Making tracks: Off-road biking up North

There's some great off-road biking in the North-east, finds James Daley. He started in Co Durham
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The North-east of England is not the first place most people think of when planning a mountain biking weekend away in the UK. Wales and Scotland have long been the favoured destinations of British off-road bikers, and with both offering countless areas of outstanding natural beauty in which to thrash your bike around, it's no wonder.

Over the past few years, however, the North-east has been quietly making plans to undermine the dominance of the Celts, launching multiple projects across the region to improve the countryside's infrastructure - not just for bikers, but for horseriders and walkers as well.

With thousands of acres of forest and moorland to play with - which, in parts, provide scenery as beautiful as anywhere else in the UK - the potential is huge. And there is already more than enough to explore to justify a weekend away, or even a week.

I opted for a weekend's biking in County Durham, taking the train up to picturesque Durham city itself and hiring a car once I got there. GNER runs trains between London and Durham for as little as £20 return - far less than the cost of petrol. You can take your own bike on the train at no extra cost (although you must reserve a place in advance), but there are also some excellent bike-hire shops close to the main mountain-biking areas.

Wood N Wheels, in Hamsterley Forest, where I headed for my first day's biking, rents out good-quality mountain bikes with front suspension for as little as £10. And if you're looking to buy an expensive mountain bike, the shop can provide a test model for you to try out, giving you the chance to give it a full trial around the forest before you commit.

Hamsterley is about an hour's drive south-west of Durham. Spread across 2,000 acres, it is easily big enough to offer something for everyone. The forest has four set mountain-bike routes, graded in the same way as ski slopes - green, blue, red and black. The easier trails are suitable for all the family, while the black trail, consisting of about 50 per cent single-track, is for the more experienced bikers. All trails are clearly signposted. If you want to rent a bike, the hire shop is conveniently located at the start of most of the routes.

Hamsterley's biggest attraction, however, is its skills loop - a single-track mountain-bike course, with plenty of man-made features that give bikers the chance to practise their tricks as well as their everyday manoeuvres. Although the loop is only a mile long, it's loads of fun. Given the number of different features and the different lines you can take, you're likely to want to carry on riding round it a few times. Furthermore, it's suitable for just about every level of rider, as all the tough features can be given a miss.

If Hamsterley Forest has a drawback, it's that it has only a modest amount of single-track for the more advanced biker. However, projects are already under way to put in more single-track sections.

And if you can't wait for that, you can always try your hand at Descend Hamsterley, a downhill course that's certain to scare the wits out of all but the most experienced and technical riders. Although the top half of the course is manageable for an intermediate, I found it intimidating enough just walking down the bottom section, which is cluttered with obstacles as well as being almost vertical. To see for yourself, visit the course's website (www.descendhamsterley.co.uk), where you can download a clip of a rider taking on the course.

For day two of the weekend, I headed to Guisborough Forest, also about an hour's drive from Durham, but this time to the south-east. The forest backs on to the suburbs of Middlesbrough, but before you know it, you're high up on the moors with views of the coast in one direction and rolling Yorkshire countryside in the other.

Although Guisborough is less tourist-friendly - its trails are not as clearly signposted as Hamsterley's, for example - the biking is excellent. Furthermore, a locally run website (www.trailblasters.co.uk), provides detailed descriptions and maps of several excellent routes of varying difficulty.

As with Hamsterley, there are plans afoot to get more single-track laid in the Guisborough forest for bikers, but there's already more than enough to keep you interested for a day or two's biking. Bikescene.co.uk is the local hire shop; like Wood N Wheels, it will hire out expensive test bikes if you're thinking of buying. Although it's not in the forest, it's only a short drive away.

I spent the last day of my weekend on the outstandingly beautiful Northumbrian coast, which also happens to be a great area for road biking. And in the evening, of course, there's more than enough to keep you entertained in Newcastle, the party city of the North.

If you fancy a change from your regular outings to Wales or Scotland, the North-east has more to offer than you might expect. I'll be going back.

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