admittedly it is midweek, but since when has that stopped the skiving faithful?

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Riders make merry on Sherwood Forest’s tight switchbacks

We meet ranger Neil at the visitor’s centre, a large building sandwiched between the Go Ape concession and the cafe. It’s soon apparent that Neil is a mountain biker who works for the FC, rather than an FC employee that happens to ride a bike. His enthusiasm for the trails and for riders enjoying them is immediate and he’s keen to try to explain what goes on in a working forest such as Sherwood Pines, and how these things affect mountain bikers.

Managing expectation is a big part of Neil’s job: keeping the website and Facebook pages updated with trail conditions, so people know what to expect when they arrive; making sure the trails are running as they should be; coordinating with contractors to get work done; and dealing with complaints — such as the rider who moaned that there weren’t any big descents in the forest. Nottinghamshire being a relatively flat county, there wasn’t much Neil could do about that one.

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Barnes has to strike a balance between loggers and riders

Kitchener’s trail

It’s not an easy job, then. And it’s not just mountain bikers he needs to keep happy; there are all the other buggy-pushing, trail-running, Segway-riding visitors to service, as well as the other forestry departments.

We spin off from the centre towards the trailhead. In truth there’s only one trail of real interest for mountain bikers at Sherwood, the red-graded Kitchener’s Trail. Without much elevation to play with, the trail has been purposefully built to embrace the qualities of speed and flow. Small rollers and large swooping berms that encourage death-grip commitment link together, giving an almost rollercoaster feel to the trail — just without the stomach-lurching drop at the end. It’s exactly what a red trail should be: rewarding, flattering and entertaining.

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Wringing extra speed from the berms brings flat trails to life

The malleable golden sand, from which the trees emerge, is fast-draining and the perfect material for sculpting features like these. Despite having this superb substrate, Neil is often called upon to defend the lack of boardwalk sections. It seems there are a lot of riders who want timber and chicken wire, rather than soil and roots. Neil points out that these sections are expensive to build, a pain to maintain and, once built, usually unpopular. This isn’t just a hunch — this is something that has been learned the hard way. Having built large wooden bankings and ladder drops after demand from riders, Neil watched as they caused more accidents than the rest of the trail, were generally unpopular and eventually began to deteriorate. They were pulled down, with little opposition, and yet he still gets asked to build them again. While these features make some sense in forests with poor drainage, there’s no need for them here. It seems people now expect them as part of their trail centre experience.

Each Forestry Commission site is unique. Each has its own features and feel, things that make it special and give the place and the trails an identity. It’s the reason we travel to ride these places, to try something new. There’s a danger that by asking for things like boardwalks and rock gardens — just because that’s what we expect — we lose some of that identity. Do we really want trails-by-numbers, or do we want trails that represent their area?

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Two-wheeled drifters cruise underneath the branches

People, nature and economy. These are the guiding watchwords of the FC. All three are important considerations within any of the areas that the FC oversees. When things go right, all three aspects work together in mutually beneficial harmony, when they don’t, well, that’s when people complain.

For riders, the most obvious sign of these elements clashing is when a trail is closed.

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Pulverised trees give some trail stretches an apocalyptic feel

Today there’s a diversion in place, taking us off the trail and onto a fire road. Signs point the way and give a little information as to why the trail is shut — in this case, harvesting. The Kitchener Trail aims to be 100 per cent singletrack, so diverting people onto broad multi-use tracks isn’t exactly ideal. However, with big machines armed with whirling blades roaming this part of the forest, it’s a necessary evil and part of the pact — we get to ride in the forest, but when the time comes to harvest trees, we have to keep out of the way.

This grating of people against economic needs causes a bit of grumbling from riders in the forest, but with timber from this district alone putting £3.7million into the Treasury, harvesting is an important consideration.

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Armoured sections add rock to the roll

Timber land

While a trail closure, or diversion, is inevitable, what really galls riders is when trails are trashed by machinery. Looking down a muddy rut, where a trail used to be, is a soul-destroying experience. It turns out the FC isn’t actually responsible for cutting down trees; it plants them, grows them and then auctions the plots as they become ready for harvesting. The successful bidders, who are looking to get trees from forest to timber yard as efficiently as possible, do the actual felling. Unfortunately, that can mean our trails become casualties.

While the FC tries to advise the contractors on how to minimise damage to trails, there’s only so much it can do. Although trees are a valuable asset, so are trail features. With a berm or two costing the FC thousands to build, they are no-go areas for machinery, and can be used as buffer zones between trail users and tree harvesters.

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It doesn’t take much elevation to grab some air

We rejoin the red route and get back onto the singletrack. The uphill switchbacks bear the marks of having had something with tyres bigger than a fatbike straight up the middle of them. This section has just been reopened after having had a machine trample up and down it. Either side are the crushed and splintered remains of tree limbs. While it’s not pretty, it is at least still recognisable as being part of a forest — the most controversial parts are the areas that have been clear-felled.

Sherwood Pines was used as a training ground for soldiers during World War One. Back then it was known as Clipstone Camp, and the forest was predominantly heathland. Practice trenches and machine gun nests were built into the sands, and 30,000 men were stationed here at one point, before being shipped over to the war in France. It seems strangely apt that the section of trail named Western Front has been emptied of trees — an echo of the stark, angry and broken landscape that would have greeted those leaving rural Nottinghamshire for the frontline.

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Volunteers grapple with sandstone to create a raised trail

It’s not a view that inspires or endears. This is the reality of cutting down trees — away from the hipster lumberjack shirts and axes, it’s essentially factory farming. At the moment it’s all a bit bleak, but new growth is pushing forward and starting to reclaim the space. The optimism and potential of what will return.

It probably comes as no surprise, but a recent FC poll found that people were willing to pay for car parking if they knew the money was going to build new trails. They were less willing to pay if that money was used just to maintain the current trails. New, more, now.

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Kitchener trail: red and rad

Block party

While it would be great to build more trails, the fact of the matter is that the majority of money needs to be spent keeping the current offerings fit for purpose. A lot of the upkeep work is done by volunteers. They play a vital role in the life of the trail, helping to make funds go further, while at the same time getting to have a say in the way a trail develops. Today, a small group are busy fixing a section of trail that’s had severe drainage issues. Large golden blocks of sandstone, donated by a local stonemason, sit in the dark smelly mud as flies nibble at exposed arms, legs and faces. A team of three are using the rocks to create an elevated section, keeping ankles and tyres out of the water, without having to resort to the dreaded boardwalk.

To the trail builders, felling and the subsequent trail damage is just part of the lifecycle of the forest. They also see the opportunity that it brings. A section of trail that’s been destroyed can be rebuilt better than before. Sure, it’s annoying to see hard work go under the tyres of machines, but that’s just the way it is — the price that has to be paid for being allowed to play in the forest.

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The hire store caters for all cycling needs

At only 13km, and with little in the way of altitude to stretch things out, the red trail is an hour-of-power kind of loop. It doesn’t take a lot of detective work, however, to figure out that there’s much more than an hour’s worth of riding crammed into these woods. Tempting slivers of singletrack snake off in all directions, distracting me from the main trail. None of these trails are sanctioned, but they’ve appeared over the years as local riders have looked to add to the official trail network. The downside is that, come felling time, these trails with no status have no protection. This is often where the FC cop the most flak, with those who built the trails seeing it as the FC spoiling their fun. Neil knows where most of these trails are, and he knows what will be lost when the machines move in. There’s nothing that can be done, but post-felling he’ll often go and see what can be salvaged.

The FC, like most large organisations, can sometimes seem a little removed from its users. But the truth is that it’s probably doing more for mountain biking than any other government body. With committed riders like Neil working for it, we can be reassured that the trail riding community does at least have voices on the inside. We might not always like what the FC does to ‘our’ trails, but we might not always get to see the big picture. Neil is keen to stress that, if there’s something bothering you about your local trail centre, ask to speak to a ranger, as they are always happy to talk.