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Jonathan Manning glides along forest trails on a state-of-the-art Segway
How times change. Just a few years ago, my children could only be tempted to join me for an afternoon on forest trails if I used confectionery bribes and dangled end-of-walk carrots (well, ice creams). Today, however, the promise of exploring woodland using the latest technology is enough to rouse my teen from his summer lie-in without any sugary inducements. Dentists would be proud.
Our destination is Hinchingbrooke Country Park, about seven miles from Grafham Water Club Campsite in Cambridgeshire, where our chosen mode of transport is a Segway – an upright, self-balancing scooter powered by an electric motor.
We’ll be on board the X2 model, a rugged, off-road machine with large, knobbly tyres designed for tough environments. Capable of charging through mud and gravel, climbing slopes and bumping over rocks, the Segway should be in its element in a country park.
First, though, we need to master the technique to ride it, and this turns out to be more challenging than it looks. Under the sturdy exterior sit gyroscopic sensors capable of detecting the rider’s lean angle. On tiptoe and body weight forward, the machine whirs ahead, its speed dictated by your stance. Stand upright and it comes to a stop. Move the handle to the left or right and it turns accordingly – the sharper the angle, the tighter the turn.
In the hands of a skilled exponent, progress resembles a skier carving their way down a slope. Beginners, though, appear more like learner drivers, kangarooing their cars in a series of lurches.
Having signed a waiver to accept the risk of a broken bone, we take to the wide-open meadows of the country park where, fortunately, there’s nothing to crash into. Our guide puts a small group of us through a few training exercises dressed up as games, demanding a full 360˚ turn with one hand on our heads, racing two teams in a slalom between cones, and even getting us to scoot along with both arms outstretched, leaning forward from the knees to maintain the Segway’s momentum.
We’re a mixed group, from grandparents down to teenagers (height restrictions bar younger children), all looking for an hour of fun and a different experience, albeit with varying degrees of confidence. The youngsters seem supple and fearless, while the older folk are stiffer and cautious. These machines are barely one step removed from the hoverboards pictured in the science fiction comics of our childhoods; even today, our procession of Segways is sufficiently peculiar to spook a dog into a fit of barking.
It feels a little like riding a magic carpet as we set off in a serpentine convoy through long grass and uphill towards a forest of broadleaf woodland. The 700W motor makes short shrift of the incline, and we’re soon twisting and turning around a ribboned-off area of the forest, a flotilla of Aladdins floating effortlessly over mud tracks.
Coloured cones mark trails between trees, while squashed cones reveal steering that’s gone awry. Just beyond the perimeter, the remains of a forest school fire smoulder, sending wisps of smoke across our track as though we’re stars in a low-rent pop video.
As our familiarity with the Segway improves, so does the speed and grace of our riding. We lean into bends, duck below branches, and take tighter and tighter turns, the wide platform allowing for stable cornering. The speeds are modest – I would have run faster than this in my cross-country running days, and a mountain bike would leave the X2 for dust – but it’s huge fun. On the first lap I deliberately steer clear of roots and bumps; by circuit three I’m seeking them out, bending my knees to cushion the impact.
All too soon, and well before familiarity breeds contempt or recklessness, we’re summoned into line to snake through the woods and back to the start. The batteries are good for about two hours or 12 miles (19km), but these would be heavy machines to push or pull without motorised support.
I zigzag back to the charging station, extending the session for as long as possible, and revelling in the magic carpet glide over rough ground. Sadly, it’s time to take a confident backward step off the Segway and hand it over to the next adventure rider.