More moo cows and fences coming to Cannock Chase?

 Hednesford Hills (Cannoock Chase DC)

Cannock Chase has a few owners : Staffordshire County Council, Forestry Commission, Cemex Quarries, etc.. and soon the RSPB. The County Council own most of the heathland – the bit mostly covered in purple heather if you know the Chase – Sherbrook Valley and Brindley Heath.  The heathland is apparently a man made landscape, caused by years of grazing by animals on the common land in conjunction with the poor free draining gravely soil. During WW1 the whole area was large Army camp which also seemed to keep the heathland in place, despite the lack of grazing! Nowadays although many deer roam, the heathland is under threat from the development of trees in the form of naturally occurring silver birch (A Level Geography – Pioneer Species, Natural Ecological Succession I assume) bracken and  wind blown pine from nearby Forestry land. With no grazing sheep to keep the young shoots under control up they come, together with eventually bramble. The natural succession I understand would take the landscape back to climatic Oak woodland as per Brocton Coppice but it would take a a very long time.

Because the area is a SSSI (site of special scientific interest) the council are required by law to notify Natural England of certain activities (including recreational events) and also do nothing to endanger the flora and fauna on the site. Because some of the birds are protected it means they are I understand duty bound it seems to keep the heathland as is.

They have tried all sorts over the years, cutting and bailing the heather, spraying the bracken, burning, selective cutting down of pines and silver birch and clearing bramble and the latest thinking seems to be to re-introduce the grazing. The trouble is it’s a recreational area very popular with dog walkers – dogs and sheep don’t mix and sheep are also a little high maintenance. After some work done by Natural England with some environmental consultants and some experiments on Forestry artificial heath land corridors, Chasewater and Hednesford Hills the County Council now want to introduce docile cattle across the Sherbrook heathland – but how to stop them walking off? – fencing!

Now they have decided their preferred route to preserve the landscape for the future is cattle, they need to consult on installation of fencing around the whole of the Sherbrook valley as understandably many people are up in arms even if just because its ‘change’. What’s proposed is a combination of traditional stock fencing with pedestrian, equine and vehicle gates, cattle grids etc and what is known as an invisible fence down the middle of the Sherbrook valley and cutting across to Seven Springs. This invisible fence consists of a buried wire which transmits a frequency which collars on the cows pick up, giving them a little shock if they get too close, keeping them in!

See map (linked from the official website)

To be honest the fencing doesn’t worry me, as long as the equine gates also allow mountain bikes and runners to pass easily and quickly I don’t think visually they will be a huge issue looking at the consultation map. To me though it’s the wider cost to try and keep what is essentially an artificial man-made landscape as it is now… I am not sure how it is being funded but essentially whatever method – EU, Central Government or Local Government funded, well over 13 KM of fencing is going to be an expensive and disruptive CAPEX and the upkeep of the cows and continuous other activities to maintain the fencing and keep down the silver birch and bracken will be an ongoing OPEX cost too. The fence will probably also need replacing every 25 years too.

The impact on recreation also worries me, the reports states I think that they have not considered the effects on recreation and reading through it the archaeology lobby seems to have had more of a say than other stakeholder groups (worries of cows trampling and fence posts damaging WW1 camp remains)

My view is the opportunity cost to other currently underfunded issues such as youth work, health benefiting recreation and social care funding etc. etc. cannot be balanced with the protection of an artificial landscape and a few species of ground nesting birds, no matter if they are protected. I know the Council is looking for volunteer organisations to take the load off the OPEX costs but again the volunteer effort comes with an opportunity cost. I think the natural succession back towards birch and then ancient oak woodland (which is also a valuable and protected habitat) should be allowed to progress over time – you only have to look at how the area around Milford Common and Marquis drive has regenerated in the last 50 years or so back to beautiful woodland.

The reports, maps and a survey are all available

Whatever your position – have your say! – take the survey 

Dark and White Summer MTBO #1 – Castleton

I arrived at a hot and dusty Castleton fairly late as I’d been to pick up an ebay purchased toolbox for the man-cave on the way there. I know the area around Castleton, Hope and Edale well from years of visits on foot and on bike and was looking forward to a cracking nights riding.

I decided to get the climb out of the way early on and headed out via Hope and up on to Dirtlow Rake. I seemed to be riding well and felt reasonably strong (strange as I have been mainly running recently) on the climbs. I got up on the top with a route planned and then for some reason made a stupid decision to go and grab a little 10 pointer as an in and out on the way down Winnats pass – bonkers, what was I doing, it was almost at the bottom. I’d lost all my height gain… Well what to do – go in and hour early or climb back up. I did neither, I took the even more stupid decision to go all the way down and then back up the old road to Mam Tor…. Looking at my watch I’d realised I’d blown it and decided to just enjoy a ride and views along the top to Hollins Cross and then just trundle in. Stupidly again I thought – ooo there’s a 15 pointer just down the track into Edale – the riding was quite technical to get down which I enjoyed but it was slow going and again I lost far too much climb and ended up struggling back up even more losing time.

The drop back down into Castleton took longer than expected too and I ended up 7 mins late….. – not a great day at the office. Still the views were spectacular and it was great to be back in one of my favourite places in the Peaks.

The Route (Midlands)

I was assisting with Sportident timing Walton Chasers contribution to ‘The Route’ on Saturday. The Route is a new idea by British Orienteering to attract newbies to our sport, targeting a different demographic. There are three ‘Routes’ on offer at each of the events all with a 1 hour time limit.

  • Route Runner: is traditional score orienteering (but on an OS map)
  • Route Breaker: is again score orienteering but with the added challenge of having to collect the checkpoints according to snooker rules – ie a red control then a colour.
  • Route Camp: Involves coming back after each checkpoint to the event headquarters to do a gym exercise.


The branding and atmosphere at the event was great. Small orienteering events have a lot to learn from other adventure sports: feather flags, a podium, lots of gantry banners etc together with kicking music gave the event a great feel – even though the numbers were low.

The demographic has completely new, attracted mainly through social media adverts, the competitors were mostly new to orienteering with a high percentage were women, who in the most came in groups.

Also great to see were people who were still fairly new to running and were looking for something less daunting than a 10k or an obstacle course to try as an event.

All in all a good event, a little poorly attended for the effort inputted but all seemed to have a great time, however a couple of experienced orienteers who attended and raced route runner felt a little short changed as they finished their courses I under 30 mins! I know the organisers will be looking at this ahead of the next event.

Cotic test day – teaching an old dog new tricks

Since 2011 when I last bought a new bike, the mountain biking world has gone a bit bonkers. New wheel sizes, new component standards from rear hubs to headsets and bottom brackets and the rise of the enduro and trail bike and different riding positions.

At some point in the not too distant future I am going to have to bite the bullet and replace my bike so decided I’d better test one to find out what all these new fangled standards are all about.

I’d like another British bike so with Cotic offering informal test days every weekend and one this weekend on Cannock Chase I went along. Sam turns up with a van full of bikes and after a little fettling coaxes the group around well known trails.

I opted to test a medium Cotic flare, a 130mm travel ‘trail’ bike but apparently built to be light and lively. Also interesting as per all Cotic’s is the steel front end to the frame.  The Cotic website is here.

Mountain biking has changed in the last 5 years, all the other testers were wearing peaked helmets and most were wearing kneepads. Nearly all were also on flat pedals so I know this new stuff is not just about the bike……

The new fangled stuff I’d be trying for the first time included the following with my thoughts below! 

  • Me wearing baggie shorts
  • Wide handlebar, Short stem
  • 27.5 wheels and 2.3 aggressive tyres
  • Dropper seat post
  • 1×12 drive train
  • Super slack head angles

My Pearl Izumi Champion Kit came with a pair of baggie mountain biking shorts. First off they are not that baggy and are lightweight and tailored to fit you ‘on’ the bike not off. They were comfy but with #PIChampion lycra on underneath, to be honest, I didn’t really see the point  – round one to old man

I’ll start off being really honest – even in the car park before heading out I hated the Flare, but a lot of it was that it was simply too small for me and the geometry of a medium had me bum in the air and very cramped up with the short stem (see photo). I tried a 29inch 120mm Flare Max, large, on one section of the Monkey trail and immediately felt better really enjoying throwing it about but could feel the big wheels and I now know I definitely want to stay with the smaller wheel size (now 27.5).

Positives on the Flare though – quite light given the steel frame – the rear suspension (drop link) was amazing – almost like not noticing it was there. The X fusion shock and fork were also very good. It also looks great, much better than the big aluminium sections of my current Marin frame.

The wide bar – 785mm and short stem (well no stem) – an absolute no – hated it, really don’t get the point at all. I had to stop 3 times on the Monkey trail simply to feed the bars through some tight spots between the trees and bashed the bar a couple more times. On the tight corners, I was almost hitting my knee. The large Flaremax I tried had a 40mmish stem and slightly narrower bars and I found this much more to my liking!  – round two to the old man.

27.5 wheels and big fat tyres were fine. The tyres were a little heavy but as a standard, the difference to the 26inch wheels is only just noticeable. – round three to the new brave world.

Not sure what the collective noun is – a ‘wodge’ of Cotic’s perhaps

1 X 11 drive chain was Shimano XT with a 11-42 on the back and a 30 teeth up front. I have been concerned for a while I would not be fit enough to ride a single front  ring which would be big enough for tonking road sections on Mountain Bike Orienteering races but this setup round the Monkey Trail was spot on, including a stiff climb up to the top of Lower Cliff where I rode the whole of it without any problems. People always say it is simpler not having to worry about a front mech and to be honest I would agree blasting around a trail centre but Id like to test 1X11 on a MBO score in the Peak District before committing. 
Round four – Brave new world.

Dropper seat posts – this again is easy. If there is anything gnarly enough for me to put my seat down as I used to back in the early 90s that I can’t ride with my seat up I am not doing it – I don’t bounce like I used too, I am too chicken. The weight penalty alone is not worth it for me.
Round five to the old man.

Super slack head angles are difficult to explain. Old XC racers have head angles of between 71 and 72 degrees, making them twitchy and very direct, with a penchant for putting you over the handlebars if you get it wrong. The slacker head angles of modern trail bikes at 67 and 68 degrees make them easier to ride but less responsive. Fighting the short stem, wide bar and with the bike too small for me I couldn’t properly feel the effects of the slack head angle so the jury is still out on that one.
Round six – a draw.

All in all a really useful test and I would like at some point to try a large Cotic Flare with a lightweight xc type wheelset some narrower bars and short stem and no dropper before I make a final decision but at this point I am leaning towards a 27.5 inch XC short travel full suspension bike – trouble his hardly anyone makes one anymore 🙁


Rise and rise of Cannock Chase roadbiking!

10 years ago when we moved into our house we were plagued by weekender bikers, neeeeow neeow, all afternoon, particularly on sunny summer Sundays. They were generally on their way back to the Black Country after spending the day hooning around the Peak District, stopping for ice creams in Matlock Bath, admiring their middle aged crisis purchases, comparing specs and paint jobs. Luckily some strategically applied 50mph speed limits a few years back has meant that they don’t come our way any more. However, we have a new plague on summer Sunday’s now, but they are slower, quieter and I no longer curse every time they zoom past – roadies!

This summer The Tour of Britain came through the Staffordshire villages of Milford and Brocton and so did the following ‘Tour Ride’ a mass participation event that gives amateurs and enthusiasts the chance to ride the Day 5 route of the race. This and the addition of two ‘Strava’ king of the mountains climbs has made the road past my house a bit of a mecca for local road cyclists of all shapes and sizes.

Cannock Chase AONB in the Midlands is a hidden gem; it’s the rolling hills of forest and heath-land with the BT tower on top you can see on the right as you sit on the northbound M6, normally in a traffic jam, just past Birmingham before you hit Stoke on Trent. Of course its main attraction for cyclists in the past has been the excellent mountain biking of the ‘Follow the Dog’ and ‘Monkey’ trails of the Birches Valley forest centre but more and more it is starting to attract roadies, particularly the ones without the thighs needed to get up into the Peak District where the serious climbs are.

The area is also now sprinkled with the high-end bike shops and the cafes that are needed to sustain those taking in the long vistas out towards the Shropshire hills in the West and National Forest in the East. Once struggling countryside cafes are now busy, rows of shiny carbon road bikes leant up outside as their owners munch on cake, drink coffee and admire their steeds, comparing specs and weights. I sometimes wonder if some of them are the same ones who used to frequent Matlock Bath a few years ago!

For more information about Cannock Chase

Strava segment



Tour of Britain – Brocton

We managed to get Holly out of school for a couple of hours and rode up the road to Brocton to watch the Skoda King of the Mountains Climb from Brocton Green up to Glacial Boulder.

Originally we were just going to ride up to where we were going to watch but Holly got a good reception form the crowds lining the climb so we carried on up to the Skoda finish line where she got a really big cheer. Hopefully the feeling will inspire her for the future.

We came back down and watched on a slightly up hill section without too many others with good views down the road. we scribbled on the road with chalk, met up with more friends and started the wait. After what seemed like hundreds of police motorbikes, sirens blaring, through came the tour. All over in 30 seconds but we got to see our heroes close up.


New Bridge for Cannock Chase Mountain Bikers

Last night, planners at Cannock Chase gave their unanimous approval to the  construction at Moors Gorse, off Marquis Drive
This is great news as the crossing has been an accident waiting to happen for a couple of years now.

However the danger of the main road crossing where cars regularly exceed the 60mph speed limit is still a problem.

Read more:



Tour of Britain – Brocton KOM preview

This year stage 5 of The 2012 Tour of Britain (the Stoke on Trent stage) will be passing through Stafford and more importantly my village of Brocton.

The race route comes out of Stafford on the A34 before turning left into Brocton and then turning right for a short sharp Cat 2 Skoda King of the Mountains climb up towards Brocton Coppice and Glacial Boulder after 29km of racing (expected time of arrival 11.20am).

This climb is a favourite haunt of mine for hill sessions being a nice 5 minute warm up ride from home and the steepest bit of road around. I will be there on Thursday together with a gaggle of kids from Berkswich Primary School to scribble on the road in chalk and cheer on Cav, Wiggo and all the other riders.

As I know the hill intimately from many reps up and down it I thought I would preview it and give my thoughts for tactics.

Firstly the entrance to the hill off of the village green is approached after a very fast series of tight right, left and right hand bends and becomes extremely narrow as soon as you get on to the hill which immediately becomes very steep. I’ve marked steep section on the map with blue. (green is fast and more or less flat or downhill and orange is a slight gradient (more or less flat to a proff cyclist)

The steep section is only 300metres or so in length before it levels off and becomes a gradual gradient or flat for another 800m to the entrance to the Brocton Coppice Carpark. A key feature here is the danger from deer who constantly run across the road. There are also some mild speed bumps to overcome.

From Brocton Coppice to the KOM summit at Glacial Boulder, the 800 metres of road is essentially flat and very fast with the exception of some fairly rounded but sizeable speed bumps which will make the sprint for the line a challenge.

So in summary the Brocton climb is half climb half sprint. The narrowness of the access meaning a there will be real advantage to being on the front of the peloton coming into the village, though the finish at Glacial Boulder really suits the sprinter rather than the climber. There is time to attack the steep section, sit on a wheel and recover somewhat and then attack again on the last 800 meters – one for Cav perhaps or one for an early breakaway?

On Sunday my 9 year old daughter Holly and I went to ride the climb ahead of the race to let her get a feel of what it would be like. I didn’t think for a minute she would manage it on her Isla bike but to her credit she got stuck in and rode it all and even practiced a hands up winning celebration when we got to Glacial Boulder after she beat me in our sprint finish on this normally fairly quiet slow road.

The views out over the Sherbrook valley out towards the Peak District are spectacular from the Glacial Boulder trig point so be sure to take in the view after you have watched the tour wiz past. For those wanting to watch the action on Tuesday there is limited car parking on the cross chase road and several small car parks along it but there is no parking at all in Brocton. See you there!

Photos of the climb below from bottom to the top