They say variety is the spice of life – how hot do you like your spice?
Words & Photography Tom Hutton
All I could think about was a pint of ice-cold Coke. And I don’t even drink Coke. In truth, it wasn’t all I could think about, nor was it even the treat I’d desired most at that precise moment – that would have been a plunge into the icy, clear, blue-green waters of a tumbling mountain stream. But that was just never going to happen near Worthing.
The chilled sugar-fest may have only been second best, but it was also a distinct possibility – one I’d intended to make happen at the first opportunity.
That opportunity was Findon, the next village en route. And when the Black Horse came into sight, part of me wondered if it could even be a mirage. It wasn’t.
There is something about the mountain biking in southern England that you just don’t get anywhere else – well, not in the mountainous areas I usually ride anyway.
Huge, lumbering chalkland downs are certainly a big part of it. But there’s more: good and bad. Big skies, hedgerows, flowering verges, singing birds, hay bales, stinging nettles, brambles and, of course, temperatures that seem to quite effortlessly nudge into the 30s on the hottest days of the year.
Did I mention the heat? I might refer to it again yet…
But here’s the rub, summer is definitely the best time to explore these bridleway-riddled hillsides. The chalky clay [or clayey chalk? – Ed] that provides the surface for most of these bridleways, that was kicking up dust and burning holes in our retinas, is a notorious nightmare when wet. Just add water and it becomes as slippery as eel skin and sticky enough to clog up tyres or even whole wheels at times.
And that’s without even mentioning the six-inch hoofprint craters that tend to guard every gateway.
We usually time our annual pilgrimage to visit family and friends accordingly, creating a short, sharp, fun celebration of all things ‘down south’, including the kind of melting temperatures that we found ourselves immersed in that day.
The signs were there early on; as the dawn mist drew back to reveal a cloudless sky, we knew we were in for a hot one. We met Adel in the small village of Washington, laughed a bit about her dragging a fairly hefty enduro rig (complete with coil-sprung shock) around the South Downs, then pedalled away to the sound of the happy chatter of three folks who’d not seen each other in a while, lapping up the heady mix of friends, summer sunshine, dry trails and – naturally – bikes.
One thing that definitely needs clarifying is that South Downs riding is not easy. The hills only top out at just above 200m, which to us, living in Snowdonia, makes them barely hills at all. But the tracks that cross the ridges and summits are as steep as anywhere and they rise and fall relentlessly, providing plenty of hard-earned ascent.
Knowing that, we really shouldn’t have been surprised to find we were breathing hard and sweating buckets within minutes of leaving the village. And any hopes we had harboured for a breeze on the tops were quickly dashed when we gained Sullington Hill and realised just how still the barley was. Shade too, was in short supply.
Oh well, at least it was downhill for a bit – that should cool us down, or at least make things slightly easier.
The opening drop was typical South Downs, a narrow ribbon of singletrack tracing the edge of a huge field of crops. At any other time of year, it could have been taken at warp speed, but the crops, or maybe just the grass verges that lined the crops, had pretty much obscured the trail itself, polishing shoes and making sure we couldn’t ever quite let go of the brakes, just in case. Any strategically placed lumps of flint could easily throw a rider off line.
It was fun though and we were all grinning from ear to ear by the bottom. A more gentle climb then carried us around Blackpatch Hill, now with great views south over the Channel and a fast chalky descent followed. It was good to see our average speed creep up even if we were being as conservative as possible with the effort.
The next up, which crossed the southern end of the aforementioned hill, although short, was very steep, and it was here that the hallucinations started. We then dropped a bit, crossed the A280, and climbed again – this time onto Church Hill.
The temperature continued to soar and the once vague idea of that cold drink started to become an obsession. The drop to Findon was fun – narrow and rocky in places – but I think all eyes were focused on escaping from the sun and the heat by that stage, so we probably didn’t get as much out of it as we should have.
No worries though, the best bits of the ride were still ahead of us, and maybe once we’d had a chance to refresh, we’d be able to do them more justice than this one.
The Coke was every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. And the breather was wonderful. We started out sitting on a wall – we live in North Wales so sunshine is a novelty to us – but quickly dived into the shady shelter of a huge brolly. This made little difference. The drink went down quickly and the shade provided the respite it had promised, but the temperature was still edging upwards and I really don’t think we left any cooler than when we arrived.
One of the challenges of South Downs riding for a map geek like me is finding singletrack. It does exist and in some places is really quite good. Over the years we’ve fine-tuned our routes to take in our favourite sections, and Cissbury Ring is one of them. A clockwise loop of this lofty, fort-topped knoll demands a fair bit of effort in the early stages, but it then pays back big time, finishing with a quite magical section of serpentine sweetness that cuts a narrow swathe across the steep hillside, jinking left and right a few times as it goes.
A second lap would be fitting on a more typical day, but the mercury in our Garmins had now risen past the 30°C mark [You have mercury in your Garmin? Ed] reminding us that it is most definitely possible to have too much of a good thing, so we moved on, climbing easily again, though nothing was actually feeling ‘easy’ by this stage.
We clambered slowly up, hugging the hedgerow for shade and crossing the 200m contour line for the first time. At the top, we met the South Downs Way just east of Chanctonbury Ring and swung east. We stayed with the national trail for a few minutes, passing an almost endless stream of ruddy-faced Duke of Edinburgh hopefuls who looked in a worse state than we were. We also met a distraught guy looking for a lost Labrador. We swapped cards and phone numbers and, of course, wished him all the best in locating her.
Scent of singletrack
We were on the scent of more singletrack, another of our favourite sections, so we soon left the chalky ridgetop path and dropped into a wood that had all kinds of hidden treasures, including rocks and roots. We started to feel at home, but quickly broke out into a clearing where the trail dived into a jungle of grass, bracken and of course, brambles.
Our groans and grunts could probably be heard as far away as the south coast as we ploughed through it all, and each of us breathed a huge sigh of relief as we tucked back into the woodland. The singletrack continued with more rooty, rocky loveliness – this is a five-star section if ever there was one – eventually climbing back onto the top of the Downs where it cuts a way-too-narrow line through the sharp-toothed foliage.
It was time to head home, though we had probably 10km or so of riding still to go – another hour at least. Doubletrack led onto an incredibly narrow, hedge-lined singletrack, which is great fun most of the year but turned out to be a bit overgrown. We already knew where this was going to end, so we readied ourselves for the onslaught.
It was bad. The worst one by some margin. Brambles and hawthorn – even a few stingers thrown in for good measure. Once committed, we had no option but to continue. The warm air echoed with the sound of screaming and the odd expletive; we eventually spilled out onto a little lane where we could compare wounds… We were still laughing though – it really is good to ride some different stuff now and again.
The next section compensated a little for all the agony with a remarkable strip of singletrack that wriggled its way down through a steep-sided paddock to a gate at the bottom. It’s little gems like this that makes exploring new trails so worthwhile.
We climbed again, continuing all the way up to 238m and the trig point close to Chanctonbury Ring. The going along the top is lovely and we were back on the South Downs Way again with firm level ground, sheep-trimmed grass, a very gentle breeze and great views north over the Weald towards the North Downs and the Surrey Hills.
Our work here…
…was done. It was downhill all the way from there. And while none of us would usually back out of a climb, we were pretty demob happy. By then we’d stopped sipping water – the taste and texture of the tepid mix in my pack made me feel ill instead of cooling me down. But there was still the last of our trail snacks to finish so we chilled on the top a bit.
Steph and Adel found the energy to clamber onto the trig point for a picture – fair play. I struggled to find enough of my own to get the camera out and shoot them, but it was a moment worth capturing.
It had been a wonderful day out. Absolutely everything a big South Downs day should be. And we enjoyed every bit of it – although perhaps the odd section of undergrowth felt a little more like type-two fun…
It was a reminder that riding bikes and sharing the outdoors with good friends is an awesome thing to do anywhere. And that big mountains and gnarly trails aren’t always necessary in order to have a good time.
The drop from Chanctonbury back into Washington was classic South Downs. Wide, rutted, stony in places and a dazzling shade of white. There was no racing – we’d run out of energy for that some time ago. But we weren’t hanging about either – the Frankland Arms was calling. We knew there was some logic to starting opposite a pub.
The hallucinations had started again. Only this time it was a pint of beer rather than Coke. Then an even better idea popped up: ‘I wonder if they have a hosepipe…’
- Distance: 20 Miles
- Elevation: 900m
- Time: 4 hours
- Maps: OS Landranger 198
Rail will work from Amberley, which is a few miles west of the route but easily accessible via the South Downs Way – note that it adds a pretty hefty climb (and descent), but on the positive side also offers some great skyline cruising over Rackham Hill and Chantry Hill. By road, the A24 runs right through the centre of the route and is easily accessed from the London area. Or the A27 runs along the southern edge – bringing traffic in from the west via the A34. This road runs pretty much along the length of the South Downs making it easy to connect a few different areas if you are staying for a few days.
Try Findon Rest findonrest.co.uk, for something almost on the route. Check out the Truleigh Hill YHA, a few miles to the east, for a more budget option yha.org.uk. There are some more good trails over this way if you use this as your base. Alternatively, there’s a good-sized campsite at Washington washcamp.com and the ride could be kicked off from here.
On the ride, there’s the Black Horse in Findon, which is as well placed as anywhere – you could even return to it after Cissbury Ring to have food later on the agenda if you get an early start. Before you set off you can get excellent breakfasts in the Squires Garden Centre, which is on the A24, just a few miles north of Washington.
Or there’s the Frankland Arms in Washington at the start/finish – perfect for that post-ride pint, or follow in our footsteps with gargantuan chicken kebabs.
Mountain biking is a broad church and no matter what we excel at or enjoy the most, it’s always good to mix it up a bit. As a guide and instructor, I get more than my fair share of absolutely top-notch mountainous riding. But I’ve always got an appetite for something different and the South Downs provides that in bucketloads.
There is something absolutely wonderful about cruising along a broad whaleback ridge with a cloudless blue sky above, possibly with a singing skylark wittering away, and of course, those huge views of the deep blue waters of the English Channel stretching away in the distance.
Those chalky descents are fast and fun, inspiring a playful approach, but never quite needing the laser-sharp concentration that you need on Snowdon or Torridon. And the climbs definitely don’t require a bike on a shoulder for half an hour or more. In fact, the climbs are a big part of the experience, and usually 100% rideable.
True singletrack is relatively scarce here, but all the more rewarding when you do find it. If you’ve got a short travel bike or a hardtail, that’ll spice it up even more.
Add all these things together and there’s huge potential for some really big miles. The South Downs Way in a couple of days is 50 miles a day – hilly ones at that – and there are many who try to knock it off in one. So while the 20 miles described here make a damn decent day’s ride, it would be easy to add more if you’ve got the appetite.
Then there’s the social perspective: technical singletrack does little to promote conversation and we usually find ourselves scooting along in solitary worlds, sharing experiences and grins only at the odd regroup. On the Downs, there’s often time and space to chew the cud on the bike as well as at the trig points.
And, of course, there are plenty of pubs and cafés scattered about most routes, making it easy to keep going.
On the subjects of pubs and cafés, there’s no doubt that the South Coast knows how to do both, so good beer, good food and good coffee are pretty much guaranteed.
If you’re lucky like me, and have family or friends down here, then remember to pack the bike next time you come – you won’t regret it (though your family might complain if you miss too many mealtimes). But if you don’t, and are wondering whether it’s worth the journey for the riding alone, the answer is definitely yes. It’s the nearest high ground to an awful lot of people living in the south-east and it’s definitely a fun place to be on a bike.
Add it to the list. Ride it. Enjoy it. Come back for more.
This feature was produced with support from Komoot.