Aches, Scrapes And Plenty Of Cakes - Cycling The South Downs Way
According to the official website for the South Downs Way anyone who is ‘reasonably fit’ can walk it, though you’ll ‘enjoy it more’ if you’re fitter. Exactly the same can be said for cycling it. And I dwelt on the definition of ‘reasonably fit’ on and off throughout the three days it took me and my friends to complete this 100 mile ride from Winchester to Eastbourne.
Anyone walking or cycling the South Downs Way follows a series of old routes and droveways along a high chalk ridge that runs through Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex. It’s one of 16 national trails in England and Wales but importantly the only one you can cycle – or horse ride – the full length of.
Earlier this year CNN listed it as one of their most incredible bike rides in the world, and, while it’s the only one on the list that I’ve actually experienced I’m not going to argue with them, especially as they illustrated the piece with two of my photos – taken on a spring afternoon earlier this year.
The trail also holds a very special place in my heart. I grew up on the edge of the South Downs, an area which became a National Park four years ago. Living a stone’s throw from the South Downs Way, I spent a lot of my formative years up on the hills.
Much later in life having returned from travelling and needing to take a cheap holiday, I spent a week walking the route, staying at B&Bs, Youth Hostels and, yes I’m not proud, my parents’ house. It wasn’t the Andes but spending a week out on my own in the hills and chatting to strangers in the evenings was a comfortable echo of the backpacker experience.
The cycling challenge
Then last year I bought a mountain bike. I won’t say that it was with the specific goal of completing the South Downs Way, but it was certainly influenced by my friend challenging me to cycle it before my fortieth birthday. I christened my new bike one very muddy November day on a short section of the South Downs Way in Hampshire between the Sustainability Centre and Queen Elizabeth Country Park. I came back sweaty, mud-caked and hooked and made a pact with my friend Suzi that in 2014 we would tackle the full route.
There are a number of things to consider when taking on a long-distance-route and, although I’d only ever done one on foot before, the same principals apply. Firstly which direction are going to go in, secondly how many days will you take and finally what’s the least amount of gear you can get away with carrying.
The South Downs Way is linear so you have to either start in Eastbourne or Winchester. The official guide starts in Eastbourne and travels west and I’m still not really clear why. The prevailing wind comes from the west in this part of the country and, unless you’re a masochist, it’s always better to have it behind you.
Plus the most spectacular part of the route is, for me anyway, the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters. I’m one of those people who saves the best food on their plate for last and apply the same principles to hikes. This factor is less important when cycling because the footpath and bridleway (which allows bikes and horses) split and cyclists and horse riders go much further in land.
How to break up the 100 mile route
I know people who’ve completed the South Downs Way in a day and there are even some who do ‘the double’ – there-and-back in one continuous peddling frenzy. I don’t want to take anything away from their achievement but for me they’re missing the point. Why go to one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country with the sole intention of getting out of it again as fast as you can? We opted for a more stately three days.
Our decision on where to break these days up was less logical and based entirely on the fact that there is only one bothy in the whole of the South Downs – at Gumber Farm – and I wanted to stay there. Most bothies are simple shelters in remote locations where you can spend the night for free, this one consists of a camping barn, with a youth hostel style kitchen and shower facilities.
Staying at Gumber Bothy meant that we would have to tackle 50 per cent of the route on the first day. I justified this decision by saying that the hills of the western end of the National Park are much gentler than those in the east. We’d hoped to spend our second night at the new YHA South Downs at Southease but it turns out that on bank holiday weekends you need to book more than two weeks in advance. In the end we decided to spend our second night back home in Brighton.
In terms of what to take, the answer is less than me.
In August you will need a good water bottle, some light layers, a waterproof jacket, a map, stuff for basic bike maintenance, a first aid kit and as much high-energy food as you’re prepared to carry. We also carried sleeping bags on the first day. I learned the hard way that you should go for a practice ride to test out your backpack before committing to the full route.
At 5.40am on the day we were due to start I realised that I couldn’t fit my waterproof jacket into my usual cycling bag and had to quickly stuff everything into a slightly larger framed one which was definitely not designed to be worn on a bike. Oh and if you do happen to do this, just take a second just to check that nothing important – say a bike pump – has rolled off the bed.
Day 1 – Winchester to Gumber Bothy
Unless you plan to do the trail in a very leisurely fashion you’re probably going to want to be on the trail by 9am. After a brief diversion in Winchester to find coffee, a bacon sandwich and a bike shop where we could buy a new pump we set off. My trepidation was quickly replaced by a burst of enthusiasm and delight at the rolling English farmland of late summer.
Although the general direction of the trail is west to east someone forgot to mention this to the ancient shepherds and farmers who first walked these hills and much of this section of the route is spent first heading south, then north, then south again. While it can be slightly frustrating to look across to the distant radio masts on Butser Hill, that just don’t seem to be getting any closer it does mean that you get to enjoy views both down into the patchwork fields of the Weald and across the sea to the Isle of Wight.
Highlights of this section include views of the Meon Valley and visiting the ancient remains of Old Winchester Hill’s Iron-Age fort. For us it also included cleaning and bandaging Suzi’s arm up, as first her bike and then her elbow hit an unexpected patch of gravel. We were grateful to have the first aid kits, know how to use them and be right next to the café at the Sustainability Centre – a hot and healthy lunch gave us time to regroup.
From here the trail straightens out more, after Butser Hill there is a long fast-as-you-dare grassy slope, much enjoyed by sledgers in the winter, and then you’re at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. My recommendation would be to stop here and make the most of the new tap recently installed by the South Downs Volunteer Ranger Service to top up supplies. This is the last café you’ll see on the trail for quite some time.
The rest of this day has merged into a blur of hills, woodland and ‘are we nearly there yets?’ I remember far more ups and downs than I was expecting, beautiful trees, a glorious field of bright sunflowers and startled deer. I know that I was in quite a lot of pain because I’ve got the notes that I took – but bad memories always fade faster than the good ones.
We arrived at Gumber Bothy just after the sun had dropped below the horizon and it was like no bothy I’ve ever seen before. A fully equipped kitchen and spotlessly clean toilets and showers greeted us, as well as lovely people who were so impressed with our bike ride that they offered us cups of tea and leftovers – which we gratefully enjoyed. The mattresses may be thin and rubberised but I enjoyed one of my top three sleeps of the year there and woke up feeling fully refreshed.
Day 2 – Gumber Bothy to Housedean Farm (near Falmer station)
Despite the good rest, it was tough getting back into the saddle on the second morning after enjoying a sparse first breakfast of biscuits, pretzels and black tea. Fortunately we knew that reinforcements and a support crew were waiting just six miles further on in Amberley.
When I think of my favourite outdoor moments they’re almost all at the start of the day. And by ‘start’ I mean being up, awake and outdoors at a time when most people are still tucked up toasty under their duvets. Forcing aching muscles up the first hill we were treated to one of those sharp-shadowed, crisp-blue-sky leave-your-sweater-behind mornings. Freewheeling downhill dozens of pheasants burst out onto the track in front and ran with me. As they wheeled around my wheels Suzi shouted that it looked like I was chasing a herd of tiny dinosaurs – which in fact I was.
Amberley brought rescue – in the form of my mum. Yes, I admit it. I’d called and asked if she’d come and collect our sleeping bags in exchange for a coffee. Amberley train station also makes it a good point for people breaking the trail up into separate days. Which is why Lou found it easy to join us there. She was expecting to get straight on the track but was also happily side-tracked by caffeine.
If you were describing the best breakfast in the world would it be a delicious fry up on a very empty stomach? Would it include strong, hot coffee? Would it be in warm sunshine next to a fast river at nine am after a six mile cycle? This place has got to be pretty high on the list http://dinebytheriver.co.uk/find-us/
This is the section of the South Downs that I know best, taking in Chanctonbury Ring, the Adur Valley and Devil’s Dyke. Myths and legends abound on these hills scarred by ancient forts and tracks. I will never get bored of the gentle curves of these hills – although they start to get tougher in this section of the trail.
Amberley Mount is probably one of steepest parts of the entire South Downs Way so it’s probably not wise to eat a big plate of greasy food immediately before tackling it. But on the other hand having a full belly is a great excuse for not being able to make it to the top. And when you get there you’re rewarded with a long flat chalk ridge and grand views out over the weald to distract you from the ache in your stomach.
The next hill, Washington, was only slightly less painful. The bright sunlight might have made us sweat more but it compensated by highlighting brilliant shades of green and gold across the hills. The stories say that if you walk widdershins (anti-clockwise) seven times around the circle of trees at Chanctonbury Ring the devil will appear and offer you soup exchange for your soul. But we were fortified with chocolate and cake so our souls could remain intact.
The South Downs is a landscape full of hidden treasures as we discovered shortly on in the form of a bright flower meadow tucked away just beyond the route. Another glorious freewheel and a short stretch of road brought us to the footbridge across the river Adur and the bottom of another hill. Up to that day I’d only ever done the descent down Truleigh Hill, and even then the narrow rutted track terrified me. This was the hill that I’d had in my head from the start.
But, as often happens, the reality wasn’t anywhere as near as bad as I’d imagined. It took every last breath, and a couple of stops to get my breath back, but I peddled the entire way up to the top. Then I lay on the grass for a long, long time.
We kept our energy and spirits up with tea and cake at Saddlescombe Farm and ice cream at Ditchling Beacon – nothing makes you hungrier than cycling. There’s not much that makes you dirtier either and I realised shamefully as started to return to civilisation on the train back from Falmer into Brighton that I could actually write my name in the dust on my legs. I finished the day with a much needed bath followed by curry.
Day 3 - Housedean Farm to Eastbourne
Lou had enjoyed her day with us so much that she joined us again for our final section and even brought her partner Aeneas along to join us. The day started by patching up Suzi’s elbow again – why do injuries always happen in the places you can’t reach yourself?
Falmer station is a convenient five minute bike ride from the South Downs Way so we were soon back on the trail and heading past cows up our first hill.
By this point I’d lost a significant amount of skin from my saddle region and was in corresponding pain but having a fresh cyclist gave us all more energy to think about those final hills, valleys and pieces of cake.
Having not been able to spend the night at YHA South Downs we’d been looking forward to making it our first snack stop but they’d been so busy over night that they’d had to delay opening the café. Fortunately we could still enjoy sitting in the garden, using the facilities, topping up our water bottles (there’s a tap in the yard) and using the giant map on the wall to marvel how far we’d travelled in two and a bit days.
Another big hill took us up past paragliders to Firle Beacon – a great place to sit and appreciate tussocks of chalk grassland, yellow flowers and blue butterflies.
We did finally find the day’s cake stop – or rather cream tea – in the pretty village of Alfriston, which sits by the river Cuck. The newly restored footbridge over the river marks a key point in the South Downs Way, where walkers turn south, downriver towards the coast and the famous white cliffs and cyclists continue east, inland. The cycle route passes above the Long Man of Wilmington and it’s definitely worth taking the time to go and say hello to this famous 69 metre figure, although he looks his best when viewed from below.
Despite the aches and pains I had mixed feelings when we finally caught our first sight of Eastbourne. It’s only towards the end of long-distance routes that you start to feel fit – then you start to believe that you could go on for ever. We made it up the final hill at Jevington, and carried on, skirting the golf course before we began our final descent.
This is a point to pay attention to the map – and make sure that it’s up-to-date. The end of the cycle route used to be in the suburbs of Eastbourne, but it’s now been diverted so that it joins up with the footpath where the South Downs finally drop into the sea.
We posed for the obligatory photo by the sign saying ‘Winchester 100 miles’. I have never been so glad to stand up in my life. Three days, 160 kilometres, 3,800m of ascent and goodness knows how much chocolate, biscuits and cake. Challenge completed.
Two weeks later I was driving down the A283, the road that passes behind the South Downs from Petworth to Shoreham. The evening sun was once again catching the glorious golds and greens on the hilltops where we’d cycled and I thought about how we spend so much time dreaming of far off adventures that we overlook the opportunities on our doorsteps.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to do it again” I thought.
And I probably will.
Jo Glyde is Senior Media Officer for the South Downs National Park Authority
I hope you found this blog useful. I’d love to hear your feedback. Have you cycled or walked the South Downs Way or any other long distance trails? Please leave your comments below.
Share this article:
Don't forget to spread the word and let us know what you think on Facebook and Twitter!