Today is World Mental Health Day, a day to raise awareness of mental health issues. I have been struggling with my mental health this year, but I have found that getting out into nature for a bike ride helps to clear my head. Today was a perfect example.
With trips away planned for the coming weekends, today was going to be my last change to get out for a big solo bike ride in October, all I needed to do was fix my rear brake. But I had been having a rubbish week and could not drag myself out to the garage to work on my bike. That wrote off my plan to travel to Llandegla to ride the new trail there. Instead, if I was to get out, I had to fix my bike this morning and ride somewhere nearer to home. So, with fixed brakes, I drove to Cannock Chase. Even the drive there, in the cool sunshine, listening to the HKT Podcast started to make me feel better.
I was later than normal getting to Cannock Chase and had to park in the overflow parking – I had never seen it so busy! The first few sections of the “Follow The Dog” trail did not seem any busier than normal though. It was only when I cut across to section four of the blue trail, now officially known as “Perry’s Trail” that it seemed busy. Busy with families riding with kids, which I see as a good sort of busy! After all, Perry’s Trail is great with kids – Owen and I have been enjoying it all summer! I managed to wait and find a gap in the traffic, so got a good run through the jumps and berms, before continuing back onto the Follow The Dog and straight up “Cariac Hill”, the toughest climb on the trail. By now I was well in the zone and decided to ride all the way down to the railway crossing at the bottom of the hill, and up the other side to “Lower Cliff”. I probably could have done the full “Monkey Trail”, but I was out to enjoy myself and wanted to take in the views, as the forest was looking magical, with the autumnal colours bathed in bright October sunshine, so kept to a shorter ride.
At the top of Lower Cliff I stopped for a snack, and to take the mandatory photo (at the top of this post) before dropping in to the longest and fastest descent on my ride. A few seconds in I realised that I had not switched the clutch in my rear derailleur back on, after the bike maintenance this morning. I do not know why I did not notice it on the earlier trails, but maybe it was because I was trying to take in as much of the sights and sounds of this descent as possible…
Something else that I had never spotted on the trails at Cannock Chase were toadstools! As I was hurtling down Lower Cliff I started to notice them by the side of the trail. At first I thought they were plastic as they looked so bright and perfect, but I then noticed some damaged ones. Lower Cliff was not a sensible place to stop and admire the flora, so I carried on back to the railway crossing, glad that my chain stayed on (and remembering to switch on the clutch at the bottom of the trail). On the slow climb back up “Kitbag Hill” I also took the opportunity to appreciate how the light was coming though the tall, straight pine trees. Checking my watch at the top, I realised that if I got a shift on I would have time for a bonus lap of Perry’s Trail before my car parking ticket expired.
I rode the next few sections really well, riding as one aboard my trusty Orange Four. I later learned that I had set quite a few Strava PRs on this part of the ride. I also started noticing more toadstools by the trail, and felt like I was getting a Super Mario style speed boost each time I passed one. Just after “Hugh’s Bridge”, a section of trail I helped build, I spotted some particularly photogenic toadstools at a sensible place to stop, so pulled off the trail to grab some photos.
I was three minutes past my target time to go for a bonus lap. But went anyway, on the basis that it was probably my photo stop that delayed me. I had a fun lap of Perry’s Trail, although I did have to reign myself in at one point, as it is easy to carry too much speed. Interestingly, by the time I got back to the van, albeit a few minutes after the two hours parking I had paid for, all the other cars around me had gone. The forest is such a great place to spend time in nature, especially on a glorious autumnal afternoon that I could help but maximise my time there and bank those happy feelings and views to help me through darker days.
On the way home from our holiday at Bluestone we called in at the Malverns Classic mountain bike festival. We had planned to go in 2019, but it was rained off, and then in 2020 it was cancelled due to Coronavirus, so I was pleased to eventually get there. In 2019 Owen was meant to be racing his balance bike, but he was too old this time and Henry got his first opportunity to race.
After seemingly always being late to Owen’s races, we made an extra effort to get to Henry’s race early. In the end, we were too early, but it did give us time to grab a bacon roll for breakfast and for the boys to get a ride on the pump track before we trekked up the hill for Henry to practice on the dual slalom course. Henry’s balance bike coach, Kazzi from Ready Steady Riders, was running the racing, which I had hoped would reassure Henry, but the first run down was very slow. I do not know if it was the grassy hill or the crowds, but Henry seemed really nervous. Fortunately, I was able to run down with him and coax him down. For his second and thirst practice runs, I convinced Henry to ride to each of the slalom poles and grab them, which got him to speed up a bit.
I was not sure what to expect by the time the racing started, Henry made a very reluctant start, but after the first corner, he picked up the pace and shot off down the track. However, as we were walking back up the track Henry was clapping and cheering for the other racers coming down, which made me proud – sportsmanship is way more important than winning! Unfortunately, I do not have any photos from the race, I was helping Henry the whole time, and the official photographer has not yet shared the images online.
After Henry’s race, we went back to the main event arena. My first priority was to go to the Schwalbe Tyres stand, as I had noticed a small defect on one of the tyres on Jen’s bike. I was expecting to be advised to replace the tyre, but they took the bike and swapped the tyre for us free of charge! Whilst that was happening we called by our friends at Little Rider Co, Henry took the opportunity to do some shopping and kept running up to us carrying various jerseys from their stall – eventually settling on one from their just launched “urban series”. Most of his kit is hand-me-downs from Owen, so I don’t mind buying him something new occasionally. There was a free funfair for the kids, so Jen took the boys there and I had a quick look around the rest of the trade stands.
On my tour, I had discovered the Strider area – to which Henry got VIP access as he was riding his Strider. The boys both got to have a ride around their small track – Owen loved this as other than a couple of laps of the pump track he had not been able to ride much. They were also given little Strider toys, like the one Owen got at his first bike race three years ago, which still gets played with regularly.
By this time the action was starting up on the Dirt Wars course, and knowing that Owen loves watching bike tricks on TV, we took him to see some for real. We sat on the grass, in the sun, for about an hour watching the riders doing all sorts of unfathomable stunts on the huge ramps. It was great to see all of the families and groups of friends enjoying the festival atmosphere, with bike racing/competitions happening all around, however, the boys seemed to have had enough, so we decided to quit whilst we were ahead and finish our journey home to Coventry.
I will certainly be going back to the Malverns Classic in 2022, but I am not yet sure if this will be a solo trip, with my friends, with one boy, or even as a whole family thing. Eight years after my last camping experience (Le Mans 2014) I could even be tempted to go for the whole weekend…
At the end of each term, Henry’s nursery set him (us) homework, to share a few photographs of what he has been up to over the holiday. As it is a nice recap, I have decided to start sharing them on my blog.
On the first day of Owen’s school holidays, the boys and I grabbed our cameras and went for a walk in our local woods. Henry walked so well. I chose this photo as we had lots of walks in the woods – it is great having them just at the top of our road.
This photo has already appeared in Spot the Difference – Cannock Chase Water Splash. Henry and I were at Cannock Chase for a Little Rippers MTB x Ready Steady Riders ride. Owen was meant to be with us, but he had to self isolate due to one of his classmates having COVID on the last day of term. It was good to get out for a group ride with just Henry – I managed to convince him to ride into the river to recreate a photo I had taken of Owen when Henry was only three months old.
Henry loved our trip to Bluestone in Wales! This was not my favourite photo from the trip, but it gave the best context of what Henry did on holiday – he loved playing in the sandpit in the Serendome.
After our trip to Bluestone in 2019, Owen regularly asked when we would be going back. It was a great holiday, so we booked a short break for May 2020, our last opportunity for a term-time holiday for a while. We all know how that ended! So we moved our booking to 2021, during Owen’s school summer holidays.
On our previous trip, we were in my BMW 120i, which was not at all suitable for a family holiday – packing was much easier with the van! We broke up the journey at Dare Valley Country Park, where we had a nice lunch outside in their courtyard. After lunch the boys checked out the adventure playground, then the new pump track – the reason that we were there! The pump track (and family-orientated downhill trail, with uplift service) only opened this month, but I had heard good things about it. I was impressed with the asphalt pump track, the only niggle I have with it is that there is not a natural exit point, without crossing the track. Both of the boys rode really well. Henry was not at all phased by the biggest rollers and berms he had ridden, despite all bigger kids whizzing around. Owen was in his element, just putting in lap after lap.
From our stop, it was another ninety minutes to Bluestone, which Henry slept for most of. In total on the way from Coventry to Bluestone we saw 124 VW Transporter leisure vans (only T5 or newer, not including panel van etc) – we only saw one MR2 Roadster.
We had the same type of cabin as our last visit – a detached “upside-down house”, just down the hill from last time. Inside it was almost identical, but with different views out of the windows, which I found a bit confusing. The house was nearer to the “village” centre, so we took the boys down in the evening to explore and burn off some energy on the playground. It only took Owen 76 seconds to run back to our front door!
Our first full day started with a three bike convoy (Henry on the Mac Ride on Jen’s bike) to “The Hive” a large soft play centre, which was new since our last trip. The boys loved it – Henry especially, as he has missed out on soft play sessions and this was his first proper exposure. We then moved on to the Serendome, an undercover, but just about outdoor, area with loads of activities for the kids. The “building” area, which was Owen’s favourite, had been replaced with an area for craft activities, but the disappointment was short-lived once the boys got to the sandpit, where they played happily until Owen’s “Wacky Racers” pedal car session. Owen had not been old enough for the pedal cars on our first trip and was very excited to drive his car, which he christened “The Crazy Giraffe”. After a brief slalom to test driving abilities, Owen led out the first drive down the hill, stopping to collect coloured discs at a few points down the hill, then full pelt into the crash-pad at the bottom. Next was a timed hill climb back to the start – Owen did particularly well on this. The last run down the hill was a test of smoothness, a small bucket of water was placed on the car, with instructions not to spill any. Owen managed to not spill any at all – which I was very proud of. The races finished with a couple of celebratory laps around the Serendome.
In the afternoon, we left Bluestone and headed to the beach – Freshwater West, as we had enjoyed our previous visit there. It is a big beach, with dunes at one end and rocks at the other. We were able to get parked at the rocky end and set up our base near the rock pools. The boys enjoyed digging and paddling, although Henry was not too keen on his hands getting sandy. Owen and I took a walk down to the sea, although as it was just after low tide it took a while! On our way back to the van we got ice cream from Cafe Mor. Just like in 2019 I wished we had been there when we were planning to eat – the burgers looked, and smelled, amazing! At least the pizzas we had delivered to our cabin when we got back to Bluestone were really nice!
On Wednesday morning I managed to escape for a solo bike ride in Canaston Woods, whilst Jen and the boys had breakfast. It was a shorter version of the loop that I did last time, as I chose to stay nearer to Bluestone and repeat a particular loop. It was good to get out and ride some longer and more technical trails that I am used to at home in Coventry.
After a quick shower to remove the muddy evidence of my bike ride, we all got on our bikes and rode up to the Blue Lagoon pool. Unfortunately, they did not have the wave machine working, but the boys still enjoyed the lazy river. Owen was not quite big enough to go on the water flumes, but did get a chance to show Jen how well he can swim on his own now, albeit with a float belt and pool noodle. It has been over a year of (interrupted) swimming lessons since Jen last saw him swim and he has made good progress! Henry seemed to be his usual happy self and particularly enjoyed splashing around in the baby pool. After swimming, we went to the “village” coffee shop for “Welsh cream tea”, which was a normal cream tea but with added Welsh cakes – something I can certainly get on board with!
In the afternoon we walked down the steep ravine to Camp Smokey, for BBQ food and s’mores. Henry could not wait for his marshmallows to be toasted, he just gobbled them up! After our meal we took the long way back to the house, along the nature trail – the boys did well, walking all the way, and they still had the energy to run around the playground for an hour! After a busy day, we retired to the cabin and watched a film and gave the boys a relatively early night.
Our last full day at Bluestone started with another trip to the Hive, then to the Serendome. Owen got to play in the water play area, which he was upset to have missed out on earlier in the week. From there we left Bluestone to explore Narbeth. On our last trip, Jen had a quick look around and had found a nice Spanish deli. Our plan had been to have lunch there, but we had chosen the day their cafe was closed. Instead, we found Oh Crumbs! where Henry ordered a huge plate of waffles with brownies and marshmallows. Fortunately, he needed some help to finish them!
The plan had been to head back to Bluestone, but Henry was sleepy and Owen was being difficult, so we decided a longer drive in the van and change of scenery may help. I had heard about Llys y Fran on the Little Rippers MTB FaceBook group. We did not really know what to expect as we followed the signs pointing us down increasingly smaller roads into what felt like the middle of nowhere. Then all of a sudden we pulled up in a big car park that was mostly full. As we drove around trying to find a space Owen spotted the pump track! Henry was asleep in his car seat until just as Owen and I were kitted up and ready to head to the pump track and a little voice piped up “Henry come too”. Unfortunately, we had not really come equipped for riding the pump track – we only had our bikes to ride from the cabin to the van, no kneepads or full-face helmets etc. So we decided to take it easy.
When we got to the pump track we discovered that it was not just one pump track, but two, and a skills area! The smallest pump track would have been great for Henry, Owen enjoyed the bigger, asphalt, track, but before long we pedalled up to the top of the skills area to see what the trails were like. The short green graded line was nice and flowy, Owen rode it well, so we went back to the start to hit what we thought was another green graded line, but turned out to be the first section of the main mountain bike trail around the reservoir. Again, it was nice and flowy, but we just had a longer pedal back than expected! Next, we tried the blue line in the skills area, Owen set off first, but failed to get over the bridge feature – which to be fair was pretty steep for a blue graded trail, especially as you came up to it blind. After some help, he completed the trail and went back to the pump track where he was happy looping around it. Jen joined us, with Henry on the Mac Ride on her bike, and after swapping the Mac Ride onto my bike, we decided to check out the mountain bike trail around the reservoir.
Owen set off first, having already ridden the first green section, he was confident and shot off into the distance. Jen struggled to keep up – at this point I should have realised that the green-graded (easy) trail was actually trickier than the blue-graded (medium) trails she had ridden previously. After his laps of the pump track earlier in the week, Henry had decided that he liked corners again, so he was giggling away as we brought up the rear of our train. The second section of the mountain bike trails was also graded green but notched up the difficulty again. Jen was not at all confident riding it, although Owen was fine. At this point, I suggested heading back to the van, but Jen decided to push on around the reservoir on the gravel road. There were plenty of other families riding and all seemed well. I had a look at the next mountain bike section as we rode past, noting that the grading had increased to blue, and it looked a lot more technical – too technical to ride with Henry on my bike and for Owen without his protective gear. A while later we crossed the stream and the head of the reservoir, I noticed that the sign indicated 2 miles back to the visitor centre via the route we had come, or 5.5 miles via the way we were going. As it had been an easy ride up until that point I thought nothing more of it. Then the steep climbs started! I just about managed to struggle up the climbs with the extra weight of Henry on my bike, but Owen needed to push (of course I had left the tow rope back at the cabin). Because what goes up must come down, we then came to some seriously steep descents. Steep enough that Owen and Jen opted to walk down them. I think Henry would have also preferred to walk, but I wanted to keep momentum up for the following climbs. This part of the ride felt never-ending – we had definitely bitten off more than we could chew. But we were not about to go back up the super steep hills we had just come down! We had to keep on going – especially as we had a dinner reservation to make! As we eventually neared the dam we stopped to talk to the ranger, who informed us that he speaks to a lot of people who think it will be a flat ride around the reservoir. He also broke the news that we would not be riding across the dam, but would be descending to the valley floor, then back up the other side. At least it was a gentle gradient on tarmac, rather than more steep gravel sections. Henry and I powered ahead, put my bike in the van, then walked back to meet Owen and Jen, so I could take their bikes back to the van whilst the boys had a brief play on the playground and we could take the selfie above – as I had not actually taken any photographs all ride!
Somehow, we just about managed to make our dinner reservation at the Bluestone Pub, where we enjoyed a well-earned meal! The boys still had enough energy left to finish our stay as it had started, with a charge around the playground on the way back to the cabin. It was good being back at Bluestone, and the boys are already asking when we can go back. However I do not feel like I am in a rush to go back, whilst it is a great place to holiday with children, as there is plenty to keep them occupied, I did not really feel like I had much of a rest. We were ferrying excitable children to various activities, then supervising them. I do really like the concept of a car-free “village” and I am sure that we will go back in a few years when the boys are older they will be able to partake in different activities, so it will be a new experience for them.
We were not going straight home from Bluestone – in 2019 we had called at the Forest of Dean and decided that we would like to spend more time in that area. Our first stop was for lunch and a bike ride at the Cannop Cycle Centre. After eating our takeaway lunch in the van we headed for the family cycle trail, with Henry on the Mac Ride, and his balance bike strapped to my back. The plan had been to do a short ride on the family cycle trail, but the boys were being difficult, so we went straight to the playground at Beechenhurst, the non-mountain biking Forestry England site in the Forest of Dean, which is just over a kilometre away from the cycle centre. Incidentally, I think having the split sites works really well, rather than the usual mix of hardcore mountain bikers and families going to the cafe/playground/GoApe. After a good run around the large play area, the boys seemed a bit happier, so we went back to the cycle centre to hit the pump track. The skills area at the Cannop Cycle Centre is perfect for families, and Owen got straight on with riding laps of the pump track with the other kids there. Henry was a bit more reluctant but ended up doing some great riding on his balance bike, starting higher and higher on the start ramp each time he went around. Unfortunately, Owen was in a foul mood again by the time we got back to the van, culminating in him refusing to drink any of his water, then dropping the bottle as soon as we had set off, then claiming he was about to die of thirst. Henry being the helpful little brother that he is kindly offered Owen his drink. Of course, this was not good enough for Owen, which Henry responded to with taunts of “drink it, Owen”. Sensibly, at this point, Owen realised that when a two-year-old is mocking your tantrum it is best to give up and stayed quiet for the rest of our journey (which was completed before he died of thirst).
Our next stop was at Ross-on-Wye, a town I had driven through on many occasions, but never visited. Tea and cake were first on the agenda, we went to The Ginger Nut Cafe, which had tasty looking homemade cakes in the window. Suitably refuelled, we had a short walk around town, well as much as you can with two small boys, before heading back to the van and our hotel. Opposite the hotel, there were two combine harvesters “eating the wheat” as Owen would put it, which were good to watch as we had our dinner. I am going to finish this post here because the next part of the trip deserves a post of its own. The boys loved being back at Bluestone and are already asking when we can go back…