Interview: Paul Hawkins of 1 South West - Bike Magic

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Interview: Paul Hawkins of 1 South West

Paul Hawkins is a man who has been spear-heading the 1South West (1SW) project that, without many of us knowing it, has been building, mapping and developing trails aimed at bringing the public into the sport of mountain biking, and improving the facilities for those who already ride. 1SW has been responsible for finding funding for projects such as the Forest of Dean’s Verderer’s trail plus a whole lot more.

Paul Hawkins taking a break from the relentless effort that he has put into the 1 South West project.

We recently spoke with Paul to find out about his role with 1SW and how the project has been promoting the sport:

BM: Where are you from originally and what’s your background in cycling?

PH: I grew up in the South West in Somerset. My background in cycling: like most kids I started cycling quite young, riding round the local lanes, and I got into making little trials courses with friends.

That led to secondary school when I used to do a lot on MTB on the Quantocks, cycling out from where I lived. It was about 12/14 miles out to the Quantocks from where I lived.  We used to cycle out there, because obviously we couldn’t drive, ride the Quantocks all day then ride home again.

That got me really hooked and I ended up spending more time doing that than studying for my GCSEs, which the results probably prove… So yeah, I very much started out mountain biking from an early age. I’ve done races in the past but I’m not really a very competitive person, I’ve always just enjoyed the riding.

I started working at an outdoor centre when I was at university and just really enjoyed taking people out into the countryside, I was in my early twenties. We had a lot of 10/12 year olds – we had adults and probationers too, so a huge range – but particularly with youngsters I just realised that something like mountain biking is a really good hook and a really good way of getting them outdoors and enjoying the countryside. If they leave thinking, “the outdoors is a good thing, it’s for me” then that’s task achieved.

I ended up managing access and recreation on one of the National Parks up on Exmoor and from that got into my current job which is developing off-road cycling, mountain biking, in the South West.

So now you’re doing the project do you manage to get out and actually ride your bike still?

I’ve always got an excuse not to ride unfortunately, but I do still ride my bike a reasonable amount. I’ve actually found that having two small children is more of a problem getting out on the bike than anything else! But yeah it is a busy project and so I do spend less time riding my bike at the moment than I have for years, but I do get out every week at least once and as family and work slows down I should be out more.

At least your kids will have something good to ride though thanks to you, right?

Haha yeah there’s a real selfish thing from me! My four year old daughter has just started riding a pedal bike and I can’t wait until she’s riding the trails I’ve built. She’s already ridden some of the stuff actually but I can’t wait to take my own kids out on some of the skills areas and trails.

Can you just explain what 1SW is and how it came about?

1SW started out with a group of interested parties getting together and discussing mountain biking in woodlands in the South West. That led to an independent feasibility assessment in 2006, which sounds really dull and boring, but it’s only through getting good evidence that you’re ever going to get funding to do interesting things. The group that came together were of tourism interests, land ownership interests and people like CTC and IMBA. So a real mix of people involved.

That report came back and really said that there is a lot of untapped demand in the South West and that there is potential for mountain biking to fit very well with the existing tourism product. So that was the first step and from there funding was gained to employ me about 4 years ago now. I came along and took it to the next step, working with that steering group. We then developed a business plan – a bid – for the Rural Development Programme for England.

Working with an even wider group – National Trust, South West Lakes Trust, Bristol City Council etc. – after well over a year of bidding for the funding – it was signed off in 2010. Since then we’ve been very busy delivering what we promised to deliver before the end of that funding programme. The end of the Rural Development Programme for England runs out at the end of this calendar year – the end of 2013.

This is the stuff that we have Paul and the 1SW project to thank for – singletrack.
So is that the end of the program or will you search for more funding following that?

That’s a very good question… We have set up a community interests company – so that’s volunteers sitting on that, it’s got 6 directors – and that is very much looking at what we do beyond the project to make sure that as an absolute minimum things like the website, the information feed and the interactive mapping stay up to date and live. Beyond that, obviously my contract will come to an end and what have you, but all of the trails themselves are in the ownership of landowners who have to maintain and look after them in the long run.

We’re actually starting to get some good funding and sponsorship deals with private companies that help out with the maintainance; Avanti bikes from New Zealand, they sponsor the trails in Bristol through UK importer Paligap for example.

We’ve got things in place for each of the sites so the trails won’t disappear, the community interest company will continue to keep promotion and information going and then look at other opportunities.

But in the meantime, will we go on to build more trails in the same way? Probably not. So I think it’s done some really good things and will leave behind a really good legacy, but the project won’t exist in the same format.

Did you initiate the project yourself?

I didn’t initiate it; it was initiated by a steering group being brought together by a chap from Forestry Commission called David West who’s a development manager. David rarely rides a bike but is employed as someone who sees opportunities and develops the public forest estate. So he looked at Haldon Forest Park which had been developed in 2006 and opened as a general recreation site and he said, “The cycling’s massive here; it’s only one of the offers but everyone seems to be cycling. Is that just a fad or not?”

So then he [David West] brought the steering group together and they did the feasibility report that concluded, “It isn’t just a fad, there is a lot of demand in the South West”.

I then saw an advert in the newspaper, which was funny because quite a few people phoned me and said, “Have you seen the ad in the paper? You should go for it!” The interesting thing about that was that everything about it just seemed to be right. Having been a resident in the South West for most of my life and working in the countryside sector I just thought, “This is what it should be about.” I had a fantastic job working for the National Park in a permanent contract but for me this was just too good an opportunity to miss. So I came to the project part way through.

Why is it in the South West you’re working only?

The project is entirely based around the South West itself, the funding we’ve gained is based around regions so it can only be spent here. But also the business plan we brought together for what we were going to deliver was based around the South West tourism strategy, which is called Toward 2015. And because we based our objectives so strongly around the tourism objective for South West England, that’s why we got the money. The key thing is that the money we got was to promote tourism in general, not for cycling. So we had to fight hard – there were about 55 applicants originally for the funding that came down to six in the end so we had to work very hard to gain that funding.

The thing about the South West is that it’s the most visited region in the UK but the area’s issues come down to seasonality: all people want to come here in the summer only; it’s quiet in the winter; bad weather can drive people away at all times, cutting their holidays short and their spend also; and really there being honeypot sites like the coast especially, inland there are some very quiet spots.

So we very much modelled our business plan around the strategic tourism objectives. We didn’t just say, “We love cycling, it’s a great thing, can you give us some money.” That was one of the key things.

What does 1SW do with the funding? Map and build trails?

In essence there are two stands for the project. The first of which is building bike trails, predominantly singletrack, predominantly blue grade (although we have built green and red), which are very much an introduction to mountain biking. By the time we finish we’ll have done that across 11 sites. We’ve so far, on nine sites, built about 75kilometres of trail so in the end it’ll be up to around 90km of trail built.

The other side of it is accepting that we’re not trying to contend with Scotland or Wales as the go-to place for hard-core mountain bikers because the South West gets a lot of visitors already. We want to make it a place where mountain biking is one of the activities that compliments all the other things that there are to do here.

It’s not only flowing trails like this that Paul has helped to facilitate, the project has mostly focused on novice level trails to bring more people into the sport.

One of the things that we’ve tried to do is to bring the wild trails – the bridle paths and green lanes – into the equation as part of the riding offer. If you wanted to do a really long ride at one of the centres we’ve built you’d probably have to do quite a few laps at least. Whereas, if you get out onto Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Quantocks, there’s so much riding out there. So what we’ve done is to map those areas, we’ve used a grading system similar to that used on trail centres, but even more importantly we have photographed, videoed and given written descriptions of those tracks so that someone with an OS map can look at those trails and think, “Yeah, I could make a really good ride here.”

What’s the biggest area/site you’ve worked on?

Every site brings different issues challenges. The biggest in terms of everything combined – not just length of cycle trail – is Lanhydrock House in Cornwall, where I’m working at the moment, because that includes a completely new café, a new cycle hire business and an expansion of the car park as well as building the actual trail itself; there’s about 10km of new trail too.

In terms of actual trail we’ve built, the longest trail we’ve built, that would probably be the Verderer’s trail at the Forest of Dean. That was funded through 1SW. And also at Ashton court [Bristol] the Nova and the Supernova and Leigh Woods trails. Those were all ones we’ve been involved in.

To be clear, we’ve gained the funding and we’ve worked with the delivery partners such as Back on Track. It truly is a partnership, which sounds cheesy but we can’t do it all alone. So at each of our sites there are a lot of good, dedicated people who have really got stuck in.

Do you chip in to the building yourself?

It’s a real mix. One day I could be stood next to a digger driver, the next I could be stuck to a computer. It is a very varied job but I’d say 60-80% of the time I’m sat in front of a computer or on a phone.

Out of the completed projects, which is the most successful do you think?

I would say this, but they’ve all been successful to a greater or lesser extent. We set a base line for each of the trails for 30,000 passes per year and every trail we’ve built has exceeded that. Personally I get most excited about some of the lakeside sites we’ve built where there weren’t trails before.

The fruits of 1SW’s labours – trail construction.
Which is your favourite trail to ride?

I think my absolute favourite is Leigh Woods and my reason for that is that there’s one section of berms where you just go left, right, left, right and you throw your bike into the berms and yet the ground there…well it’s one of the flattest sites we’ve worked on. I’ve seen a five year-old child riding it and loving it. To me that’s my perfect trail; one that I can ride on my five-inch travel bike and enjoy it and yet a five year-old can ride it on their little bike and be getting the same buzz out of it.

To find out more, click over to the 1SW website here.
To head directly to the projects interactive map – which we think is brilliant – click here.

And there we have it, folks; one of the key figures in facilitating the continued development of the sport, it’s locations and industry. For Bike Magic, Paul’s entire sentiment is summed up by his answer to the final question; he is a man who is thinking of building trails not for himself but for the sport itself and for its next generation of riders. We all have a lot to thank Paul, 1SW and all the people like them for.


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