I had wanted to ride the south downs for a couple of years but either the weather or finding a partner got in the way or just some other excuse at the time. So with trying to do something big each month andmissing out on the good weather last weekend I said to myself this was the weekend to finally get around to doing the South Downs.
Waking up in the morning I was far from motivated to carrying out my challenge. I was just not up for it, my body felt tired and my mind was uninterested on being on a bike for 2 days and it was raining heavy on and off. Maybe the Youth Hostel is full and I would have my excuse. Nope. I found myself booked in for the evening so I quickly focused on getting my gear ready. With the rain and me just going slow I didn’t leave the house till 10.30am. Let’s hope for an uncomplicated day, as delays would surely drag me into riding past dark.
The plan, which was hatched up lastyear, was to leave my house in Chandlers ford and head to the South Downs trail (which leaves out of Winchester and travels over 100miles to Eastbourne) and follow to Truleigh Hill YHA, which was approx65miles away (I thought this to be a good distance to travel). Sleep and head back the next day. So 2 big demanding days of endurance.
The first section to Upham was mainly roads, although this at least made good time and warmed up the legs and body. From here instead of cutting east along moreroads to join up the SDW (South Downs Way). I went north on the Monarchs Way trail, although longer, I could at least get off road. Half way up here the gamekeeper stopped me and highlighted that this was a footpath so I begrudgingly took to my feet. It was only a mile and it was all uphill so I was happy to have a stretch.Although I did have an extended stop talking with her husband on the trail about Hungarian Vizlas (he had one and I want one).
Gaining the next bend I was on the SDW. It felt good to be on the trail and hitting my first proper slope up to Beacon Hill. A fast ride down to Exton where I had an early lunch sheltering from a downpour. Then it was back riding up an endless hill to Old Winchester Fort. This was going to be a common theme for the day, lots of hills, lots of ups and downs and not enough flats to get the pace going.
After an age (3 and a half hours I think) I arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park (a southern mecca for Mtn bike riders). This was one of my daily targets as it’s basically a third of the way. I was still feeling lethargic and unmotivated and getting here had been hard and slow going. So my self doubting instinct was telling me I had no chance of getting this done in 8hrs (my aim). Over 10hrs was looking realistic, ouch. A dog walker and 3 rain showers had though held me up so the only positive light I could shed was that I get on with riding and not stop forany chats or rain. Finding my way through QECP proved frustrating. Lots of trails and lots ofsigns and looking back I took the longer, hillier way through (a horse route).
Looking up from my front wheel I did start to notice the breathtaking countryside and the ever-present brightening skies. Feeling better I was enjoying a long down nearing Beacon Hill when I got caught in a chalk and rock rut and trying to pull myself out the back tyre slide out from me impacting me hard on the greasy chalk incline. Grazed and bruised I brushed myself down. My own fault going too fast on a slippy uneven surface using my untried and untested clip in SPDs. The worst to come out of this was that I had busted one of the rucksack shoulder clips and so had to carry on with my sack swinging unevenly over my back.
Obviously not thinking clear I then took a wrong turn down an extremely steep road and not wanting to climb back up I managed to traverse down some back roads to Cocking. Where I managed to get a cold bottle of coke and a chocolate cake. I met Nick here, a very interesting traveller with a good view on life, not only was he hiking the SDW and wild camping each night but he had done an amazing amount of travelling. From hiking through Mexico to Canada to planning to do the Continental Divide, with an ultra marathon in the middle. Great stuff, I wish him well. As much as I could have stayed talking, push on I must as I had already broken my policy of not talking to anyone.
Feeling refreshed and knowing that I was more than over half way I set off upwards again, 2kms and 800ft of ascent, which killed off what renewed energy I had. In-between the steep valleys of the South Downs are the ridgelines you gain access to. These vary but in the main span severalmiles linking up many hills over vast undulating terrain allowing you to see the vast countryside all around. With the body tiring, the weather cooling and time accelerating by I ambled past a water tap and eagerly filled up my water bottle.The tap had a sign stating the next water station in the hamlet of Botolphs 6miles away and reviewing the map showed the YHA only 2 or 3miles further. The end was close.
The next ridgeline was noticeable for a couple of things. First, that you could see the high-rise buildings of Worthing and Brighton on the coast and second, the wind. This had been in my face for what felt the whole journey. Now, with the sun setting it was not only hampering meforward but also was getting under my skin and making me feel pretty cold. This was the last ridgeline though as looking across the valley I could see a number of radio masks which had to be Truleigh hill. So just one more hill to go, appropriately called Beeding hill.
Day 1 : 68miles, 8000ft Ascent and Decent over 9.5hrs.
Exhausted, I slumped into the YHA which was strangely full of Chinese tourists and booked myself in and ordered dinner. ‘Sorry, but we have just finished food’. Bugger. ‘So what other food do you do?’ I asked. ‘We have nothing!’ Despondently, I saw the booze on sale and got myself set for a wine and a snickers dinner. Then, she pepped in that I could order from the takeaway menu. Just 40mins to wait for my Chicken tikka masala. Perfect timing to get cleaned up and settled in.
I slept pretty well seeing that I was sharing with 5 other blokes, must of been the bottle of red. A nice full english and I was on the trails again for 8.30am. I couldn’t hang around today as I had an evening wedding bash to get to. With this in mind I decided that I would take a few road detours to try and save a little time here and there.Weather wise today was looking more promising. Although in the morning sun the first major hill was a strength-sappingevent. But once on the ridgeline I was definitely feeling much more up for it today and powered along the way.
Today was more noticeable with people on the Downs, yesterday I literally saw a few people. But today there were all sorts of riders, runners and walkers enjoying a summer’s morning out in the countryside and I was ticking off the hills in double quick time.
Passing the third of the way mark I approached a steep hill and ridgeline that I had missed yesterday and so had to do it and not take an easier road by pass. The hill was long and arduous, not helped by the unnerving crunching noise my leftknee constantly makes after 5 minutes of peddling up hill and the only seemingly way to stop this is to get out of my saddle and straighten and stretch my leg. This has 2 downfalls, one I slow down to a wobbly meander and two I have to sit down again on my ever so sore backside. So, after a great descent and missing another turn (nearly the same place as yesterday, d’oh) I popped out of the woods to a secluded pub. Noexcuses needed and after a nice pint (of orange) and bag of nuts I was again off climbing uphill to get back onto the SDW. It was during this nice meandering section that I came upon Nick again. He couldn’t believe I had got to him so soon and I couldn’t believe he wasn’t in Winchester. But he had time on his hands and had found a nice dry barn to sleep in the previous night, to good and opportunity to miss. After another pleasant chat it was time to push on. I had thought it another hour to QECP and so was pleased to get there in half that time and so treated myself to a sandwich and coke.
From here on it was all about getting home the quickest and easiest way. Sounds simple, butwhen you only have a map covering the SDW then the details on any shortcuts will have to be from imagination. The country lanes all tend to span anage and having no idea where I was I took a southerly turn to Soberton (sounded a good place to head to) and talking to one of the not so sober locals in the tavern. They sent me back the way I came. A little downbeat as at the junction I went back to I had contemplated which way to go for a while and it’s always a bugger to know you got it wrong. Onwards you go and with a couple more questionable turns I was back on my map and on the Morestead road and taking the pleasing turn to Upham. I spoke to a local here who was impressed in what I had down these past 2 days and couldn’t quite believe when I said I was nearly home. 11 road miles is but a short ride in comparison.
Day 2 65miles circa 7000ft of Ascent and descent over 9hrs
It was good getting home, especially to be out of the biting wind, it was incessant throughout the two days and was an ever-present factor on getting on my nerves. But a great trip that I have wanted to do and now I have done it. I started with a little apprehension and was pretty downbeat starting off. But a better second day and completing it feeling both physically and mentally in good order have made the trip wholly worthwhile. Testing myself over an unknown distance over unfamiliar terrain now gives me more scope on being able to contemplate further multi day challenges. As a bonus I had ample time to rest up and go out for the evening reception, though I did come home early.
Total: 133miles 15,000ft of Ascent and descent over 18.5hrs.