The South Downs Way – September 2000
Like many Cumbrians, I have long referred to all land below Birmingham as ‘The South’, in the same way that many southerners conversely refer to all land above Watford Gap as ‘The North’. Until recently I had very little knowledge of what lay in those dim and distant places, believing much of it to be a suburban expansion of London. By using my usual method of locating good mountain biking territory – looking for large areas of land without roads – nothing in the south or south east even remotely attracted my attention. So what could the south downs possibly offer me? Well James Murnaghan sang its praises, and I fancied a wee jaunt to finish the summer in style. Also it is not often you get the chance to ride 100 miles off road in a straight line!
The plan was to do a super lightweight 2 day attack upon the route, completing the lion’s share of 65 miles in the first day, leaving a sedate second day to catch the train home from Eastbourne. As this was to be James’ fourth attempt at the SDW, I left all the organisation in his capable hands, which made a welcome change for myself. All I had to do was arrive in Winchester on the prescribed day, with a bike, rucsac and overnighting kit. Little did I realise how difficult that would prove to be!
The week previous I had been attending a conference in Lyon, and was seriously worried about whether my return would be hindered by French fuel protests. Arriving safely back in Blighty I was horrified to find that for the first time in recent history the British public were also revolting, and fuel had dried up over here also. I had 200 miles of fuel in my tank, and a 210 mile journey ahead of me (and no-brakes, but that’s another story!). I decided to go for it anyway, and arrived in Winchester just in time to collect the last few gallons of petrol in town and shaking like a leaf from lack of middle pedal. After a swift couple of pints to calm the nerves, I decided to cast an eye over the pink-backed OS stuff, to see what pathetically easy southern-softy riding lay ahead of me. ‘So half of it isn’t road then?’ I asked in horror, ‘No, just about 15 miles total’, came the reply. ‘Oh Sh….’ was my response. ‘So how many 600 foot climbs are there?’, was another of my questions. ‘Oh, that many….gulp’. ‘So when you say that tomorrow we have to ride 65 miles off road, you actually mean 65 miles off road. And there’s about 6000 feet of climbing too?’. ‘Yes’. ‘Oh Sh….’. By now I was appearing far from hardened, in fact pretty scared. 48 miles before lunch for Pete’s sake, what kind of torture was this?
The south downs way was created as a walker’s long distance footpath, and follows the route of an ancient trackway. Many centuries ago the valleys would be the domain of wolves, robbers and endless marshes (nowadays the River Ouse flows visibly above the surrounding land, constrained behind high banks). Having the ability to look down upon potential enemies was the safest way to travel. Therefore the route is littered with antiquities such as burial mounds, ancient British forts and Devil’s Dyke, making the route feel like a journey through time also. We are repeating exactly what our ancestors did centuries ago, following the high ground for as much of our journey as possible. Although why exactly our ancestors needed to visit Eastbourne, I can’t be sure.
The legacy of all this is 100 miles of mountain biking, endless mountain biking. Riding in a straight line, seemingly forever. So far in fact that only the fittest few can ride it in a day.
The torture started at the unearthly (and positively painful) time of seven hundred hours, as we rode past the Cathedral and onto the way. You don’t need much imagination to work out where the mountain bike version of the south downs way is. Just pick up any map of the area, look for the SDW waymarkings and amazingly you’ll find that almost all of it is bridleway. It doesn’t take much imagination to provide detours around the few footpath sections. As the route progresses toward Eastbourne, the footpath sections disappear totally, leaving the last 60 or 70 miles all totally legal. To be frank, I was quite dumbstruck to find that almost every path on the entire south downs is a bridleway. Whoever drew up the ROW maps of this area seems to have never heard of footpaths. Why this area isn’t a mountain bike Mecca I couldn’t quite understand.
This was only taken a month ago!
I won’t make any attempt to describe the route (apart from the fact that it is 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne), because, quite frankly I didn’t really have a clue where I was for most of the time! If you want details of the route then check out James’ write-ups from his 1998 and 1999 crossings. I simply followed James, who rarely needed to consult his maps, which made a welcome change from being the navigator. What I can tell you that this route is fantastic. None of the riding is technical; most of it could be ridden on a racer or cyclo cross bike, but non-technical does not mean non-fun. You simply ride off road in a straight line for 100 miles! That about sums it up. You ride along the northern escarpment of the south downs in a endless procession of off-road. Isn’t that what you’ve always dreamed of, a track that never ends? Well this is what you’ve got, even the overnight youth hostel is slag-bang on the route, at the top of one of the downs.
It is an endless roller-coaster of a ride, you ride down into a dip at high speed, and follow the obvious climb up the far side. You reach a road, and you ride straight across it onto another track, it’s amazing. You only ever come down off the hill when a deep valley cuts through them, it is like wilderness riding, but right in the heart of southern England. Some Scottish highland rides aren’t this remote. You only pass through two towns – Steyning and Lewes – in the entire 100 miles.
On this note, both water and food are hard to come by. Regularly placed water taps have been placed along the route, and it is a good idea to know their location in advance, and the sole reason that lunch doesn’t occur until 48 miles is that this is the first hostelry that you’ll pass. Both of us lived off rice krispie bars and nutri grain until they became a primitive form of currency!
The weather on the first day was exemplary; 23 degrees, light breeze and little fluffy clouds. ‘Battle of Britain skies’, as Jo Burt would say, and I can certainly see where much of his inspiration comes from, this being Mr.Burt’s stomping ground. Fortunately no sandal wearing Herdwicks or Fantastic Fabulous Flying Fuchsia Fresians were spied. (Thanks for reviving 5xF for me at Bike2000 Jo!!).
Despite much of the route being on die-straight farm tracks, the occasional stretch of twisty singletrack kept the smile wide on our faces. The views out north across the escarpment are also superb, with none of the signs of modern suburban life that I had been expecting. In fact the view normally consisted of woodland, church spires, country estates and even the occasional pseudo-castle. This was ye-olde England like I had never truly experienced, or never really believed still existed. On our rare excursions down into the valleys ye-olde worlde was even more in evidence, with thatched cottages, village greens, and duck ponds around every corner. Ancient, sunken lanes would lead you back up onto the downs, with trees forming a continuous archway-canopy over your heads. The downs were eerily quiet throughout the trip, partly due to it being mid week, and partly due to no one having any petrol. This surreal atmosphere of time travel was reinforced when two spitfires appeared to perform mock dog fights over the downs on the first evening, obviously practising for the upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations.
Come on Kev, dig in!
The hardness of the surface was certainly a major advantage to us. A cracking pace could be kept up, thanks to super-low rolling resistance. No where more so than the downhills – rock hard tracks, often directly across fields. The drop off from Butser Hill into Queen Elizabeth country park is a prime example, a tear streaming spectacular at around 35mph. The ground was so hard and smooth that even at normally silly off-road speeds, I noticed that my forks were barely moving. ‘Just a minute’, I thought, ‘I’ve got 90mm of the finest butter-smooth suspension hanging off the front end of this bike, and a dirty great disc brake to boot’. ‘If this bike can slam over rocks like it does most weekends, why I am bothering to brake on this hill?’ And from that point on, the descents became rather hairy fast; 30mph+ on singletrack and 40mph+ on farmers’ lane, making me regret greatly the fact that I had opted to wear a cotton cap instead of a helmet (it’s too hot, and they’ll be no dangerous bits, was my excuse). It wasn’t so much descending as free-fall, with regular scary moments when rain erosion gutters, or loose flint was encountered at barmy speeds.
Talking of flint, it is everywhere, and it can be damn sharp! James suffered two punctures, one of which left a gaping hole in the sidewall of his tyre, luckily I carry Park tyre boots along in my saddlebag, which have saved me and riding partners several ‘long-walks-home’. If it isn’t flint, it’s chalk, or both, and the ground drains extremely well: I was thoroughly disappointed to find a puddle on the route. I mean, I could have got my tyres muddy! Rumour has it that the south downs way in wet weather is the opposite experience; how is it that the slipperiest types of mud stick so well to your bike? How can something be so sticky and so un-sticky at the same time? So, I’m afraid you’d be much better off leaving your trip until next spring.
The pub selected for the first day’s refuelling was a fine affair, where steak and chips, followed by pud just had to be consumed (after 48 miles, so would you). A very friendly owner/landlord in an ancient inn, not the tacky chain pub that I expect ‘down south’, in fact just like a Cumbrian pub, except the accents were different! A mere 17 more (painful) miles lead us to the overnight stop, at Truleigh Hill youth hostel, just above Steyning. I settled in, and off loaded my extensive overnighting kit: a flannel, sachets of shampoo and toothpaste, half a toothbrush (the half with the brush on it luckily), a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. I was glad that I packed so light as this is the first multi-day trip where I can truly say that I didn’t notice my luggage allowance at all, with perhaps just 1 kilo added to what I usually carry on a day ride.
That night was a full moon, which gave me some interesting ideas about completing the route in 24 hours, by riding overnight, but I decided to leave that for another time. However it did allow us to reach the pub in Upper Beeding without needing torchlight, which was a good job as neither of us had one. A threadbare sofa awaited us, which was like heaven after 8 hours in the saddle. As the landlord discussed methods of triggering panic buying on beer, James and I debated the best way to attach a fully upholstered armchair to a seat pillar. I did say that the route could be ridden on a racer, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend anything without suspension; and at both ends if possible. Quantity of travel is unimportant, just set it as soft as possible to spare the aches and pains.
The first job on the second day was getting those saddles comfortable. While standing atop the aptly named Fulking Hill, we both frantically allen-keyed our saddles a few degrees here and there, until the pain eased. The effect was remarkable, and sore bots were immediately forgotten, proving that a little practical spannering can be more effective than splashing out on a new perch.
The most enjoyable views are during the first day, but the most enjoyable riding is during the second. There are some crazy-fast descents, and the last two downs provide some exceptional, rolling, big-ring singletrack. The descent into Jevington could even be described as technical (shock horror), with some tight turns, a jump and an alleyway full of monster roots. A short section of road, and you’ll find yourself high above the Channel at Beachy Head. We couldn’t hang around, as we had to catch a train back to Winchester. A 45mph plummet into Eastbourne, overtaking a car en route, and we were at the station. I was quite puzzled when the incoming train had to telephoned to check for bike space, after all, this train had a guard’s van. I had completely forgotten about the fuel crisis, and bikes and trains were currently the vogue method of transport. The train to Brighton contained over a dozen bikes.
Train travel with a bicycle is normally fraught with frustration, but this journey was extra special, due to the current circumstances. Four trains and four hours later were we back at Winchester, which is pretty appalling seeing as the outward journey had taken only eleven-and-a-half-hours of riding time. Some more beer, a good night’s sleep and on Wednesday morning I was driving home – on deserted motorways. Still with no brakes, but this time with nothing to run in to.