We head south about as far as it’s possible to go without getting your wheels wet: this issue’s Classic Ride heads to the South Downs.
Words and pictures by Jenn.
There are rules about a Singletrack Classic Ride, and some of the most important concern how it begins.
A true S.C.R. must start with a second breakfast – be it coffee from a paper cup and a sugary doughnut inhaled while perched on the edge of the car boot, or a leisurely full English (which must include black pudding and hash browns, or it doesn’t count) in a cosy café, accompanied by tea (loose leaf from a pot, of course), a refreshing glass of freshly pressed juice, and a morning paper (but not the Daily M**l).
The S.C.R. proper is then required to commence with an assault on the most unpleasant climb available within a reasonable pedalling distance of your second-breakfasting spot. Somehow this almost always ends up being the biggest ascent of the whole ride, too. Geography is to blame, with physics a close second.
The reasons for ticking off a substantial chunk of vertical metres right at the start of the ride are many. First (and also, eventually, last) is that it means you are almost guaranteed to finish it by losing a similar amount of altitude in a much more enjoyable manner – and everyone knows it’s always best to end on a descent. Secondly, though it was very tasty, and ‘required’ as per the rules, you didn’t really need that second breakfast – or the third doughnut – but you do need to start making room if you’re going to partake of tea and cake/pint and chips at the mid-ride lunch stop.
And thirdly, it gives any whippets that you may be travelling with an immediate opportunity to burn off some of their high-octane energy by cruising up the hill at an insanely stiff pace while chatting among themselves, leaving everyone else to get on with the job of slowly warming up the diesel engines in peace and thus ensuring that the rest of the day will pass in a harmonious fashion.
The long, long grind up Windover Hill with which we open this particular S.C.R. more than meets the criteria for all of the above. There are excellent breakfasts available at its foot, courtesy of Badgers, plentiful parking, and the climb itself is deserving of each and every one of the deleted expletives that have more than enough time to flourish in mind as we haul bikes, bodies and breakfasts slowly towards the sun.
The air is crisp, cold and clear. A thin line of sea fills the gap between the hills; otherwise all we have to look at is green grass and blue sky. The South Downs is a good place to visit on a weekday, because it is almost deserted. Within a mile of Alfriston, we pass a farmer whacking away at a fence post, and two trail runners, unfathomably walking down the hill towards us with a bemused-looking black Labrador. Other than a couple of lone riders we’ll cross ways with later in the ride and a lot of sheep, cows and skylarks, that’s all the company we have for the day. It is not like this at the weekend.
With zips pulled down and sleeves pushed up, we turn into the first descent of the day, riding straight into the sun. I am unaccustomed to fast descents over wide-open fields – it’s a far cry from my home riding of tight and twisty trails beside golf courses and behind housing estates. I hang on in nervous silence as tyres crescendo to a swarming buzz on the rock-hard chalk, and eyes stream in the chilly air.
The South Downs is predominantly agricultural land and it is severely afflicted with gates. Uninterrupted, top-to-bottom descents here are few and far between; if we were more organised or in a hurry then we’d each be taking it in turns to sprint to each gate and perform opening duties so everyone else could roll through without stopping. Thankfully we’re neither organised nor rushing; it’s far too nice a day for that. Instead, it feels like one for lazing around at the tops, bottoms, and any other convenient stopping point on the hills; time to soak it all in because it feels like the first real ride of spring. The brief pauses are welcome.
We’ve already rolled through a handful of gates and are gathering speed on the fireroad again when three sets of brakes are applied as one, three little dust clouds puffing up from beneath our tyres. Backtracking, there’s little discussion; one glance confirms that we did see what we thought we did and we dive into the trees, one behind the other in a rapid descent into mild anarchy. Suddenly there is no time to waste.
What we ride turns out to be one of the best bits of singletrack I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying for quite some time. Tight and twisty, with just enough flow to keep things moving and punctuated with enough inconveniently-angled roots to keep us on our toes. We are silent as we ride, concentrating and breathing hard, bodies and brains immersed in an intense and untranslatable sequence of bends, berms and turns.
It is deliciously good.
I’m not going to tell you where this trail is, nor any of its friends. If you are a local, then you probably already recognise it – and if you had a part in magicking it out of the undergrowth, then thank you. It’s brilliant.
If you’re not a local – just visiting, perhaps, or newly arrived – then that doesn’t mean you can’t ride it. But I want you to stumble across it in the same way that we did – unexpectedly, without agenda or intent. A nice surprise. A gift, maybe; something to be kept precious and taken good care of.
The small paths.
You’re likely to find this gift easily enough if you’re sensitive to the ebb and flow of the landscape and take note of the slight indent of a tyre track in the margin of a field that may lead to something new. To still be looking about you as you carve at warp speed around a berm and, therefore, see the small but distinct alternative exit to the corner that will take you in a different direction entirely. Being nosy and curious, investigating the world around you with sympathy and compassion, is the best way to expand your riding horizons. And better by far than littering it with skid marks and fall-line ruts.
The majority of the ‘fun’ riding in this area can be found in this way. You won’t find much of it on an OS map but it’s easy enough to stumble across it if you use a bit of common sense and instinct. After a long and not always peaceful coexistence with the other forest users, mountain bikers and their trails are tolerated in Friston Forest – as in a number of locations in the UK, negotiation between landowners, governing bodies and user groups has taken place to make sure that walkers, riders and cyclists can all use the land here in as safe a way as possible while all enjoying themselves.
Friston does have a marked, seven-mile, red-grade mountain bike route, starting at Exceat – it’s definitely a mellow red, but will still introduce you to plenty of fun bits as it swirls around the woodland. It’s a starting point for the good stuff too and we take in a couple of laps of the forest ourselves, dipping in and out of the different plantations, sliding from claustrophobically tight young growth to massive soaring pines and beeches and back again as we navigate the plots. We ride slippery chalk, black and stinky mud, packed-down hardcore, dead leaves and beech mast. By the end of the day my shoes will be filled with loam.
Eventually enthusiasm dwindles in tandem with energy levels and the call for sustenance is made. Haribo will not cut it anymore. We ride the flat, muddy path from village to car park in hungry – possibly even slightly grumpy – silence. The tearoom’s garden gate looks closed (no!), but opens at a push (yes!); they are closing early today (nooooo!), but will do us takeaway coffee and cake (YES!)… Sitting on one of the spectacularly uncomfortable benches in the car park instead of the cosy brick-built front room of the café is a small price to pay for hot coffee, great sausage rolls and warm sun on our backs.
All is good with the world once more but, as is the way of things, payback follows shortly in the form of a short but steep haul up the nose of the ridge, followed by an apparently endless drag along the edge of the woods to Friston village itself. From here you could detour out over the Downs towards Eastbourne – you’re just a hill climb and then a plummet to sea level away from the terminus of the South Downs Way and a well-earned ice cream, after all – but we turn our backs on the sea and head north towards Jevington, crossing the road and picking up Church Lane.
Get ’er sideways.
Church Lane is a byway, and a very old one at that; sunken below the tall hedges that line it on either side and barely the width of a 4×4 vehicle. Was it ever any wider than this? Probably not – there’s plenty of room for cattle between the banks, and perhaps a horse and cart too, but it was probably easier to travel back in the days when it was more frequently trafficked. The passage of many hooves, feet and eventually wheels over centuries would likely have done a better job of smoothing out the trail’s surface, but now the majority of the trail work is done by the elements. We gingerly criss-cross a deep rain gully on slim shoulders of slick white dirt.
There’s something deeply familiar to me about the shape and feel of the hills here. Perhaps it’s because I spent a decade living among their edges and taking every opportunity I had to roam across their backs. Maybe it’s because I spent my childhood a hundred miles or so to the west, on the very tip of the landmass where the chalk ridge dives down beneath the lowland clay; I grew up digging in its dirt.
Then again, maybe the comfort and ease is purely a matter of aesthetics. There’s nothing jagged or craggy about these peaks, if that’s even what they are; all organic lines and fluid curves, they flow over the horizon, a slow tide frozen in motion, or perhaps just moving so slowly that its timescale is unfathomable. It’s a steadying and easy landscape, felted by agriculture and dwellings, leaving little to challenge the eye as it passes over the horizon. Even if the same doesn’t apply to the legs and lungs, it’s still a thoroughly nice place to pass some time.
Church Lane becomes Gillett’s Lane in Folkington, and undulates its way along the foot of the northern escarpment of the Downs, looping back to the west. It’s almost a surprise when the Long Man appears, standing proud in the bowl above Wilmington, albeit almost entirely obscured by haze and late-afternoon shadows for us. A chalk figure of uncertain heritage, he seems almost inconsequential after the day we’ve had – or perhaps we just need a cuppa.
The last hurrah is a flat-out blast back down the South Downs Way into Alfriston. We are lucky – the trail is bone dry and we float above our dusty tyres all the way back to the valley bottom; sun glinting on the English Channel to the south, Firle Beacon raising the horizon to the west. If you are not quite so lucky, then you’re more likely to have your eyes fixed firmly on the trail in front, wrestling your way down another slick chalk chute and trying not to catch too much of it in your teeth by the time you get to the bottom.
Either way, you’ve won.
The Knowledge: Alfriston and Beyond
Distance: 16 miles
Ascent: 1,900 feet
Time: 2–3 hours for the main ride, plus as long as you’ve got to explore in the woods.
Ordnance Survey Explorer 123: Eastbourne and Beachy Head, 1:25k
Places to stay:
There are three YHAs within easy reach of Alfriston (the one in the village itself has closed): Eastbourne (0845 371 9316), Telscombe (0845 371 9663) and Beddingham nr. Lewes (0845 371 9574), yha.org.uk
Pleasant Rise Farm runs a campsite near Alfriston (email@example.com)
A quick Google will turn up loads of B&B options – Sussex is a popular tourist destination and nowhere more so than the quaint and pretty villages and towns around this end of the Downs. Try the TIC in Lewes for help with bookings (01273 483448), staylewes.info
Places to eat:
Saltmarsh Tea Rooms at Exceat is a good mid-ride stop (01323 870218, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Alfriston itself has the legendary Badgers Tea House (01323 871 336, email@example.com), as well as plenty of other options, and pubs are liberally sprinkled along/in the vicinity of the route: The Plough and Harrow, Littlington (01323 870632); The Eight Bells in Jevington (01323 484442); The Ram at Firle (01273 858222), and so on…
Seven Sisters Bicycle Company at Exceat (cuckmere-cycle.co.uk, 01323 870310) sells basic spares, does bike hire and is closed on Mondays. Further afield The Tri Store (thetristore.com, 01323 417071) and Evolution Cycles (evocycles.co.uk, 01323 737320), are both bigger, both in Eastbourne and both closed on Sundays.
This route, and much of the South Downs riding in general, is easy to access by train (as long as you don’t fall foul of the travel restrictions, which make it impossible to take a bike at what the rail companies consider to be peak periods). Use Glynde or Arlington stations (or even Eastbourne itself – just find the terminus of the South Downs Way and follow it out of town onto the Downs) on the Eastbourne line, or Beddingham on the Newhaven line.
If you’re driving, then park and start the ride at Exceat – it’s half the cost of the long-stay car park in Alfriston and you won’t be scrapping for space in the car park with the coach parties on busy summer days.
forestry.gov.uk/fristonforest (particularly ‘Mountain Bike Discussion’)
A GPX file of this ride is available in the Singletrack Mag Archive:
//Crown copyright acknowledgement//