I first visited the mountain biking trails at Glentress near Peebles about eight or nine years ago. I’ve never been an enthusiastic mountain biker but every so often when I feel the middle-aged urge to do something serious about my inflating size, I’ll haul the bike out, dust it down, pump up the tyres and go for a spin. I usually come home promising to take up running again…
But a visit to Glentress a couple of years ago really inspired me to take up cycling a bit more seriously. Gina and I had been walking in the hills near Peebles and we were looking for a café. I remembered the excellent café at Glentress so that’s where we went. Home-baked cakes and good coffee went down well but what I recall from that visit was the fantastic buzz about the place. People of all ages, from toddlers to OAP’s were out on bikes, the café was full of folk enjoying themselves in the fresh air and I went home thinking I should come back here with my bike.
On my first visit I had discovered that local bikers, along with the landowner, the Forestry Commission, were working hard to make Glentress Forest mountain biking trail network the biggest single tourist attraction in the Borders. I think they have achieved that. Indeed, one of the journalists who was with me on that initial visit, a man who knew much more about biking mountain than me, reckoned the trails at Glentress could rival any mountain bike trails in the world. This is what he wrote: “Riding single track-narrow paths by another name – is the pinnacle of mountain bike riding. It is, by turns, technically challenging as you negotiate narrow bridges and tight chicanes and terrifying as you whoosh down steep descents through dense woods. For a long time, singletrack trails have been the preserve of fabled mountain biking destinations – Utah, the South Island of New Zealand, Chamonix – but thanks to the Forestry Commission, you can add Scotland to that list.”
One of the aspects of Glentress that has added significantly to the success of the place is the Hub, the café and cycle hire centre that’s been built from scratch by two very personable young women, Emma Guy and Tracey Brunger. They’ve worked extremely hard to build the Hub’s reputation and in doing so have helped raise the reputation of the mountain bike trails too. But now, it appears, their landlord, the Forestry Commission, want rid of them. The women have failed in a tendering process to operate the Commission’s new £9 million visitor centre at Glentress. 30 jobs will be lost and their award-winning business will be scrapped.
Not surprisingly, mountain bikers are incensed, claiming that the Forestry Commission is ripping the heart out of Glentress and that no fancy visitor centre could ever replace the warmth and welcome bikers get at the Hub. “We have ten years of experience, we know this area inside out, we have an incredible track record in this area. But now we have been told that we are not good enough,” Emma said. “This decision is a real kick in the teeth for us after spending ten years of our life and a considerable amount of money building up this business.”
Mountain bikers from throughout Scotland are now planning a campaign to save their favourite caff and it might be a comforting thought to them that the Forestry Commission has been in this kind of situation before. I recall a number of years ago that there was a threat hanging over the renewal of the lease of the very popular Mountain Café in Glenmore in the Cairngorms when the Commission built their visitor centre across the road. After some protest the Commission backed down and I would urge them to do the same at Glentress. Scotland has few enough world class centres and Glentress, along with the superb Wolftrax at Laggan and Aonach Mor mountain bike runs at Fort William have ensured that Scotland is now a world class destination for mountain bikers.
Forestry Commission Scotland has apparently said that the decision not to accept the Hub’s bid was made by a panel of assessors but one wonders how many of those assessors were mountain bikers or if any of them know what outdoor folk want in a centre like Glentress. I suspect not. The Forestry Commission can’t afford to hide behind a panel of faceless people. I’d urge them to get behind Emma and Tracey, support them, recognize what they have already achieved, and make Glentress even better than it already is.