I follow Alastair Humphreys adventure website, especially the micro adventures which are all about leaving work as normal at the end of the day but instead of joining the normal routine of commuting home you catch a different train to somewhere new and different, armed with just a small tent. You wild camp, watch the stars, have a mini adventure. The next day, after watching the sun rise, you pack up, get the train back and join the rest of the world in the office for yet another day – and no-one would ever know…. I like this idea.
A lot of the micro adventures he talks about (he has published a book too) are all about just getting outside and doing things, having an adventure. Many times I know I can look at a map and just cannot think where to do, I hate riding my bike going round in big circles just for the sake of it, there has to be a purpose. One such micro adventure was the idea of going from the lowest point of your county to the highest.
This seemed like an idea for a purposeful ride. I knew already that living next to the sea I did not have too far to go to reach the lowest point, even more so that I had a feeling that just down the road it was possibly just below sea level. The highest point needed a bit of searching and amazingly the answer came from wikipedia (it seems there is a page for each county) and a place I had never heard of called Black Down. Sitting at 919 feet, hardly mountain climbing but I was somewhat glad about that.
There is something about hills, I don’t like them. No so much hills but climbs in general. I am lucky that my daily ride to work is completely flat, I was also lucky that growing up in the Fens my childhood bike rides were also very flat. I quite like that. You don’t have to venture too far inland though to find hills, infact the South Downs is a pretty hilly barrier between you and the rest of the UK and so at some point you have to venture over them. I thought then a ride up a hill might be something to get me more familiar and accepting of hills… maybe.
I set off at the normal time of around 7 in the morning, in bright sunlight. It’s been a while since my last real ride and last time it was still dark at such an early hour. There are not normally many cars around at this time on a Sunday, making the ride along the coast a nice one.
Sundays always seem to be cycle club days and so normally go past many. Strangely, even sadly maybe, you say a chirpy hello and some times you are ignored. Mostly the more lycra being worn by the other party the more you are ignored (unless you happen to be dressed likewise), however it’s not always the case. I passed a huge number of mountain bikers as I passed Goodwood, some large even sponsered by Wiggle going on. Marshals out on the road stopping traffic cyclists were set off in groups – chirpy hellos had by all. Further on down the road, after half a mile on the A27 dual carriage way, I double checked the map but it told me I was going the right way, I spotted more marshals with flags. They didn’t say a word or respond to my hello, I don’t know why. No other bikes around at this time so they must be setting up for some other bike event. Going round the corner and my attention was taken by an vintage armoured car coming down the road towards me. I was just thinking it was not something you saw every day on the road when suddenly a noise like an eagle swooping past me and a fully carbon racing bike sped past. Silent and yet strangely noisy, slight humming noise as it went past at a pretty fast speed. It was a bit of a surprise when a bit later down the road as I was plodding up a hill I noticed I was starting to catch him up! Possibly his view on hills was the same as mine!
As I plodded onwards and upwards, not up the final hill but just over the South Downs, a number of other racing bikes went passed. We were all going a lot slower up the hill although they were all going past me. The odd hello exchanged (nice blokes) but mostly a lot of panting and determination in their faces as I sat back and watched the pack go past. I continued plodding on upwards…
I did get to the top. The racing cyclists went off to the left (friendly marshals here) while I went straight on and down the other side of the hill. It wasn’t a massive steep hill, just sit back and take it at your own pace and you will soon get to the top. The journey down the other side was worth it, topping out at 38mph as my brakes started to squeal. I was somewhat glad I was not having to go the other way.
So concerned about slowing down to take a big bend at the bottom that I missed the GPS pointing its arrow to turn left down a small lane, so I continued a little while longer going up and down smaller hills until I noticed. I stopped that the entrance of Seaford College, somewhat bemused what it was doing near Petworth instead of being in Seaford. It seems when it was founded in 1884 it was based in Seaford but when war came their school got taken over by the government, forcing them to find temporary buildings in Worthing. After the war they never returned to Seaford but instead found large premises near Petworth just the other side of the South Downs, and here I was now.
I consulted an online map and found my mistake at the bottom of the hill, it’s never good having to retrace your steps and even worse then some of them include hills. I soon got back on track and while slightly concerned by the sign telling me the lane was a dead end I carried on anyway… trusting my maps. It did indeed come to an end but a signpost showed me to a footpath through the school grounds and my GPS seemed to agree. While a footpath it was actually a road through the school grounds, so I tentatively started to bike through. It had obviously been sports day the day before, a slightly different setup than the local village school, large marques and mobile BBQs were still remaining.
Impressive school, uneventful ride through, not a single person in sight and so I got through with no problem, only to then follow the footpath through a horse stud farm. Still road, but this time it was more of a stoney track with some serious flints just ready to puncture your tyres, a road for a Range Rover Sport I’m sure. Fortunately, my tyres did not let me down, a bumpy number of miles but the horses and sheep seemed friendly. I got slightly worried when I got to the end of the track, with public tarmac road in sight, but barred by a locked wooden fence. I was just pondering the possibility of lifting the bike over the top when suddenly it opened for me. It turned out to have a sensor fitted, a bit posher than your normal footpath gate!
I pushed on to Black Down, having a small break and snack before I got to the serious climb. This stop included a big drink of my home made “sports drink”, a recipe off the internet. A mixture of orange and lemon juice mixed with water, some salt and some honey. It didn’t taste too bad although putting freshly squeezed orange juice including bits, was not a good idea in a sports bottle I found out as it soon blocked it all up. Also, it is worth noting that any juice gets rather sticky, good job for having the second bottle containing water so I could clean my hands! Who knows if it was any good or not. When drinking normal sports drinks on a long ride I have never noticed any benefit and it was the same here (although a nice drink and a change from water or squash). In theory, all that orange juice and honey, then the salt – it should help somewhere.
Onwards to the base of the hill. It all started quite gradually with a long small gradient but enough that after a number of minutes you started to get a bit fed up with the constantly feeling of getting pulled backwards and yet visually no reason for it until you looked closer. From behind I could hear a couple of bikers catching up with me and were friendly and chatty when they caught up. We all kept together until we got to a fork in the road and I started to slow down with the hope that the GPS would point in either direction. The other two obviously noticed and suggested the way I wanted would be the right-hand fork, I agreed, why else would a cyclist be in this area if it was not to climb a large hill? We came to a downhill section where they left me while I too started to pick up speed. Their parting shouts were “if you went the other way it would be a 1 in 10 climb and you wouldn’t want that….”. I stopped. A bit of a Labyrinth moment (where the worm directs Sarah the wrong way). I checked the mapped and indeed they were right, there would be a 1:10 hill, but it was the hill I had come all this way for. I turned round and took the lefthand fork, I started the climb.
The road was quite a minor one that had seen better days and even with all this hot weather and sun it still managed to have a stream running down it. The 1:10 bit came up pretty quickly, a mixture of a low gear and standing on the pedals, and the lowest gear sitting. Clipped in shoes certainly made it easier, especially when standing, but it was not long until I had my first stop. An open top BMW was coming down the road and I had little choice but to pull over to let it past (handy excuse). The blokes in the car all shouted good luck as they went past, not a good sign. I started off again, lowest gear with the front wheel lifting off the ground on each pedal stroke. I was determined to do it and while it may have taken a little while I did get to the top in the end. A National Trust signpost telling me I had reached “base camp” for Black Down. The rest of the journey would be off road…
The photo, like all photos of steep hills, doesn’t do it justice. Mixed with the hill and soft mud of the bridal path, I soon had to get off and push. Bridal paths are good in that you can bike along them but when it is a dirt track the brides do churn it up quite a bit which in the summer makes it pretty bumpy and in the winter makes it a mud bath. The trees were thick, making the going underneath pretty boggy. I wondered if it would had been easier to have followed the road to the top, but it was too late to go back..
The top did arrive and the muddy bridal path turned into a more solid path which started to level off, the GPS showed me height wise I should be nearly there and soon I could see the view of sunny Sussex ahead and below me. As I sat down on the ground to take in my reached destination a family appeared out of breath having just walked up the other side. “You haven’t just biked up here have you?” they asked. Yes (I lied, well in theory I did bike up as much as I possibly could), infact I’ve come from the lowest point of West Sussex to the Highest, all the way from the sea. That impressed them, and it impressed me a bit too as a journey with a sense of purpose had been achieved.
Blackdown itself has a bit of history, like most hills do have (including of course a plane crash). Lord Tennyson built a house here to escape the crowds where he had fantastic views of West Sussex. Indeed, a the top you do feel like you are millions of miles away, even the constant throughput of walkers does not distract, maybe the hot summer day had something to do with it. The heat haze meant I was unable to the English Channel, instead I had to do with a view of the hazy South Downs instead, at least I would see where I had been.
I sat down at a placed called “The Temple of the Winds”, a ledge on the side which sheltered from the wind allowed good views and a place to rest. I bite to eat and drink, some time to recover and just take everything in before I started the journey home.
As with all trips, the journey home is never as good or interesting as the ride out. The interest is different and even when you have planed the route to go a different way it is never as good, just put your head down and pedal….
Number of miles: 72
Number of massive hills: loads
Max speed: 38mph
Number of cycling events spotted: millions
Number of tanks: 1