Our top 10 natural winter wonders
If you want to get some good riding in this winter, don’t limit yourself to trail centres — there are plenty of natural winter wonders out there too. Read on to get to our top 10 winter routes.
We can’t guarantee you won’t get wet, but we can promise that riding any of the following routes will banish the winter blues.
It’s autumn or winter time and out in the hills, your favourite trails are shivering in plummeting temperatures and drowning in steady precipitation. Motivation is at its annual low. So what do you do? Go into hibernation for three months, or pull on the thermals, switch off the SAD light and just get out and ride?
With the advent of forestry trail centres there are countless opportunities for off-season antics without the risk of developing trench foot.
But just as there are many people who would never pick up a ready-meal in favour of doing a little cooking, the adventurous don’t want to turn their backs on Britain’s great natural landscapes during the winter. With the trails all but abandoned by walkers and equestrians during the off-season, in many ways it’s the ideal time to enjoy our rights of way network. Indeed, those days when the sky is blue, the ground is frozen and the sun is slanting through the trees are some of our favourite times to be riding.
The UK hosts a gamut of trails that — through a combination of geography, geology and climate — make fantastic winter rides. By delving deep into our own experiences and drawing on the opinions of experts from around the country, we compiled a compendium of the finest winter trails in the land.
To make the cut routes had to be, above all, mud-free (relatively!). Top of the list were the country’s rocky, sandy and well-drained locales. Then we filtered out the high mountain epics — key words here were low level and sheltered — and then we consigned the mega all-day brutes to the shelf until summer. Finally, we looked at the facilities, making sure there’s at least one feed station en-route and the option of a short-cut back to base should everything go wrong.
1. Pennines, Calderdale
32km (19 miles)
Open an OS map of Calderdale and it’s hard not to see red. This steeply flanked dale in the Pennines is literally riddled with trails, many of them stony or paved with gritstone flags, making the area a premium off-season venue.
2. Yorkshire Dales, Barden Moor/ Hebden Gill
37.2km (23 miles)
Kicking off from the fabled biking haunt, the New Inn, Appletreewick, this route comes recommended by legendary rider John Pitchers. It’s a timeless tour of Dales terrain, rich in heather moorland, broken limestone and recently upgraded bridleways.
3. Suffolk, Thetford Forest
As long as you like
At the opposite end of the meteorological spectrum is Clacton-on-Sea. A town forgotten not only by charm, but by precipitation. With only 500mm a year, it’s the driest place in the country. Alas, for all its desert-like attractions, the area doesn’t harbour a great deal of A-grade trail. But trace a line north of Clacton for about 30 miles up the A134 and you’ll arrive at Thetford Forest, the next in our series of winter hangouts.
This extensive plantation of broadleaf, heathland and pine basks in a similar climate to that found down the road on the Essex coast, but weaving through the pillars of evergreen are mile upon mile of rampant singletrack.
For this maze of berms and bomb holes we must thank our motor-equipped cousins. Created as race courses the trails are now heirlooms for a new breed of two-wheel users.
It’s easy to lose yourself among this mtb nirvana as it is to get lost among the uniform plantation, so to stay on track, our advice is to follow one of the three waymarked routes through the forest, or stump up the paltry sum of 50p demanded by the Forestry Commission for one of their trail maps.
4. Lake District, Hodge Close
30km (18.5 miles)
With over 3,300mm of annual rainfall, there’s little risk of a hosepipe ban in Seathwaite, Cumbria. The wettest place in England seems an unlikely place to promote as a top winter riding destination, but for all its wheel-swallowing peat bogs, the Lake District also boasts a wealth of riding on less permeable terrain. Just 20km to the south-east sit the Furness Fells, home to our favourite winter Lake District ride.
Slate abounds in this part of the Lakes, so — just as it does when attached to your roof — water sheets off its surface to leave a tough, hard base on which to ride. Although surrounded by giant peaks, this route sticks to the more stunted fells out of the harshest weather and, combined with the fact that it packs a decent distance into a compact area, makes this Lakes route four-season friendly.
5. Cairngorms, Glenmore Lodge
27km (16.5 miles)
The magnificent Cairngorm National Park is one of the UK’s last remaining wilderness mountain environments and, on a crisp winter’s morning, among the sugar-coated peaks and majestic Scots pine, there are few better places to be. Although prone to bad weather, the underlying granite makes the countless paths and tracks a genuine off-season proposition. With much of the area covered in forest, there’s plenty of sheltered riding to be enjoyed, and the profusion of singletrack radiating from the Forest Visitor Centre at Glenmore means you never have to venture too far from a steaming plate of neeps and tatties.
6. Powys, Painscastle
20km (12.5 miles)
Shouldering the border with England, Powys is blessed with an extensive network of trails traversing wonderful heather-clad moor. While they may sound barren, the exposure means there’s a consistent wind to blow-dry the trails. For advice on the best rides in the area we turned to Jeremy Atkinson, developer of the route-riddled www.roughrides.co.uk website and organiser of the annual Rough Ride event.
Jeremy pointed us toward the Llanbedr Hill area and a route out of Painscastle. Obviously, with no tree cover, you’ll need to plan carefully around the weather before taking on this route. Although the riding will be essentially mud-free, there’s little shelter from the elements once you’re up on the moor.
7. Somerset, Quantocks
27km (16.5 miles)
Though diminutive in stature, the sheer quantity and quality of trails harboured by these Somerset hillocks mean that they can genuinely stand on an equal footing with the big guns such as the Lakes and the Peaks.
In essence the Quantocks are a long ridgeline radiating countless steep, wooded combes, all of which are blessed with the kind of trails that dreams are made from. The spine is traversed by a well-surfaced track, allowing ready access to the various combes, and most of the best descents end up at a pub — plus you’re never far from the car should there be a need to head home early. Although the trails frequently criss-cross small streams, most of them sit atop a stony base, and the whole area drains very quickly, so mud shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
8. Yorkshire Dales, Scar House Reservoir
38km (23.5 miles)
Scar House Reservoir; sounds pretty grim doesn’t it? Don’t let that put you off though, as the local trails sit atop a durable gritstone base, resulting in an area that remains hard throughout the worst of the Yorkshire winter. At 20 miles it’s the perfect length for a mid-winter Sunday, it features a wholesome mix of rocky descents, steady climbs and fast doubletrack and although the wind is a constant companion, you never really feel its full force head-on, and there’s always a tailwind blowing down the long return leg.
9. Peak District, Stanage Edge
32km (20 miles)
A short route and a bit over-embellished with tarmac to rank among the greats during the summer months, this spectacular Dark Peak loop comes into its own when the nights close in. We spoke to Jon Barton, author of the excellent Dark Peak Mountain Biking guide by Vertebrate Graphics, and he was quick to single out this route as a particular winter fave.
10. Peak District, Edale
22.5km (14 miles)
A Peak District rite of passage, the Edale Loop, incorporating Roych Clough and Jacob’s Ladder, also makes a genuine winter cracker thanks to its well-surfaced trails. The route can be ridden both ways, and each direction has its positives and negatives. Personally, we prefer to end the ride by descending the formidable Jacob’s Ladder.