I’ve spent a lot of my life in relative proximity to a mountain bike. Not a fancy one, don’t go getting any ideas. In fact, the first time I rode a bike with any form of suspension was at the grand old age of 26 when I hired one in Canada.
It was a good thing they gave me a full-suspension bike because the green trails in Canada make our blacks look like a child’s play park. I’m exaggerating, but you catch my drift.
I’ve always been a mountain biker through familiarity, rather than adoration. When you grow up in a family of competitive mountain bikers, you get taken along for the ride whether you’d have chosen that hobby or not. Like all moderately uncomfortable and frequently wet pursuits I was corralled into as a child though, mountain biking has reappeared in my adult life as a full-blown love.
From City to Forest
Haldon Forest Park is the work of Forestry England. It resides at the top of an obnoxiously steep hill just outside of Exeter and would be a dandy bike ride away from my house if it wasn’t near-vertical.
Haldon Hill is the kind of place where VW campervans succumb to their weaknesses on the verge each summer. Its east-going descent lulls you into a false sense of security too, careering downwards until you reach sharp bends at the bottom. Ha, just testing you weren’t speeding!
Even getting to the bike trails themselves requires attention and avoiding the lorries that crawl up the hill in the left lane. The exit to the forest park is a right-angle left turn just before the brow of the hill, so sharp you need to practically stop before making it, surprising the driver behind who’s trying to not lose the momentum they might’ve acquired jigging forward in their seat.
Once you’re off the A38 you quickly get onto a country lane that’s technically wide enough for two cars to pass but you wouldn’t want to sneeze at the same time. Besides, it’s never cars. Instead, you’ll find a convoy of pimped vans, dripping with money and stickers that proclaim this van is worth more than it reasonably should be but I’m a dirtbag mountain biker…honest.
Finally, you turn into the car park.
This is where the glory of Haldon starts creeping into view.
Haldon Forest Park
I’ve heard people complaining about the expense of the car park but I can’t fathom why. The trails are lovingly crafted and maintained, which doesn’t happen too often. It’s called a park although I’m sure it’s for want of a better word. It’s not really a park, it’s a managed forest.
The car park is vast and the trails – walking, running and mountain biking – all start from the edges. There are toilets, bike hire, a bike wash, a cafe and a large and charming population of small garden birds present too. You can also buy an annual car pass at around £30 for the year which, if you live nearby, is an absolute bargain.
The glory of Haldon is this:
It makes it unbelievably easy to hang out in nature, no matter who you are.
Haldon has five maintained bike trails. A green, two blues, a red and a black. They’re a dream to ride and never get boring, no matter how many weekends you hit them up, any time of year.
It has walking trails and two 5k running routes, all signposted, all maintained.
It even has trails for children, temporarily sponsored by characters like the Gruffalo – she loves to get the kids outdoors, that one. Maybe to eat them, who knows?
GoApe can also be found here and mountain biking along the last section of the blue, you might just hear voices from high above you in the treetops.
For those who just want to go somewhere demonstrably outside, it has picnic tables and a cafe. You don’t have to walk anywhere at all if you just need some time looking at trees and listening to birdsong.
There are many people at Haldon who don’t look like they spend much time outdoors. Really outdoors. You can tell because they’re wearing clothes that have no rightful place near mud and shoes that aren’t familiar with the word ‘grip’. And that’s why it’s such a marvellous place. Because without managed forests like this, many people simply wouldn’t go into nature. They might not know where to start.
The privilege of growing up wild
I had the privilege of growing up wild. I schlepped up Scottish, Welsh and English mountains before I was anywhere near ten and spent most of my childhood eating soggy sandwiches in damp forests all over the place.
From hiking in cloud to mountain biking around winter cross courses, if it was daylight, I was out in the wild. I might not have appreciated it all the time then, but I certainly do now. Not just because I love being outdoors, but because I get it. I’m not uncomfortable in mud or rain or traipsing through undergrowth. I don’t need an interpretive trail and signposts, I can find my own way.
I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have grown up on the edge of a National Park and I’m lucky to have parents who thought the outdoors was a darn sight better than the indoors.
But so many people did not get that upbringing. Instead they’re guided by outdoors companies who convince them they need down jackets just to navigate the high street.
Dartmoor looks mild sometimes but it can turn into a dangerous place without the right knowledge and respect for such an environment. Walk ten minutes away from a car park and, chances are, you won’t see anyone at all. It’s unfortunate, because up until then it’ll be busy on a summer’s day.
This country has vast tracts of wild spaces and more footpaths than you’d believe. But without being a hiker or a mountain biker, many people don’t know where to start.
And so they go to Haldon. Haldon which makes it so easy, so pleasant to be outdoors in the forest, to see the city in the valley, the river sparkling in the distance. They take their children who seem more comfortable in the environment than their parents. They take their massive cars and expensive vans and down jackets. And it’s easy to see managed forest parks like this as too popular. It’s easy to get snobbish about them. But that denies the beauty of them.
Haldon makes it easy for everyone to get outside. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you grew up on Ben Nevis or London’s stifling streets, it opens its arms to everyone.
That’s why Forestry England is underrated. It’s why no one should complain about paying the car park charges. The outdoors might be free, but it takes money to make it fully accessible. And we’re so fortunate to have such accessible wild spaces.