I love cycling. And yet, at the age of 24, I’d still never been on a mountain bike until I got an invite to try out a Muddy Cwtch weekender. I could hardly say no.
Loosely translated from Welsh as ‘muddy cuddle’, Muddy Cwtch is the brainchild of Craig and Charlotte, a London-based couple who have decided to make the most of their skills in mountain biking and nutrition respectively, by taking slightly terrified city-folk out to the beautiful Shropshire hills for a weekend of biking among some of the UK’s best natural trails.
The genius of it is that the pair take all the stress out of going on an activity holiday. Previously I’d been put off heading for the mountains with my boyfriend (who has a touch of mountain-biking experience) due to a fear of not knowing where to go, perhaps getting lost, and having to worry about food all the time. Enter: the world’s nicest couple to do all that faffing around for you.
You barely have to think. Craig and Charlotte tell you what train to get from Euston on the Friday evening and pick you up at Shrewsbury station around two and a half hours later. Then Craig drives you to your accommodation in a well-maintained YHA hostel, whose other guests include some elderly people and a few Duke of Ed kids in the garden. A pop to the pub and good sleep later, and you’re ready to hit the trails.
Well, not quite. First you have to have a delicious breakfast, courtesy of kitchen deity and all-round genius, Charlotte. The centrepiece of our banquet is a delicious Bircher museli that she’s had soaking overnight, as well as bowls of fruit and fresh bread. We also have a kale and ginger nutribullet concoction, which I adore but makes the boys gag a touch. But hey, you can’t like it all. Charlotte gently explains how the nutritional properties of the meal are quietly setting us up for our day in the hills – in a way that’s neither preachy nor dull. She’s just surreptitiously feeding us healthy propaganda, which is pretty much exactly what I need to hear.
"...As a MTB newbie, I take great pleasure in discovering just how much gravel and dirt my bike can munch up – my road bike certainly doesn’t have the same ploughing power...."
Then it’s time to hit the bit of grass around the back of the hostel. It may not sound glam, but it’s necessary as our group of four have varying levels of ability and bike-riding experience. We do some cone-dodging and getting used to our bicycles, learning about how to use the gears and brake effectively. The bikes themselves are solid machines: we’re riding entry to mid-level bikes from Genesis and Saracen that have been hired on our behalf. As a MTB newbie, I take great pleasure in discovering just how much gravel and dirt my bike can munch up – my road bike certainly doesn’t have the same ploughing power.
After our basic skills training, Craig drives us up to a small trail centre. We start on a warm-up loop that is labelled as a ‘blue’ (easy) skill level, but I still find it quite a shock, fitness-wise. Whereas my road bike is designed to get me places quickly and efficiently, this thing is seemingly designed to give me angina. And it appears that the rest of my biking companions are gym bunnies.
Thankfully, Craig demonstrates his incalculable patience by hanging back when I struggle to keep the pace. His understanding of my lack of fitness is, for me, the defining and most wonderful aspect of the entire weekend (aside from ripping up the countryside, of course). His ability to save me from embarrassment means that my learning curve is short and I get to the exhilarating dimension of mountain biking, rapidly. Although I continue to learn and improve until our final run, Craig has me confident enough, quick enough, that I can really enjoy attacking the descents.
Sure, the uphills are killer. But again, Craig’s gentle manner and true adoration for the countryside here (he’s a Shropshire boy, after all), mean that none of us want for a chair lift – we understand implicitly that the ups are just as much a part of the experience as the downs. And there are plenty of downs, of course. After the first trail-centre experience, which is full of technical runs that allow us to really get to grips with our hydraulic disc brakes, we do a succession of natural trails formed by nothing but nature.
"...A particularly long, shallow descent that follows the path of a stream is a favourite, as we swerve to avoid rams skulls and, in general, feel pretty cool....."
They are brilliant. Over the course of two days mostly spent in and around the Long Mynd and National Trust land just skimming the Welsh border (ground we share with ponies, sheep and plenty of other wildlife), we experience high speeds as we plummet down the valleys. A particularly long, shallow descent that follows the path of a stream is a favourite, as we swerve to avoid rams skulls and, in general, feel pretty cool.
A lot of the trails are punctuated with mini advice sessions from Craig, who indicates the best way to tackle tree roots, steep descents and surprising obstacles. He also mixes up the order in which we tackle the rides, giving the faster cyclists an excuse to really stretch their legs from time to time.
Craig also leads us through some of the most breathtaking countryside I’ve ever seen in the UK, with regular stops for emergency sweets and, of course, the delicious packed lunches that Charlotte has prepared (featuring more of those goddamn delicious protein balls and healthy fajitas that keep us fuelled for all our adventures). Those bundles are only topped by the incredible spread that she arranges for our leaving lunch, which includes frittata, olives, fruit, veg, breads and, of course, some local cheeses. She also happily imparts her recipe for a well-liked beetroot dip.
The whole weekend is beyond a pleasure. Physically demanding, but well-planned and highly accessible, I’ve recommended it to most of the people in my life since getting back. If you’re the kind that usually only pedals to Tesco and back, it’s exhilarating to discover you can ride a bike in such a different way, especially when you've got a teacher as talented as Craig encouraging you. And those with a higher skill level won't be bored, as it's hard not to appreciate your guide's unparalleled knowledge of the terrain.
Charlotte will also impart some nutri-knowledge on even the most healthy-living of participants. Apart from those who are already traversing the Alps unguided, there’s few I wouldn’t recommend the experience too.
It’s also bloody cheap, and not so tiring as to mean you’ve got to take the day off work on the Monday morning. It’d be particularly perfect for a stag or hen party that’s not enamoured with the idea of getting blootered in Prague – not that Muddy Cwtch is a dry weekend, of course. The pub has some excellent locally-brewed beverages on tap.
And the details are great: whether it’s the friendly emails beforehand with helpful lists to help you pack; or the tub of salts given as a departing gift, for use in a footbath when you return home. Craig and Charlotte have nailed their formula, providing a weekend of activities in a context that’s hardly luxurious (sorry, YHA), but is so devoid of stress that it’s definitely a luxury to be there. And, of course, you feel like a bad-ass.
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