The South Downs Way is a great off-road ride for mountain bike with spectacular countryside, some challenging climbs and plenty of places to stay on route. It’s around 100 miles in total, so easily do-able in three or four days. We opted for the latter as wanted more time to stop and savour the scenery (and local beers) on the way. It’s even achievable in a day – we met one fit young chap who was reviewing a new bike and had ridden the entire route one day and was re-tracing his steps the next. Mad, but admirable!
The South Downs Way is one of 15 national trails in England Wales and runs from the ancient cathedral city of Winchester in the west to the dramatic coastline of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head at Eastbourne in the east. The cycle route is broadly the same as the walking path, but you will find a few sections where the routes diverge. Most people travel from west to east (with the prevailing wind behind them) but for logistical reasons we started at Eastbourne and this didn’t really cause us any problems.
We carried all our gear with us and as usual I took far too much. I’d fitted two rear panniers to my Trek 4500 while my friend Matthew Webb managed to get all his necessaries into a small rucksack. I really don’t like carrying weight on my back while cycling, hence the panniers, but on this occasion it was the wrong decision. Climbing hills with heavy panniers fitted to a standard rack on a mountain bike can be near impossible at times. On the very steep sections I could hardly keep the front wheel on the ground, it was rather like playing Buckaroo! I’d advise a mountain-bike specific set up, or do what Matthew did, go light. It always pays.
Here’s my journal of the trip undertaken in April 2012:
Day One (Friday April 6th): Eastbourne to Telescombe. 22.13 miles. 1736ft of climb.
Eastbourne YHA is self-catering, which we’d failed to research, so cycled down to Eastbourne Pier, which is very near the start of the South Downs Way and found an old seafront building trying to re-capture its former grandeur with a Belgian theme – all Trappist beers and Tin Tin.
Fortunately they also did full English Breakfasts, so we started our epic ride sat outside on Eastbourne seafront in glorious morning sunshine looking seaward and drinking tea and coffee. Contemplated staying all day, but the trail beckoned so headed west past impressive white-washed hotels and residences built in a time when the seafront town was de rigour.
Today it is like many other former coastal retreats, trying hard to find a new identify in a world where Easyjet will whisk you to Faro or Barcelona for £50 return. But bathed in sunlight with the buildings gleaming and neatly planted flowers in beds along the front, its hard not to have some hope for the future. But if they want to encourage cyclists they’ll have to improve – despite a wide prom, we were forced onto the road by numerous signs warning of £500 fines for taking to the pavement.
Past the Martello Tower and then as the coastal road turns inland the SDW begins with a steep climb on grass. Unfortunately our plans to ride the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head were thwarted as that part of the route is only open to walkers (do they think we will inadvertently cycle off the edge?) so we headed inland and were very soon aware just what this route would entail – hills, hills and more hills! The cyclist we met on the train the night before had told us how flat it all was – but thinking back she was on a road bike – and most of the roads are in the valleys. We would be following the contours all the way to Winchester.
Quickly realised a mountain bike carrying panniers has one major problem when climbing – it is far too light at the front end and if the slope becomes too steep it simply leaps in the air, trying to perform a wheely. I thought I had packed as lightly as possible but was already beginning to think of what I could have left behind. How did Matthew get away with just a small saddle bag and a backpack?
Climbed on past Willingdon Golf Club and then into Jevington a pretty little village whose claim to fame is the invention of the Banoffi Pie! Bizarre, you’d have thought it would have originated from an exotic Italian resort, but no – all down to a little Sussex village. Had it been apple crumble or spotted dick I might have been tempted to stop.
On arriving in Jevington we found a pretty little tea-room so we sat sipping tea and coffee just a few miles into our journey in a sunny garden surrounding by bird-feeders and clinking tea-cups. Could there be a more British scene? Then it was more hill climbing onto the village of Alfriston where we had stayed last year on the London to Paris run. We approached across the water- meadows along side the Cuckmere River, although it is more like a stream at this point. Great view of the church overlooking the floodplain with some kind of fete well underway in the church yard. It reminded me more of France than the UK. A very pretty village and an inviting pub in the High Street, but decided we should push on.
As usual on these trips its the people you meet on route that make it really special – this morning a chap from Swindon who had come down in advance of his wife to spend a few days cycling around. He’d ignored the signs and headed for Beachy Head! Also met a couple from Paris who were weighed down with panniers, but obviously used to cycling distances – they were headed for the Brighton area – and thence up to London. Beyond Alfriston you are really heading into Downs country – lots of undulating ups and downs and great views both north – and to the south of Newhaven.
Crossed the railway line at South Ease station level crossing and then over the River Ouse on a bridge and we’ve finished our first OS map! This last section has been great – all downhill sweeping down a field to South Ease – fantastic. From here we were very close to our nightstop at Telescombe YH so headed north to Rodmell and the oddly named Aberggaveny Tavern for a couple of pints of Dark Star and some crisps. By the time the sun began to go down it was getting pretty cold so headed off to Telescombe – another steep climb – but at least it warmed us a little!
One of the YHA smaller hostels – it reminded me of Clun in size – but that had the advantage of creating a warm cosy atmosphere where people have no choice but to talk to each other – here more than many places since there was no pub nearby. We had meant to cycle down to Telescombe Cliffs to find a pub for dinner but the thought of going out on the bikes again had little appeal so used the self-catering kitchen and cooked our own dinner – donated rice from a fellow cyclist and a tin of Happy Shopper chicken curry which went down a treat following our exertions!
Very pleasant talking to the volunteer warden (from St Albans) and her daughter Rachel and fellow walked and cyclists. The volunteer warden scheme sounds interesting – after some training you can run a hostel for a week or two with just your travelling expenses covered. Although it means cleaning in the mornings and meeting a greeting in the evening you are pretty free for the afternoon and Rachel and her mum had been doing this for around eight years.
Day Two (Saturday April 7th): Telescombe to Amberley 34.82 miles. 3238ft of climb
Some interesting local facts gleaned from the Telescombe Youth hostel. Apparently Virginia Woolf drowned in the River Ouse. Here’s another – Banks Cottages – aka the Telescombe Youth Hostel were trusted to the YHA by ‘Gorhams Gifts’ who managed the trust of Ambrose Gorham who was a horse trainer and bookmaker. It seems the whole village (which is not very large) was involved in the horse-racing business and with his Grand National winnings he purchased land and property in the area and on his death in 1933 bequethed his estate for charitable purposed.
Matthew made up some porridge before leaving and I feasted on Eccles cakes and Special K bars (all the top cyclists recommend this diet) but later in the day we were to regret our lack of a good breakfast.
Was late leaving Telescombe – for some reason Matthew’s bike had decided to deflate a tyre overnight in the bike shed. Weather not as bright as yesterday but good weather for cycling and some notable landmarks from our high vantage points on the ridge – Ditchling Beacon (fortunately didn’t have to climb it in its entirety this time!) and the Devil’s Punchbowl.
No-where obvious to stop for lunch and after Matthew suffered a second puncture it soon became clear we were behind on mileage today with a lot ahead of us. Matthew had his lowest point of the trip – particularly when we began to worry that we wouldn’t make dinner that evening. Compared to road riding the miles tick by so slowly. On the road bike I’m knocking off at least 13 – 15 miles an hour and they soon mount up. On the mountain bike on a steep climb speeds can be down to 3 or 4 miles an hour, sometimes even less.
But there are always high spots – with Brighton and Hove Albion’s bright new stadium nestling in the valley to our right we stopped and watched people engaged in what can only be described as a cross between handi-gliding and kite-jumping with the ‘flyer’ sat in a sling, legs facing forward with a large canopy above. Looking very difficult to master and more than once a launch was aborted as the ‘kite’ bellowed and then fell to earth enveloping the rider in a tangle of material and cord. But when they got it right and they began to soar with the thermals the appeal was clear – turning gently skywards with the effortless ease of a buzzard. Magical.
Fortunately after our afternoon low point morale the miles started to build up so by early evening I was confident enough to phone ahead and book a table at the Bridge Inn in Amberley just opposite our accommodation at Cherry Tree Cottage in the Houghton Bridge area, right by the station. It was in Amberley that my son Matt and I finished our walk from Winchester several years ago and I started to recognise the place – lovely village that could possibly be the ‘real’ Ambridge perhaps!!
In the end we did around 35 miles today – far more than we thought we had ahead of us – and we suffered through lack of a proper breakfast – it was certainly a lesson to be learnt – low food intake = low morale! But Boodie at the Cherry Tree (she got her nickname as a child and it stuck) made us very welcome with hot tea and a plate of biscuits and after a hot shower and a second cuppa we soon felt human again and headed across the road to the Bridge Inn for dinner.
This was just the place to lift our spirits! Fantastic busy pub with real ale, a real fire, friendly dog (looked like a Briard but was a labradoodle) and a great menu. Earlier in the day when the chips were down and the climbs were steep I had fantasised about eating deep-fried brie – and here was camembert, melted yet still in its box with a dish of cranberries – delicious. Matthew had a plate of sardines and then we both tucked into 8oz steaks which were first class and surrounded by chips, mushroom and salad – a plate so large that neither of us could even contemplate a pudding! Oh and they served Doom Bar. A perfect pub!
Waddled back to Cherrytree full and happy!
Day Three: Amberley to East Meon 31.22 miles 3080ft of climb.
Easter Sunday began at Cherry Tree Cottage with a Cadbury’s Creme Egg greeting us at the breakfast table in the conservatory! After last night’s dinner quite a surprise we could eat anything but both managed cereal, toast and a full English – no danger of us making yesterday’s mistake!!
Weather changeable with some light rain but this eased off but the time we left and stayed dry all day. A vintage car rally was in full throttle in the village and great to cycle to the village shop to the sound track of an Alvis and Austin 7. It is very much like Ambridge here – all terribly terribly nice – the kind of England you thought had died out.
“They should call this Chalkshire” my son Matt had remarked when we’d walked the route years earlier – and he was quite right – it was everywhere as Matthew found to his cost later in the day. Wet chalk becomes incredibly slippery and when riding a little too fast down a steep incline he hit a particularly slimy patch – and he was off. I came round the bend to find him standing by his bike looking rather
battered and bruised with small streaks of blood on his forehead and shins. A quick wipe down and some savlon revealed no deep cuts – but he’d taken a hard hit on his thigh and developed a bruise the size of a tennis ball. We were much more careful after that.
Soon we were hunkering into another big climb (these were no surprise now) and this time it was my turn to have technical troubles – losing a bolt on the rack which had to be replaced and later a flint puncture which was so severe the tyre deflated in seconds. But the slime tyres worked a miracle – a push to the top of the and a few sessions of pumping and it eventually stayed up fine – astonishing considering the flint had even ripped a small gash in the tyre itself!
A good meal the night before and hearty breakfast left is in much better spirits today and we even stopped for lunch of tea/coffee home made cake and sausage rolls at a farm shop near Cocking. Finding herself on the South Downs Way route the enterprising farmer’s wife had set up a little shop – so right next to where we were eating the sausage rolls were her rare breed Oxford pigs – brown and black and very entertaining. ‘You can waste a lot of time watching them,’ her husband said – and I could see why!
Met an amazing cyclist today – he came along just after Matthew’s fall and stopped to see if we needed any help. He was on an extraordinary green Genesis bike with no suspension, 29 inch wheels and an internal gearing system – a Fortitude Adventure with an Alfine gear system – a very pure bike. He was cycling Winchester to Eastbourne in a day and we discovered he’d done Eastbourne to Winchester the day before!
Stopped to look at some fascinating Bronze Age burial mounds at the Devils Jumps – the best preserved on the Downs apparently! Another long day – but much more confident about our riding today. Headed through the Queen Elizabeth Country park and then under the A3 before (trying) to tackle Butser Hill – we both got some way up, but it just got too steep and couldn’t get traction so pushed the bikes to the top!
Around 30 miles by the time we got to The Sustainability Centre at East Meon. The last time I’d been here it was an abandoned old Navy communications base – HMS Mercury – now it was a centre for Permaculture with Yurts, Tepees, veg gardens, a water filtration system, solar power – and chickens! But like the group of friends from Lewes who had walked from Winchester and arrived at the same time as us, we avoided the camping and opted instead for the warmth of the ‘Eco-lodge’ instead – the old Navy block. Not very sustainably we all ordered a take-away curry to be delivered – so celebrated the end of our third day on the trail with prawn and chicken curries, poppadoms, aloos and nans!
Day Four: East Meon to Winchester (wet and windy) 22.46 miles 1520ft of climb
Breakfast at the Sustainability Centre. Rain!
Fortunately a shortish day on the bike today – around 20 miles and a good job considering the poor conditions with continuous rain making the going very slippery at times. But both in very good spirits – few really steep climbs, although one long incline on tarmac which went on for an age! Saw a pair of buzzards today which was fantastic – something that may not even have been a possibility when Matt and I walked this six years ago.
Due to the rain made very few stops today – but did pull up at a farm after about 12 miles to chat to a farmer and his father busy fettling and restoring two old Saabs – one the father had bought new in 1972 and an old (and apparently rare) combi – one of only four in the country. They also had 900 outside – at least two of the cars had done half a million miles each and the 1972 was still working for a living!
The downhill approach to Winchester was welcome, but hardly scenic – alongside a busy road, the across a bridge and through the suburbs – but we ended up at the Cathedral as the bells were ringing out for Easter Monday. A quick photo from a friendly passer by and then we headed to the High Street for a hot pasty and tea and coffee (we were far too filthy to sit in a pub!) We must have looked quite extraordinary among the shoppers.
Then hopped on the train back to Waterloo – a final handshake on the Embankment and Matthew headed North while I went East Headed home muddy and tired but elated. Another challenge completed successfully and a new achievement – a journey on a mountain bike.