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forest of dean mtb-23

the forest of dean

What was once a hang–out has become a destination.

Lurking on the fringes of the Royal Forest Of Dean, Lydney tumbles out of a big mix of woodland stretching way back into Wales. It’s got a bit of everything, rough and smooth...

From Dirt Issue 124 - June 2012

Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Steve Jones.

‘The Sun Trap’ tanning salon at one end of town, human hair extensions on the other, Bargain Booze sitting almost fondly alongside The Annexe, an ambitious pub slender of verve. Leaving town I spot a reclamation yard of London busses sharing the same flood plain as a company selling swanky VW T5’s.

It’s here that the oddly contrasting harmony of Lydney town centre got me thinking. I’d been rummaging around the fringes picking up images for what was planned to be a full Forest of Dean feature but now realized it was the smaller scale I should be working on rather than tackling the massively complex, hugely ridden, and let’s not forget, regal woodland.

Sallow Vallets Inclosure is a block of land sitting at the dead centre of this area. Once a rough old slab of woodland, the only people you’d likely to have seen would have been the freeminers working in coal pit–pockets set amongst the much bigger historical mining landscape. Given its washed out name the woods still offered rich pickings.

Today, surrounded by roads, on its outer most edges ‘The Inclosure’ has one, maybe two households at a push, a campsite and a mini garden centre. Freeminers do still inhabit the inner sanctum and it’s only in recent times that riders arrived to dig their own gold, locals ripping in new downhill trails, the famous Bombhole trails and Ash Tip links. The sheep have long since buggered off from these parts, choosing a roadside town centre or residential existence instead.>>

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[part title="The Forest of Dean - Page 2..."]

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forest of dean mtb-6

Bikes, road salt, cars, lorries and litter now arm wrestle for the scarce pieces of hard standing on the more sea level side of the hill, whilst the campers quietly go about their business up on the high but hardly dizzy plateau. It’s in and around this southern part of the inclosure area that has seen layer upon layer, wave upon wave, of locals cutting and scratching in their own power lines – there has been a forest pecking order around here for many, many years. The struggle, for riders at least, was/is always been about smashing in some unsubtle berms as inconspicuously as possible. A tall order, but Ski Run is an authentic part of that early groundwork that will outlive any surfacing theories, yet sadly many others have gone the way of the bramble or by the strong arm of forest law.

Life on the inclosure has evolved through the pushing and pulling of national politics, local squabbles. Whilst the true diggers have had over a decade of being pushed away in some form or other there has been eagerness to pull in the more dawdling Sunday spinners of the flatter surfaces. Starter tracks have recently had investment of five figure sums, you’ll see more stone to dust than freeminer black rock. And miraculously the more technical terrain – even though it sees little or no investment other than the muscle and sweat of dozens of willing hardcore volunteers – has suddenly become cool. The miners seem to look on with a wry snarl.

And once so sensitive to the moving of a branch or cutting of a berm the ubiquitous ranger now twitches with the rise and fall of the wheel clock counter on the Blue trail. 70,000 riders a year now plunder the narrow gauge, BMX style Verderer’s trail. From 9 riders per day this centre now brings in around 250 per day. Almost £400,000 of 1 South West money made the blue trail and new bridge possible. Berms are now not only a new word in the ranger’s vocabulary, but pound signs of the Forestry budgets. Simultaneously the eight wheel machines and men engaged in ‘real work’ (forest thinning) have not so much become the enemy to be run out of town but the slowers–down of the (desperately needed)  two wheel traffic. Tick tock. You cannot help but feel that ‘working forest’ has a different meaning in the inclosure these days. The miners look on…

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forest of dean mtb-17

 

[part title="The Forest of Dean - Page 3..."]

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forest of dean mtb-13

Life on and in the inclosure has become one strange old mix. A place that has more than one identity, it’s not just a destination as much as some want it to be, for this place is not an enclosure with a clear inside and outside. Never has been. Ripping in a track can still be a simple business and, but for the bloody mindedness of those who in the past have been over eager to spoil the fun, the power lines have remained largely intact. Ski Run, and parts of Sheepskull might now be a Forest brand but these were beads laid by the pioneers of forest two–wheeled life. Cut these roots and they will bleed for they are the two–wheel lifeblood of this inclosure. Without them it becomes yet another town centre full of tourists, and the blue run will become that same washed out slow slugging storm drain that’s a feature of any other forgotten designer trail centre. Top–up tans don’t come cheap.Precious? Too right. This has become big business. The opening of the bridge across the road marks a turning point. Forward – that’s the only way it can go, for now at least, bigger, faster, longer and probably pricier, cosier. Chocolate on your mochas, dust on the track and regular heavy traffic. Was mountainbiking ever meant to be like this? Even on the downhills you are now filtered into a car park in the same way as any town centre. By trail or downhill you’re either in a one–way system, cul de sac or ring road. You won’t plunder gold here, it’s too overworked. The art of getting lost has no place in the Sallow Vallets plot.

The jumps, once random and made of sticks and shit, are now of imported stone, smooth and schemingly positioned. There’s a feeling even the diggers have been forced into changing their ways. The unsystematic has become strategic. The coffee, once deliciously dirty now comes in a variety of forms, there’s even fairy cakes on the counter. “This place could be brilliant". It was brilliant. It is brilliant. Makeover, tarmac, menus, service and overcomplicated smoothies…the diggers, the real mountainbikers, actually might have been pushed to the fringes removing (as the inclosures act had previously done) the right of the locals to carry out such activities. The trail is now being blazed elsewhere as the inclosure, sorry destination, has an eye on a new designer trail centre template making it all so easy – uplift, showers, shopping, events, video and a wood burner. My how we now live. Still, managing crowds might yet be more important than managing the wood pile. The once popular nearby sculpture trail slips into decline.

Suitably urbanized, signed and surfaced, the inclosure has developed into the perfect moutainbike model. Smash and grab a thirty minute loop without getting muddy, jump in a van for a warm shuttle to the top of the two hundred foot hill, have your pasta on a plate next to a warm wood burner whilst your puncture is being fixed. Once a salty old place, the café remains a sweaty, steamy port in a storm, especially on wet and windy days. Of course there’s a degree of mild xenophobia from the locals, some might even feel it’s no longer home given the crowds of tourists, yet its kept its soul and the hosts are an affectionate bunch as you’ll ever find. As for riding, it’s almost unrivaled in its diversity. Immense hosts, countless lines.

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forest of dean mtb-10