London's Labyrinth

An hour from London there’s a maze of trails that’ll make your head spin. Here’s mbr ride guide to the Swinley Forest trail centre or sorts.

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Swinley Forest: the trail guide

  • Green: 1km, 20 minutes
  • Blue: 10km, 1hr
  • Red: 13km, 1hr

Sleeping and eating

Holly House B&B in Bracknell gets stonking reviews, but we’ve not stayed there. The Look Out cafe is being rejazzed, but we’ve no idea what the food will be like until it reopens. The closest pub for grub is the Golden Retriever. And of course, you’re only 10 miles from Bray, where you’ll find some of the poshest restaurants in England… maybe shower first though.

Fixing your bike

Take it to Tristan’s Swinley Bike Hub. You can rent bikes there too, and get coaching and training.

What bike to ride

A hardtail is probably the best option for Swinley as the trails are so flowy and smooth you’ll get plenty from being able to pump. Anything goes though, just save your downhill bike for somewhere else.

Best of the rest

Peaslake and the heart of the Surrey Hills is an hour’s drive anticlockwise round the M25, or Aston Hill is an hour clockwise.

Pick of the trails

If you’re new to Swinley, ride the blue and the red as a complete loop — it’ll give you a good pedal and show you everything there is.

swinlet forest

Tank Traps: a unique, bermy trail that rewards the smooth

Swinley Forest trail centre guide

Article originally appeared in MBR March 2016

London has a lot going for it. For starters it’s the only place you can see the house in Brixton where David Bowie grew up, Decca Records where he recorded his first single, the plaque where Ziggy Stardust made his debut, and his favourite Soho boozer. And if you’re not a Bowie fan there are lots of other good things too, like jobs, public transport, museums and shops. What it doesn’t have much of though, is bucolic atmosphere — woods, forests, hills and crucially, mountain bike trails. Yes there are a few spots where you can turn your pedals — a few miles of crushed stone at Lee Valley Velo Park, and a glorified pump track at the Lordship Loop in Tottenham — but if you want proper mountain biking, you have to swap the land of cereal cafés and million-pound bedsits for the comforts of country pubs and Hunter wellies.

swinley forest

Sculpted berms aid flow and make up for the lack of gradient

Where to go then? Swinley Forest probably pulls in the most riders, with around a quarter of a million rides on its trails every year, and that’s just from the car park data — no one knows how many people arrive by train. The Swinley Forest Mountain Bikers page on Facebook has over 5,000 likes and TrailTeam Swinley, a volunteer organisation that helps maintain the trails has over 3,000.

swinley forest

Eking out every last drop of momentum is key to forest fun

The big question though, is why? Why is Swinley so popular? It’s not for the elevation: the highest point is barely 40m above the car park — mountainous it most certainly is not. Nor is it for the Jump Gulley anymore. This sunken treasure of sandy jumps was closed last October because it was responsible for nearly half of all forest accidents, according to the Crown Estate. It wasn’t “sustainable or defendable”, a spokesperson told us. From afar it looked like Swinley was gradually being gentrified, dumbed down, possibly in response to a couple of tragic and fatal accidents on the trails. So we left the grey pavements of our Croydon base for the day to find out if this was really the case.

Recent history

Back in 2013, Swinley opened a brand-new blue route that was super-smooth and suitable for most riders, featuring big berms, rollers and tabletops. It cut out plenty of the old boggy sections and kept much of the old favourite sections, like the Labyrinth — a handcrafted, more natural-feeling collection of trails hidden in the trees on a single small hillside. One section of the new official loop goes through the Labyrinth, but riders who are a little more inquisitive will find a further rabbit warren of trails featuring jumps, high-speed berms and grippy dirt.

swinley forest

Blurred lines: pump, flow… or just huck off every last tree root

Swinley also dropped the permit to ride system, making the venue essentially free to ride (although at £4 a day, car parking charges are high). Since then, a 13km red and 1km green trail has been added to complement the blue, taking the total trail length to 24km.

The initial appeal of Swinley is obvious as soon as you arrive, precisely because it is so easy to arrive. The place is cornered by the M3 and M4 motorways, trapped in that little peninsula of land that meets the M25, and bringing it within easy reach of millions of riders in south-east England… assuming the M25 isn’t in car park mode. And if you don’t drive, Swinley is one of the UK’s few truly rail-accessible trail centres. We meet ex-mbr writer, James ‘Smurthers’ Smurthwaite, here for the photoshoot. Smurthers is almost too young to drive, having just graduated from university, but it’s taken him just 40 minutes to get here from Clapham by train. And the last part by bike from the closest station, Martins Heron, is even on a dedicated cycle track: that beats our 70-minute drive from Croydon hands down.

swinley forest

The top section of Labyrinth is steep, fast, flowing and fun

We also meet Tristan Taylor, who runs the on-site bike hire centre. Tristan’s Swinley Bike Hub enterprise has been running for two years, predominantly hiring out a fleet of hardtails to new riders. He’s invested heavily in the place, having ridden here most of his life, and is completely dedicated to bettering Swinley’s trails: Tristan leads night rides, shop rides, encourages his mechanics to demo new bikes, builds trails, runs coaching and training classes, liaises with the locals and generally does everything in his power to push Swinley forward.

swinley forest

Jack struggles to keep his wheels on the ground and the grin off his face

Tristan and the two lads who work in the hire centre, Jack Tate and Will Marshall, have agreed to show us round the loop today. I ask them why Swinley draws so many riders. “It’s the closest and best trail centre this side of London,” Tristan says. “Surrey offers good riding too, but it doesn’t have dedicated and marked routes, which is something plenty of people want: busy riders know they’ll always get a two- or three-hour ride in and they can time-box it.”

The trails

We start off on Swinley’s blue trail — 10km of wide, swoopy singletrack sculpted from local crushed stone. It was built by Rowan Sorrell’s Back on Track crew, a team responsible for a host of flowy trails across England and Wales. Swinley certainly has flow, eking out every last drop of gradient to create a real rollercoaster of a route in the red and blue. They didn’t bother with any crap like introducing rocky steps to make it more ‘mountainous’, and instead focused on promoting speed and momentum above all else. There are rollers to pump or double-up, tables to jump, drainage where needed to keep the surface speedy, and above all else, corners. Bermed corners, perfectly placed to keep your speed high and braking to the lightest of touches.
Overall, it’s a great success.

swinley forest

High speed thrills can be found, you just need to look

The blue starts inauspiciously though, and the incredible amount of traffic here has resulted in a slippery surface that doesn’t inspire confidence. The trail has a rounded profile that tries to push you to the edge in places, especially carrying a winter’s rain and ice. A rescue plan exists to rework and widen the start and turn it into 3km of family-friendly green trail, rerouting the blue in the process.

swinley forest

Everyone’s welcome at Bike Swinley

For more advanced riders, a trail of a different grade is also being built. Up the hill to your left as you leave the first section of trail is a brand new freeride area, currently being unearthed from the forest floor. The top sections look practically finished, with great walls of compacted dirt that appear sharp enough to grace a dirt jump. A chain on the take-off of a new gap jump stops people ploughing the still-soft earth into a muddy mess, and it clearly just needs more time to firm up. Further down the hill, the line is less distinct, for now it’s loosely scraped from the leaf litter, or “ginger” as Tristan calls it. “What we don’t want is people flying off the freeride and into the blue trail, so the blue sections have to move,” he says.

This time Rowan’s not involved; all the work is being done by volunteers through TrailTeam Swinley. “The other day we had around 15 guys out digging. Some of them work in construction, so we’ve had excavators in here before too,” Tristan says. The idea is to open this new freeride area by March.

How have the volunteers been able to get this done? Surely a landlord prepared to close the Jump Gulley would never sanction this. I’m wrong, Tristan says, the Crown Estate is in fact extremely supportive of mountain biking. “They’ve opened up their church to mountain bikers, and trusted us to feed back what works and what doesn’t. As long as the trails are within the proper trail grades, it works fine,” he says.

Swinley gets better the deeper you go into its wooded space. While most of the UK is drowning under an unprecedented amount of rain, this place is free of standing water and there are no puddles to splash through. The soil here is like sharp sand, and water slips through it like rain through a grate, and constant maintenance twinned with good trail design helps too. You’re likely to finish a ride with a largely mud-free bike, albeit with sand grinding away at your drivetrain and in your ears. “My wife has banned me from using the washing machine on bike stuff now,” Tristan says. “The trick is to let it dry for a day and then just bash the sand off.”

Swinley youth

We’ve not gone very far into the ride before I realise how old I am. I’ve seen 34 summers, but Jack (19) and Will (22) are so excitable, so keen to ride and be in our photos that Tristan and I feel like old timers. Until recently, Jack worked at the Go-Ape centre, but it’s seasonal, and you can tell his heart’s really in mountain biking, particularly here at Swinley. Jack’s wheels rarely touch the ground, so keen is he to bunny-hop and double everything in sight, and when they do land they’re usually going sideways. I say a silent ‘thank you’ to myself for packing a couple of spare tubes; it can’t be long before the first burped tyre. Will is the chief mechanic at the Bike Hub, and spends his free time riding bikes too. He’s into jumps, and rides at Tidworth in Wiltshire. It’s great to follow their lines and soak up their local knowledge.

If you’ve got the energy, it’s best to hang about

at the far end of the Swinley loop, as this is where the choice cuts are tucked away. The red trail is basically an extension of the blue, meaning new riders can see how they’re feeling before making a commitment.

The red is a great ride, it’s a touch steeper than the blue and that makes a huge difference to how fun it feels. The blue is definitely a trail to pedal through, while the red dishes out small chunks of fast descent, where your legs are put to better use keeping your wheels on the ground (or off it, if you prefer). The downs are a match for many a Welsh trail centre, but, of course, they don’t last anything like as long.

It’s a decent pedal back to the car park, or so it seems after messing about on the red trail for so long, and the ponds and drainage ditches either side of the trails are starting to ice up again as the sun goes down. I’ve had good rides around Swinley in the past, and also rides that seem to have dragged on without much reward, and I think I’ve figured out why that is — you only get out what you put in. It’s a trail centre alright, but one that requires constant effort to keep your speed high, whether that’s from pedalling or pumping. Times I’ve worked hard riding here, I’ve had a great time… lazy days, not so much. Today, towed round by youthful high spirits, it’s been great. And far from being a trail centre under threat of regression, we’ve found Swinley to be on the brink of something new: new trails, new outlook, new car park… and most importantly, new young riders to push the pace.