Words by Dean Hersey, pictures and video by Trail Creatives
With the turning of the season and the daylight hours tipping the balance over the dank darkness, it has been a long Winter. Battle lines for the Springtime have been drawn. Time spent hunting for fresh inspiration and bouncing fleeting ideas across messages is over. It’s here now, that time is up. How far do we travel? Do we even need to go traipsing across the country in the name of adventure? It only needs a minute looking over the map to begin conjuring up a route that takes in many of the most spellbinding vistas around our locale. An adventure that will serve to share some of the secrets of the area. With its past heaped with turmoil and violence it is a route that shares many of the haunted passages with “Gentleman in the night”.
After stumbling across a blue plaque partially concealed by ivy, hung next to the door of a grand old house just a few minutes walk from where I live, my mind began to ponder more about the history of my surroundings. With a little digging, I discover the reason for this commemorative plaque. Behind this door with its ornate brass knocker was once inhabited by Isaac Guilver, one of the most prolific and successful smugglers along the south coast of England in the 18th century. Guiliver was somewhat of a local hero, a Robin Hood type figure who for years orchestrated large gangs to hide, shift and distribute his bounty whilst evading the “preventatives” with a network of underground tunnels leading miles inland from the coast. One of the many stories tells of Guiliver faking his own death, deceiving the law men to avoid capture and trial. I quickly find myself immersed with this past. A history that is shaped by stories of these infamous characters and folk who ruled the coastline and had every conceivable part of the country captivated.
Violence and fear induced by years of battles between the revenue men and sailors landing tonnes of untaxed contraband on the local shores. Every path wide enough to lead a horse along would be utilised in the hiding and distribution of the smuggled wares. There are stories that claim old nags were trained to pull smuggled goods through the night unaccompanied to avoid arrest. The horse knew which way to get home. Long before the paved roads of today the paths lining this coastline were used to move tea, alcohol and more. I like to believe their routes are used today as bridleways. Public houses and inns of today are named after the trade. Many of these establishments wouldn’t ever exist if their tipples weren’t discounted enough to allow them to turn a profit. Taking inspiration from these tales I decided to join the dots and pieces of history together on this route by the sea, playing storyteller to my ride buddy Mati whilst being captivated by the coastal views that never get tiring.
With little deliberation in choosing the starting point of the adventure. Arguably the most notorious story of that time is based right on our doorstep and fitting for a Netflix series. The tale goes that on the night of September 22 1747, somewhere off the Dorset coast. Customs officers seized a large haul of contraband from a ship. These confiscated goods were being stored under lock and key in this local Customs House. A fortnight later, after finding out the fate of their contraband, the notorious Hawkhurst gang angrily rode from their base in Kent with 60 men to spring the goods from the Customs house in a daring night raid. They successfully retrieved all the tea they could carry back, loaded up in their saddle packs, and made their way home completely unopposed by officers.
A shoemaker was later accused of ties to the gang by the authorities and he was used to help identify the gang leaders. In the following year, as part of the shoemaker’s bargaining, he journeyed with a customs office to label one of the leaders. Only a suspicious landlady of the Inn they had chosen to spend the night raised the alarm. The word spread quickly and the Hawkhurst gang were quick onto the scene. Both the shoemaker and the officer were captured and flogged whilst still on their beds hungover. The gruesome story of what followed was enough to turn the stomach of even the most hardened criminals of the time. The customs officer was buried alive in a foxhole used to hide tea and the shoemaker was labelled a rat by the gang and hidden in a shed, he was repeatedly beaten and his face mutilated whilst being starved almost to death. The gang attempted to hang the man but the rigging failed, the shoemaker met his end by being thrown down a well and then stoned to death by the gang for being an informant to the authorities. This chilling tale spread and turned the tide of the general public against the smuggling gang resulting in their demise.
At first light we are straddling our bikes outside the Customs House next to an antiquated ship anchor having told this harrowing tale. Mati’s haunted face speaks a thousand words. We set off and our bikes rattle across the old cobble stones and away along the quayside. Under a clear cold sky of this spring morning and seemingly with the weather on our side, the mercury just a few marks above zero, we head along the quiet roads to the ferry with just the heckles from the gulls to pierce the silence.
Our tickets are purchased as we board and head up to the top deck, the view from the port side of the boat has us both looking into the morning’s sun even if it is devoid of any warmth at this early hour. In the foreground are the shallow waters of the bay to our right. Renowned in the early smuggling years for its calm waters sheltered from the prevailing winds giving a safe place for sailors to lay anchor and offload their smuggled cargo. In the distance a stack of tall white rocks break up the view. The chalk formations at the point are known as Old Harry and named after the 14th Century local pirate and smuggling man, Harry Paye.
We ride on by after a brief pause to catch our breath whilst soaking up the beautiful view before embarking on the steady ascent to the top of the Down. We are greeted at the top by a shut gate and a view out to the open water and down to both bays. If ever there was a perfect place to stage a lookout or to signal down to the smuggling ships then up here on the Down would be it. This hilltop was often used to light a fire beacon to warn the ships of smugglers that the “preventive men” were onto their plan and another landing location would be needed further along the coast. We roll along the hilltop before dropping down a section of steep singletrack littered with the odd awkward step here and there. The path is lined both sides with this Spring’s bright yellow flowers on the spikey gorse that shields our view around the flowing turns. The air is filled with a fragrance similar to coconut
We head West along the wide gritty path with the dark green sea constantly in view. I notice its heat on my back from the sun sitting higher in the clear sky. A welcome fond sensation after a long winter. I sprint ahead as Mati gives chase. Up the steep ramp to the door of the pub, swing my leg off my bike and quickly quash any ideas that Mati might be mustering that this is the end. Sat in the sunshine sipping locally brewed ales was not on today’s itinerary. I duck my head under the low wooden beam above the old door and step into the dark hallway greeted by the smell of food. Standing by the old serving hatch of the Alehouse that was originally named ‘The Sloop’ in 1776 with alleged ties to smuggling. Greeted by a friendly faced man wearing a beret, I order a couple of freshly made pastys. They are tightly wrapped and I slide my snack into the pocket on my shorts whilst handing my companion his, we pick up our bikes and roll down the slope avoiding temptation to stay longer.
I lead on a further mile or so down the road back to the sea. I have to try something to keep a beer thirsty Mati on side and suggest we stop at the caves in a peaceful little sun trap for a brew up to accompany our pies whilst they are still warm. We pick a spot at the entrance of the cave as the waves crash below us in an entrancing, metronomic and comforting rhythm. I get the brew on whilst Mati is off exploring the abandoned mining caves. Just as the water reaches boiling point I notice movement in my periphery. The next thing I spot is a huge gull making its way off with the paper bag containing Mati’s lunch. My yelp echoes through the cave behind and Mati charges out to the rescue. The torn bag was dragged someway towards the cliff but its substantial mass slows the progress of the cheeky bird. With disaster averted and the drama of lunch behind us we pack up and walk our bikes back through the darkness of the cave and out of the quarry.
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Our adventure continues its way along the stony bridleway that contours the steep green hillside pastures that are lush with grasses and feeding sheep. Eventually we reach a gate between two dry stone walls. The view down from here is full of the blanket of yellow rapeseed surrounding a tower that was onced used by the coast guard to keep watch over the bays below. Before the tower was commandeered, these bays were perfect for smuggler’s landings, there are accounts of one run of spectacular proportions with five luggers offloading all at one time.
The double track trail is barely visible as the long grass brushes the dust from the side walls of our tyres. The trail begins to point down and our speed starts to pick up. We are hopping along and switching lines. As the gradient steepens further the grass first fades to chalky white stones before switching to a smattering of rocks and deep ruts. Rocks ricochet like bullets in every direction, pinging out from beneath our tyres with that worrying thud. The sound resonates up from the wheel and through the entire bike. This is a serious descent that commands a rider’s full attention to avoid catastrophe. A squealing of my bike’s brake and Mati sliding to a halt accompany our gleeful faces and signifying the trail end.
The rolling nature of the terrain this close to the coast means that there is never very long in between our bikes either pointing up or down and it is beginning to notice in my legs. There is an air that we are miles from any noteworthy civilization, a long way from home. There are smatterings of farm buildings and the occasional hand painted campsite sign pointing down narrow lanes. There is no one else about on the bridleways and the eerily quietness has my mind drifting off and imagining what it would have looked like three centuries ago. Visions of horses hauling illegal loads up and down the hills in the darkness cross my mind.
Our vantage point brings our final destination into sight. The land juts out into the open water offering shelter to the large ships anchored in the middle ground. Between there and our location there are only a handful of beaches between the tall cliffs that worked as suitable landings. We are in the heart of Hardy’s country. The writer lived just a short ride North from here and this area was an inspiration to his novels and his fictional landscape ‘Wessex’. Hardy himself had a connection to Smuggling, recalling his childhood and grandfather was involved in storing large numbers of tubs and barrels containing alcohol about the house.
Picking up a disused railway line for the next leg of the adventure. The calm sea clings to our side, buildings and the trail come to a sudden end. As we ride along the beach road the challenge of what lies ahead looms above us like an insurmountable tidal wave of rock. I turn to gauge the reaction of Mati and before I manage to ascertain his condition the darkest of skies has crept up behind us. “That’s the end of summer mate!” as I nod my head to the direction behind us. Fresh impetus has injected some pace into our ride once more and rather than bracing ourselves for the upcoming climb we charge. Mati responds “onwards and upwards!” as he races ahead of me up the steep climb from sea level and disappearing from my sight around the tight switchback bends. I settle into my own pace to begin the chase.
Turning off the road at the top we head to admire the view. Through an empty car park, we negotiate our way around a metal turnstile. As the vista appears in front we are both speechless. The dramatic hills in the background shrouded in black rain clouds with the lengthy shingle beach and the sheltered lagoon dominate my eye line. Stood amongst abandoned quarry stones at the edge of the cliff. Smugglers risked more than a lost load overboard by landing on the west side of the beach below us especially in a storm. The deep water could throw waves high up the shingle beach smashing boats to nothing more than matchsticks. Once safely on dry land the smugglers would drag themselves and the heavy cargo up and over the stony beach to sink it in the water on the other side in the shallow lagoon until they needed to safely retrieve it.
We turn our backs on the view point and head along the cliff top on a little loop. Large crows and gulls glide next to us, soaring on the updraft. We pass large stone piles and skip under stone arches towards an imposing concrete coastal lookout fortified in razor wire and a dead end. Retracing our route out in the opposite direction head on into the apocalyptic dark cloud. We pick up the water side disused railway line just as the rain makes its stage appearance. It quickly changes from the intermittent large spots to a dousing. Simultaneously the jackets come out and my sunglasses come off. Together we are both shifting through the gears, head down stomping on the pedals in complete unison to arrive not completely soaked through to the bone.
We splash through the standing water on our way into the station entrance, the rain still falling and the light dwindling under the dark clouds. Cowering to keep out of the weather as we look at the timetable. I give a smug smile to Mati. Our day is done and it has been a fulfilling one to remember. It’s almost been a novelty to take our time making the most of the breathtaking vistas and allow ourselves time for plenty of romantic stories of the characters of a bygone day. It’s been different from our usual race around, a break from the norm; head down going as fast as you can. This adventure has been one of discovery, an exploration of the magical coastal landscape in Springtime. Cranking up and down the hills, amongst early shoots of the season along the winding paths, steering us away from roads wherever possible. Taking stock of the cliffs, hidden coves and smuggling caves with the enchanting tales it has been easy to envisage what life was like back in the smuggling hay days.
Dean and Mati were wearing:
- ASSOS Mille GTC Jersey and Kiespanzer bib shorts
- ASSOS Mille GTC Jersey and Zeppelin cargo shorts with TRAIL liner shorts
Full information on the ASSOS Mille GTC gravel range, and Trail range can be found here.
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Hmm. What happened to the original comments?
Interested in the route or a GPX for this … any chance?
Looks great! But GPX or at least a map would be useful