The UK's newest national park

In 2011 the South Downs became the UK’s newest National Park. Six years later it’s time to see how mountain bikers are faring…

The South Downs grassy chalk lump has been the training, playing and wrecking ground for countless off-roaders since the UK’s first major MTB event was held there in ’84. In 2011 it was designated the UK’s youngest National Park, with new conservation regulations. Has mountain biking changed in those six years?

>>> The Best Bits, South Downs route

south downs mountain biking

Free-to-use stands are a kind gesture

It’s thriving in the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Hampshire. “The number of MTB visits has trebled, says Scott Fitzgerald, one of the ten core members of the QECP Collective who, with help from around 100 volunteers, have built and maintained ace red and blue trails.

Their efforts are welcomed. “We get all the support we need from the local council. They are as supportive as they can be, considering the red tape and the many other park users,” says Scott.

south downs mountain biking

So far it seems that balancing the wishes of mountain bikers, walkers, conservationists, horse riders and picnickers is working well throughout the 628 square mile national park. “We get 20 million visitors every year. The South Downs Way (SDW) is among the top 10 MTB challenge routes in the UK and 20,000 complete it annually, by foot or bike,” says Alister Linton-Crook, cycling project officer for the South Downs National Park Authority.

south downs mountain biking

There are 746 miles of bridleway and a clutch of MTB honeypots, mostly on private land “Occasionally we’ll liaise indirectly, perhaps with a landowner like the Forestry Commission, to make sure their trails don’t conflict with other park users, but it’s rare for the trails to cross a public right of way,” says Alister.

In fact, the SDNPA is actively helping off-roaders by installing half a dozen bike stands with tools and by plumbing in water points for bottle refills on key routes. Most of the 30 organised events in the park each year are for mountain bikers and there are a zillion unofficial rides, such as Rob Colliver’s record-smashing non-stop SDWx4.

south downs mountain biking

Winchester City Mill has just been designated the official start/end point at the west end of the SDW. At the other end, 100 miles away, is Eastbourne, well known as a genteel retirement town. So perhaps it’s no surprise that in nearby Friston Forest e-MTBs are common.

“For the unwary the volunteer-built trails in the forest can be hard-going,” says Andrew Mann, who’s been riding Friston for more than two decades. “The e-bikes let the older riders keep up with their younger buddies. That’s handy because it’s so easy to get lost in the forest. It’s still a sweet spot to ride, pretty much like all of the Downs.”