This weekend, I was lucky enough to ride at Bedgebury on Friday, and then at Swinley Forest on Saturday. For riders living in the relatively flat South East of England, these two venues are rare in that they offer officially sanctioned, purpose-built mountain bike trails within easy reach of the M25. Riding both of them back to back gave me an excellent chance to compare the two.
When you arrive at either venue, the first thing you’ll find is a large car park. The one at Bedgebury is not only much, much larger, it’s also much, much more expensive. Swinley is £2 for 4 hours or £4 all day, at Bedgebury you have to pay £8.50 to park (unless you park on the edge of the forest and ride in like the majority of regular riders there) Parking space at Swinley is a bit limited though, this weekend with the sun shining, I was struggling to find somewhere to put the car at 10.30am. Never known that to be an issue at Bedgebury as they have a huge field for overflow parking. Arguably though, a small car park is a bonus as more parking = a more overcrowded venue…
In terms of facilities there’s not a lot to split the two, cafe, bike wash, bike hire etc are available at both. The cafe at Bedgebury overlooks a lake and for my money is a far nicer place to sit for a post ride coffee than the one at Swinley, which overlooks a playground. Both are a magnet for families with kids, but my impression of the crowd at Swinley was that there were more people there for fitness. As well as cyclists, Swinley seemed very popular with runners too. The biking crowd at Swinley looked a bit fitter too, a bit more “serious” but maybe that’s just my perception of things.
I can’t comment on the bike hire at Swinley, but I have rented bikes from Quench Cycles at Bedgebury, both for myself and for friends and family riding with me. My experiences have been hit and miss, a lot of the entry level MTBs for hire at Bedgebury aren’t in the best condition and I have felt pretty badly let down by the state of them on some occasions. My suggestion would be to thoroughly check a hire bike you’re given before you accept it and don’t be shy to say you’re not happy with it if the brakes are spongy or there’s no tread on the tyres! On a more positive note, the staff at Quench are always friendly, helpful and apologetic if you complain. It’s staffed by decent people with a genuine interest in mountain biking, they just need to keep their hire fleet in a bit better condition.
Now for the important bit. The trails. It may be difficult for me to objectively compare these two routes. I ride Bedgebury 3-4 times a month, all through the year, I know it like the back of my hand, I know where each root, rut and puddle is going to be. Swinley I’ve ridden 3 times, and only twice since the trails were revamped to their current state. Knowing Bedgebury so well might lead me to be a little bored with it, familiarity breeding contempt and all that. However, I find that when you know a trail really well, you also get to know how to get the absolute most out of it. I definitely feel that I ride faster, and with more confidence at Bedgebury than anywhere else because I know exactly what the bike is going to do wherever I am.
Bedgebury and Swinley both list their red routes as being 13km in length, but Swinley has 10km of blue graded trail as well. The blue trail starts from the car park and about half way round, you have the option to either join the start of the red route or head back to the car park on the 2nd half of the blue. So, the sensible think to do is ride both red & blue to give you a 23km ride. For my money, there’s very little difference at Swinley between the red graded trails and the blue in terms of the confidence and skill you’ll need to ride them. Bedgebury also has a “family trail” as well as it’s red, but this merely uses the wide gravel walking paths that crisscross the forest. Not very interesting and not (in my opinion) even very picturesque.
So, Swinley wins on quantity of trails, but what about quality ? Bedgebury’s red route first opened around 8 years ago, and in that time a huge amount of work has been done to make the trail more durable and more fun. There’s very little in the way of hills at Bedgebury, so the trails are mostly flat. No big climbs, no big descents. What has arrived at Bedgebury over the past couple of years, as the local bike club have worked some magic, is flow. Not all of the singletrack has it, but the bits that do flow well (Particularly the very last section) flow really well. There are a lot of manmade features, every other corner has a built up berm, expect lots of gravel, a few rooty bits, one or two rock gardens here and there but nothing remotely dangerous or challenging for an experienced rider. There are even one or two “unofficial” trails and cheeky detours dotted here and there about the forest, a few of which are real gems. Many of these “off piste” trails at Bedgebury are really natural, rooty, muddy bits of fun. They’re all short, but worth riding.
The Bedgebury red route starts off with a half mile or so on forest road out of the car park (unless you know where the singletrack climb is that runs alongside it) then throws one of it’s most technical sections at you right at the start. Just a couple of tight turns with rooty steps on a short, steep (ish) hill, nothing that would worry an experienced rider. Having these right at the start however, helps remind any families who have wandered onto the red route by mistake that they’re not in Kansas any more. From there on it’s all good, a variety of trails ranging from rooty and natural to almost BMX-track smooth and swoopy. It all feels like it’s gradually getting better and better till you hit the “Bikea” trail and from there it’s all just one big “Meh” for what feels like a couple of miles till you hit the very last section which is a real treat. A lot of work is currently being done to the trails in what I think of as Bedgebury’s “flat spot”, so it may yet be reborn as something wonderful.
For a long time I’ve thought that Bedgebury didn’t feel all that natural and had more berms than it needed, but Swinley takes the man-made banked-corner thing to a whole other level. For years Swinley had a lot of unofficial trails dotted around the woods with no signposting and no set “route”. I rode there back in 2011 and spent most of my time wandering up and down forest roads trying to find all the good bits I’d seen on You Tube. I found less than half of them, and a lot of these were in a bit of a state, cut up and muddy. In 2013, Swinley was reborn into it’s current, red & blue, trail centre incarnation. A lot of the surface is very hard packed and the trail can look a bit like a yellow-brick road cutting through the forest. As you roll over the humps and round the berms, you find lots of short, sharp climbs followed by short, sharp, swoopy descents. As you move from blue to red, it just keeps on with the swoopy, jumpy theme. How challenging the riding is will depend entirely on how fast you ride it. I’m not a big fan of jumping, but you’ve got no shortage of kickers at Swinley if you want to get your bike airbourne. There are sections of the red which are a bit more natural, rooty and muddy. There were some fantastic, narrow trails in a thickly wooded area of pine trees, but soon enough you’re back on the hard pack surface and bombing down short hills as fast as you dare, and in my case, trying not to let the bike jump too much in case I crashed and made a tit of myself…
Bedgebury is about 20 minutes drive for me, Swinley is about 2 hours. If they were both 20 minutes away, I’d be going to Swinley every time. For me, the best bits of Bedgebury are as good as the best bits of Swinley, but the best bits of Bedgebury probably make up about 2 miles of cracking singletrack. Swinley probably has at least three times as many trails guaranteed to have you grinning.
The one thing Bedgebury does a lot better than Swinley is signage. On two or three occasions we exited a section of the red route with no clue which way to turn to find the next section. The situation is made worse by the fact that the Forest is still littered with old bits of singletrack that you could easily confuse for the next bit of red and end up completely lost.
Man-made trail centres like Swinley and Bedgebury aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I don’t care how much of a grumpy-old-cross-country-map-reading git you are, you can’t deny that places like these offer some seriously enjoyable riding. If you want natural, make-it-up-as-you-go-along riding you’ve got the Surrey Hills and the South Downs (though not a lot else in this part of the world) but not everyone has all day to get lost each time they go out for a ride.
The one thing both of these trails have in common is that they are only as hard as you make them. If you’re a beginner, ride them slowly, you’ll be safe and you’ll have fun. If you’re more experienced, ride them hard & fast and they’ll be challenging and you’ll have fun. You can ride at either venue with kids in tow and teach them how to ride off road without anything being too daunting or scary.
In other news, I finally ordered a new bike! My Canyon Spectral AL is about 2 weeks from being delivered. Full Sus 29′er, no more having to deal with my back wheel being bucked about all over the place by a bumpy trail. Bring it on…