Education in the outdoors: Mountain biking on Cannock Chase

Education in the outdoors: Mountain biking on Cannock Chase

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Shugborough Outdoor Education Centre is set in the heart of the Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire, engulfed by a big meander of the River Trent. At almost 50 years old, it has stood the test of time and had many visitors, young and old, use its grounds to experience the outdoors and pick up a multitude of skills.

At the helm is outdoor education manager Glen Probert, who works for an organisation called Entrust, an exciting joint venture between Staffordshire County Council and Capita. The aim is to provide educational services to young people, which in this case includes led mountain bike expeditions around the grounds and Cannock Chase – and further afield to areas such as the Peak District and North Wales.

Having been approved as a British Cycling Accredited Mountain Bike Leadership Centre this year, Shugborough Outdoor Education Centre boasts an impressive offering and has a great team of experienced staff to look after its customers. Glen tells us more from behind the scenes:

Glen, the Shugborough Outdoor Education Centre has a long history; tell us a little about the place and why mountain biking has become so important in the last few years?

We are in a perfect location to introduce people to the outdoors; the River Trent flows through the grounds and there is immediate access to Cannock Chase for walking and cycling. The centre is set in a tranquil part of the National Trust’s Shugborough Estate which provides the perfect backdrop to quality outdoor learning experiences.

We have always been progressive and innovative, reacting to not only the needs of the customers but also general trends in the population’s outdoor lifestyle. Examples of this are the Ironman event and British Mountain Bike Orienteering National Championships we recently hosted.

Mountain biking as an outdoor educational activity is very powerful; it quickly promotes exposure to a range of environments, includes progressive skill and technique acquisition, but most importantly provides a platform for adventure where people explore physical, social and personal development in a modern and transferrable way. I think that is why mountain biking is growing in popularity and we are glad to be a part of it.

Shugborough Outdoor Education Centre

What do you think the centre’s recent accreditation means for the experiences you can offer to the public? And how will you build on it to continually develop the services you offer?

A great part of Shugborough’s success has come through its innovation and progression, but as much as you may think you are heading in the right direction it is always good to seek advice and guidance from others.  The British Cycling accreditation has been a great way of quality assuring our practice – for affirmation of quality in some areas of our delivery and being challenged in others.

As always it is the challenge that promotes change, and with this accreditation we are now part of an ongoing process with British Cycling so that we will never get complacent and always evaluate and improve our product.  This means the public are assured that they will always receive the highest standard of delivery, whatever the future holds.

You speak very passionately about the outdoors – and mountain biking in particular; what is your background?

I grew up mountain biking on Cannock Chase but realised I could merge my love of cycling with a career as an outdoor educationalist. At university I studied outdoor leadership and gained a range of other high-level outdoor qualifications. Currently, I am an accredited practitioner for the Institute of Outdoor Learning and a British Cycling Mountain Bike Level 2 tutor, having previously trained and assessed mountain bike leaders with the MBLA. I still ride all over the UK and Europe and have also worked as a mountain bike guide in the Catskill Mountains in New York. 

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And what sort of experience do your leaders bring to the centre?

The instructors at any outdoor centre are always the best asset – and we are lucky to have a huge range of experience in our staffing team.  They are all current, skilled outdoor practitioners, often with a range of high end qualifications in other sports such as rock climbing, paddling and mountain walking. The best qualification they have though is the life experience they can share with groups to create an adventure.

There are teachers, soldiers, university sports graduates – even an Italian welder! The thing they have in common is a passion for the outdoors and the motivation to share the benefits of outdoor learning with others.   

Who visits the centre and do the facilities have something to offer for every level of rider?

The centre is fortunate enough to have the resources and staff to benefit every type of rider.  Our regular introduction to off-road cycling sessions are about two hours in duration and are run as part of a multi activity residential experience, usually for primary schools.  This introduces core skills on the flat before putting them to use on our BMX track where the challenges can be differentiated by ability – I have lost count of how many people we have taught to ride a bike or taught to pump through rhythm sections!

The mountain biking is tailored in a similar way, putting rider ability and learning first.  Cannock Chase holds a wide variety of terrain and types of ride for this, but for specialist courses such as GCSE mountain biking or Duke of Edinburgh we can travel further afield to the Peak District or North Wales.

Shugborough Outdoor Education Centre

While road and track cycling has tended to dominate national headlines in recent years, what role do you think mountain biking plays in getting people cycling?

As mountain biking is still fairly young compared to the other disciplines, it has managed to develop in line with the modern world.  Not only from a technology point of view but from a social and fashionable standpoint; mountain biking has presented itself as an accessible and acceptable way to a lifestyle involving the outdoors that has a level of challenge and adventure suitable for everyone.

This has been greatly increased by inspiring riders such as Steve Peat, Danny MacAskill, Hannah Barnes and Rachel Atherton. The mountain biking community has embraced the use of the internet and social media to promote inspiring videos and stories to motivate people to explore the world around them by bike.

Cannock Chase is an amazing area of tracks and trails; how do you work with the Forestry Commission to complement their management of the area?

The Forestry Commission have played an important role in working with Chase Trails to design the current network of purpose built trails. As a user of the area it is important that we keep up to date with not only what is happening in the area such as harvesting or events, but also how and why this fits into the bigger picture for the sustainable protection and use of the area. We know the area and rangers well, and have even taken a group from our centre on a trail building day as part of a local community development day!

There is a lot of non-marked singletrack on the Chase.  We stay off this with groups not just to avoid access and conservation issues but also to ensure we set an example for how mountain bikers should be perceived by other trail users – and educate our groups in this too.

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What do you think are the big challenges facing the growth of mountain biking in the UK – and what can the industry do to keep the sport sustainable?

Access and conservation is a large part of the mountain bike leader’s role; we want to inspire people to ride and also to accept the responsibilities that come with it. Although it is much easier to access equipment and trails than ever before, the trail etiquette and education of these responsibilities is not as easy to get across. I believe the industry can help by influencial bodies like the manufacturers, retailers and celebrity riders working with the likes of IMBA and British Cycling to ensure the message is clear and consistent.

Ensuring sustainability for the environment, land owners and other trail users should be in every rider’s mind each time they sit on the bike. If not, there may come a time when they, we or future generations will miss out on the ability to do it at all and the benefits of our cool sport will be lost.

MTB Leadership 

Mountain Bike Leadership Centre Accreditation

A UK-wide accreditation scheme for guided mountain biking activity is a service offered by British Cycling, Scottish Cycling and Welsh Cycling. The three governing bodies are committed to supporting all activity providers who offer fun, engaging and high quality guided mountain biking activity.

The scheme was created to recognise and manage the risks associated with mountain biking in the outdoors. Included is expert support to interrogate all policies and procedures and make sure that every eventuality is considered and staff training put in place to ensure that mountain biking activities are fun and safe. 

If you are a mountain bike park, outdoor education centre, school or club and are interested in learning more about centre accreditation and Mountain Bike Leadership awards please contact us for a discussion or take a look at the information online.

Tel: 0161 274 2063

If you are contacting us from Scotland please use 

Tel: 0141 554 6021