The North Downs

A ramble around the North Downs from Singletrack member Simon Raistrick.

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North Downs ‘Taking It Easy’ Route – pdf
Distance: 23km
Start at Holmbury hostel. Allow a fast halfday, or a full day at a more leisurely pace. Don’t underestimate this route though!
Total ascent: 579m.

North Downs ‘Your Average Sunday’ Route – pdf
Distance: 38km
Start at the car park on Ranmore common. Allow a full day, leaving time for technical terrain, tricky navigation in places, and a fair bit of climbing.
Total ascent: 915m.

North Downs ‘Grizzly Lungbuster’ Route – pdf
Distance: 62km
Start at the car park on Ranmore common. Allow a full, long summer’s day with lots of climbing.
Total ascent: 1563m.

The North Downs are a magnet for mountain bikers all over the South East. There’s just something about the variety of the trails here – the steep chalky drops, the thick forest, the loose sand, the dry and dusty, the wet and muddy, the manmade and the natural, the views, the dropoffs, the berms, and of course, the oodles of twisty singletrack. It all adds up to an addiction that’s hard to shake. No wonder the North Downs is the South East’s main mountain bike playground.

The area has two distinct terrains. To the north of the railway, an unbroken ridge makes for very steep wooded slopes with rolling heathland and farmland on top. South of the railway, the hills of Leith, Holmbury and Pitch line up like sleeping policemen, and getting from one to the other requires a fair bit of up and down. They are covered in thick forest, with long gradual slopes on the North sides and steep buttresses facing South.

We arrived at Holmbury Youth Hostel the night before in temperatures of minus six, and awoke to a dawn chorus and a hearty cooked breakfast, all set for a big day. We drove to the start at the car park on Ranmore Common, because we prefer the flow of the riding from there. A quick fettle with the bikes, and we’re onto the trail in record time – one of the bonuses of such cold weather.

Ranmore Common to Holmbury

From the car park, after a short stretch of road, we take the trail directly opposite the church, and soon pick up speed on the long smooth drop through the woods. A perfect start to the ride. At the farm buildings we turn left across rolling hills and then right, climbing up through the woods. We’re soon descending again across fields and down to the road. The rolling hills here make it easy to imagine you’re in the Dales rather than Surrey.

Turning left, the wide track around the Georgian manor at Polesden Lacey soon becomes a long steady climb back up to the ridge – a nice morning workout which really gets the lungs working. Back at the road again, and time to catch our breath.

A few metres along the road we duck down a very muddy track, then left onto an even muddier one. An off-road buggy comes careering past on the mud-rink, and our sense of well being isn’t really helped when we see the driver who must be about six years old, and is pretty much peering through the middle of the steering wheel. Thankfully we escape
unharmed.

Mere tyres can’t cope with this muddy glue, and we wheelspin all the way. Some of us think this is great fun, while others are somehow unable to share in the excitement, mostly due to locked wheels from a lack of mud clearance. Now it’s time to hang on for dear life as we career down a very steep chalky downhill. Across the railway bridge and right at the farm we follow a flat smooth bridleway along a field, over a road and into Abinger Roughs. The fast smooth bridleway flows nicely, and at the junction we turn left through a battered gate onto a fast singletrack hugging the side of a field. Through another gate, and we’re shooting down a steep-sided tunnel through the trees, with high banks which make excellent berms. Big smiles all round as we reach the road at the bottom.

issue27pic2Crossing the main road, we climb up through Paddington Farm along a dirt doubletrack, and gaining a fair bit of height, ending with another short fun drop down a tree-lined mud chute. Round the corner we find the Volunteer pub, a great lunch stop with some of the best pies ever tasted.

Holmbury uphill

Taking it easy after a bigger-than-planned lunch, we drag ourselves up to the Youth Hostel at Holmbury, following the fire road right from the car park, then down and between the two lakes. From here we take the diagonal left hand path, just as we climb up the other side. It’s easy to miss.

This fire road is always beautiful in spring and today is no exception, as the sun streams through the trees casting long hazy shadows. Crossing a number of other fire roads we head straight for the water reservoir on the edge of the wood. From here we turn left and follow another fire road up the hill, passing near to the car park, and on to the trig point at the top. The top of Holmbury Hill has great views across the Weald to the South Downs, and there are trees as far as the eye can see. George Harrison and Eric Clapton wrote ‘Here comes the sun’ at sunrise on this spot, and it’s easy to see where they got their inspiration. It really doesn’t feel like you’re in one of the most densely populated corners of the world.

Parklife

Holmbury and Leith Hills are the mountain biking meccas of these downs. Both are privately owned, but mountain biking is allowed away from the main bridleways and there are plenty of trails. However, because they are both on private land, there are a couple of rules to be aware of; don’t stray off existing trails as there are many conservation areas, and if a felled tree has been put across a path then don’t ride it. Often the reason might not be immediately obvious, however the area includes archaeological remains and several endangered species.

The next part is the highlight of the ride. We head North and pretty soon take a right hand turn off the main path (don’t take the first turning as it’s eroding the edge of an Iron Age fort). This is ‘Parklife’, one of the most famous trails in Surrey and an old favourite. The rear suspension earns its keep on the swoopy rollercoaster of big drops and high berms – it’s all very fast and technical and a hell of a lot of fun. Parklife spits us out, smiling and gasping, onto the fire road. We can’t resist another go (back up the hill, take the big fire road left, then the entrance is on the left). This manmade trail is sometimes referred to as ‘Bombholes’, although its unusual shapes are actually the result of locals mining stone for their houses.

Telegraph road

A few metres down the fire road from the bottom of Parklife, we go straight ahead at the junction, then immediately left on the small track and onto another classic trail – ‘Telegraph Road’. This long, fast singletrack follows the line of telegraph poles down the hill through the bracken, and is very lush in summer. Be careful to slow down for the fireroads which cross the trail, as there have been a few nasty collisions here.

The shallow steps make things interesting, then after a path merges from the right, we turn off to the right, following a beautiful woodland trail through a couple of unexpectedly deep ditches, then round to the left just before the drop. On through the woods, and straight over the path crossroads, then the trail swoops round to the right and soon starts throwing us around on some very rooty technical hairpins, spitting us out with a long straight downhill to finish. This route down from the top of the hill is my favourite trail round here, but there’s still more to come.

Up to the top of Leith hill

We now face a long climb up to the top of Leith Hill, the highest point in South East England. Following the road up, we reach the Greensand way, and follow its smooth wide sweep up to Leith Hill. I stop to admire yet more beautiful forest, although the real reason is the pain in my lungs from a winter spent semi-hibernating.

Crossing the road, we join the long straight stony bridleway which takes us all the way to the top of Leith Hill. As the ground eventually starts to level out, there’s a bike skills area with all kinds of jumps and drops, so of course we
can’t resist a little play, but immediately betray our cross-country leanings with a complete lack of ‘big air’ ability. We decide it’s best to move on before some thirteen-year-olds turn up and make us look stupid.

issue27pic3The main track goes rapidly to the top, which is crowned with a stone tower, complete with sandwiches and home-made cake, perfect for keeping any onsets of climb-induced skinniness at bay.

Leith hill downhill via Summer Lightning After a well-earned break on top of Leith hill, we drop down a wide steep rooty track, soon coming to a right hand turning, which takes us up and along to the cricket pitch on Coldharbour Common. Turning sharp left, we take a long fast downhill, becoming steeper and more rubbly as we drop into the valley.
At the valley bottom we turn sharply back on ourselves for a short, sharp climb. We’re now entering the realm of the Redlands trail builders – a group of volunteers who’ve made some fantastic trails in this area – a map of which can
be downloaded from their website. See the links at the end of this article.

Once the trail has levelled out, there’s a left turn onto ‘Summer Lightning’, a fast bermed singletrack, and a classic trail. Unfortunately it was closed when we got there, because Redlands are repairing it over the next month or so, and hopefully it’ll be back to its old self soon (they’re also looking for volunteers to help with trail building).

Bypassing Summer Lightning, we take the main byway down instead. (The Summer Lightning route is shown on the route map, and this rejoins the byway further down the hill.) This sandy bobsleigh ride is very heavily eroded, lying about 2m below ground level, due at least in part to the 4x4s which power up here every weekend. Shunning the smaller track which follows it to the left, we power down the main bobsleigh run, gaining lots of speed. Just in time we notice the turning off to the right, and pound down the stony bridleway, barely managing to hold onto the handlebars as they buck and judder over the stones. Suddenly we’re gliding through beautiful fields, then just as suddenly the path turns into tarmac, and soon we come to a halt at the main road.

Back to the start

Crossing over the road and then the railway, we’re faced with an evil climb back to the car at the top of Ranmore Common. We know it’s the last climb of the day, so we somehow manage ride up it, legs burning and front wheels
skitting, but at least there’s a comfy seat and a flask of tea in the car at the top.

And so our North Downs addiction is satisfied – for another week at least.

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South East England