Riding the South Downs Way in two days.
28th/29th May 2016
How the South Downs Way fixed a Broken Rider
I live in the South Downs National park and spend most of my time riding up there, but I had never committed to riding the whole of the national trail known as the “South Downs Way” (Now referred to as the SDW.) A 100 mile trail that follows along the ridgeline of the South Downs between Winchester in Hampshire and Eastbourne in Sussex. Last Christmas as I nursed a knackered knee, the dream of completing the trail and hot summer days seemed a long way off. Would my knee heal in time for the summer, would I ever be fit enough? I missed my bike,the freedom of the open downs so I set myself a challenge to get well and to complete the South Downs way in two days. I decided to commit to this as a target to aid my recuperation.
The following months were spent training, interspersed with researching maps and previous riders accounts. Figures spun through my head. 100 miles and 10,000ft of ascending. But that’s only 10 mph for 10 hours riding. Was I confident that I’d cope with the ride? Surely it couldn’t be that hard? I’m not a competitive rider, racing holds no attraction and team sports hold no thrill. I’m used to riding at my own pace and am always happy to look for an excuse to stop and admire the view. In other words, I’m a lazy rider. But I’m not afraid of rain or the cold, which is lucky, as Winter and Spring 2016 happened to be one of the wettest, foulest couple of months on record. But this is all good practice and would really make me appreciate the trails when they dried up, right?
3:30am: on the day of departure, the house was woken by an overhead explosion of thunder and a biblical downpour for the next several hours didn’t bode well for the ride ahead. Thankfully, as I prepped my gear and bike for the umpteenth time, the rain stopped and the sun rose above the horizon and I made my way to the rendezvous point.
6am: We were in a van and on our way to Winchester. ‘We’ being seven intrepid South Downs way virgins and our seasoned guide Ray from the “Cycle Seahaven’ riding group.
8:30am: We departed from under the shadow of King Alfred’s statue, heading East. We soon passed the first finger sign that stated that we had already covered 1 mile and only had 99 left to go! Over the M3 we followed the A31 for a bit before turning down a lane to Chilcomb where we finally left the tarmac and started on a gravel track towards Cheesefoot head and the first of several crossing points of the A272. This first couple of miles mainly involved crossing fields back and forth across the road until we reached Beacon Hill. The first staggering views of the trip across the Meon valley and then a wonderful swoopy descent down narrow lanes to Exton village.
As the trip progressed, the realisation that every speedy descent was to be followed by a hard slog up the next hill soon began to make me not enjoy them as much as I should have. The climb up Old Winchester hill, combined with the increasing temperature and the clear blue skies took their toll and a niggling headache started to make its presence felt. The views from the top of the hill were an ideal location for us to regroup and take on some food and drink. It also gave us a chance to check maps for location. The views were somewhat restricted by a haze that meant that the distant Solent and the Isle of Wight were difficult if not impossible to see, but kept us focused on the trail ahead and the near distance.
After Old Winchester hill, another fast drop down to Whitewool farm and its fishing ponds that emanate from Springs in the valley and form the headwaters of the river Meon.
The next climb up was up through a very rooty holloway that was quite a technical challenge with rocks and roots testing the skills of the rider. Upon reaching the top of Salt hill it was a pretty straight forward gravel surface past the historic site of HMS Mercury and then road and tracks past the sustainability centre up towards the highest point on the South Downs, Butser Hill. This brings one of the highlights of the trip. A fantastic open grassland race down towards the A3. Time to catch your breath at the visitors centre at the Queen Elizabeth country park (QECP). A good chance to top up water bottles and grab a bite to eat.
Passing through the QECP leads on to a continuation of tree lined trails and roads all the way to Harting Downs. The lure of an ice cream stall was too much for us to resist and helped cool us in the midday sun as we took in the views over Harting.
Hills started to blur past us, their names familiar to me from my months of map gazing. Beacon Hill, Cocking down, Graffham down and across to Amberley. This is one of the first river valleys you cross on the SDW and the river Arun passes under you on its way to the English Channel. It’s also the first train station where you can drop out and catch the ‘Train of shame’ as it’s known amongst the diehard endurance riders. I was happy enough to keep on going and take the long climb out of the Arun valley, back up to the hill tops. This is where the SDW starts to change from a more wooded environment towards the more familiar open grassland ‘whalebacks’ that I’m familiar with. In fact, Amberley was the furthest West I had ridden on my training rides, so I felt reassured now, knowing the route and what climbs lay ahead. And how big some of them were.
The hills became a list that I was ticking off as I crested each one. Always touching the triangulation points where possible in an old habit passed on from my first riding partner. ‘If you don’t touch it, it doesn’t count’ he would say to me with a grin on his face as he shot off for the next ascent. That soon became one of my training mantras that got me up several brutal hills and confused many walkers that were resting at the top, wondering what the hell I was going on about? Springhead hill, Kithurst hill, Chanctonbury hill and it’s Neolithic hill fort, now wooded over and the source of many local superstitions concerning the Devil. I decided to not hang around, as I knew it was all downhill to the river Adur now and one final climb to our rest for the night.
Since we were travelling in a more or less straight line from West to East, As the day progressed, we were treated to the strange phenomenon of watching the shadows shift around us like a sundial, until the shadows started to reach out ahead of us and we knew that the afternoon sun was starting to sink down behind us.
After 60 miles of riding, the last climb up Beeding hill (auto-correct just changed that to ‘Bleeding Hill’ and I must admit, I had a similar name for it at the time!) The last stretch was on road and was a welcome respite from the harsh jagged flints and the glare of the chalk trails my eyes has endured all day.
Our night was to be spent at Truleigh hill youth hostel. Fed, watered and rested, an early night was on the cards.
Day Two – Back on Home Turf
Day two arrived and the weather looked like it would bring more blue skies, We set of at a cracking pace on some lovely descents across to Devils dyke. The climbs didn’t seem too bad either. We definitely had a spring in our stride after a good night’s rest. That was until our first serious climb up Newtimber hill and I realised that my legs weren’t as cooperative as I hoped for. It seemed I wasn’t alone, as the group all crawled to a stop and decided that a little push up the hills wouldn’t hurt!
Ditchling beacon soon arrived and I felt well and truly back on home turf. Every track and turn was like greeting an old friend. My pace had picked back up as well, probably due to the familiarity of the trails and that the end was not too far away. My only test came as I approached Blackcap. If I went straight on through the gate, I could be home in less than thirty minutes. Instead, I turned right and resigned myself to the last twenty five miles of the South Downs Way.
The hills were ticked off again as the temperature started to climb once more. But now, colloquial names were used as opposed to officially designated names. Bunkers hill, Newmarket hill and Iford hill became ‘Cardiac hill’ ‘the grind’ and ‘the yellow brick road’. All the time, I circled Lewes and the familiar view of my home town. All the way down to Southease and the river Ouse. The river that passes through Lewes. It may have been my mind, but I was convinced that I could smell Harveys brewery wafting downstream on the breeze. That pint would have to wait until the end of my ride.
Itford hill, Firle beacon and Bo-peep passed by until the beautiful village of Alfriston arrived. A natural pattern had emerged as different paces of rider stretched their legs and then slowed to allow others to catch up.
A Near Miss
Up until this point, the group had been very lucky with mechanical problems. Only one wobbly saddle was the only problem encountered. Not even one puncture. Thankfully no one had mentioned punctures, not even said the word, in case this brought bad luck on the group in the same way actors steer clear of “The Scottish play.”
Unfortunately, this was not to last. As I climbed the very technical hollow way known as “Crash Alley” my chain snapped sending me off my bike at such a speed that I was in the hedge before I knew what had happened. Luckily, I had the spares required to get me under way as soon as possible. A quick sprint up Windover hill soon had me back with the group before Jevington (the birthplace of bannoffee pie) and the realisation that this was the last climb of the trip! Up to the top of Bourne hill and the welcome site of the Sunshine Coast of Eastbourne greeted us and the end of our journey beckoned.
The strange feeling of seeing the destination but then having to turn right for another three miles towards Beachy head always catches me out on this ride. But the last fast ride down to the finish line and the obligatory photo at the last marker on the SDW meant that I had finally completed the whole route and the end of months of training that had gone into the preparation for this ride. How did I feel? Absolutely exhausted, thoroughly elated and quite emotional if I’m honest. I was no longer a broken rider, I was back on the downs and back home.
I’d like to thank the cycle Seahaven crowd for being so welcoming and mainly thanks to Ray for leading us newbies safely along with words of encouragement when needed and a bit of guidance along the way. Cheers!