South Downs Way
Southern to Northern Hemisphere
The last time I strapped the tent to the handlebars of my bike, I was dropped off by the coach driver at the Lyell camp ground on State Highway 6 at 5.15pm on a Thursday back in late January. The reason? I was taking on the recently fully restored Old Ghost Road on New Zealand's South Island. With 2 days of planning coming to a head, I rushed against the wave of sand flies to take the selfie under the start and race against the fading light to make the Ghost Lake camp.Just a little over 4 months later and back in Blighty, I'am itching to saddle up again for a bit of bikepacking. I left it a little late on Saturday morning to decide to go on a little South Downs adventure. But the wonders of social media brought to my attention the mountain biking festival at Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP). My friends know that once the cogs turn and churn out an idea, I usually see it through regardless how spontaneous it may be. The weather was almost perfect, blue skies, 15 degrees and with a biting north easterly to keep me company.
After a handful of bikepacking trips and a recent 10 month trip spanning South America and New Zealand, I have a pretty good handle on what my kit list is. Two and a bit hours later of tinkering, the Stumpy was loaded up and the impressive Osprey Escapist 25 was more than handling its new role as mule sack rather than refined trail pack. Settling into the gradual claw up out of High Salvington on Honeysuckle lane, the bike felt settled under the extra weight and my mood bubbly. With the Long Furlong in my sights and swiftly dispatched it was not long before the South Downs Way was intersected. Sitting on top of the spine of this national park for the first time on this ride, gave me the chance to take in the sea views from Sullington Hill. Not sure how bad the wind would be on top and not wanting to faff around with the bag too much, I took the risk of being too toasty by starting the ride with my Upper Downs Neo jacket on. Staring deep into the mid-afternoon haze, to see if the Isle of Wight was on show, the gusty northerly did its best to give me a slightly unbalanced stance. It was at that point, I realised the Neo was providing the perfect wind-break despite feeling like I was only wearing my trail top. Knowing the majority of this ride well, meant I could mentally map out the smiles and grinds as the white miles of chalk and lush green hills rolled by. The immediate crank of the pedals, pulled me away from the hills that dominate Storrington, to blast along the undulating but fast 2 and a bit miles to Amberley Mount. This is still one my favourite sections of the South Downs Way. The sense of the miles rattling past as you ride the chalk spine is almost as good as nailing your favourite piece of singletrack, well almost!
Que the dropper post! I've got one now, so I'm going to use it to take on the steep and almost instant descent down Amberley mount into a field of wide-eyed and curious cows. The instant shot of adrenaline down the mount could only mean two things. The first water stop on the Arun flood plain followed by what the South Downs Way does best and that's dishing out a long snaking grind to regain the lofty height. Legs feeling strong and the first thoughts of a cold beer at QECP got me up and over Houghton. Saying goodbye to the motor bike infested A29 with a quick cross over and resisting the fun and loamlife of Whiteways, it was time to take on Bignor Hill. It tried its best to take a chunk out of my enthusiasm, but my focus was equalled by the solitary feeling despite being pretty close to a main A road. Its here the early fall of the sombre ambience started to creep in. I had the place to myself. Tyres rumbling against the dulling chalk and flint with grassy and woodland trails thrown in for a bit of spice, man and iron-mule were funnelled into the multi-cambered meandering gulley that spat us out at Littleton Farm. Wicking on the Neo was set to max as the yank back on top to Stickingspit bottom was the first time I felt the extra weight of the camping gear and hands up, Granny Ring was engaged to to give some relief to the chain and of course my legs. These little adventures are always about relishing the little things and enjoying the small rewards. Cocking farm had been on my mind for quite a few miles. This was my planned late lunch stop providing it was open. Quintessential Sussex farm shop, chainsaw crafted benches with chunky sandwiches and sausage rolls of the same ilk, awaited me after the gradual 4 mile descent. With 8 minutes to spare before the barn door was closed for the day, the hearty fillings and big mouthfuls were enjoyed as the less travelled next 12 miles to QECP puzzled my thoughts. A few clouds brought in a dull light whilst the legs woke up again from their Cocking rest bite and late afternoon gave over to the solemn early evening. My ears strangely set to mute and the sun winning its tug-o-war with the clouds, I was immersed in watching the squirrels scurrying around on the chalky highway whilst the hillsides put on an array of deep rich greens. Legs set to cruise control, I had to stop at Buriton farm before the 90 degree turn and take in the picture perfect setting the lucky occupants dwell in.
One last throw of the leg over the top tube and the last push to QECP lay before me and that well earned jar of Ale. Not seeing a soul for some time, I was treated to my own live paragliding show as mountain biking and another extreme sport shared the same playground and high definition panoramic views on top of Harting Down thanks to the evening glow. An exchange of mutual appreciation with a glancing nod before I rolled off the hill almost as quiet as the gliders floated on the thermals. Knowing the best riding was now behind me, I was fixed on the 2 tents. My tent and the beer tent. Churning out the last few miles and arriving in QECP's NE corner, I was welcomed by the festival's enduro racers lurching up the climb I was rolling down. On their way to practice the stages that they were itching to race on in a couple of hours. Joyed by arriving, was still being overshadowed by the experience of riding on the South Downs at a time of day that made it come to life in many ways. Putting up the tent at the foot of Butser Hill, I relived the best parts of the journey and the same warm feeling of adventure and immersing myself in the appreciation of the simple things, that brought back many great memories of heading out into New Zealand's remote wilderness of the 'old ghost road'. Half the world away and on so many ways, on different levels, but the senses and the reasons why, are identical.
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