There are 27,000 miles of Rights of Way in Wales – but riding a bike on them is a difficult business.
We have a rare chance to fix this and improve access to riding in Wales … but not for long. The clock is ticking.
Wideopen’s buddy Anthony from Bristol Trails Group is going to tell us how it is.
“mountain bikers really have the crappy end of the stick.”
Back in July, the Welsh government launched a consultation into land access. Snappily titled “Improving opportunities to access the outdoors for responsible recreation”, it suggests some big changes to the way people and bikes can use the countryside. I’m going to try and explain why this is much more exciting news for mountain biking than the latest new axle standard, and why if you live or ride in Wales, the next thing you should do is put the kettle on, fire up the computer, and send a response to the Welsh Assembly.
If you want the short version and don’t want to read this whole story just click here.
There are 27,000 miles of rights of way in Wales. You can walk on all of them, and around 20% are open by right to bikes and horses too. So far, it doesn’t sound too bad. But dig a bit deeper and it becomes apparent that us mountain bikers really have the crappy end of the stick.
The classification of bridleways and byways is based on reports of past use, not how suitable they are for biking, so you’re just as likely to find yourself slogging through a bog on a legit mountain bike route as if you’re poaching a footpath. We’re forced to share our small portion of routes with horses, which isn’t exactly a match made in heaven. Landowners are free to ignore mountain bikers when planning repairs to the network, so decent bits of trail can be buried under tonnes of gravel and we don’t have any comeback.
“It just ignores bikes in the same way that the Victorians ignored microchips.”
Huge areas of Wales are now designated Access Land, so you can walk, run or climb anywhere on them, but no similar rights exist for bikes. Life’s a pain for anyone organising MTB events, thanks to a system where you can’t hold a bike race on a right of way but you can use one for a stage of a motor rally. Anyone leading guided rides has to stick to legal tracks if they want to be covered by insurance. And magazines and websites have to publish the same old routes on bridleways and byways, because if they included footpaths or unofficial trails they’d be labelled as irresponsible, and risk being sued for damages.
Ironically, for anyone who doesn’t go public with their exact riding habits, the current system offers very few restrictions. Riding on a public footpath in the countryside isn’t illegal, unless there’s a specific byelaw, and anyone calling 999 to report some mountain bikers in their local woods is on a hiding to nothing. The current system doesn’t really deter irresponsible riding, and it doesn’t reward responsible riding either. It just ignores bikes in the same way that the Victorians ignored microchips.
“This makes the odds of finding the next Manon or Gee that much slimmer, and makes kids growing up in Wales likely to be fatter.”
All this doesn’t stop people from mountain biking directly. It’s the chilling effect: the niggling restrictions on how riding can be promoted, the attitude that, amongst other countryside activities, we’re the new kid on the block. With the places to ride limited from the get go, it’s not surprising that MTBers tend to disappear off into the woods, spades in hand, and create their own spots and trails away from the long arm of landowners and local authorities. It means that getting into mountain biking is a bit like falling through the back of the wardrobe and discovering Narnia. Or to put it another way, there aren’t many schools offering it as an option in PE. This makes the odds of finding the next Manon or Gee that much slimmer, and makes kids growing up in Wales likely to be fatter. With a healthcare bill estimated at £650million for the costs of inactivity, keeping pesky kids on bikes off the footpaths suddenly starts to look a tad over-protective.
“you’re allowed to bike, walk and boat anywhere in Scotland … as long as you don’t be a dick”
For an example of how things could be different, you only have to look at Scotland, who in 2003 put traditional rights of open access into law. The system is simple: you’re allowed to bike, walk and boat anywhere in Scotland, as long as you give buildings a decent berth, don’t trample crops, and, to put it bluntly, don’t be a dick. That includes not interfering with the activities of people who make their living from the land, going easy on certain trails in wet conditions, and being nice to other users. I think we’re all capable of that. We have a tendency to think of Scotland as a special case thanks to its large expanses of wild open country, but the same system applies to the countryside around Edinburgh and Glasgow too, which have a population of over a million between them, and seems to work just as well there.
The difference in access laws seems to have helped created a different attitude towards mountain biking in Scotland, where it’s become not just a big source of tourist income, but part of the national identity. Danny Mac is deservedly a hero, and The Ridge was broadcast at prime time on the BBC.
Compare that with Chris Akrigg’s last film, which was unceremoniously pulled from circulation. If the internet whispers are to be believed, because some people took exception to Chris riding in beautiful, remote Welsh locations which aren’t currently rights of way for bikes.
What can you do?
“So enough talk, time for some action.”
The current consultation specifically asks whether people would like to see a version of the Scottish access system introduced in Wales. So enough talk, time for some action.
There’s a form letter you can adapt and send to the Welsh Assembly. You can also read a response prepared by a collective of mountain bike groups from across England and Wales, together with CTC Cymru and Welsh Cycling. This goes into a massive amount of detail about current access law, how a reformed system might work, and how it might benefit landowners as well as mountain bikers.
The consultation closes on 2 October, so don’t hang about. This is a rare opportunity to change things for the better for mountain biking. Don’t let it slip away.