I had been thinking about it for ages and then all of a sudden the end of summer was appearing, if I didn’t do this now then it would be another year. There was no reason not to do it either, the bike was now ready and all I had to really do was to book a train ticket to Winchester and jump on it with the bike. I found a great about the route a while back at http://www.bikedowns.co.uk/index.html, it is now quite old and dated but was a great read and help.
An evening of route planning was made all that bit harder by my laptop and it’s failed upgrade the night before. I had, with little time or effort, reinstalled it and with the power of cloud computing it meant I was able to get up and running again (who stores files locally these days…). One thing I can’t do on the cloud is sending and receiving GPX files to the GPS, this is quite old fashioned and uses a serial cable which itself is even more old fashioned and so uses a usb to serial converter. When I was on Windows8 it used to be a pain as the latest driver for such a thing didn’t work which wasn’t a problem as an older driver did. The annoying thing was everyso often Windows automatically updating the driver back to the latest all the time! On Linux there was no such problem, just point to the relevant /dev device. So re-installing the mapping software (qlandcarte) should had taken just minutes, I could then load up the GPX route file from ridewithgps.com and then sent down the serial cable to the Garmin eTrex GPS – the old but very reliable, cheap, super long battery life, GPS of choice. For some reason, the install didn’t come with the relevant Garmin drivers which prevented me from doing this. The evening was coming to an end, I had no time to play about and work out what was going on, to search for the drivers and put in the right directory, I just wanted something to work.
The quick solution at the late hour of the day was to take out the SSD harddrive from the laptop and replace it with its old mechanical harddrive I had kept from a couple of years ago. I knew that last time I used it the GPS software was working. After a speedy harddrive swap and less speedy wait for the computer to reboot, my familiar desktop from two years ago appeared on the screen, I loaded up the mapping software and I was able to download the route to the GPS. (Since doing this I have attempted a number of times to get the mapping software to work properly with no success. I can get it to upload/download but it core dumps before it completes, soI have instead now installed GPSBabel and just need some spare hours to get familiar with it).
My problems were still not over. The eTrex can plot up to 125 points per route which means I never go for turn-by-turn routing as done by the RideWithGPS website but instead do my own point-to-point, milestone-to-milestone lines which does just as good, if not better as I don’t really want to be dictated all the time by GPS. This has never been a problem before, but with the planned route being offroad I had put in a lot of extra points around some of the trickier bits, which had taken me over the limit. The evening had turned into very early morning, the last plotted point was only 5 miles from home, I decided I would be able to find my way home for the last 5 miles – I went to bed.
The next evening I bought the train ticket after work with the plan for the next day to get the first train through which would be just after 05:30 the next morning. With the early start I hopped for it to allow me a full day and not a need to race against time (and daylight), and also the expectation that the train would be pretty empty and so easier with a bike. It would be the first time I would be including public transport into a planned ride. The rest of the evening I prepared bits on the bike. I moved a bottle cage from the tourer to this bike and likewise for the GPS holder. During the day I had bought snacks from the shop, including a packet of rather sugary strawberry creme snack bars, the sort that you know must be just like a Kendle Mint Cake but bright purple instead (and very cheap). With everything packed, a slight nervousness on being able to follow the route, I went to bed.
In automatic zombie mode I woke up, force fed myself some breakfast and a hot cup of coffee and left the house in the darkness for the short ride (2 minutes!) to the train station. I had put lights on the bike the evening before as I thought it might not quite be sunrise for when I left. I was also not too sure about how long it would take me to do the calculated 60 miles. While hoping I would not still be on the Downs when darkness fell, not only because it would be dark and harder, but also because it will mean I would have had been biking for 12 hours or so, having lights meant it would be one worry less.
The train arrived two minutes late, which seeing as it was the first one for the day seemed pretty amazing, although being Southern Trains it was quite an achievement to even turn up. There would be a change of trains near the end of the 1.5 hour journey with minimal time, I hopped the train would make up the lost time by going just a little bit faster to catch up. The train was empty, the scruffy and disinterested looking train conductor was the only other person in the carriage for cycles. He looked fed up and he slouched on his seat looking at Facebook inbetween stations while I watched out of the window as daylight was starting to appear and we pushed through the mist of the low lying countryside of Arundel and Ford. A change at Eastleigh onto a posher looking SouthWest train, a bit of a run up and down the stairs of the bridge as that train rolled in just seconds after the trian I was on. This train was pretty empty too, but the conductor seemed a lot smarter and happier, he said hello and even checked my ticket. I stood with my bike for the 10 minute journey up to Winchester.
In a very sleepy Winchester I found my way out of the train station, through the town centre and located the start of the South Downs Way. Depending on what you read there are different places to start, the cathedral, the old mill, or the statue of King Alfred the Great. Many sources suggest the statue is a good place to start, has a nice photo opportunity of happy looking eager cyclists with a viking battling leader background. The vikings were a bit of a threat and so King Alfred set up a number of military centres with Winchester being the main one. He fended off the vikings and because he was not all about battles and killing, he was a bit clever too and was able to get the formation of the English nation started off in his spare time (he possibly had to use a bit more than just his spare time for that bit, but he’s not called Great for nothing). I took the photo of the bike, the statue, the hills in the background covered in the early morning mist. It seemed a popular meeting point for cyclists and there was starting to be a small gathering of road cyclists by the time I left searching for the first signpost and the route that I would follow for the rest of the day to home.
I had worried the night before how easy it would be for navigation but I soon found my first signpost pointing me in the right direction. It seemed strange that the start of this unique trail should start with such little fanfare, just a small sign pointing the way. Nothing to declare the start (or end), no big banners or a resident marching band. Instead, a small non-descript pointer on a signpost. I played the fanfare in my head as I set off in the right direction down the road. I passed a small National Cycle Route 89 sign, easy to miss if you blinked and again such a small announcement of the start of the trail, still no marching bands. The GPS suggested to turn left up ahead, and a South Downs Way signpost confirmed it. After initial worries about navigation these signposts would become my frequent friend for the rest of the day. The climb started and soon the road turned into a track, the journey had started.
The path goes upwards and over the M3, while walkers go across the fields cyclists at taken along the overgrown path on the A31 and then quickly off to a small country road which the only direction is up, again. I settled in my gear of choice (the lowest!) and the pace (the slowest!) and slowly started up the hill. The small road turned back into track until finally it turned to the edge of a field with the low sun in the east blinding you as you climbed up the shallow gradient of the hill. At the top I met three other cyclists just started on their journey all having a five minute rest to catch their breath and no doubt to take in the views. They were destined to reach Littlehampton for the end of the day before setting off to Eastbourne the next day. I bid farewell, I thought I would bump into them many times throughout the day and yet I never saw them again.
Now that I had reached the top I had a pleasant sunny ride through across the fields and along paths within the trees, making good speed. This should all be quite straight forward then, just keep this up for the next 60 miles and I’ll be home within no time. The choice of bike had been good (over the tourer) as I felt comfortable with the large tyres and front suspension. The gears all clicked into place which had been another small worry having spent so much time to get them to work. The fields and tracks were fun to be riding along, taking the bumps with no problems. Going maybe a bit too fast as I flew through a dip and up the other side, rear pannier flying detaching itself from the bike and landing behind me… I stopped (good brakes) and went back to collect it. The rear rake on the Dawes came with the bike and is nothing special, just a thin lightweight rack. It is a bit too thin to hold the pannier on properly and the comforting rattle as I rode along was always the reassurance that it was still attached. I refitted the pannier, I didn’t want to take chances as I moved my emergency cash and credit card to the front bag. I continued on my way, through farm yards and along more tracks.
I passed through farms and at one point what looked like to be the aftermath of a festival, lots of caravans and toilet blocks and piles of rubbish ready to be collected. I joined up with the road once again and was happy to be the only person around for miles, until a car appeared coming the opposite direction. The road was narrow and so it did mean stopping and moving into the side so we could both go past. Not a problem, but then it happened again, and again, and then again but this time with a large van. Had I found the biggest country lane ratrun in the county and everyone in Hampshire was trying to make their way down here, maybe they were all late for the festival I had seen the remains of. All was answered at the end of the road at the t-junction with one way blocked with road closed signs and yellow diversion signs pointing down the way I had come. It seems the car drivers were just as surprised to be in that small lane as much as I had been.
The left the road and went along what looked like someone’s long driveway. I made my first reference to the map on my phone as I soon came across a sign stating “no horses or cyclists this way”. Was this a bit of a grumpy farmer or had I made a wrong turning. I had no signal and so Google maps was unable to tell much, but I did have Offline Maps app which I had primed prior to the journey with this moment in mind. I had used this app a lot before, it came to be of great use when I found myself working in Tokyo for some weeks a number of years ago. With the want to explore the city and high data charges if I were to use data on the phone, this app saved me many times. Maps are pre-loaded and stored while you have a signal so that you can continue to use it for when you don’t. As with Tokyo, it worked very well here too. It soon showed me the small path I had missed just down the track, I turned back and continue in the right direction, wondering why the farmer didn’t put a sign down there instead. More sunny tracks, more farms, some wildlife and all was happy. It didn’t feel like the South Downs, no rolling hills and massive views, more like a ride in the countryside, and a pleasant one. I came to the first water stop on the trail but I didn’t need to refill – which was handy as the water had been turned off due to suspected contamination.
My next location of interest would be Beacon Hill, I was ready for a long climb up but it turned out I was mostly at the top anyway. I followed the track and entered the nature reserve. For not the first time or the last time I imagined I might well be following the same track that was a main road thousands of years ago, on high ground away from the marshes below, easy to look out for potential dangers coming your way. I stopped for a moment and talked to an early morning dog walker who was watching the buzzard flying about, quite a thing to watch. We said our goodbyes and started downwards from the hill, first on the same track and then on a very thin but newly tarmacked country lane. The signposts sent off walkers across the fields and cyclists and horses along the road. This smooth road with a constant downward trend is where I managed to hit the day’s top speed of 30mph, certainly a lot faster than the many road cyclists I met coming up the hill in the opposite direction. It was clear by cycling traffic that this must be a very popular hill route, I was glad I was going downwards.
A ride through the pretty (and large) hosues of Exton and then onto a disused railway which was a pleasent surprise. The morning was turning into quite a hot clear day and so the old railway line under the cover of the trees with rain drops from the day before dropping off the leaves in the wind was quite nice. The railway section was short lived, I came to a bridge where the walker’s path rejoined and the path would take me off over the fields and up the next hill. Before all of that, I stopped to have my first break, reviewing how far I have come and being slightly disappointed that in the time I had only done around 10 miles, it had felt much more both time and effort wise. Welcome to offroad riding I thought to myself.
As I set off again I heard loud voices getting near me from behind, I wondered if the cyclists from Winchester had caught me up. They were going fast than me and so I pulled off to one side to let them past. Not the Winchester cyclists but a new group of three men on a Saturday morning ride out, one of them using an electric mountain bike which I felt was a bit cheating, or maybe I was a bit jealous! We said our hellos and I watched as they speed up the track up the hill leaving me behind. I soon caught up with them as even the electric bike could not get up and over the huge tree roots that were straggling across the path as it suddenly went upwards. After which they were off and little did I know we would be bumping into each other for some miles to come.
The rolling hills, blue sky with white fluffy clouds here and there was making it all quite pleasant. The path followed the edge of many fields until it suddenly did a sudden left turn up some steps and along a thin path going upwards. A carried the bike up the steps and soon found out that really the whole stretch could do with steps. The idea of riding up this bit was forgotten about, it was hard enough to walk it. The bikes in front of me had given up too and were walking up in the distance. I had my first pause for picking/eating blackberries, a nice free bit of extraness that might help me up the hill…. I stopped at the top and started talking to the other cyclists who had passed me before. They were keen to hear my plans of reaching Worthing and reminded me that rain was due in the afternoon, looking behind me I could already see the clouds forming. They all seemed quite happy, their way of riding was to zoom along, stop and chat, zoom along, stop at a cafe, and repeat over and over. They were out for an off road trip to Victoria Park, a journey that would take them an hour or two to get there and back, but they all seemed happy and friendly.
I let them go off in front while I looked around to find that I was actually on top of Old Winchester Hill and a site for an old Iron Age fort. This was a major place to be at, with two long distance paths crossing, the old fort would had been the centre of activity many many years ago. It was like imagining I was standing in the middle of Bristol in a thousand years in the future, just countryside and some funny lumps in the ground showing the earthworks and giving the clues of a very different past. I really was following some pretty ancient footsteps.
Behind me I could see the potential storm clouds whereas in front it was still pretty much blue sky. The hill fort was quite busy with walkers but they soon dissapeared as I continued past the car park and on with the trail. Riding along a small bit of road section I spotted a white mountain bike slowly coming up the hill I was coming up to, he looked rather out of breath when we both met at the top. The route zigzagged down the hill he had just climbed, of which I was glad I was going the opposite direction. The field looked like it would have cows in, but they all seemed to be at the bottom in a different field. A bit of a relief as it looked like at the bottom of the field I was in is a favorite spot for them to gather, also thankful that it had been dry recently as I could see this being a massive mud bath to try to get through. As it was, the bottom of the field was deserted, the mud was as hard as concrete.
I followed concrete farm roads along side fields for the next bit, all flat with hills either side. I got to a “country centre” which had camping and a cafe, a useful place for cyclists and walkers it seemed. A bit strange that they had put a chain across the end of the concrete road to no doubt stop cars going along, but it had the purpose of stopping those on bikes too. I unloaded the bike and slid it under the chain to carry on. I wondered if I had taken a wrong turning but there was a South Downs Way sign post the other side of the chain and a welcome sign from the country centre, all a bit odd.
I was tempted to stop at the cafe but decided to carry on as I was aware that the miles were going slowly. I met up with the other group of cyclists again a little bit down the road while they had stopped to have another break and a chat. We talked a bit more and I bit them farewell again as I set off ahead of them again with the parting warning of a bit of a steep hill coming up. The road turned into a track and soon started going upwards. The gears on the Dawes were still working great as I took the hill slowly dodging the tree roots until I got a tree root that went right across the path to form a large step. I wasn’t going to get over that, so I got off and walked for the rest of the path to the top.
There had been a radio mast on the top of a hill in the distance for the last hour and I was now coming up to it. After the hill climb I was feeling it and so a small stop and snack at the top of the hill seemed a good thing to do. Water was getting low which was a bit of a worry, and the clouds and wind were starting to gather. It had a bit more of a feel of a winters day rather than the warmth and blue skies of earlier on. I was aware that the hours had whizzed by so far but the miles had not, any plans of getting home mid afternoon seemed to be out, I was starting to calculate it would be more early evening which meant I might still be out in the rain when it comes.
Water was a bit of a concern now, it would be the first time ever I would run out of water and I thought I had missed the next tap stop as surely it was miles away as it was only 10 miles from the previous (non-working) one. A bit of a bummer but not the end of the world, more annoying than anything as I could had bought two water bottles but opted for just the one. I was still pondering over it when suddenly a sign post to the Sustainability Centre was up ahead. It seems while it might had felt like 20 miles or so I had only done 10 miles and the idea of thinking about time and miles, and then doubling it was there again. The Centre was quiet and with plenty of vegetarian and vegan type signals (I could sense the lack of meat) I filled my bottle from the outside tap and left again. I rejoined the road, cycling next to a suspicious looking barbed wired fence which seemed, to me, to have some secret government laboratory the other side. With the eeriness of the Sustainability Centre and the secret government labs, it focused my mind on getting a move on. The weather had turned cloudy and windy all of a sudden, the thought of vegan zombies being experimented on just metres away from me was not a good one, although at least they would not want to eat my brain.
The next sign pointed me towards Buster Hill which didn’t sounds too good, but as I quickly found out I was already mostly at the top from all the previous climbing, It was a smug feeling as I cycled to the car park at the top, one of the highest parts of the South Downs Park, and bumped into the same group of cyclists who were again having a rest and chatting. We all looked puzzled on how they could had gone past me since we last met and not seen me. I showed them my route and they confirmed I hadn’t taken a wrong turning, lots of head scratching until I remembered my adventure at the Sustainability Centre. In the five minutes I was there they must had come and gone into the distance, or maybe it was something strange going on with the secret behind the barbed wire.
‘It’s all down hill from here’ they cheered as they went off in front of me and indeed the path led down the grassy side of the hill as they whizzed off into the distance and I was thankful for the front suspension on the Dawes. With the hill being popular with walkers come up the opposite direction and the ever likely threat of a hidden rabbit hole, I kept my speed down as I descended the hill, crossed of the A3 and entered the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. The other group was already there and waiting for me, it would be our last meet as they had reached their destination. After two hours cross country, they would ride the mountain bike tracks within the park and finish off at the cafe for a cup of tea and no doubt a chat. They would when turn back home for another two hour journey and no doubt have a pretty good Saturday out of it all. It was a bit of a shame leaving them as they had been a constant for quite a while, but they wished me luck for the rest of the journey, they suggested I had done the worst hill wise but I knew different.
It felt as if I was finally on my own having left my new friends at the Country Park, I knew I wouldn’t see them again on the trip or indeed ever again. I felt as if I was venturing out on my own again like I had before when I left Winchester early in the morning. I made my way along the mountain bike tracks of the Country Park, straight away into a massive off road and mostly what seemed off track route through the forest. I was joined on and off by others having a day out on the tracks who all looked a lot more energetic than I was currently feeling. I was happy to get to the top and out the other side of the Country Park and onwards towards home.
The path was high up on a hill again looking down at the valley next to the path. The sheep were quite happy and I was a bit surprised when I came across a sheep statue at the side of the path which told me all about them. These Hampshire Downs sheep are hardy from a young age and long-lived which seemed like a good reason to celebrate I thought as I left the sheep statue behind.
At the end of the park I met the road and the signs seemed to point straight on and into the site of Buriton Chalk Pits. Buriton was once the start of the South Downs Way, many years before it was a hive of activity with its chalk pits and the path now leads you through the remains with information boards at various places and even a left over narrow gauge train carriage thing, you can see how all the hills and hollows are man made. It was used for a bit during the war for bomb stuff, but then nothing since. It has now returned to nature but maintained really well with paths and trails for walkers. It was pretty interesting, this rural location (which actually was once larger and more important than near by Petersfield) could once had been noisy and dangerous and quite industrial. I carried on down the hill and under the train line before I noticed that I was becoming more and more off the path that the GPS was showing. Now down at the bottom of a hill I couldn’t see how it would at any point change direction and allow me to meet the path drawn by the GPS again. A quick look at the map on the phone and in the excitement of the chalk pits I had followed through the pits when I should have had stayed on the road. I had gone down quite a hill and I really didn’t fancy going back up it again. The map showed a footpath that led off from where I was alongside a river that would eventually meet up with the proper path again. While not strictly permitted, I started along the footpath for the small stretch.
The footpath started and ended with kissing gates which were potentially there to stop cycles, although here in the middle of nowhere I wasn’t seeing any cyclists or any walkers, or indeed anyone. With the bike up on its back wheel I got through the gate and started my way down the path. It was uneventful and I soon got to the other end, through the gate and then started along a small road that looked like no car had been down it for many years. As I kept on going it started to go up hill more and more until it was hard going. The road surface got worse and worse, and even more the trees and bushes were starting to overhang the road and the whole impression of entering a post apocalyptic world (taken over by zombies?). It was starting to feel like it might had been easier just to go up the original hill, I was now going up a much longer one as I pushed the bike and kept an eye on the GPS to see just when I would meet the planned route again. It was a good feeling to get back to a proper road and civilisation once again, although I was met with what could had been an empty abandoned car (zombies….) or maybe just a dog walker parked up?
It was good to back on a road and the familiar South Downs Way signposts once again, I made sure I kept an eye on these as I came to junctions. It wasn’t long until I left the path again by mistake. It was only spotting a couple of long distance walkers (metal poles and maps around their necks) going the other way as I went round a corner and started down a steep hill. I had been here before, I thought, as I slammed my brakes on and consulted the map on the phone. The GPS was suggesting I was going the right way with the pointy arrow and the track, but I wouldn’t know until I saw that veer off in the wrong direction a bit more. With the hill I was about to go down, I wasn’t prepared to take the chance. The map on the phone confirmed my thoughts, I changed direction and set off along the path where the walkers had come from. As I was doing so I noticed the South Downs Way sign hidden behind the undergrowth. A close call.
The track started off uphill, a familiar feeling, with a deep drop down one side with the main road below. I would sense that both path and road were probably going to end up in the same place, the path was taking a more direction (and upwards) route. I changed down gear, and I changed down a bit more, and then crunch… I quickly knew that the chain had jammed itself between the freewheel and the wheel, it had gone past the lowest gear and had it sounded bad. I had put the brakes on straight away but I felt it had not been quick enough.
An inspection made my fears come to life, it did look bad. I had had similar on a previous test ride up Lancing Hill where I did eventually get the chain free but not without a lot of hassle and more importantly a lot of time. Years ago I had the same on the Highway commuting bike which I only managed to free up by taking the freewheel off, I had no such tools with me here. As much as I could do, the chain did not free up and I was starting to think just how far away from the nearest train station I might be and how disappointing it would all feel. It was that disappointment (rather than the miles and miles of waking with a jammed rear wheel!) that made me to keep trying. I wondered if it would all look different if I the bike was upside down, so I unloaded and turned it upside down. It didn’t change anything. I heard someone approaching which I thought might be a cyclist who would stop and together we might get somewhere, it was a jogger and he didn’t even acknowledge me.
I remembered I had packed the socket set in case I got a rear puncture, I wondered how it might all look with the rear wheel hanging off a bit, at least I would have something a bit larger to yank at. Yank I did, again and again, quite roughly until it suddenly became free of the chain. Covered in oil and with bits of bike all over the path, I sat on on the side and had a drink, I slowly put things back together and I finally got back on my way. I decided I would have a bit of a stop and a snack when I got to the top. The top I did finally get to, out of the trees and on what I classed as the “real” South Downs, open fields and a view over Sussex (or in this case still just about still in Hampshire maybe).
The first bit of rain for the day started and it was enough to put on something a bit waterproof only for me to have to stop 10 minutes later to take it off again as it stopped. A slight warning that the weather really was starting to change, it was lunch time and so not too surprising. I was feeling a lot closer to home, the Downs were looking familiar but I knew even though the miles were not massive, with my new understanding of off roading I was still many hours away from home.
The Downs were much more popular with walkers as I went up and down following a true chalk path. I got to Beacon Hill which the South Downs Way used to go right over the top, but due to possibly over use cyclists are directed around it up a less steep route, but of course you miss out on any great views at the top. It was windy (behind me) at the bottom, I could imagine it was even more so at the top.
I was feeling it now and the uphill was starting to get on my nerves as all the downhills seemed to be steep and bumpy unable to relax while the uphills were long which sapped energy. The cheery hellos from most of the walkers as I made my way past was encouraging, and the weather had turned sunny again as I got to the top of yet another hill which this time levelled out to be a stretch of flatness at the top. Views from the north and the south, both looked like they were getting a bit of rain below, while I was on the top above it all. Even a bit of car traffic (well 4×4 traffic) from some maintenance trucks going along some of the public byways.
As nice as it was though I was certainly feeling it and being so close to home and yet so far at the same time I was finding it hard to keep focussing on just moving along at whatever speed I could do. I pictured in my mind over and over the various sections I had left and how I would approach them. I knew when I got to Amberly there would be a massive climb but then I wondered about the A24 crossing. So maybe that would be another massive climb, but what about Cissbury Ring, did I even go by it or was I misthinking? I stopped many times especially by blackberry bushes for quick snacks.
On the plus side, I had left the walkers behind and was very much back on my own travelling through meadows and fields, following an ancient route, being on the A27 of thousands of years ago. I was reminded of this as I went past signs to Bignor and its roman palace. In roman times I would be on a major road junction, in bronze age times I would have had passed major settlements. It was one such long gone bronze age burial ground that I stopped for a bit of a rest, mainly because of how piece full it was but also because of the many blackberries. These burial grounds back in bronze age time before the trees existed would had been visible for miles at the top of the hill, a sign of their importance. It is a nature reserve now, very peaceful, so near towns and populations and yet probably not known by many.
I stopped for a small break at the bottom of a valley before I set off back upwards. At this point I was really starting to feel it and not pleased with what seemed like yet another massive uphill section needing power that I just did not have. The journey had certainly changed from Hampshire where you go up and down hills, to Sussex where you go up and down mountains! A small group of cyclists coming the other way zoomed past me down the hill while I pushed the bike up. Near the top I jumped back on and slowly peddled onwards, Amberley being the goal to concentrate on and not to think about what comes next. Everytime I got to the top of a hill and was able to look into the distance I hopped to see the familiar Amberley chalk pits in the distance, I was disappointed a number of times with false hopes. The weather was certainly turning, there had been the odd spot of rain and looking behind me to the north and behind me to the south I could see quite clearly that others were getting rather wet. The time of day had changed too, some the joy and hope of early morning to the constant grind of hills and wind and bleakness of late afternoon. I came across a cross roads that had a bench and a number of blackberry bushes. I sat down for a rest, eat the last of my food and as many blackberries as I could, drank most of my water. At this last supper I could see Littlehampton not that far in the distance and I thought of the cyclists I met at the very start. They might well leave the route at this point and head on down to the town for the night and rejoin tomorrow. I was not very far from home, but if I was going to complete this along the South Downs Way I knew I had many hours remaining.
I did eventually see Amberley in the distance and I also suddenly knew where I was, back on local ground and crossing roads I have used many times in the past. I knew I could just join one of those roads and peddle back in no time home, but I pressed on. It was a descent right down to sea level and then back up again, only a small number of places this happens on the whole route. I knew there would be a water tap and also a train station. I stopped off at the water tap, so close to home and so only half filled. I didn’t stop at the train station.
The route through the fields and across the river was a nice flat section which felt like home, it took me away from the hills for those minutes and my mind was able to forget about everything and enjoy the late afternoon, watch the people fishing on the river, and feel as if I had rejoined the world for a bit. It was short lived as the much talked about massive hill out of Amberley was here, the road section was hard but at a steady pace was not a problem. A couple of mountain bikers overtook me and zoomed up ahead, I never saw them again, but I expect they had just started and hadn’t been on their bikes all day, I told that to myself over and over. The road came to an end and am impossible path led off the road and upwards. I walked up the side of the hill hoping to get back on again in a short while but the hill just kept going up and up. I stopped many times and looked behind me, it made me feel dizzy how quickly I was climbing. I could see the South Downs Way and where I had come, all a bit depressing to feel that within an hour you had hardly made any ground at all, or so it seemed.
The top I did get to, jumped back on the bike and slowly and painfully made my way, stopping now and then as blackberry bushes appeared. I had given up on nice views and history, I just focused on the next milestone, Worthing and the A24.
I put my head down and carried on peddling. My thoughts were on Worthing, not something I would normally be saying. While I have been on the A24, even biked down it a number of times, I had never had to cross it and go along the South Downs. I would only think that it would be another case of a long descent into a valley with a large climb back out again. I ignored that for now and kept on peddling. I did however remember that Worthing is only 4 miles from home, surely once I had crossed the A24 I was really home with not much left to do. I had learnt my lesson though and decided the normal 20 minute journey would probably take maybe an hour, especially with energy right down at the bottom. I visualised what I might have for tea when I got back, as it would be tea time or past tea time when this journey would now end. My tummy was empty and I the constant supply of blackberries was welcome but I was unsure if they were helping at all apart from getting me side tracked and making me stop to pick and eat some more.
There was hope though, I got to Kittyhurst Hill, the site of a left over WW2 tank which we had visited (by car) during the summer. I wasn’t going to stop for the detour to the tank this time, I continued on, stopping for blackberries, overtaking the odd jogger. It was windy and starting to rain, visibility was not as it had been earlier on in the day in that all the great views I could have had were now just cloud and mist. But I knew where I was, I had been here before, home was so close.
I started finally doing downhill and even met some casual cyclists coming up the other way which meant the A24 was near. I stopped at the edge of the dual carriage way and wondered just how I was going to cross with an endless stream of traffic in both directions. It seems you wait, and wait, and wait a bit more, and then you run across like your life depends on it, which it does really if you don’t fancy flying across someone’s car bonnet and landing quite some distance behind and in quite a bad, or most likely, dead state. Having crossed, I noticed signs pointing the other way to a much safer crossing up the road using a bridge. I knew this bridge existed as I had used it in the past on previous rides, but I had no idea how to get to it from the other side. I had made the crossing and I was still alive, which I thought was a bonus.
The only way would be up and normally it would be an interesting off road trek with twisty turns through the trees upwards. Instead, it was starting to rain a bit more, time for waterproof jacket. Water was starting to run down the path as I walked up, more blackberries and thoughts of what was left to do and how come I was still out on the Downs after all these hours. The journey was nearly at the end, but it had felt like a number of little journeys over a number of days. The exciting slight Hampshire Hills of the morning, farm yards and country roads. The Winchester hill fort and my new cycling friends all the way to the country park. Back on my own bike problems. Then onto the “real” Downs, the wind and hills and the boring bits, the hill forts and burial grounds. Now, the cold wind and rain of an adventure challenge, sapped of energy and dreaming of different hot meals.
I slogged on, the wind behind me was good, but the rain had made everything slippery. Once at the top of the hill I had a small bit of energy re-appear as I sighted Chantonbury Ring in the distance. I was visualising what was left of my route in my mind over and over, sometimes getting a bit confused. Would I have to climb Cissbury ring or would I go round it, infact actually it wouldn’t be on the route, but why not, why wouldn’t it be on the route? If it was going to be on the route then that was quite a hill the over side before Lancing, but how can that be if it was not on the route…..
The rain was now really heavy as I passed, and didn’t bother to stop, Chantonbury Ring. A pity really as I had imagined having a nice pre-end stop and sit down watching Sussex down below before I got home. Instead I was now soaking wet, I stopped long enough to move my phone from my now wet pocket to somewhere a bit dryer. Some more blackberry stops, even though my waterproof jacket had done its best but had now given up. Fine for some week day commuting but not quite up for South Downs adventures it seemed.
I dismissed Cissbury ring, it was now behind me, I was now on the look out for Steep Hill. I wasn’t going to be climbing it but I knew the this is where I would finally leave the South Downs Way for the first and only time for the day. A route I had joined in the early sunny hours in Winchester I was about to finally leave in the cold and windy wetness of the late afternoon, early evening. I now had the energy to get the end, I was no longer slogging onwards but instead doing the final battle to victory. I was moving pretty fast around Steep Hill along familiar tracks, skidding and trying to keep upright with the water pouring down the track. Still stopping when I found some blackberries, becoming a bit of an obsession. I stopped to put my lights on before I rejoined society and the road down into Lancing.
I entered the house, dripping. 65 miles and a what had seemed like many lifetimes since starting. Ready to plan part 2 to Eastbourne….
Number of miles: 65
Number of blackberries: probably way too many
Number of water bottle refills: 2
Number of up hills: endless
Top Speed: 30mph, downhill on smooth tarmac
Number of ancient footsteps to follow: lots, from bronze age to Roman, to WW2
Number of zombies spotted: none, but I know they were watching me at times