English Countryside Adventure
Recently, after a weekend doing precisely nothing, I decided I was wasting the world’s dwindling oxygen supply and needed an adventure. I’m not sure why cycling the South Downs Way occurred as a suitable possibility but once it popped into my head the decision was made.
The 100-mile trail runs the entire length of the South Downs National Park, from Winchester to Eastbourne, meandering over the ridges which form the chalky spine of Southern England. I wanted to prove to myself that adventure can be found anywhere and doesn’t need to involve a hideously expensive flight to some foreign land.
My friends responded to the idea lukewarmly, citing a range of excuses (‘Sorry mate, getting married that weekend’ – ‘Sorry mate, prodding testicles with hot poker that weekend’) but one did come through for me: my oldest buddy, Tom.
The pre-planning largely consisted of sniggering at the place names we’d be passing en route – my personal favourite was Beggars Bush, just east of Baldwin’s Wood – and ignoring trivialities like where to find food and water. As for accommodation, we initially planned to wild camp – partly to save money, mostly because it sounded fantastically macho – but in the end wimped out and booked shelter.
Our bike hire was fixed up by a mutual friend who runs Cyclelife in Shoreham, a seaside town just south of the trail’s halfway point and a great starting point for those who just want to spend a day exploring the Downs. To our enduring delight he lent us a couple of electric mountain bikes, which make getting up hills blissfully simple, and confirmed that nothing fills a human with quite the same glee as discovering a previously untapped opportunity to decrease physical exertion. After a quick test-ride our grins were probably similar to those seen on the first people to try out escalators, or remote car keys.
The ride began predictably enough – about a mile outside Winchester, at the top of the first hill, I got a puncture, which provided a perfect opportunity to stop and sample the whiskey we had purchased earlier in the day. It also gave a chance to enjoy the vantage point.
What with being a national park, you would assume the South Downs would be quite easy on the eye, but I was still quite overwhelmed at just how gorgeous this place was. To the east were emerald green hills and golden fields of rapeseed; to the south the coast was bathed in a shimmering haze; to the north an endless expanse of fields and tiny villages; and behind us to the west the ancient city of Winchester.
Everything up there – and this would remain the same throughout the entire ride – was suffused with that bewitching tranquillity unique to the English countryside in spring.
Of course, as the hours and days passed, all this became harder to absorb. The pair of us had woefully underestimated the difficulty of this challenge. Be in no doubt: the South Downs Way, for all its lovely scenery and charming little pubs, is an absolute monster of a ride. Apart from the near-vertical hills, after a few hours of sitting on the saddle you begin to wonder if it would be more comfortable to floss your butt cheeks with barbed wire.
The distractions, when they came, were welcome, particularly ones in the form of beer gardens. In one pub (Millburys; good luck finding it on a map) we discovered a 300ft well, into which the barman gamely dropped an ice cube, which was as immensely satisfying as you might expect.
Somewhere else along the trail we saw a couple of army tanks careening around a muddy field and experienced that special kind of panic exclusive to those who’ve inadvertently wandered onto a firing range. Closer inspection revealed some sort of tourist attraction.
All the villages were wonderfully stereotypical of rural England: each had a Church Lane, thatched cottages, notice boards advertising barn dances, and vaguely suspicious locals.
Most of the South Downs Way, though, is bewilderingly remote, which is not usually a word associated with any part of England.
Several times we found ourselves with no water or food, many miles and hills from the nearest settlement, and just had to push through. It quickly became clear that sniggering at places called Cocking, Balls Cross, Lickfold, Titty Hill and such like was not an adequate planning strategy.
Three days after leaving Winchester we rolled down into Eastbourne, utterly broken, but alive, and definitely not bored.
Words: Will Jones
Photography: Tom Redgrove
Bike hire: Cyclelife, Shoreham by Sea, West Sussex (mention this article for a 20% discount on hire)