Sunday 5 October 2014

Cycling the South Downs Way

It's Saturday 23rd August and my alarm clock pierces the weekend silence. I roll over dolefully, making little effort to shake myself out of the depth of sleep. The delayed start got the ball rolling for my bank holiday attempt of cycling The South Downs Way. 

I packed as little as possible the night before. I was weary of the weight I had to hold whilst on my bike. My pack consisted of a set of clothes, 1.5L water, a puncture repair kit, route notes and some nutty snacks. 
My Weekend Supplies
My initial journey takes me from my home in Colliers Wood to Clapham Junction Railway Station. I cycle straight up the CS7 Cycle Highway, weaving around parked buses and cars and dragging my bicycle from the platform, onto the train. 

God, this is realI watch the rolling countryside flash by. There are animals grazing on deep green pastures, ribbons of passing streams and feathery trees touching the skyline. I feel my trepidation melt away: yes, I think I can do this... 
There's always a dedicated carriage for bicycles on the train. 
It's a short journey and the train soon rumbles into Winchester. The pedestrianised town centre is hosting a Saturday market! I approach a stall brimming with soft, floured rolls and organic fruit filled cakes and I buy myself a cheese, red pepper and oregano roll for lunch.

Adjacent to me is a flower stall bursting with colour and a small group of street musicians, soulfully playing violins. I feel like I've visited this scene before, and I am reminded of a market scene in Disney's Tangled. 

I wheel my bike pass the magnificent Winchester Cathedral and I start riding at a footbridge crossing the A31 road. I leave the roar of cars behind and reemerge in a field of rippling, golden wheat. It's a gentle descent and I feel my heart lift with joy. My hands gently grip the rubber handlebars as the wind brushes past me. I take in the clicking rhythm of my bicycle and the scent of wheat, like warmed oats, blanketing the summer air. Wow, I whisper gently. This is why I love cycling, it is the feeling of pure freedom, embracing nature away from the walls that constrain us from the great outdoors. 

Within ten minutes of riding, I reach a hill - Cheesefoot head. I lower my gears a few notches and brace; pedalling as hard as I can in the hope that I do not need to get off my bike and wheel it. I feel my bike get heavier and heavier. I start to wobble as my bike gets unsteady with a lack of speed and I have to dismount. I'm panting hard as I peel my rucksack away from me.  I try to think positively: It's okay, with every uphill there's an easy downhill! 

I am cycling on chalk tracks and I didn't anticipate how much slower this would make me, especially on hills. I cycle downhill but with unease. The uneven terrain was extremely disconcerting. I shudder and rattle with my bicycle, gripping the handlebars hard and as tense as a shell. I do not feel at one with my bike, I feel like I am battling it! I brake constantly to slow down the bumping on downhills and I fight with my pedals on the uphills. 

This became a reoccurring pattern for the next few hours and it was extremely draining. I did not envision the route to be so technically difficult: it's an established route, how hard can it be? I thought naively, prior to leaving. 
I stop for lunch in a sparse field with no civilisation in sight. I greet other walkers, cyclists and even a horse rider as they pass me. It's late afternoon and I still have far to go. I feel disheartened and even some self-hatred for finding it so difficult. I firmly establish a goal in my mind: Reach Moonlight Cottage, today's milestone, tiredness is temporary, don't be clumsy, just cycle, the only way is forward.

I immediately reach another hill. Why?! It's another battle with the pedals. I am breathless. I taste iron rising up in my throat. I descend down Butser Hill a little recklessly and I brake hard, my back wheel skids and I squeak in fear, planting my foot on the ground before I fall with the momentum of my bicycle. Uphills are hard. Downhills are hard. Flat sections are few and far between on the SDW. I just don't win. 

I descend off Hartling Down and I reach a road. Road cycling is so fast, easy and efficient! I impulsively decide to cycle down it and I find myself lost within 40 minutes. I drop my bicycle to the ground, sitting crosslegged and I feel consumed with frustration. I decide to phone Dany, as I felt I needed a friend to talk to. I tell her I'm lost and my route notes do not cover my diversion. She's calm and she does not greet my situation with bemusement. She lets me know that its a 37 minute cycle to my destination. I thank her gratefully and I apologise for my grouchiness on the telephone. 37 minutes and you can stop. Just one last stretch....
I pedal fast on the tarmac roads. There is a bite of coldness as the wind whips pass me. I cycle pass the village sign 'Cocking'. I finally reach Moonlight Cottages in a rather dishevelled state. 

My tent: Only £20.00 a night including breakfast, towel, shower and toiletries!
I am pleasantly surprised by the tent accommodation for the night. wow, its a mansion tent! I can even stand inside it without brushing my head on the fabric. I happily play with the proprietor's dog and I spend my evening in the lounge area, chatting to x2 Londoner's who were also walking The South Downs Way.

Slept extremely soundly - didn't wake up at all until morning! A 40 mile days 
mountain biking in the bag. 
Ascents: 1223M. Descents: 1175M

Day 2 - Cocking to Amberly 

I start the morning with a silky sweet yoghurt and a cup of tea that sends waves of warm comfort. I am served a mammoth big breakfast with sauteed mushrooms, vegetarian sausages, buttery toast and scrambled eggs (eggs from the hens wandering around the grounds!). 

I set myself the target of reaching Amberly, approximately fifteen miles away. I ascend and descend Heyshott Down, Bignor Hill, and Westburton Hill. 

Well signposted throughout the cycle.
Forest Tracks.
A field of sunflowers in the middle of nowhere! 
The best free cycling food!
It's forecasted to rain heavily on Bank Holiday Monday, and I decide to raise the white flag at Amberly. It was a beautiful and less strenuous ride on Day 2. I decide not to press on to Ditchling, as I did not have a suitable escape route from the slippery chalky trails, should there be a downpour. On my return train journey, I bumped into Linda, a kiwi with the grit to see through the SDW, after a mechanical set back on her bike.

The SDW Round up

  • A single train ticket from Clapham Junction to Winchester was £18.30 (with a YP Railcard). A single train ticket from Amberly back to Clapham Junction was £9.50. 
  • I completed approximately 55 out of 100 miles of the South Downs Way. I haven't really mountain biked before. Mountain biking is a technical skill. I underestimated the difficulty of it. I was under the firm belief that I could do it, as I cycle regularly to work. Mountain biking is at least x2 harder then road cycling! I would advise that MTB skills are brushed up or researched upon before you give it a go. 
  • I used a hybrid bicycle. I would advise a mountain bike for this trail as I felt wobbly/unsteady on a lot of ascents and descents. A mountain biker I passed advised me that my tyres would've done nothing for me in wet conditions. 
  • Moonlight Cottage is only £20.00 a night in a tent including a big breakfast, towel, shower, toiletries and a sleeping bag. They do not advertise the tent provision online. Send them a email enquiry and they will be more then happy to let you use their tent.
  • I used a TrailBlazer guide by Jim Manthorpe for directions. The SDW is extremely well sign-posted, I dare say that you can do the route without route notes.
  • My second nights accommodation was meant to be at Lantern Cottage in Ditchling. 
  • A very comprehensive guide for cycling the SDW is at:
  • I decided not to continue as I found it extremely hard doing the 40 miles on the first day. I felt I did not possess the technical skill to do it safely and comfortably but retrospectively I still enjoyed the challenge of it. I am looking into walking the remainder of the South Downs Way to complete the trail.
  • If you have any questions or queries about the SDW, please feel free to email me or comment here. 

1 comment:

  1. Yet another epic effort and inspiring endeavour. I love the instinctively riding off down the road bit haha - road cycling is best :) I feel like I let you down with the advice - I too expected simpler times... But good practice for Andorra right?