Explored: Hamsterley Forest
Pouring rain and thick mist have an uncanny ability to turn an urban area into a stark, heavy place. Glancing through the curtains at 7am, rain on the windows and street lamps glaring, it's easy to to think "ah, I'll pass on that today,” - only to lie back down and swipe through images of people in warmer climes living each day to the full.
But the woods reward the hardier souls who stick to the plan, get out there hunting for a natural high, rather than worrying about the amount of time that'll have to be spent washing gear afterwards. Away from the harshness of concrete, condensation-filled windows and overflowing drains and under the canopy of the forest, the pine needles and fresh soil lie waiting; the mid-January weather suddenly doesn’t seem so bad after all.
A lot of the time it's a question of - will it be worth it? The drive, the preparation, the effort and the clean up - in the winter at least - there's only so much time you can spend holding a can of Muc Off and hose pipe in the dark, surely. But Hamsterley Forest, nestled quietly in the North East of England is one location that always seems to deliver, even on the murkiest of winter days. A 2000 hectare commercial forest, sat 30 miles south of Newcastle and built in the 1930's by the unemployed to generate income for the rural area. Today a key Forestry Commission forest within the North of England, where the forest attracts over 200,000 visitors per annum (with lots of other leisure opportunities)- it certainly delivers for the "key objectives" of the Forestry Commission-People, wildlife and Timber.
It has certainly been a worthwhile job for us mountain bikers; the forest now pulls in close to 100,000 riders a year with a full trail centre and DH Bikepark ran by a World Champion; it's one of the most popular destinations in England.
On a cold, wet mid-January Saturday morning we took a ride to see what this popular, yet underrepresented modern trail centre riding destination has to offer. Arriving early, the plan was to get out and do some no-holds-barred puddle smashing around the best bits the place has to offer - a mix of the red, black and the DH trails. I mean if your ganna get lathered in winters' finest, you're gan a dee it properly reet ?
Starting at the Grove Carpark at the far end of the Forest, we winched our way up the first climb. One of the great things about Hamsterley is that you can mix up the loops, pick and choose depending on the time you have and what you'd like to ride. Like a lot of locals do, we started part way round the red.
Polty’s Last Blast was the first trail of the day, a trail made in loving memory of a local rider, Neil Edward Polson. And what a track it is- eventually it'll be extended and linked to the next peice of red route- to give it the impressive title of the "longest trail centre single track in the UK"
Freshly laid in, with grey hardcore providing ample zip to the tires, over rock gardens, drops and berm transfers. Flowing trails that suit equally the crispness of a hardtail or the bounce of an Enduro rig- they've been built well, and even in the wet the speed is there and airtime comes easy. A local group "The Hamsterley Trailblazers" raise funds and create the trail centre tracks; the network is ever expanding with more plans to extend Poltys Last Blast much further down the hill.
Next up was Transmission, Accelerator and Nitrous (fondly nicknamed Triple Tranny…) three trails in a row that link together from the top of the hill right to the bottom.This means you get anywhere from 4 and 6 minutes of descending, depending on how quick you are. It's a fair length of track for a trail center; which makes it a regular racecourse for the local Northern Downhill Trailbike Timetrials.
After a 15 minute climb up to the South side of the Forest, you discover a different type of terrain entirely. World Champ and homegrown hero Danny Hart took over Descend Bikepark at the turn of the year and the place is set to be a breeding ground for future champions. Danny Harts Descend Bikepark was started well over over 15 years ago by Craig Hunter who, with his team, put in an incredible amount of graft; even National Level DH races have graced the hill. (With fresh faced 15 year old Gee Atherton taking fastest time of the day in the 2001 NPS ). The main lines consist of handcrafted berms, and flowing jumps plunging into steeper tech switchbacks and root infested natural tracks which are perfect for both DH sleds and 150mm+ “Enduro” rigs.
There just aren’t many spots where you get a range of riding for all levels, where kids and families can ride together, start chasing berms and bunny hops and before they know it, be riding World Cup DH races. Danny Hart's Descend Bikepark is definitely at the hub of the North-East riding scene.
Years of use and constant maintainence mean the trails are worn in and hand crafted, wet or dry you can count on the tracks being rideable – and gnarly. Now with Danny Hart in charge the place is set to expand even more. As you follow the official Red trail centre route , up the rocky fire road ascent you hear the clank and clatter of bikes battering their way through the dense trees at speed, flashes of colour tracking their route through the steep hillside. This connection between the trail centre and DH tracks provides a link to the world of the gravity oriented rider, riding through the carpark to the next red descent, watching the DH riders pushing to the top to do battle on the way down. This collision of mountain bike cultures means the place is a riding spot with chance for progression – if you’ve mastered the blue,red and black routes, the logical next step is to try out the Bikepark. Once a place for dedicated DH rigs only, it’s now almost 50/50 with a 150mm bike being a suitable tool for the job.
“There's loads of the sections at Descend you could find on World Cup tracks” – Danny Hart
After a typical Northern-style refuel (minus the Monster), we were raring to go again.
A quick bike swap. We got the big-wheeled and jumbo tyred guns out. Reynolds Steel, 140mm of travel and a bit of plus size bounce to take the edge out of the sandstone. A riot of a bike and oh so tasty to look at.
With the trees steaming in the distance, the weather opened up to reveal some stunning views across the forest and to the moorland above while we smashed through the gullies of “Section 13”.
They say that the test of a place is how well it runs in the wet, not just on the fair-weather days. Having said that, a bit of late afternoon winter light breaking through was a nice sweetener to the end of the ride.
The final bombholes of Section 13 are a blast; plenty of speed carries you in for a set of 3 jumps with a chance to escape gravity. Rock slabs built in the trail keep it rolling fast whatever the weather.
From the visitor centre, the signposted black route heads up the North side of the Forest and if you keep climbing you can get up and out of the tree line and out onto the moorland, with some fantastic rocky descents. By this time, light was running out so we turned off onto Pikes Teeth, a classic natural trail that has had a revamp in the last few years. Starting by a wall you descend over roots and rock between tight trees, with opportunities to double up natural gaps to maintain speed.
The trail then opens up and transforms into a fast, flowing almost bike-park style run, a series a berms linking one to another, tabletops and drops breaking up the sheer speed on offer. It isn’t the most butt-clenching Black route in the U.K, but it’s technically demanding enough to keep most riders entertained and most importantly it’ll deliver mud splattered grins whatever the weather.
Riding destinations often move in circles, from being new, fresh and cool to being overridden, overpopular and well, ruined from lack of investment and maintenance. On the flip side, many trail centres are being dumbed down and losing the real experience of mountain biking.
Hamsterley has been around long enough to have seen it all; and developed into a real full-spectrum riding destination which can cater for everyone whilst still feeling fresh. And there's still half the forest we left didn't have time for, ready to be explored....
How to get there
The forest is signposted off the A68, north of West Auckland.
Postcode: DL13 3NL
From Leeds - 1hr 40 | From Manchester- 2hr 30 | From London-4hrs 50 | From Newcastle-50 mins | From Edinburgh- 2hrs 50
Blue | Red | Black | Downhill