I now had the knobbly tyres on the Dawes and was all set for a bit of off road action. The Dawes isn’t particularly high geared and so it was good that the route started and stopped almost on my doorstop. Time to explore the South Downs, a land feature that impacts everyone’s life living nearby, be it finding a suitable road through or up and over, to the affects on the local weather meaning the difference between sun or snow from those living just miles down the road, but “the other side”. It could be seen as disappointing that my knowledge and experience of the multitude of byways and paths criss crossing the hills is almost zero.
Mountain bikes are something I have not ridden a great deal of and so it was at first a bit strange as a I made my way down the initial 3 miles on roads until I got to the Southdowns Way trial. The noise of the tyres and my pedals turning frantically fast in order to keep my normal pace, I soon slowed and and settled into the new experience. The Southdowns Way goes from Winchester 100 miles to Eastbourne and is a popular route for walkers and off road bikers, almost every week there will be someone doing the challenge on various modes of transport or different ways of walking. It is a bit like JOGLE in that aspect (a tad shorter!). It is again, pretty bad that in the 24 years I have had this on my doorstep, the most I have ever done is seen the sign posts on the side of the road as the trial crosses in various places. Not totally true as I have in the past gone from Devil’s Dyke to Styening, but that was just maybe 4 miles out of 100.
The history of the route must be interesting, being the A27 of the Mesolithic era, taking the higher ground instead of the lower boggy route. To proof this, I would be passing three historic “rings”, that of Chanctonbury ring, Cissbury ring, and Lancing ring – all near each other of differing size, all proof that maybe thousands of years ago this would had been a very busy route and place to be. Today the evidence exists, and for a country trail it remains surprisingly busy on the hot sunny day that I had chosen. While I was initially heading from the East, the British Heart Foundation Mountain Bike Ride was taking place in the opposite direction, meaning I had the gates opened for me by marshals, but at some points I would have to wait on one side to let small groups by.
I got the the path and my first hill, I prepared by clicking down gears to something more suitable. This was accompanied by the noise of clicking, slipping and general grinding of chain and cogs until the bike suddenly stopped. While preparing the bike earlier I had thought I had solved the gearing problem and the slipping, but it seemed maybe not. I looked at the back wheel and noted how the chain was now wedged between the spokes and the largest sprocket, a dangerous place to be. Fortunately, because of the low gear I was trying to select, the chain was quite loose (maybe still too loose I wonder), and it was easy to put ride, I made a mental note to adjust that when I could stop in a more suitable place. I carried on, the gears slipping now and then but they always settled down. Something that would be the case for the rest of the ride, I figured out later on that it was not so much slipping but the indexing was out meaning it was having problems moving from one to another without some final tweak. I got used to it, but it does need sorting, I am not totally convinced that everythign gear-wise on the bike is matching and suitable with each other, everything still seems floppy and not very exact.
I got up the first off road hill with no problem where at the top I found a massive pig farm! I had seen this from a distance in the car many times and I always wondered if the pigs ever minded being up so high and open to the elements during the winter months. Today though it was hot and sunny, the pigs were mostly sun bathing or getting up to watch the bikers and walkers as they passed. “Do not feed the pigs” the signs said as the path made its way through the middle.
The fun of this route was now starting to take place, high up I was able to see over Worthing and Brighton to the sea from one direction, over to the North Downs many miles away in the other, with Sussex sitting in the middle. I had a bird’s eye view of Steyning and Bramber and able to pick out landmarks but from a totally different perspective. The only downside was the amount of work and effort needed for the path only to find you have only covered one or two miles as you reach a road crossing and familiar ground.
I got to my first ring, the first hill fort on the ride, Chanctonbury ring, a hill fort from around the Iron Age, and evidence suggests Roman activity later on. Down below on the roads, I used to drive past this every day to and from work, a familiar landmark due to the clump of beech trees planted in 1790 within the ring, damaged badly in the 1987 storm but looking quite healthy and restored once again. Like a lot of these rings, myths and story telling are the key, the suggestion that if you run round the ring seven times anti-clockwise (it is always anti-clockwise with these things) then the devil will pop up and offer you a bowl of soup in exchange for your soul. The other tale is that if those woman who sleep within the ring for the night will have increased fertility, so a pagan dogging site too it seems.
The views to the North are fantastic at this point and the area pretty calm as I made my way past, on my way to the next ring. Cissbury Ring means business, the largest hill fort in Sussex and second largest in England, Iron Age in date and abandoned, re-used a number of times right up until the Second World War. The outside wall/bank is a mile long circle and being one of the highest points in the area you are meant to see all the way to the Isle of Wright on a clear day. The Devil is included in the tales once again, this time suggesting the hill of the result of him digging out Devil’s Dyke as he tried to make the sea flood Sussex (and it’s churches), the resulting soil had to land somewhere….
I have been to Cissbury before, by car, for a day’s walking but only from the other side at from there is just seemed like a hill with some lumps on top. From this direction however it looked a lot grander. You could imagine coming along this same path thousands of years ago, a main highway from one hill fort to another, being greeted by the large hill and climb up to the busy and noisy community inside. You would hope you would be let in, otherwise a night out in the wild open you feared of muggers and robbers, even your live might be at risk from those outside with you… For now, I didn’t venture inside, I took the ancient road past the base of the hill and onwards towards my final hill fort.
My guide book was serving me well and it goes to show how little the countryside and it’s many trails change over the years. The booked was dated 1990 and yet when it said “follow wooden fence on your right”, or “at cross roads head towards the large tree”, amazingly after all that time there still remained the wooden fence or the large tree. It was interesting out here, long lost cross roads, major intersections of thousands of years ago, mostly lost and forgotten about now apart from dog walkers and off road cyclists. Many of these could be the A27/A23 interchange in thousands of years to come for our future countryside explorers (with their hover boards). My final track would be a “Public Byway” which I always thought were country roads not quite fit for cars but if you had a Landrover then give it a go and see how you get on. This byway seemed a bit overgrown and pearched on the side of a hill it would be pretty hard going by a 4×4, maybe a small thin tractor instead. Indeed, the deep ruts suggested some form of farm tractor must have had used it plenty of times at some point. Being near Lancing I started to meet up with plenty of dog walkers at this point showing that I might feel like I was in the middle of the countryside on top of a hill when in fact I was just minutes away from the nearest Lancing Kebab shop… if one was needed in a hurry.
Lancing has a big hill with a load of trees on top in a clump, all very much similar to the two previous hill forts, but I am not sure if there ever was a hill fort here. It was however a branch off a Neolithic road going along the coast, a number of Bronze Age tools have been found. Just slightly north, Roman remains have been found to suggest there was a temple along with some Iron Age fort remains. There is a clump of trees, and where that happens there has to be a fort at some time it seems, so lets assume it was an important place at some point in the past. Now it is a nature reserve with a Dew Pond and old chalk pits, even the remains of an old windmill if you look close.
It had taken me a good hard 2 hours + to do this journey, and yet I had never gone more than 5 miles away from home give or take. The bike had faired well, the gears were dodgy but I was getting used to them, the number of times I had to stop and swear had not been that many – although enough to want to correct the problem before next time. Once at the top of this hill, all that was left was to follow the track and then the road down the hill and straight back into Lancing – I was sitting in the kitchen having a cup of tea within 5 minutes.
Number of dodgy gear changes: lots
Number of pigs on hills: quite a number
Number of dogging pagens: none spotted
Number of miles: 16