The South Downs Way is the UK's 1st national trail to be a long distance bridle way. That means that for its way-marked length of approx 100miles it is legal to walk, ride a horse or cycle. Most of the trail is off road and covers beautiful rolling country side with much of the route following the escarpment top of the downs. I tackled this on my MUni last week and had a great ride, for more details read on.
We (Paul and Sarah) decided to split the ride into 3 long days riding and a short first day as a warm up. YHA and B&B accommodation was booked, train times investigated, backpacks carefully loaded, tires pumped and off we set arriving at Eastbourne on the south coast at lunchtime on Sunday.
A short afternoon ride in glorious sunshine took us out of the busy resort town and up Pashley Down. Yes, there is a photo of Paul upon a Pashley up on Pashley. This early part of the bridle way is well used by locals and tourists alike, out for an afternoon in the sun, and we drew a number of comments and chatted to passing M. Bikers including one couple on a tandem. They had the right idea, one person, one wheel. True to my usual form I had a reason free face plant fairly early, hitting the flint strewn path in the middle of a golf course. No sign of a slug this year, maybe it was a golf ball. With only ego bruised, we rode on down a superb lumpy bumpy cart trail into the village of Jevington. This path is reckoned to be a technical descent on two wheels, top fun on one.
I was starting to realise that the SDW could be renamed the South Ups and Downs and Ups way, slogging up the hill to the next ridge way section. A few kms riding on close cropped grass took us past the long man of Wilmington chalk cut figure and around the head of a dry valley full of model gliders being flown in intricate loops and twists. We took a moment to gawp at the radio control pilots whilst they gawped at us, some people have the strangest hobbies.
Down another flinty lumpy track and we rode into the charming, totally over run with tourists, village of Alfriston. We paused to visit the 14th century clergy house now owned by the National Trust, where we admired the newly laid rammed chalk and sour milk floor, made to a traditional downland recipe. Then a 1km road ride took us out to the youth hostel, showers, food and bed.
Come morning however things were looking less rosy. The sky was grey and drizzly, and worse, Paul's knee (injured in the Polaris competition some weeks earlier) was playing up and quite painful. We decided to press on and hoped the knee was just stiff and would relax once warmed up. The morning's route was 13.5 miles to reach the Newmarket Inn for a Pub lunch. Once up on the ridge top the clouds cleared a little and the sea was visible off in the distance. The cropped grass or packed chalk under wheel was easy riding and the miles soon passed before we had to drop down again to cross the river and railway at Southease. 1 km road riding and another slog up hill returned us to the ridge top and more great riding. I was getting peckish as we made the last few miles before lunch.
The SDW passes under a railway just before the pub, I pedaled joyfully down hill towards the tunnel, emerged on the other side of the tracks and ... NO PUB. umm. Facing me was the busy dual carriageway A27, an empty field and on the other side of the road a mobile transport cafe. Dejected we decided the pub must have been demolished in road improvements and followed a new diversion of the path to a farm crossing bridge. Somehow a bacon buttie from a trailer cafe sat only yards away from thundering lorries wasn't what I'd been looking forward to.
It was at this low point that Paul decided his left knee was not going to survive another 16 miles that afternoon. He reluctantly left to limp the 2 miles to Lewes train station and return to collect our car, his SDW attempt over. I meanwhile had to carry on alone. Boy, was it a tough afternoon. Just as I got to the top of the hill the rain came down and stayed with me for the next 13 miles. Apparently I rode past some iron age earth works, a pair of wind mills and the Devils Dyke beauty spot. Didn't see a thing, the cloud cover was down to my knees and it was only regular flapjack stops which kept me going. Finally damp and unhappy I reached Truleigh Hill and knew it was downhill all the way to the Pub for the night. Relieved I turned onto a bridle way claiming to lead down to the village, only to stop a a hundred yards later convinced I heard my name called. It was Paul who had walked out to meet me and was now on a different path in an adjoining field, he scrambled thru the hedge and we limped off to find a bath and bed for the night.
Tuesday dawned all too soon, I was stiff and rather uncomfortably chafed from riding in wet shorts the previous afternoon. Oh, and my boots were still soaking wet. The threatened journalist from the local paper hadn't showed up by nine a.m much to my relief as I rode off alone again. Paul waving farewell from a foot bridge over the river Adur. The first indication of what a great day this was going to be was the sun coming out as I gained the ridge, then I managed to overtake some mountain bikers. Of course, they promptly returned the favour along with queries about my speed and distance abilities, then they pedaled off into the distance. I had to cover 13 miles before lunch at the Bridge Inn, Amberley, and after lunch 19.5 miles to our overnight stop. Easy, at least the run till lunch was, superb riding on fairly solid tracks, mostly gently rolling. The sun shone, the wild flowers in the track-side verge were vibrantly coloured and there were butterflies everywhere. I romped into Amberley in just 3 hours, arriving at the pub long before Paul.
Re-fueled I hit the SDW after an hour or so, another unending uphill and a strange lack of way marks were a little disconcerting, but with trusty guide book and rapidly drying boots I made it up Bignor Hill and along to Stane street Roman Road. At this point I realised I had made the mistake of turning two pages together in the guide book and had woefully under estimated how long this section would be. I had 8 miles to do not 3 before Cocking where I planed to meet Paul for tea in 45 minutes time. Aaagh. Then two M. bikers overtook me. They were not pleased to see me as it was the same pair I'd overtaken earlier in the morning. Some how they had got behind me again, I thought they'd got lost or dawdled over lunch. 1 mile later I realized it was because they were crap at hills, as I overtook them again on the way up Litleton down. OK so I was racing along when I reached the ridge again but strangely it took another 4 miles for them to catch up with me. I was impressed at my own turn of speed and managed to keep up with them for a further .5 mile or so before the two wheel advantage on downhill took them ahead of me only shortly before my rendezvous point with Paul. I was late but I had managed 8 miles off road in a hour and 10 min. To allow the now very disgruntled M. bikers a chance to get a head I took a pit stop for a flapjack and to admire the view for 10 min.
The last 8.5 miles of the day were tough, I was tired and the ridge ride gave way to continuous ups and downs. Meanwhile Paul was having trouble with the car brake pads dying on him and he had to abandon the thing in a local garage for repair and continue to South Harting by taxi. When I finally pulled up the last hill and headed down to the village I was an hour overdue and my right knee was hurting, possibly from pulling back on all the descents. We limped into our accommodation together again. The Mill House at South Harting is the best B&B I've ever stayed at. It is beautiful; our host had never seen a Uni in the flesh and was fascinated. The gardens could have been a stately home's and walking back from the Pub we saw a Badger. A good nights sleep and free range eggs for breakfast rounded the stay off nicely.
Wednesday, my final day riding, I had only to reach Winchester a mere 27 miles away. Today the big section was to be 15 miles before a lunch stop at Exton. After experimenting with the mountain bike trails in QE country park and surprising some squaddies on a training run I walked up Butser Hill, the highest point on the SDW in the company of some learning disabled lads on a school trip. They were bemused by the MUni but very polite holding open gates for me. Leaving them near a fake iron age hut at the hill top I pressed on along a sandy bridle way pleasantly shaded by trees. Passing HMS Mercury was fun, this land-locked Naval base appeared to be very relaxed with only 2 security chaps on the gate and a swarm of builders who were the first people all trip to ask why I wasn't juggling. Then I hit rambler country and got stared at lots. After slogging up to Old Winchester hill I had a nasty shock and got an extra 2 mile road ride/limp as my reward for wanting to stay legal. The route had been changed to keep horses and bikes off an iron age fort. Eventually I staggered into the pub garden to find Paul had been waiting hours. My right knee was killing me now and it was tempting to jump in the car and give up. "But only 12 miles to go," goaded Paul and thus provoked I downed some pain-killers nicked his Tubigrip knee support and set off on the final stretch.
Now riding up hill had become as painful as down so I had a fair old walk up Beacon Hill (201m high) before the way leveled out and I could ride most of the afternoon, hardly seeing a soul but admiring hedge-row flowers, crickets, butterflies and birds. Much of the final stretch to Winchester is an old green lane, many years ago this would have been a busy thoroughfare rattled over by carts and carriages. Now it was so overgrown in places that I had to walk or risk being thrown off by branches in my spokes. My solitude came to an end a mile outside Winchester where in the village of Chilcomb the SDW bridle way ends and only walkers are allowed to tramp the final mile across a wheat field. Us poor saps on one or two wheels are directed to the nearby A31, a busy dual carriage way full of lorries and other unpleasantness. I limped alongside the road to a foot bridge which would take into Winchester town and reflected on the irony that such a foul final mile should end a fantastic off road trek.
I'd done it, Eastbourne to Winchester, 100 miles ish in 3.3 days on a MUni. The trip had taken its toll, the car had broken down, Paul's left knee had broken down, my right knee was on the way out and my shoulders were aching. But the MUni was still going strong, not even a puncture or spoke broken. I'm impressed.
Next year? Maybe I'll do the coast to coast.