Mountain bikers could still be given their marching orders from swathes of prime singletrack in Hampshire, following a MOD by-laws review
Mountain bikers probably won’t get the permitted access to singletrack they were hoping for on military land around Aldershot, Hampshire, following a review into access. Thousands of riders use the heath and forest land around Aldershot and its network of trails every week, but riding singletrack has technically been prohibited under existing rules. Now though, a long-awaited by-law review by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), which manages land for the MOD, is on the cusp of publication and looks to confirm access to fire roads alone.
By the time you read this, the review should be in full swing and open to scrutiny from mountain bikers. Will it give riders official permission to ride singletrack trails? “The policy hasn’t changed,” James Nevitt from the DIO said, indicating that singletrack will still be off-limits to all users.
There are also concerns it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ride at famous hotspots like Tunnel Hill and Ash Ranges, thanks to the actions of the MOD, which has reduced land access over the past five years. That’s the view of local residents’ group Trails Action Group (TAG), which has watched the land thousands of mountain bikers, walkers, runners and horse riders enjoy become incrementally fenced off and parking removed from key locations.
In 2018, an area of around 1,000 acres called Long Valley (officially called Training area B4x by the MOD) was fenced off, with just five access points created. Then in 2020, the 160 acres at Porridge Pots (Training area G2) was locked away with just two gated access points installed, and in March of that year Ash Ranges (Range Complex) had all public access removed without consultation. The existing by-laws require the land to be shared with the general public when no training is taking place.
Trail Action Group
“We’re calling for a protection of access,” explains TAG chair Simon Brown. “We want that access retained and to remove the discrimination that says: you can run or walk down the singletrack, but you’re not allowed to ride a bike down it. Cyclists are also being singled out.” The DIO denies that mountain bikers are being unfairly discriminated against, and that anyone in breach of the by-laws – dog walkers, horse riders, mountain bikers – would be treated the same.
“We’re looking at strategic links to make access easier for walkers, cyclists, mountain bikers,” says Mark Sumner from the DIO. “We’ve designated a route around Pirbright Ranges that’s not on existing public rights, called the Pirbright Great loop, it’s a commemoration of 100 years since the Great War.
“We are also looking at a new route around Ash Ranges. The first work has just been carried out – resurfacing to make it more accessible for wheelchair users, walkers, cyclists. That’s going to be a three-to-four-year process.”
While we welcome more trails and better access to the countryside for all user groups, wide, well-surfaced, multi-user paths do not make interesting mountain bike trails.
TAG’s greatest fear is that the new review will unjustly prohibit mountain biking altogether except on fire roads, and eventually all land access will be lost within 10 years at current rates, according to Simon Brown from TAG.
We’ve yet to see any details of the by-law review, meaning it could offer something genuinely useful to mountain bikers. And if it doesn’t? “The bottom line is that if it’s not to our liking, we can bury the consultation in responses,” Simon says. “We’d rather have a cooperative, collaborative world because we know that it works better.
It knows this because last summer the group ran a survey to find out just how many people used the land, what they did there and whether they knew an access change was coming. The responses were staggering.
“Every week there are about 50,000 hours of recreation out there,” Mike Gilderdale from TAG says. “That’s just from people responding to our campaign. Nearly 11,000 people took part in the survey and we had 8,000 comments telling us that they consider it a safe place to be, they respect the military, and just how important it is for their mental health.” Simon Brown adds: “We’re in unchartered waters because we’ve never seen this before. There are close to 12,500 acres, most of which remains open and that is going to garner public interest.”
The army prides itself in planning for the worst and hoping for the best. The hope here is that the by-laws review will recognise mountain bikers as legitimate users of the current singletrack trails that have been used for decades. If it doesn’t then the plan is to let our voices be heard – those of us with an interest in land access for mountain bikers, no matter where we live and ride, need to help out and comment on the changes. Follow TAG at byelawsreview.com for more information.