Trails and Wear

Human activity changes the world around us and it should come as no surprise mountain biking has an impact on the planet.

One day the army might want their land back…mud carried off the land is a microcosm of erosion

The good news is comparative studies put mountain biking in the light touch category. Thats not to say others are bad, it’s just we tend to ride in single file and leave narrow tracks. There are a few studies available for download, including this one.

One significant factor is the soil and terrain. Our blessing of light sandy soils equals excellent drainage and year-round riding or walking on the military lands. Try going for a walk or ride on chalk or clay after heavy rain and a swift lesson in geology will be delivered in the form of sticky, heavy mud clinging to your boots or bike. And it won’t wash off in a hurry.

DIO may resent casual recreational access but the real irritation isn’t Section 2 of the byelaws, it’s the underlying geology that rinses clean by just whispering “hosepipe” at the end of a ride. Given the choice who wouldn’t want to go for a winter walk or ride on well drained terrain?

Erosion – But How Much?

But for all the positives of MTB we will have witnessed a trail that is changing by erosion. Rainfall patterns are changing too and short, heavy downpours will run off faster and use gullies to drain…taking with it loose soil. The steeper the slope and straighter trail the greater the runoff and erosion.

Beacon Hill has been subject to erosion. We fully expect DIO to hold up trail erosion as a good reason to ban every cyclist on every trail…and their track record of using rational evidence to set policy will present a compelling but mostly false narrative leaving the decision makers with a view that Caesars Camp will cease to exist as a hill all thanks to MTB if nothing is done.

So what could we do to counter any emotive or egocentric policy setting?

Here at TAG we always fall back on evidence…and there are ways and means of precisely measuring changes caused by erosion with precise surveying tools (thank you to our friends at One Point Basingstoke), a decent camera or drone and some very clever software.

The technique is called photogrammetry and its used for everything from preserving evidence at serious road collisions to documenting shipwrecks.

So we have selected a couple of trails and scanned them in 3D. Click on the link to take a look:

In 3~6 months we can repeat the process and measure the differences. Early results have hinted at some erosion on one trail but its volume is measured as less than a half a wheel barrow load over 6 months. A small group of riders who care (and who don’t?) would have the trail restored in an hour…

This approach will deliver hard evidence that can then be used for two things:

  • Counter any subjective reasoning proposed by DIO to ban mountain biking
  • Tell us how fast the trails are wearing and plan to repair or divert as required.

Objective evidence is one of the principles of Standards in Public Life. It goes without saying we are more than happy to discuss using the best evidence and mitigation of trail damage with DIO, should they choose to engage.

Causing Harm/Closing Trails

There are a couple of trails that are causing concern and our riding is damaging some precious prehistoric remains.

In July 2021 DIO SE received a report entitled “Scheduled Monument Quinquennial Condition Assessment Surveys, Aldershot Training Area, Hampshire”.

For a 15 page report it mentions mountain biking or cycling no fewer than 17 times, and its not always positive. The main concerns over trail damage are occurring on some of the archeology at Caesars Camp, and we do agree there are some changes needed.

At this point we must point out a few things:

  • Its highly likely public money was spent on this report
  • Lt Col Bishop (Commanding Officer) and staff are likely to have sight of the report
  • It took a Freedom of Information request confirm the report’s existence
  • It took a second request to be provided with a copy

At no point in the 6 months between publication and the FOI request has DIO approached TAG to discuss any concerns regarding MTB damage.

We can draw our own conclusions as to why DIO have sat on the report and continued to bear witness to trail damage. Maybe it’s because one area where walkers and cyclists are blamed for damage is exactly the same area where TSMs like to drive their pickups?

The report author didn’t witness a TSM on patrol, but we have some photos showing vehicle tracks damaging the monument, if needed.

If DIO had raised the report with TAG we could have worked together last year to take action to close the trails and prevent more damage. Three trails that cross the ditch and bank are causing erosion to the 2500 year old fort and to prevent damage all we need do is choose not to ride these short sections of trail.

The vegetation will recover and help stabilise the soil. This will prevent further erosion and limit additional damage.

The green area represents the scheduled monument of Caesars Camp. The red trails show the locations of the trails causing harm. All are causing erosion and we need to let the vegetation recover to protect the 2500 year old fort

So this blog post really is an appeal to everyone asking that we individually and collectively stop riding over the ditch and bank of the Iron Age fort at Caesars Camp. It’s a precious piece of our cultural heritage protected by law (its scheduled by English Heritage) and we can do the responsible thing by applying “Do no harm” principles as much as possible.

What we cannot and must not do is repeat DIO’s “do nothing and watch them fail” approach as this hands good reason to anyone who wants to ban MTB to call for exactly that.

In total the trails doing the harm are a mere 327 metres in length. When compared to what else is available in the area – a whopping 109.88 kms for Long Valley and Caesars Camp combined – then its not a major loss.

We have prepared an overview of the trails:

Tracks and trails at Long Valley and Caesars Camp

Update 13th February – a ride yesterday added another 10kms of trails – total distance is now 118.9kms for both areas.

It’s not quite complete but a very good guide as to what is there. You can download a copy here:

TAG are quietly confident the local community cares about the lands. No one is setting out to deliberately cause harm, but once known and identified we can all do the right thing and the thing right and ride elsewhere letting Caesars Camp ditch and bank heal.

Denied Access – Fencing and DIO

One aspect of the military lands we cherish is the freedom to roam when they are not in use for military training. The responses to the byelaws survey show this is a widely held view and that casual access is seen as a valuable resource for mental and physical health by the local community.

This value is eroded when access restrictions such as fences or total exclusion are imposed especially when the lands remain empty and unused by the military. 

We have pressed both DIO and MOD to explain what powers they are exercising to erect fences to limit and block access when the lands are not in use. To date we have not received a satisfactory answer and they are now refusing to engage further.

DIO refer these barriers to access as “Deterrent Fences“. They work 24/7 365 days a year deterring responsible recreation at all times irrespective of wether the land is being used for training, or not. These fences are the polar opposite of the often repeated political mantra stating there is “no intention to further restrict public access”.

To date over £250,000 of public money has been spend on recreational deterrent at Long Valley alone.

The Legal View

Recently TAG received a piece of pro bono legal advice from a top law firm. They were asked to examine the Aldershot byelaws, in particular Section 2 (recreational when not being used for military training) and were asked what powers this gave DIO to block access.

It’s legally technical but DIO do have the power to restrict access but only when the lands are subject to extended and heavy use for military training, typically on a 24hrs a day/7 days a week /365 days a year basis. 

In areas such as Keogh and Gibraltar Barracks fencing for security makes sense. These areas are indeed subject to year-long use.

For the remainder of the training estate the legality of fencing and restrictions are less clear. There are no areas subject to heavy use with Long Valley, Ash Ranges and Porridge Pots seeing extended periods where the military are absent, yet the gates remain locked. In Long Valley the lack of gates along the southern, northern and western boundaries  are causing access difficulties irrespective of use. Here deterrent fences extend for 2.25 and 1 mile respectively, blocking access (and exit) at all times.

We know the courts and judges don’t generally think that the legislature includes meaningless words in statutes. We can conclude from “when not being used for military purposes” that these words are intended to convey purpose and intent and would not be added without good reason – to protect access.

Powers Exceeded

Simply, there is no other reason – apart from military use – that can close access and the lands must be subject to heavy use to fully justify fences or complete loss of access.

We believe DIO have overstepped their powers and that erecting fences and loss of access when not in use for military training are incompatible with the moral and legal intent of the byelaws. 

How much DANGER is present if the lands are empty? A quick answer is “not much” yet DIO persist in blocking access for extended periods when the lands are not in use.

Nor do we believe it’s the first time DIO have shown disregard for the law, with a claim for breach of copyright and issues with data protection legislation expected to start soon.

In the short term we will continue to press the case with DIO. Over the last three years we have seen loss of access when the lands are empty and we are approaching the first anniversary of the closure of Ash Ranges. We believe it is high time these errors are corrected.

The Long View

This raises longer-term concerns.

Last year TAG called for byelaws that were fit for purpose and offered protection against loss of recreational access. It now appears protection has been inherent, yet seemingly ignored by DIO.

Can an organisation that blocks access without good reason, and on the face of it disregard the law, be considered fit for purpose to deliver and work within byelaws that preserves and protects recreational access? 

Long Valley at sunset with gates locked and the space unused. Here fencing blocks access 24/7 for 2.25 and 1 mile respectively. Access must be preserved so please take a moment and write to you MP asking for additional gates.

Over the years DIO has been increasingly hostile to casual recreation, going the extra mile to make access as difficult as possible with fencing and car park closures making it clear that the contents of the byelaw consultation will need very careful review. 

We fully respect the needs of the army and understand their training always must take priority…no one would want to disrupt those who serve…but as the byelaw makes clear when the lands are empty they must be easy to access and permit recreation for all, not just those who are willing to climb a fence.

Time for Action

If fences and loss of access have impacted you do please take a moment to write to your MP and raise your concerns. This issue is currently on the political agenda and your voice will count. Writing adds to the numbers seeking accountability and helps us press politicians for accountability and the changes we seek.

You use this link to quickly pen an email to your MP:

Write To Them

Simply explain the value of access and what it means…and ask why DIO are permitted block access at all times even if the lands are not in use…and when the byelaws says otherwise.

Time for Change – Byelaws Fit For Purpose

A law that preserves recreational use must also protect access. Without protection the lands will remain at risk of imposed fencing and greater restrictions.

Prior to 1854 the lands were open and considered vital for the recreation and general good health of the population. In 1854 the army were awarded the Aldershot lands for the purposes of military training. For the next 164 years recreation was permitted whenever the lands were not in use for training. In 1976 public access for recreation became enshrined in law;  it is clear that military training takes precedent but when not being used for this purpose the community must be at liberty to enjoy it. It is a shared space, for military and civilians alike. 

A cyclist enjoying sunrise at Caesars Camp. Without protection from fencing the recreational potential of these areas are at risk.

In 2018 the simple principle of recreational access was unilaterally and arbitrary changed by Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) as they undertook a program of fence construction. Public exclusion, irrespective of training activity, has become the de facto approach and is in contravention to a 2003 recommendation that asked the DIO to form closer working relationships with the public.

Since 2018, 1540 acres of the lands have been permanently fenced off, excluding access even when the lands are not in use. Over time, left unchecked, there is nothing to stop the entire area being fenced off and lost forever. The lands are a highly valued and vital space for maintaining and enhancing both physical and mental health. The DIO must not be allowed to arbitrarily and unilaterally remove access via a series of stealth measures.

We are therefore calling for a new byelaw, one that preserves recreation and protects access for the public in the way that was always intended. A law that protects recreation alone is not fit for purpose and will fail the community as more lands are fenced and become no-go zones.

TAG have prepared a position paper clearly stating what changes are necessary and you can download a copy here:

The consultation period for the byelaw has not yet started but we must not wait. The DIO method of ‘consultation’ is to tell people what has been decided, not to invite comment and to ignore suggestions for improvement. We seek real change and the new byelaw must work for all parties and preserve the space for the local community and future generations.

If there is just one positive thing you can do right now it is this; write to your MP now telling them that you support the position paper and insist the military lands remain open and accessible for recreation when not in use.

You can find and write to your local MP using the website.