Thursday 21 June 2012

Cycling the South Downs Way

Earlier this June, Tracy and I got on the train at Rye station with heavily laden bikes one evening, heading for Winchester - the start of the South Downs Way...


The next morning, after a filling breakfast, we set off out of the city - here's the point where we left the road for the first time - the South Downs Way is mostly off-road.

Some of the signposts have mileages on them. It's a long way to Eastbourne - don't forget that riding off road is about twice as hard as on-road, because of the mud, rocks, etc. that mean you spend much more effort moving along at a given speed.

Pretty quickly we were out into the fields, and it was dry initially...

Not just fields though, some beautiful woodland too:

But clearly not every rider completes the South Downs Way...

In a sign of things to come, mud began to accumulate on our bikes:

And before long, we were thoroughly soaked by the rain - this was the last picture for a while, sheltering under a Yew tree in a farmyard the trail passed though.

The next time it was dry enough to get a camera out was because we were sheltering in a barn while repairing a puncture! A real blessing it happened near this barn, because we were on top of a hill with strong wind and rain lashing down. Punctures are quite a risk on the South Downs Way because of the flinty surface - lots of sharp edges!

But for the end of the day it did dry up, as we cycled through Queen Elizabeth Country Park:

Although we were near the end for the day, we were getting pretty tired...

But eventually we made it to our B&B in Petersfield, where we hosed down our bikes and even our panniers to get rid of the mud! Fortunately we were lent some newspaper to sit them on...

Petersfield is a few miles off the South Downs Way, so the morning started with a long road hill to get back up onto the trail - you can see the village of South Harting here, which we passed through just before coming up the hill:

The weather was dry for this day, but very windy. Fortunately the trail was now much firmer, with a lot less mud:

It was nice to be away from all the roads again...

And we found a nice spot for lunch, sheltered from the wind.

Although the South Downs Way stays high up a lot of the time, that doesn't mean it's flat!

There's points where it dips down again through forests, and we managed to find some more mud there...

The trouble with riding with loaded panniers is that you have to take a bit easy on the bumps, so even a nice looking downhill like this is actually quite slow going really.

Not long after this we decided it was too windy on the top of the hills (gusts to 60mph!), so we completed the final third of the day on the road, where we were treated to the sight of a Red Kite low over a village:

We did still need a break though, right before the one big remaining hill we had to cross before the country roads leading to our next stop (Amberley).

But soon we were at the B&B, and poring over the maps to figure out the challenges for the next day:

After dinner at the pub next door, of course!

The next day was sunny - this is the view from the breakfast room of the B&B!

The view out the other side was of our first hill of the day...

But at least it was on tarmac initially!

Pretty soon we were gazing down on Amberley Castle:

But then the tarmac ended, and some parts were just too steep to ride! Check out the signpost at right of this picture, which was horizontal, to see how steep the track is.

We got a break after that, but there was more hill to come...

Worth it for the view when you get to the top though! That's Amberley to the right.

So we were back onto the undulating track along the top of the hills once more:

But of course there are points where the trail dips down to cross a road or river, and then there's a long hill back up again. We saw more cyclists on this section, partly because it was a weekend. A lot of them were just out for the day, so went zooming ahead of us:

On top of one of the hills we found a spot with a nice view:

...and stopped for lunch. We actually had lunch twice each day, at 12pm and 2pm, as you don't want to eat too much at one go.

The landscape changes as you go along, so we found more grassy rolling hills at this point:

After a bit we dipped down near Upper Beeding, and stopped at one of the taps that are dotted along the South Downs Way to refill our water bottles. While we were here we met a guy who was walking the the trail in 3 days, compared to us cycling it in 4 and a bit! But he was sleeping in his bivvy bag on the trail itself, and pretty much walking throughout daylight hours.

The tap was near a river, so after that it was back up another steep hill...

Along the top from here though, we ended up at Devil's Dyke, which had some great views:


After that we realised we could see Brighton, so had a real feeling of progress!

One more hill after Devil's Dyke...

...and then we were in Pyecombe, where we had our best B&B of the whole trip. All the places we stayed were good, but this one was really outstanding - Hobbs Cottage. Nice pub over the road too:

The next morning, soon after leaving Pyecombe, we saw a sign saying we weren't far from the infamous Ditchling Beacon:

A long steady hill to be climbed to get to it, and our fellow cyclists from the B&B went on ahead, as they were on a tighter schedule than us:

Not too far though, and we were up at the top - and that's the real top, not just where the road crosses the hill:


It's one of the high points on the trail, and there's a panoramic view:

Just down from the top is the road, which the London to Brighton bike ride crosses - I passed this point on the tarmac last year.


Back off road though, and it was little paths winding through farmland now:

Including some nice bits of woodland

With ideal resting places for lunchtime:

Here's the only injury of the trip - while standing over my bike on a slope, it slipped sideways under the weight of the panniers and the saddle QR handle hit my leg...

Despite being amongst farmland now, there were still some big hills:

Which we were pleased to get up without walking for once!

Big enough hills for paragliding too (this is near Lewes, just off the A27):

Then I managed to spoil a good downhill by getting a puncture, but at least it wasn't raining much at the time...

We did the last bit of this day, to Alfriston, on the road, and it was during this stretch that the mileage ticked over 100. You end up doing more than the actual length of the trail, because the B&Bs are sometimes a mile or two off it.

It rained hard that night in Alfriston:

But was dry again in the morning, and out of the window of our B&B we could see our first hill...

After a bit of tarmac, we than had a 100m climb to the top on a rough track:

You can see the track cutting from left to right here - not too steep, but long!

And here we are at the top! The previous photo was taken from the rectangular covered reservoir to the left of the picture:

Back down again, to pass through a village, but the signs showed us that it really wasn't that far to Eastbourne now...

Still another hill to climb though, and time to stop for a break too.

Finally, we could see Eastbourne in the distance!

and within half an hour of then we were at the station:

But time for lunch in a pub as a treat before heading back to Rye!

We covered about 120 miles in total, and I'd say about 70-80 of that was off road. We did it over four and a half days, which was manageable (but hard at times!) given that we're used to cycling but didn't do any serious training other than our normal bike rides. It can certainly be done quicker, but it then starts to turn into an endurance event rather than a holiday!

We're wondering what our next cycling challenge should be now....



Unknown said...

Great blog Mike - and what a marvelous holiday (extremely low-carbon too!). Great to get a reminder of how much beautiful countryside we have on our doorstep.

Well done both of you - quite an achievement!

Mike Pepler said...

Thanks Jo! Although the travel was low-carbon, we did eat a lot of food - maybe next time we'll have to make sure it's all local & organic too, though there's not always much choice.

I'd definitely recommend others to try the ride, even if they don't do the whole route in one go!