Ridden: Swinley Forest Trails

Bike Magic forum member Serge the Seal of Death has been out hunting trails recently and one location he has ridden is an old haunt of his, Swinley Forest near Bracknell. With the introduction of official, trail centre style trails the forest has taken on a new guise as far as mountain bikers are concerned. Are the changes for the better? Let Serge give you his findings:

Swinley forest Blue and red Trails, God bless the Queen

Words and photos: Paul Trimble aka Serge the Seal of Death

Swinley forest: For anyone who lives within an hour or so this MTB destination is a place of legends, mostly because unless you are local you could previously never find the trails…

Welcome to Swinley Forest year 2013.
Welcome to Swinley Forest year 2013.

The place is scattered with forest roads, tracks and trails, some were walkers’, some were of the sort that disappear into brambles and ferns and when we used to ride these it wasn’t unusual to find a Labrador staring back at you when rounding a turn.

But that never put people off. Swinley had a vibrant MTB scene, being one of the few places to ride close to London, you just had to know your way. I remember spending a whole day riding one section just because we didn’t think we could find another.

That was then, this is now and there is a dedicated route with little arrows and numbers and everything! So I thought I would have a look.

What do you get at Swinley? Firstly it’s not just a bike place, there is Go Ape and the biggest adventure playground and play area for small kids I have ever seen, there is a Café and no permit is needed like in the old days; just pay and display in the car park (the old days had rangers out checking permits). If you are feeling lazy they even have off-road Segways! Also, it’s so well signed: follow lookout signs or amusement area, it’s signed from all around Bracknell.

The trails are in there somewhere... As is the 'Labyrinth'.
The trails are in there somewhere… As is the ‘Labyrinth’.

The routes consist of green (family and very small), blue (beginner off road) and red, (bit more beginner). I rode the blue and red, which easily link together and the total was just under 12 miles and took about 1 hour 45 minutes at a relaxed solo pace in 28 degrees.

The trails – well lets start with the bad bits: 

Sometimes you really feel like they are squeezing in the distance, turn on top of turn on a flat piece of woodland, and in the summer with the bracken often you can only see five metres. Also the trail is quite narrow – on the blue it’s wider, red is thin and, because it’s made up of a lot of trail armour, lose a wheel off the trail and it’s like riding into quicksand: very soft and easily pulls the bike off the trail.

The trails are pretty fun in places.
The trails are pretty fun… in places.

There is also the start of some trail damage, which to me actually makes the blue a bit more fun, but this route actually has some quite sharp DH bermed corners, which I guess may really suffer from braking bumps so if you are taking real beginners they will need to watch themselves. Apart form that there is nothing really on the trail I was always waiting for something, and apart from lots of bends, so great in number that I felt actually spoilt the flow, and the odd descent, where the trail almost appeared to have been engineered to keep the speed down with really small tight bends, there is not much to worry about. It’s still fun but it’s more an exercise in keeping speed and flow, and spinning the legs until the next small fun bit.

Next the red, this splits off the trail after blue section 10: 

One quick word about the trail markings: they are very small and numbered, present only at junctions, often just pointing the way until the trail leaves a forest road. In short they can be easy to miss sometimes. Some paint on trees would really help.

Part of the red graded trail.
Part of the red graded trail.

So back to the red: The trail is narrow, with one guy with wide bars actually stopping to check a few bits to work out if he could even get through… It’s got some features but you will find sections where you wonder why you rode that? Some are totally flat and just weave through trees, other bits are nothing more than fire road links between. I also suffered from just being able to see what is coming, some sections twist so much that with the bracken at well over a metre I could only see 2-3 metres ahead. Fine once you know what’s coming and where the trail is actually going.

Anyway once you get into the trail sections are great, so good that they take you by surprise. One section around Red 10, which I think is called the roller coaster – a great, sweeping trail with small bends, table tops of different sizes, and in the dry really fast – really took me by surprise; it was like a totally different trail. I am pleased to say that they still have the ‘Labyrinth’, it’s no longer multiple-choice lines and has no jumps, but it twists and uses the entire hill available with nice berms and is really fun to try and carry speed through.

Toward the end of the red is one more really standout section of trail, which is open, has a helpful spot of gradient, small tabletops and if you fancy trying to learn to jump then this would a good place to start.

Soon you will find yourself back at red post 1, the start of the red route. Carrying on up the trail to join with the blue and following the trail for about 20 minutes will see you back at the look out centre.

Conclusion…

Would I ride again? Probably not the whole thing, it’s great if you are taking beginners around the blue, but you still need to watch it as the edges are starting to go already, so plenty to wash out on, and some of the DH sections with the berms are fast for a blue which is ok if you know what to do with a berm but otherwise it’s going to be lots of brakes.

Some of the red sections are really fun, but I feel that they have used loads of sections just to get distance in. Hopefully the trail will develop, there is certainly plenty of space, and in the near future there are plans for a freeride and jump spot plus a few mini DH runs, which could really make the place fun. After 12 miles you still feel like you have done a ride, so it will still be a good workout whatever the case.

Enjoy.

  1. Richard Hayter

    That’s a pretty fair assessment, I reckon. You really don’t need a full suspension bike to ride Swinley. I’m far from the most skilful or fit rider, but I’m going to give it a go on my ‘Cross bike in the winter.

  2. JK

    As already mentioned pretty much a spot on assessment. I’d never managed to get to do ‘old’ Swinley, so can only base my observations on a recent trip during the school hols, which lead to it’s own challenges.

    On the blue there was a lot of kids on smaller bikes, which is great however, ‘super-keen’ dad’s were dragging them round and not always following trail etiquette, more than once I came round a bend (of which there are many), to find dad and the kids with bikes in the centre of the track, potentially dangerous! However, the sight of a woman on a step through shopper bike nearly at the end was brilliant – so no you don’t need a full suspension bike at all!!

    Signage is an issue, we did the whole of Blue before realising we’d missed the red turn off, so had to go back to find it which was a bit of a bind!

    Overall I liked it a lot, we normally ride round Surrey Hills which are a lot more natural and not so contrived and fabricated – we’ll be back for sure!

  3. ben pinnick

    Its sort of a fair assessment but alot of the ‘old’ stuff is still there and still rideable. eg ‘ I am pleased to say that they still have the ‘Labyrinth’, it’s no longer multiple-choice lines and has no jumps, but it twists and uses the entire hill available with nice berms and is really fun to try and carry speed through.’ isnt actually right the case – Labyrinth and Deerstalker (the first half) are almost exactly the same as they always have been. You’re probably thinking of Baby maker and other runs in that area. They are all still there and you’re allowed to ride them, you probably didnt know as those are as well signposted as they always were :)

  4. Ben

    Having ridden ‘old Swinley’ many times I feel overall the new trails are an improvement. Old swinley still required stitching together sections with fire roads but now there are less of these sections. The freedom to ride almost everywhere was hampered by its popularity with riders doing sections in both directions at the same time. The one way system means you can ride flat out with less worry. The old swinley was always about twists and turns and making the most of the small altitude differences, this principle has carried forward into the new trails and works well. Swinley is a challenging run when taken at speed yet is accessible to beginners. The perfect balance and there is a cafe for tea and cake refuelling while you decide which section to return to and session.

  5. serge the seal of death

    Cheers for the comments, was a bit difficult to write up, and get the balance between what a trail rider, and a newbie would want and get out of the trail, and having heard differing accounts of the trails, and not finding a good review thought i would do one, but as a trail facility near the city, and with what can always get better its just good to see trails being built.

  6. Chris Kimberley

    Think youre being a bit harsh, as said old swinley wasnt that cohesive and I do agree some of the fire road in particular can be a drag, but its the closes t thing to a trail centre for at least a hundred miles!, which is a bit sad considering how many people live in the south east.
    It can get very busy if you want to ride weekends definately get there early!

  7. serge the seal of death

    Hi Chris, i can see your point, but i wrote it considering that it may be read by someone using BM, so above the “beginner” level of competancy, If swinley had decided to build black levels they could have, but that is not what this trail is about, its not what swinley have wanted to do it appears, in the same way that red and black appear to differ between wales and scotland,
    Interetsing that Ben has mentioned other bits, would be good if Ben can either let bike magic or here know when the freeride section is up and running and what it is like, I went just to see what the way marked trails were like, and did not look at the more natural stuff, that again is fun but not marked.

  8. Jim

    I’m a big fan of trail centres so I love the new Swinley. I think there are a lot of people like me – a busy father of two with a demanding job and not a great deal of free time. I know I can get there in half an hour from my west London home, blast around the blue and red in less than 90 mins and be home again in no time. I never rode the “old” Swinley because I didn’t have time to hunt out the trails. Now I can always find time to fit a fun, fast xc fix into my week.

    I’ve probably ridden 10 UK trail centres in recent years. Swinley easily holds its own with some of the best. And it has some of the nicest fireroads I’ve ever ridden!

  9. Readikus

    I really enjoyed the trails when I rode them, but did do them with locals who build most of the original stuff, so were able to weave a massive loop together, so maybe I had a slightly nicer ride. Whilst I didn’t find the trails particularly hard, I found they were ace at high speed and that’s where the real fun was – racing mates ;)

  10. vic

    Have ridden Swinley for many years (15+ years under Permit scheme). New trails are great and I can finally link the single-track sections into one ride (you’re never ‘lost’ in Swinley, you just never know where you are !). I’m lucky enough to live 5.5 miles away from the Lookout Centre (Camberley) and can ride from home all off-road – the surrounding area is blessed with many acres of MTB heaven so long as you can connect it together ! It seems we have to thank both the Queen and the MOD for preserving the open green spaces and keeping the developers away !

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