Beastway events have run for over 25 years in May and June. It’s a voluntary thing to organise open, accessible racing that is fast and fun. – Why limit this to one venue, one time of year? South London’s largest park at Beckenham Place came in the news and we approached Lewisham Council about this new venue where more activities are planned in a newly-widened offer for recreation. Getting the races on hasn’t been just a walk in the park for your organisers…
Properly-organised MTB XC racing takes a lot of work; usually it’s mostly to do with building the course and getting the correct result; but Beckenham Place is a sensitive new venue in the midst of a regeneration programme. We know about regeneration, having had to relinquish our beloved Eastway to go under the Olympic Park and our move to Hog Hill, which now sustains thanks in part to Beastway’s contribution. At Beckenham Place from November 2016 onwards we happily engaged in a year of planning and discussions about trails, ecology, the park setting, future plans, risk assessment and public liability insurance. Working closely with the parks management, the ecological officer, the council staff and the Friends of Beckenham Place Park we got the final go ahead for a winter series of racing on temporary trails. The clearing was ready to begin by October 2017.
Friends of the Park walked the complete route with us, together with the ecological officer as we agreed our method statement, where the trails would go and how the events would be run. The detailed route was marked with blue dots to gain final approval. Clearing through dense bramble cover along strictly agreed lines went ahead in November and December. As agreed with the Friends, no trees were taken out: Only holly and fallen, trailing or suckered branches could be cut back to allow passage along a narrow trail. Our routes were chosen to be well out of sight, not to interfere with the ecology or with other users of the park apart from on the open grassland sections where we’re joining with them for just an hour and a half each month.
From the events that have been held in December and January there are no lasting impacts on the ground that can be seen from pre-existing routes. Along the few existing path lines – not rights of way – there was always a burden of mud and the race passage along these sections has actually lightened the cover. Of course if people walk through, this imprints the smoothed surface and then standing water makes mud… The Friends were concerned about making marks on grassland in sight of the mansion, so we agreed routes along lines of trees and moved the start finish away from the mansion. There has been no poaching apart from one short section on Railway Field where there is London clay at the surface through which the grass has quickly regenerated. The new woodland sections vary – some are waterlogged by poor drainage, others are on clay – but the heaviest sections were deep under brambles and completely inaccessible anyhow.
In agreement with Lewisham the routes have been varied for each event. This has mainly been to do with the completely separate forestry operations which proceeded more quickly than expected. The third round on 17 Feb is taking a bypass around some sections of Ancient Woodland because the season is around four weeks in advance of its usual pattern (crocuses in mid January?!) and some spring growth is visible only because cleared brambles allow sight of growing shoots that would otherwise be hidden.
It should be noted that recreational amenity value is a key part of Ancient Woodland designation and our temporary trails close after 17 Feb to allow ground nesting birds, flora and fauna to get on with the spring. General public access to these listed areas goes on as other paths through the Ancient Woodlands of Summer House Hill Wood and the Ash Plantation near the railway footbridge remain open.
Our short series has brought many new users to the park and been largely welcomed by the great majority of other park users we’ve met before, during and after each event. They welcome the events and wider activity. Our aim is to start more local riders coming regularly to ride and we are actively seeking to help set up a home club, whilst also working with the clubs nearby who’ve been very helpful (thanks, Bigfoot!). The very limited and tightly-focused reaction against any cycle sport in the park probably supposes that cycling is not a legitimate activity in public realm. It conflates our activity with the closure of the golf, the changes that Lewisham is bringing to the park and it goes on to cynically criticise plans to bring running, orienteering, open water swimming, BMX, skate, adventure play, plus many other new active pursuits to the park simply because these are not what the park used to offer. London has many parks but very few of them have such wide appeal and we know from talking to people in the park that they welcome this initiative. Lewisham has been funded to broaden the park’s appeal as a key part of the new offer around regenerated parklands that reinstate the mansion landscape and its wetland ecology, as well as making the park more accessible following a period of change which is actually aimed at bringing things back.
Beastway events are properly run under the codes and insurance of British Cycling, the sport’s national governing body. This entails detailed risk assessments based on a thorough understanding of the sport and a substantial amount of public liability insurance with legal cover if needed. None of this is possible without the full permission of the landowner. All are welcome to enter or to watch events that are run by experienced volunteers.
It’s been good to bring a Beastway offer to Beckenham Place, along with the cyclocross events when it was easier to stick with the open grass. We look forward to many more events as the permanent 5.2km mixed-use loop, cycle club and regular events across many sports can be brought forwards in the regenerated park with its heritage heart around the mansion and lake.
Thank you Lewisham for letting us play.