Bristol Ashton Court – Nova circuit – Full report

The rain’s due to stop and the sun might come out, so for all the enthusiastic beginners who have shiny new Christmas bikes – here’s our first full route guide for Bristol’s brilliant Nova circuit.

Ashton Court, just over the Clifton Suspension Bridge from Bristol city, is a great area for introducing beginners and the family to the joys of mountain biking. There’s good parking with a café and a bike shop to hand. The route isn’t too strenuous and should be within the abilities of most enthusiastic families.

Our spin around Ashton Court on Thursday (2nd Jan 2014) was a classic family-friendly day out. We’d made an early start to avoid the traffic around Cribbs Causeway, so arrived to a quiet car park, but worryingly the café was closed. The weather was good, so we quickly unloaded the bikes and headed off. The route stays off of all main roads and you’re only ever 20 minutes or so from the car, so you can afford to travel quite light – a god-send when you’re out with the family, compared to a rucksack full of kit and food when you’re out in the Forest Of Dean.

From the car-park, you can head out back down the hill where the access road runs, but it’s better if you head out towards the miniature railway to the left of the golf course. Just past the railway you meet the Ashton Court perimeter fence and you turn right to join the Nova trail. This trail sets the tone for much of the Nova circuit – it’s friendly twisty singletrack that everyone should manage and most people will enjoy. This piece of the perimeter trail runs to the Ashton Court gateway towards the Bristol Suspension Bridge.

At the gateway turn right and cycle back up the access road into the estate. The road here is quite narrow, but there’s plenty of space to the left, around the trees, to keep off of the road – there are even a few small logs to get over for the adventurous to try their bike skills on, alternatively you can just cycle round them.

The Nova circuit takes you past the road back up to the golf course car park to your right and out into the open, for a great vista over Bristol, before bearing up a hard-packed trail to the right. This trail runs up the side of the golf course and is one of two tests for everyone’s legs, as the trail grinds up the hill. The trail is loose gravel with a few drainage channels across it, but it should be fine for most people.

At the top of this hill you come to a left fork that indicates the start of the proper off-road part of the Nova trail trail. Take the fork to the left that leads downhill, weave through a few large rocks that act as a gateway and you’re in to the Ashton Court woods.

The trail then leads along a clearly marked singletrack-type trail, with plenty of room for people to pass, past a picnic area to an open area at the far end of the Aston Court estate. At this open area bear right and pick up the perimeter fence again and track back in more or less the direction that you’ve just come, back to the picnic area. The latter part of this piece of the Nova is quite narrow and it gives beginners a great taste of whizzing through the trees.

On this part of the trail you’ll also come across your first Red-Blue split. The Nova trail is defined as a Blue trail, but the clever trail builders have squeezed in a few bits where you try your hand at a piece of Red-rated trail. If the trail splits and offers a Red option, it will be clearly marked, so you can’t easily end up of something more challenging by mistake. None of the Red options on the first half of the Nova trail are particularly difficult and the children will love throwing themselves down the bomb-hole or across the cobbles – but there are some bigger steps on the second-half of the trail that will definitely be a challenge for smaller riders.

Note, there are quite a few faster riders on the trail at times, but there’s plenty of room to pull over in safety. Just don’t put yourself at risk – remember that this is a beginners-orientated trail and there are plenty of other fantastic trails around Bristol for the impatient speed-merchants, so don’t feel hassled to jump out the way as soon as someone appears behind you.

The picnic area is about half way round and is a good place to catch your breath, as you have the main climb of the trail next. With the trail behind you and the picnic area to your right, this climb tracks off to the left alongside the big open field. It is a bit of a grind with a fairly loose surface, so don’t worry if you have to walk some of this – it does level off about half way up, so hop back on and test your legs again. At the top you arrive at a T-junction, where you want to go left and then, after a 100 yards or s0, turn immediately right. This is the route that takes you back towards the perimeter fence and your last piece of trail before home.

Note – If you turn right at the T-junction you’ll head back towards the car-park, which might be a useful shortcut if things are getting tired. Also, to the right of this junction is the Super Nova trail – this is a proper piece of Red trail and I personally would suggest any beginners getting used to the Nova trail and then getting some experience on the Leigh Woods trails (across the road from Ashton Court) before coming back to the Super Nova.

The last piece of the Nova trail is probably the most challenging as they have put in quite a few twists, turns and rocks to cycle over. Kids will probably love this, but they do need to aware that some of the rocks can be slippery, as amply demonstrated by Louis who slid off of one and sprawled himself across the path – apart for a couple of scuffs where he’d landed on the bike, he was fine. All first timers should also be aware that the trail builders have put quite a few rock steps along this part of the trail and some of these are quite large, so riders need to think (and look) ahead to make sure that they-re happy will any obstacles – I don’t recall any of these than can’t be cycled around, so they won’t stop your enjoyment.

The most adventurous piece of Red trail on the Nova is also on this section, with a series of three large rock steps. Again, it’s easy to cycle around these, but with confidence anyone on a full-size mountain bike (26” wheels) will roll over these – the key is not to panic and pull on the brakes as you go down, but instead to control your entry onto the step and then roll over it. For anyone uncertain with any of the challenges in Ashton Court, the best option would be to book some tuition time with the team at Pedal Progression (the bike shop behind the café in the car-park).
As mentioned this trail leads you home and eventually you’ll come across the bottom of the track that leads down from the car-park. Depending on how you’re going, you now have the option for another circuit or a gentle grind back up the hill for a coffee and bun at the café.

Note – the Nova circuit in Ashton Court is 6.5km (@4 miles) and should take about 40-60 minutes to complete.

I mentioned Leigh Woods, which is across the road from Ashton Court towards the Avon Gorge. You can cycle across there from Ashton Court, but it might be better to save that for another day and use their car park – although they don’t have the benefit of a café. We’ll cover Leigh Woods another day.

After a few circuits of the Nova, as riders start to gain their confidence, a trip across the road into Leigh Woods is a nice idea. It’s more challenging, but it’s not extreme and offers added excitement in another safe area.

Note – we rode the Nova circuit in January 2014.

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