Sam Jones sees if he can find a new way to link up the ancient and modern trails around the famous Surrey Hills.
Words Sam Jones Photography Rob Spanring
Some days everything comes together. The sun shines, the trail suits notoriously fussy Goldilockses (not too dusty, not too tacky), the company’s great and the route is, well, classic. Without meaning to sound too much of a smug git, this jaunt into the Surrey Hills was just that – and a great reunion with pal and colleague Robby Spanring.
We’d both booked the day off several weeks in advance and, with a track record for picking the worst days to ride, we’d been prepared for monsoons, not sunburn. From gales and torrential rain up in Cape Wrath to borderline freezing conditions in a late summer Surrey, we’re pretty ace at choosing our riding windows badly. But whatever happens, Robby keeps smiling – the man’s a bottomless well of optimism and goodwill and that rubs off. In good company, it doesn’t matter what weather or problems you face. A feeling tugs at your soul saying ‘We had a good time, didn’t we?’ and you can’t help but nod as you let time smudge out the negative and preserve the positive. Those trips are grand, but it’s definitely good not to have to go through that all the time!
You have legs?
Riding with a friend who for the past year has largely been a 2D pair of shoulders, arms and head, frequently disrupted by rubbish Wi-Fi connection, was pretty exciting – a bit like the day before a big trip: giddy excitement, nervous energy, questioning your ability… Which wasn’t helped knowing Robby had gone and hired an e-MTB, because of an apparent ‘mechanical’. Meeting him at Pilgrim Cycles in Westhumble I wasn’t sure whether his grin was more for our meeting again or knowing he had a little electrical assist and I’d be playing catch up was hard to say – probably a bit of both.
Originally from Dorset, before I moved here, my knowledge of Surrey’s mark on the cycling map was the asphalt zigzags of Box Hill and the Olympics. Fortunately, upon making it my home several years ago, I met local couple, Julie and Roland, who’d ridden the Surrey trails since the ’80s, and they soon put me right. Ideally, they’d have been along too, but this was the age of ‘you can only exercise with one other person not from your household or bubble’.
There’s definitely more to Surrey than its beacon for weekend roadies. As a general area, Box Hill isn’t a bad place to start for a ride. It’s square on the North Downs Way, which now has a riders’ route that heading east will take you (mostly) off-road to Dover, or you can do as we did, and head south for a different type of riding.
Taking the Surrey Hills short cut
You might question if you’re still in England if you take a short cut through Denbies Wine Estate, Ride here in the summer and you’re greeted by a verdant sea of leaves speckled with little blue-black bunches of grapes that wouldn’t look amiss on the hills above the Loire. In March the vines are just so many rows of ugly, stunted, twisted sticks.
Still, it’s a popular destination for walkers, no doubt due to the parking opportunities and café. We’re barely a mile into our ride, and a coffee tempts, but a long queue isn’t attractive, so instead we go and check out the two painted fibre glass cows in a little pasture outside the estate’s shop. A couple of years ago, one was a victim of cattle rustling, which caused a bit of a stir in the local press – real cow theft doesn’t get column inches. It was destined to be sold to raise money for Cycling UK – the charity where I work in the comms department. The first I heard about this was one Friday evening down the pub when a journalist called, asking what I thought the thief’s motive was.
“Cow fetish,” was my immediate response, which is probably why you should never answer the press phone when you’re down the pub and a couple of pints in.
Pull the udder one you might be thinking, but Google ‘Cycling MooKay’ and you’ll see this is a true story and it even has a happy ending. This bovine beauty was recovered and Denbies is its home.
Lots of sun equals big grapes equals good wine yield. It’s why lots of vineyards are planted on hills, the steeper the better for maximum exposure. In notoriously sun-shy England that gradient really matters, as we found out as we heading up and out of wineland towards the top of the North Downs.
Well, I say ‘we’, but I mean ‘me’, as Robby switched on his new toy with a “See ya at the top” and disappeared with an electric whir, leaving me gasping unutterables trying to keep him in sight.
You’ll need A-binger Hammer
Motoring along Ranmore Common we veered off onto a byway that had taken a bit of a bashing from some green-laners who’d created the only water feature of the ride. I only realised how bad a bashing when my 29+ wheels sunk axle deep and I emerged the other side with soaked feet.
Despite riding two abreast, Robby had emerged unscathed and was now pissing himself. All the more frustrating and incredible because a) he was wearing a long sleeved white T-shirt, and b) he had nothing which even remotely resembled a mudguard. His laughter was infectious, however, and spirits were high as we plunged off the downs onto Beggar’s Lane, a wide, at times rooty, byway with good lines of sight allowing for a speedy descent to the unmanned railway crossing just before the village of Abinger Hammer.
A holloway misnamed Rad Lane was our traffic-free route to Peaslake and the Hurtwood where, from being the only two mountain bikers around, we joined the busy early afternoon throng of Surrey mountain bikers making their way to the top of Pitch Hill. Wanting to put Robby’s bike to the test, I chose the path least travelled: a bridleway rich in closely packed contour lines. The e-MTB was beaten by the near vertical slope and fallen trees, necessitating a wee bit of hikeabike to the summit where we engaged in that most English of activities – queuing for a bench where we could sit for lunch.
Munching the past week’s leftovers, we lazed in the sun and gazed over towards the South Downs rising in the distance. As the most wooded county in the UK, Surrey is fantastic for rooty, windy trails, but not so good for the big open landscapes – these you have to earn with climbs up said trails.
In the ten mins or so that it took to scoff our meagre fare, the queue (for the bench) had grown and the socially distanced crowd was rumbling. We took the hint, and pointed our bikes downhill for dessert.
Just what is the plural of Santa Cruz?
I’d love to say that Robby and I savoured our descent on purpose. With its berms, jumps and tabletops, it was a belter. At a breathing spot halfway down, we took stock and watched a group fly by on their full-sus Santa Cruzes, effortlessly taking to the air off the ramp we’d just cleared, and landing lightly where just moments before my rigid steel Surly had come down with a thud.
We looked at each other knowingly. Me with my rig better suited for back-country expeditions and Robby with his hire e-MTB, and it didn’t matter. Perhaps our bikes weren’t ideal for the terrain, but ‘ride what you brung’ is as good as any riding philosophy if you just want to have fun – and that’s for sure what we were having. Our whooping and smiles were just as broad as the full-sus lads’ when we rolled into the car park some minutes later – even if massively off the pace.
With more time to spend, we could have easily played on Pitch Hill for the rest of the afternoon, but we had more of the Hurtwood to explore. Next stop was the Iron Age hillfort at Holmbury Hill and another eagerly awaited descent, but first the necessary evil of the long road climb out of Peaslake.
It’s a tedious climb, made worse for all the motor traffic which breaks the rhythm as you have to stop to let the oncoming traffic pass or risk getting flattened. But, hey, it’s Surrey where the roads are made for Porsche Cayennes and cyclists are unwelcome and… a nudge from Robby and his turbo Moustache settles the ire and stokes the fun.
Pitch Hill and Holmbury Hill were apparently once known as ‘Little Switzerland’. I’m not entirely sure why, unless it’s for the high number of bankers living in both, but high mountains aside, with its views across the Weald to the Channel, 25 miles away it’s a pretty special spot – made even better for the access and trails you can ride there.
Managed by several different landowners, at the summit of Holmbury you can pop a couple of bob towards one – the Friends of the Hurtwood. While doing so, I was greeted by a friendly Leonberger whose shaggy coat matched my lockdown locks, and as Robby commented, making it difficult: “To see where man began and dog ended.”
With dog walkers and owners beginning to hit the hill for post-work walkies we took it easy winding through the woods, only opening the throttle once we hit open heath and some sweet singletrack following a line of a telegraph poles to the bottom of the hill.
A short stretch of busy road was replaced by the tranquillity of the Greensand Way that took us to the tower at the summit of Leith Hill. Beneath the wooded canopy, we’d not noticed the sun was sinking fast, so there was only time for a quick snack, and donning of jackets before the day’s final descent.
Just like a final ski run off a mountain, we swooped down Summer Lightning, tired but buzzing, chasing the sunset to the bottom. The atmosphere only marginally marred by the switch on my Timber Bell failing after several years of good service (maybe its frantic tinkling was suitably Swiss-like, though).
Light failing, we turned on our lights and flew down the gravel track of Wolvens Lane, part of a new greenway opened during the pandemic which connects Leith Hill to Denbies. The greenway is a cracking idea and a well-thought-out route (best done in the direction we took it for maximum down time) with only one road crossing. As a precursor for more ambitious plans which could create an off-road link from London to Leith Hill, it’s definitely encouraging.
The end of our ride was abrupt, hastened by a race along the A24 cycleway. Cold dark car parks are nowhere near as inviting to linger as a warm pub and a pint. There were no hugs or handshakes at the end of this ride, just an elbow bump, a smile and promise to do it all again at a better time.
Surrey Hills. Why bother?
An easy train ride away for Londoners craving dirt and fresh air, the Surrey Hills isn’t just for roadies wanting to ride up the zigzags of Box Hill – it has a good variety of well-maintained trails, which cater for riders of all abilities. The soil is rich in chalk and sand so it drains well and is often rideable, even in the depths of winter.
As an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that’s close to London, it’s very popular – not just with those on two wheels. There are plenty of walkers and horse riders in the area, so be prepared to ring your Timber Bell and take a leaf out of Ride Sheffield’s book and Be Nice Say Hi when you do encounter others.
Once beyond the immediate vicinity of the frequent car parks and hill summits (queues for the few benches you encounter are not unheard of), you’ll find that you soon lose the crowds in the UK’s most wooded county, and that’s when the fun begins.
Undoubtedly the pick of the area for mountain biking is the triumvirate of Pitch, Holmbury and Leith hills. Each has a series of well-used trails snaking out like capillaries from their summits to satisfy a whole gambit of talents. These hills are most definitely not trail centres, with only Summer Lightning off Leith Hill being formalised and signposted, but the quality might make you think otherwise.
Trails are all on common land, with ownership and responsibility sitting with several landowners, which can often make things difficult, especially in terms of access. The good news is that in this part of Surrey, Surrey Hills AONB, Cycling UK and the landowners are working towards a unified management strategy across the whole area with a view to pool resources – this should make things even better for all the area’s users, including the mountain biking community.
It should also mean there will be one source for donations for visitors, so do give a little back if it’s up and running when you visit or, for the moment, consider making a donation to Friends of the Hurtwood [foth.co.uk].
You could have a lot of fun just spending a day on each hill honing your skills and finding new official trails to try or with this classic ride, take in all three. We kept to the least technical trails, partly because ‘no gnar’ at a time like this makes sense, but also because that’s our happy space – especially on the bikes we rode.
For those wanting more from their riding, then fill your boots – there’s plenty of legal trails in the Surrey Hills that you can choose from. Alternatively if cross-country is your preference, this 422km2 AONB has a bridleway network that will satisfy.
In fact, off-road riding in all its glorious tribes can be found riding these trails, so whatever your choice of bike, you’ll likely find your niche and have a cracking time (even if you choose gravel).
- Distance: 49km, Elevation: 850m, Time: 4–5 hours
- Map: OS Explorer 145 and 146 / Landranger 187
Dorking is well served with B&Bs, hotels and Airbnbs to suit most budgets. An example of varied options is the YHA at Tanners Hatch – a cottage hostel set in National Trust land at Polesden Lacey, and Denbies Vineyard Hotel with its lavish grounds, vineyard and views up to Box Hill.
Surrey Hills Bike Shops
Pilgrim Cycles where you start is a touring bike specialist, so it’s well-stocked for spares. Dave, the owner, is often happy to help with minor repairs. You pass Santa Cruz dealer Pedal & Spoke in Peaslake (twice). For an e-bike, Robby hired his from Electric Bikes Guildford, ~15 miles from Westhumble
Parking is limited at Box Hill and Westhumble station, but Ryka’s Café is worth a shout. Parking at Denbies Wine Estate.
The route is well served by train – in addition to Box Hill and Westhumble there are stations at Dorking (London) and Dorking Deepdene (Reading and Gatwick) both 1.5 miles from the start.
Eating and Drinking
When we rode, everywhere was closed, but village stores (plentiful along the route) should be open at time of reading. Coffee and homemade cake can be had at the start of the route at Pilgrim Cycles, with Denbies offering a more lavish spread at its café and picnic materials at the little shop.
Perfect for e-bikers and those who don’t mind filling up at the bottom of a long slog up, the Hurtwood Inn in Peaslake, while pricey (it is Surrey, after all) is worth aiming for lunch. Their Italian chef makes excellent pizza and pasta to suit all dietary requirements, as well as a good hearty burger.
Otherwise, pass through Denbies on your way back to replace water with wine, and there’s the Stepping Stones pub with solid pub fare and good beer metres from the finish.
Big thanks to Cycling UK’s Kie Foster who helped with the creation of this route.
This feature was produced with support from Komoot.
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