31/07/2023 - Southern comfort
I wanted to get away from it all and take on a gravel bike challenge. Just me and the countryside. Me and no worries. Me and the bike. Maybe I should have been more careful about what I wished for. I had the South Downs Way in mind. 100 miles of walking and cycling trail that runs from Winchester to Eastbourne. Those 100 off-road miles have more than 12,000 feet of climbing, it’s not for the faint hearted.
I took the train to Winchester and set out just after 9am. A mile outside the town you hit the trail, an innocuously looking flat section starts you off. It’s rarely flat again and there’s barely any tarmac until you reach Eastbourne. As I begin, I pass a chap walking his dog and it all seems quite mellow.
The deceptively flat beginning
I’m committed to pacing myself and enjoying the famous views atop the Downs. I know there’s a lot of climbing, so I’ve packed as light I can bear to. I have strong tendency to overpack, so this is against my better nature. Not long into the ride it starts. Up and down, up and down. It’s slow going. Aside from the obvious physical effort, climbing on rough and rocky slopes covered in large pebbles takes real mental focus. So much for switching off for a couple of days.
This is a light as I could bear to pack for an overnighter
You are quickly and almost constantly rewarded with gorgeous views. Travelling eastwards, these are inland to the left, and out towards the sea to the right. Inland you have the Surrey hills and even North Downs, while seawards the hills drop away to the English Channels and many coastal towns.
I had lunch at the café in Queen Elizabeth Country Park, just after descending Butser Hill. There are a few little MTB obstacle courses in the park that looked fun. I was very tempted to have a play on my gravel bike, but my pace so far was pretty slow, so I chose to press on.
The chalk escarpment that follows the ridges of the Downs
Did I say I was going slow? I certainly was. I had planned to split the ride 60/40 miles between the two days and stay at a hotel in Bramber, near Steyning (60/40 was more like 70/50 when you add in getting to and from the train stations). It took quite a while getting to Bramber. I staggered into the hotel reception at about 7.30pm having walked out of my front door at 7am. This was big day at the office, as they say.
When I say hotel, I mean it was a pub inn, The Castle Inn and I got myself refuelled, downed a pint and put myself to bed. It’s decent value there. £77 for bed and breakfast and I noshed my way through £27 of food and drink at dinner. I took a stroll around Bramber after breakfast and it is quite a sweet historic village with its own Norman Castle - hence the Castle Inn – and several interesting old buildings.
Cherry Tree Cottage, Bramber
Day Two did not warm me up gently. Not in the slightest. The first 6 miles features 1,200ft of elevation gain. I have no shame in saying several of the climbs were too hard or simply impossible to ride up. When they get up towards 20% and are full of loose stones, there is no traction to be had. My frugal packing was irrelevant, the rear wheel span and I did some hike-a-bike. On the first of these on the second day, while I was on foot an e-MTB rider rode screaming past me. It seemed so incredibly unfair. I hated him and I was at the same time deeply jealous.
This guy is not even breathing hard
I saw a few other e-bike riders, including a septuagenarian that I got chatting with near the ice-cream van stationed at Ditchling Beacon. He’d been a lifelong cyclist and using an e-bike was the only way he could now work with his knees issues and keep cycling. I got some good intel about local roads, his home town, Brighton, and the frustrating building project he was escaping for a few hours on the bike.
I pressed on towards Lewes. I couldn’t really locate a good lunch spot, so I planned to pick up some food at the service station on the A27 near the University of Sussex campus. I found a decent looking baguette strapped to my handlebars I ploughed on to a fabulous viewing spot at Swanborough Hill. The town of Lewes was before me to the left and way over to the right the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head. It was quite warm my now and quite a vista to kick back and soak up.
Baguette on bars courtesy of Restrap, er, straps
From here I made it to the village of Southease and then had a bad moment. A truly awful stomach pain and feeling of physical weakness. It was bad enough that I checked the train times back to London. There should be a train in 30 mins, but owing to industrial action, the next was in 3 hours. I couldn’t wait around that long, may as well see if I can make some progress.
I had 15 miles to go and gritted my teeth and pedalled on, but in just a couple of hundred metres I came to a youth hostel with a cafe. Sanctuary! I had a rest and a chat with a couple of the clientele - another cyclist and a runner - and made a new plan. The YHA was on the A26 and terra firma or rather terra tarmac. I logged on to the wi-fi and drew a new route on road to Eastbourne. I limped my way to Seaford on the A26 and then to Eastbourne on the A259 over the Seven Sisters. More climbing, but at least it was on smooth roads. I made it and parked myself on the next train completely drained.
As far as views are concerned, the South Downs Way just keeps giving
The South Downs Way is a magnificent route which is both beautiful and brutal. If you’re after a challenge that is almost completely off road, this is a good one to try. If you have a mountain bike, I’d use that. I rode a gravel bike with 45mm tyres, which coped well, but there no harm in having bigger rubber and suspension on a route like this one. Two days felt about right, but I know some take it on in one day. Kudos to them. And it’s also a great multi-day walking route, if you fancy a change from cycling.