The way back to the future – Britain’s first freeride park?
Around 15 years ago I met Gus. At the time I thought him verging on insane and without any of the humour that can occasionally bring. It was clear from the very first meeting that Gus had what I’d call a different view of the world to most people – not right, nor wrong, just different.
Gus is a farmer. I would say not in the traditional sense, but given that farming has become a ruthless commercial beast controlled by unabated, greed fuelled trans-nationals, Gus farms in a very traditional way, the old fashioned way. Animal husbandry and integrity are paramount to him.
The farm straddles the Scottish Borders on the East Coast situated between the towns of Berwick upon Tweed and Eyemouth. To reach the steading you need to drive up a 3 mile gravel track. With views of the Cheviots and probably the happiest pigs your’e likely to meet, it could almost be idyllic.
It’s also fully organic ( Yes, even the wood they source for their smoker is organic ) and having spent a lot of time on farms, I would say it’s one of the most beautiful farms I’ve been on.
What is surprising is Gus’s love for bikes given we’re talking about an area where land access is next to impossible and bikes are viewed with suspicion. This is also a working farm in a part of the UK that is cold for 8 months of the year. But for having a usable space, the farm comes in handy.
We met at a race, which was quite ironic as Gus has no penchant for racing, unless it’s a John Deere drag race or the rally course we used to have set up on his farm. I remember it well because at the time old Angi ( nickname ) was the proud owner of a Banshee Scream and his idol was Josh Bender, which with hindsight I should have easily guessed.
He spent most of practise at Ae sessioning the step down, which is about right given that between the run in and berm after that jump no one was faster; the rest of the track presented a few problems in terms of efficient ground coverage for him.
Still, he didn’t really give a shit and he invited a few of us to ride his “ fucking huge tabletop” he’d built on his farm. It turns out we were practically neighbours, as the North East of England, above Amble at least, is pretty sparsely populated so to drive 30 minutes is a jolly and no different from the school bus journey.
Now, we were a bit apprehensive about going up to the farm as he’d only built the one jump, as I’m pretty sure he didn’t know how to corner at the time, but we went up and spent a winter riding the table top anyway before building a four pack and destroying a fair bit of his farm equipment in the process.
Amongst us there was a pretty intense desire to do heel clickers on the farm quad over a bomb hole jump we found.
It was often cold, shitty and wet but what a laugh we all had. We were all racers but Gus wasn’t into that. It didn’t really matter.
We’d been assigned a unused quarry by Gus’s parents and after Huggy and I went to stay with Gus, Matt Brooks and Matt Hunter in Kamloops, 2004, things seemed to move onto full gas when we returned.
It’s not like we had ideas above our station or anything: In short, we’d got a bit carried away with hucking.
By early 2005, the original lines had disappeared and we built. We built a lot.
Huggy and I were doing ok at racing. We both managed to get a bundle of UCI points and went to ( try ) and race some World Cups and Gus was left to his jumps by himself for a while but in that period he really did lose the plot. When we returned we found huge wooden structures, a wall ride bigger than Whistler’s joyride one, a box and an amazing amount of lines. I mean, it was like nothing around at the time and it was hidden away on a bit of land where you literally jumped the England Scotland border on the 4th double.
The sheer amount of graft Gus and our other good friend Paddy had put into it was insane.
They’d expanded too and even built a jump in another area of the farm that effectively launched you out of two trees from 30 odd ft. After he’d built it he found that there were Woodpeckers nesting in the left hand tree so he actually dismantled this behemoth and moved it 20 ft further right between two other beech trees. The Woodpeckers seemed happy about that as I’m sure Guses whooping and hollering couldn’t have been good for them.
The press somehow got wind of our little shangri-la and a few pros came up to shoot but none rode the Woodpecker Gap. It was a bit embarrassing, so we both hit it, and I had a wee crash on my third jump a week before I went to Pila and had to try and race with a heavily strapped ankle. Only Gus and I rode that thing, which is maybe for the best as it was filthy really.
In time, this 670 acre organic farm was soon becoming a playground for grown up men. When the Nissan Qashqai tour came to Newcastle in 2007, we brought Cam Mcall, a young Brandon Semeneuk and Ben Boyko to the farm. The couldn’t believe it and had it not been for the wind that day I think we’d have had one of the more legendary sessions of our lives. Still we managed a pretty rad session of shit bags – Where you get towed around on the quad on a hay filled bag. Jamie Goldman liked it so much he stayed a couple of days and gorged on good food, good beer and great views. I’m pretty sure Ian Hylands was a bit freaked out that we all went naked in the hot tub, but that’s how we rolled.
These were times when our ambition knew no limits and we were, in our minds, untouchable. When at the farm, we entered another universe where we could do whatever the fuck we wanted without any repurcussions.
As 2008 arrived and social media slowy crept from being a sleeping oaf into a Jack and the beanstalk style giant, we were kept sane by our new project – The Hut and dirt jumps. The hut still stands and really is a testament to Gus and Paddy’s building prowess. It’s got a stove, a mezzanine bedroom and is made from wood grown on the farm.
It proudly overlooks the trails and like a relic of a bygone age, reminds us of what fun we had, where our biggest concern was who would be the first to 360 the final jump and what time we could fire the BBQ up. I think we took photos twice and put some on the web once, which makes this article ironic in a sense. The fact that we were often doing fruit bowls and sly leftys in the photos also stopped them being broadcast.
Had we realised what we had at the farm, and had we known how to get the footage out there, I think we might have stopped the Masters brothers being the sensations they are. We had rally tracks, flame throwers and all the space required to be as crackers as we wanted. All the while Gus was still building like tomorrow wasn’t coming as the entire place could almost have been a Woodward style camp .
Yet, largely, we kept this place to ourselves and a select group of friends.
Regulars we had here were Stu Thomson, Ben Cathro and the Stirling crew but not many others got the privilege. In a way I’m glad.
Things have calmed down now, and injuries, emigration and marriage have came into play meaning the days of our unabated youth have passed like leaves in the wind. Gus still lives and breaths farming and tending to his stock. His Demo 8 is getting dusty in the corner and the Troy Lee has cobwebs in it.
Yet every so often we keep the spirit alive, be it on four wheels or two and recall the days of old.
You see what we had, and do still have, at the farm is a place that refreshes the soul and is probably more removed from modern vices such as social media than a trip to Patagonia.
It’s made me think about going out for a ride and not taking a photo or video for Instagram. It’s made me crave my BMX again, BBQ on, music blaring and all of the farm dogs chasing us through the dirt jumps. I don’t miss our stock car races and getting stones through the windscreens though.
While this is a place i’m proud to have known and ridden, I’m pleased not many others got to.
I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t need to go far to find your own personal shangri-la of biking, a bit of disused woodland or hidden patch of rough ground can be transformed. We were hugely privileged but it can be done.
Fundamentally it’s proved one thing to me – Money, cars, wealth, influence – nothing beats getting out on your bikes with your mates in the woods.
Long live being able to live like a lunatic.