Martin Keswick, Somerset TRF Chairman, outlines the group’s challenges and opportunities
Many of the Somerset historic roads are as good as you will find anywhere. There is a great network that covers West Somerset (Quantock, Brendon and Exmoor) and South Somerset, in the Yeovil area, going down to Dorset and East Devon.
Most of the lanes in the West and South were classified for decades as RUPPS (Roads Used and Public Paths) as well as in some key busy areas like the Quantocks; these lanes were marked to show the correct vehicle routes. They are under the responsibility of the Rights of Way Department of Somerset County Council rather than the Highways Dept.
Somerset County Council, over the decades prior to NERC, have been incompetent (and still are) in making any discernible progress in determining the true status of these historic lanes. STRF placed 186 compliant DMMO applications for these RUPPS to be correctly classified as BOAT (Byway Open to All Traffic) between 2003 and 2007. At that time the view from the ROW Department was that these lanes could all justifiably be changed to BOAT status – happy days. Then came the Winchester Case, and the bottom dropped out of our position, as like many other groups we did not include the evidence with the applications (as directed by the ROW Department at the time). To cut a long story short, not all of these applications were processed, then the timespan of NERC hit, and the whole picture changed. And whilst we have re-submitted 30 claims going back to 2010, based on five-year Main User Evidence (the only clause open to us), not a single one of these has got anywhere near the top of the pile!
In 2007/8 all of these 186 fantastic lanes were re-classified overnight as Restricted Byways as per NERC, new signage was put up on all lanes, and as you can imagine this resulted in a very unhappy and frustrated Somerset TRF group (STRF), which had invested a lot of time and money into the lane application process. It became increasingly unclear as to where we could, or should, ride. On one group ride in the Quantock region, a number of riders had a Police visit and summons to the Magistrates Court, following number plate photos by a person who had purchased a house at the end of a lane and decided they did not want bikes passing their expensive home. Following our STRF group’s engagement of one of the larger legal firms in Taunton, this summons was dropped by the Police the day before the first Court hearing.
Anyway, enough of the negative woes of Somerset. A small group keen to ride but with limitations on where in Somerset we could safely go, we actively started to do away rides with other TRF groups such as those in North Wales, the Peak District, Surrey and Cornwall, as well as overseas riding with Bike Normandy, Enduro Portugal, Good Time Romania and more recently with Off-Road Orange (Spain) and Enduro Greece. All with the aim of keeping members riding and the group alive.
Exmoor ride days
With all those black clouds hanging over our traditional riding areas, we needed to find a way for our members to have safe and enjoyable riding in Somerset, and in mid-2010 Mark Brazier and I organised a meeting with one of the largest private forestry owners on East Exmoor to discuss the possibility of using his land for a non-competitive “fun” day. Luckily for us, the landowner was very supportive of the idea and is always looking for additional revenue streams for the forest, but very much on his terms. Over the last seven years, Mark and I have built up a strong trusting relationship with the landowner, with 14 of these Exmoor Ride Days completed and further 30+ other “club only” events.
One stipulation we agreed with the landowner from the outset was that people would use block- pattern trials rear tyres. This proved a bit of an issue for riders early on. However, there is good reason and logic.
The land is not chewed up anything like as much as would be the case with an enduro tyre, and it will put off the motocross boys with the 19-inch rears. And the reality of it is that you can do just as much, if not more, on the trials tyres through these rooty, stony forests as you can on a knobbly. A lot of us ride all-year-round with the Maxxis Trialsmax – a brilliant tyre that is standard fitment on the KTM Freeride.
We want everyone to have as enjoyable and safe a time as possible, without the “hassle” we get on the lanes.
The event is for people with road-legal bikes, quads and outfits. We set up a “Main Loop” with one- way traffic that is clearly marked around the forest and “should” be achievable by everyone, regardless of level (this at times can be challenging if we have had a lot of rain the night before – as was the case with the last event in October 2017!). The length of the loop will depend on which forest we use, but typically between three and four miles. Off this main loop we set up sub-routes of varying difficulty that are marked as moderate, severe or extreme, initially assessed by the person who set up the route and confirmed by me as Clerk of the Course. These sub-loops leave and return to the Main Loop in a “safe”, signed manner. These will include river runs, enduro-style tracks, hill climbs, trials sections, whatever we can find of interest to set up.
We have a pit area where our members can have cooked food and drinks, and where the 4x4 ambulance, first aiders and toilets are located.
From a small start
For our first event in October 2010 we had what we considered an incredible turnout of 120 bikes and everyone had a great time. In the early days a lot of the riders were from Somerset and notably Devon (they have always given us strong support), but pretty early on in the events we had a contingent of TRF guys from Kent. These lads have come to every one of the events and stay in local B&Bs – I think the peak on one event was 16 from Kent, a hell of a long way to come, but as they keep reminding me, they don’t have hills there!
Back then, we did not have an ambulance and relied on first-aiders from within our group, but for £185 for the day, having the ambulance and a first-aider is a relief for all concerned and is money well spent.
We decided to hold two events a year, one the weekend before the clocks change in October and another the weekend after the clocks change in early April (Easter-dependant). The numbers taking part have grown over seven years to between 260 and 320 riders (April is generally the busier event of the two).
It is the STRF members who make these events happen. Over the past seven years we have all learned a great deal and we see ways of improving things at each one. These events take a lot longer to set up than you might think, but the team knows what is needed and is self-sufficient, which means that we can set up more option tracks and challenges. The setting up of these forest locations makes for a really enjoyable Saturday (the day before the event). New members get to work with experienced people and to socialise. We do the set up the course on bikes with bags for the arrows, tape and stapler and, of course ‘proving’ the trails.
On the Friday night prior to the set up we have a group meal to recognise the efforts put in by everyone, and this is normally for about 20 members plus their partners.
Mark and I have found that the key to ensuring these events work smoothly is to keep everyone well informed, and Mark is excellent at doing this by letter and phone. We will advise any home owners, farmers, or game keepers who are near the site of our planned activity, as well as organising the toilets, car parking, ambulance, food supplies and access. We also do a Christmas run to key locals with some bottles and chocolate to keep them sweet for the future!
As the event grew, we became increasingly concerned about liability, both ours and that of the landowner, and I found a liability insurance policy that appeared to cover our STRF needs. This was in place for a couple of years. I was then pleased to work with Mario on moving onto a stronger group insurance platform that requires us to complete a Risk Assessment for the activity and submit in advance. As I said earlier, we learn from each event we do. However, there are still things we can improve on including reducing risk. I am pleased to move towards an ACU-accredited approach, where we can have people trained by the benchmark organisation and this in turn adds credibility to our standing with our insurance providers.
From day one we pushed for advanced entries as a way of knowing how many to cater for. For the last five years this has been through PayPal and that is a great way of managing the entries. A good number pay on the day, but they are charged quite a bit more and non-TRF members are charged at an inflated rate as well.
Formal signing-in is a part of our insurance process and everyone, including all STRF guys, pays for entry and sign-in, and is marked as entered. We do give a food voucher to those that help on the day or on the set up.
We use riding marshals with bibs to assist any people in need and we have 4x2-way radios that are also linked to the ambulance. At every junction or sub-loop entry and exit on the Main Loop we have a number between 1 and 25 that allows us to identify where on the course map anyone in trouble is located.
From this we can determine the quickest route for the ambulance to get to that point. We will escort the ambulance with riding marshals and temporarily close the Main Loop as we proceed. We have had occasion to do this over the years with some broken bones and back sprains, and the system has always worked well. The 4x4 ambulance would take the casualty to the main road entrance and rendezvous with an NHS ambulance. The key issues are to know the grid references and postcodes, and that there are phone signals to enable calls to the NHS ambulance.
For Somerset we needed to have safe places to ride without conflict, and the use of these private forests has assisted in that aim. The two main events we run allow us to fund the use of these forests for other local club events and rides, using the same range of forests throughout the year.
The continued success of the events has proved that the model is liked – non-competitive but with a variety of routes, some which are as technically challenging as you would want, even for those regular guys who have completed Red Bull Romaniacs and other extreme Enduros.
We work in a friendly club atmosphere where we welcome everyone personally and keep the supply of food for our own team. We only outsource the ambulance and first aid.
We hope you will be able to make one of these events in the future, or see some pointers that may be of use to your group.