I promised myself that every couple of months I would get out of London and go somewhere different. It didn’t really matter where, Timbuktu or Bognor Regis, just a change of scene. I didn’t make it as far as Bognor Regis, but decided on Lewes, near Brighton. Okay, so it’s not sharing a Yurt with the Dzungar tribe of Outer Mongolia, but it had its challenges none the less, and I always think that one of the un-sung joys of life is having an adventure in your own ‘back yard’. In fact, sometimes I think I could have an adventure in my garden, but I think I’ll spare you that one for now!
My 4 days in the wilds of Sussex taught me a whole load of lessons about Winter riding/touring and how perseverance in times of slight adversity brings its rewards! I also continued with my exploration of the towns along the south coast, some of which I would definitely return to and others not!
My route was inspired by a map I made of SE England, showing National Cycle Network routes, railways, rocks and rivers, which can be viewed here. The map below is a zoomed-in, slightly amended version of the map showing my tour routes and adventures!
As I lay in bed, the night before my departure, I was trying to workout if I could get to Lewes on my chosen route and arrive before dark. I realised that dragging two full panniers over 70 miles, up a total of 1200 metres, against wind gusts up to 40 mph and arriving before 4 pm was pushing it. I hated making the decision to get the train to Sevenoaks (thereby chopping the first 17 miles off the route) because I thought I was wimping out in some way, and I should do the tough option, but as I set off from Sevenoaks, I changed my mind-set from self-chastisement to one of accepting the challenge as I had re-defined it. It was still a challenge. Yes, really. It turned out to be one the most challenging rides of 2017. I was so thankful for my earlier decision.
It was a beautiful day, and setting-off from Sevenoaks was a dream compared to slogging through the interminable South London Suburbs. Before I knew it, I was swooping down into the Weald with the days ride spread before me. I knew the roads to Royal Tunbridge Wells as I had ‘borrowed’ the route from a previous ride. I stopped briefly at Penshurst and continued on some tiny lanes into the town; not only famous for its ‘Georgian Splendour and lofty spa-town feel’, it also boasts an excellent bike shop, with a really nice cafe (The Velo House). I shared my delicious late breakfast and coffee with other Lycra-clad roadies, most of whom where middle-aged women like me!! What’s the world coming to?
A little conscious of the time, I pressed on, picking up the NCN 18 east out of Tunbridge Wells. It was a beautiful quiet, relatively flat flowing country lane until Groombridge, where the route turned south onto the NCN 21, which could only mean one thing; hills! Not the continental ones that gradually wind there way up the side of a valley in a civilized fashion, but the steep, sharp merciless variety that slowly grind you down. I knew that all would be well, once I got to Heathfield and picked up the ‘gently descending’ Cuckoo trail down to Hailsham, the trouble was, that by the time I got to Heathfield the sun was horribly low in the sky, and I still had a long way to go.
I’d been looking forward to warming down a little on this stretch, which was a re-surfaced old railway line. Initially my pace was dictated by the huge number of dog-owners and their beloved pooches, but as I slowly picked my way past their dog conferences, I became ever more aware of the failing light and my lack of progress, and ‘Tarquins’ need for space started to compete with my need for a little speed.
As I left the village behind, my speed picked up and I started to imagine I was a steam train (!). I tried to stop myself from making a tooting noise through a tunnel, but it was out there before I knew it, and with the last of the sun flicking through the trees on the side of the track, I was going faster and faster, but alas, there was no beating the sinking sun.
As I turned west for my final stretch from Hailsham to Lewes, the sun was just setting behind the South Downs and my legs where totally shot. I munched my way through the last of the flapjack squares, threading my way gingerly over freshly cut hedge-cuttings, and prayed for a puncture-free passage. I finally pulled into my Airbnb, in the dark with no front light (flat battery) and whole heap of relief.
Notes to self:
Recovery day, rode to Lewes, explored the town, Lewes Castle, The Priory, shops, coffee-house, Needle-makers for lunch, bought a pair of warm leggings, a book, some batteries and some Waitrose ready meals. Sorted.
I loved the mix of different architecture from the Victorian and Georgian period right back through the Elizabethan to the Norman Castle and Priory (and beyond to the Saxon and Roman, although there wasn’t much left to look at for these periods). I was fascinated to read that a lot of the timber-framed medieval houses had been re-clad with a brick or flint facade in the 1800’s, owing to the fashion of the times.
So it turns out the 1970’s craze for re-cladding the front of your Victorian terrace was nothing new. Eat yer heart out Vera Duckworth!
Another thing that I found rather confusing was the idea that in Saxon and Norman times, it was a flourishing river port. The river was hardly bigger than a broad brook. I realize that super-tankers were not on the scene but even so, was the river bigger then?
There is a quirkiness to Lewes which makes it very appealing, and I found it a very easy town to spend the day in. One website I found put it thus: ‘Sheltered by the forest to the north of the weald and a distance from the main routes from London, south to Bath or Canterbury, Lewes established itself from this early age (Saxon) with an independent spirit and identity.’ I can attest to the fact that it hasn’t lost that spirit, and benefits further from a lack of ‘kiss me quick hats’ and ‘sticky carpet pubs’ that detract from it’s noisy neighbour, Brighton.
I planned to cycle over the chalk downs via Firle to Newhaven, and back along the River Ouse to Lewes. As it wasn’t a long ride, I wanted to include as much path and track as possible. Having looked along the extent of the South Downs, there are very few tarmac roads which go over the top (Ditchling Beacon being the only one that springs to mind), the other roads are major A roads and stick to the valleys that cut through the Chalk. No fun to be had there.
I set off through Firle up the scarp slope of the chalk, arriving at the top with steamed up glasses. I was now on the Souths Downs Way, which in retrospect may have been an easier choice of path, but I continued on, over a field and then a muddy track to the outskirts of Newhaven. It was rideable but no fun, too muddy and too steep for my bike, but it was thankfully a short section. I rode into Newhaven and past the town to explore the re-developed flats and houses opposite the harbour.
I was half wondering whether there was somewhere pleasant to have a coffee and look out to sea. It was spitting with rain, a cold wind was blowing, and the skies were leaden.
I found myself watching the sea-gulls picking at a giant pile of rubbish being loaded onto a rusty looking vessel, so I turned around and hoped the town was more welcoming.
I looked along the High Street at a row of betting shops, a pound-land, a pawn-broker and a couple of chip wrappers caught in the breeze. My heart sank.
At the top end of the High Street, I saw a coffee shop and initially didn’t want to stop. (Would somebody steal my bike?), but there was something about it that changed my mind. It had a little positive hum to it, like a beacon of hope amidst a sea of despair. It was run by a Turkish guy who loved his shop and loved his job. The coffee was good and I was warm and dry. I really didn’t want to leave.
But leave I did, to explore the Ouse valley. I had lots of vague ideas about a route back to Lewes from here, but I was confused by the presence of a bike path that only existed on certain maps, and seemed to end in the middle of nowhere.
The minor road along the Ouse valley was a terrible combination of narrow and busy. After riding down it for a couple of hundreds yards, I was looking for any excuse to get off it, and I found one. The cycle path stuck to the levee along the Ouse, and was a dream of compacted grit (albeit scattered with sheep poo) until a mile or so in, where it stopped suddenly with a notice, telling me that ‘this section wasn’t surfaced at the request of the landowner’. It didn’t say no cycling so, always up for an off-road challenge, I carried on.
The path followed the Ouse all the way to Lewes, as the map suggested. It was tough, but fun. As with all muddy sections, it started off as a minor distraction and just got worse. Mud attracts mud, and in the end stops the wheels turning, but this mud was fresh and sloppy. It slowed me down, but didn’t stop me, and there was no way I was turning back. When I at last slid across the final metres of the trail, I was surprised to read the following: Pedestrians may continue along the footpath. Cycling is not permitted. Ho hum, I’m not a clairvoyant!
The final yards into Lewes were noisy. I couldn’t find a stick strong enough to remove the mud between my wheels and brakes, but I was close to home so I wasn’t overly worried. I stopped off in Lewes to pick up another Waitrose ready meal (Beef and dumplings – yum), sampled a quick pint of Harveys Best Bitter, cos it was 20 yards from the brewery, and limped back to base.
I was surprised to wake to the sound of pattering rain on the roof, and equally surprised, when I finally got out of bed, to find clear blue skies and a thick layer of frost (or frozen rain) on everything, including my handlebars. I had left my bike in its uber-muddy state, hoping that the mud would have hardened and would come off easily. Being faced with the reality of it, was somewhat different. I had underestimated just how jammed everything was. I retreated back into the warmth to consider my options.
My initial response was to load it up and hobble to the nearest station, but even then I had to get the wheels turning. An hour later, and aided by a garden hose and all sorts of ‘pokey’ instruments (to remove the icey clods!), and the bike was road-worthy again. I loaded it up and set-off, with the vague intention of getting to Hastings if body and bike held together. They did!
Riding over the Pevensey levels, past the reed beds and marsh-lands full of birds and low winter sunshine, felt like a reward for my perseverance. I decided to extend the reward with a very cheesy ham and cheese toasty from Pevensey Castle Tea-rooms. The remaining miles to Hastings were along the coast via Bexhill, which previous to my trip, I thought was a suburb of South London! How ignorant!
My meanderings around the South East coastal towns from Gravesend to Newhaven, have been a constant surprise to me. Bexhill was unlike any other English seaside resort I have visited (albeit only in passing). I was so transfixed I did a loop through the town, before continuing on. The architecture along the sea-front spanned every decade from the 1900’s onward (including the 1935 modernist De La War pavilion), but all in pristine condition with not a chip wrapper in site. Even the beach-huts where all painted in immaculate white. What’s going on?
And finally to Hastings, which from my very hasty perusal, appeared to be a happy mixture of Bexhill and Brighton, with a touch of Whitstable thrown in for good measure! The brand new pier supplied me with a great cup of coffee, and the Christmas Market provided Ukulele Christmas songs, hoards of white pagan earth mothers (??? gawd knows) and most importantly, a massive hog roast bap.
I sat on the train back to London feeling tired but content ……the bits I was awake for, that izzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Notes to self: In hindsight, including off-roady days on an un-supported winter bike tour is asking for trouble!