I had no plans for the weekend, but the forecast was for sunny skies. That idyllic English summer day that occurs so rarely! So whatever I chose to do it was going to be outside. I chose to bike the South Downs Way.
The South Downs Way is a long distance off-road route of 100 miles that goes from Winchester to Eastbourne, in the south-east. It can be walked in a week or cycled over a weekend. I cycled.
So when I finished work at Friday lunchtime, I packed the car with bike, panniers, clothes, sleeping bag and any food that was in the cupboards or fridge, and drove down to Winchester.
There are a number of free car parks along the way, so I parked at the closest one to Winchester, a place bizarrely called Cheesefoot Head, and off I cycled.
It is a scenic route over rolling landscape, mostly along a white path where the underlying chalk shows through.
As evening came along, I stopped to watch four hares chasing each other, darting and leaping in and out of the forest by the bridleway. Until the hares stopped briefly to watch me before darting off into the safety of the woodland.
As the sun began to set and I ate my meagre dinner of sandwich and banana, feasting instead on the last rays shining through the trees creating brilliant patterns on the ground of leaves.
Deciding to pedal on until it was dark, I was lucky to see a herd of deer and then also a badger from barely a few feet away. And as the stars began to show, I pulled off the path and slept by the hedgerow in my sleeping bag.
I’d not slept so well in weeks and the sun had been up a few hours before I emerged the next day.
So Saturday I got straight back on the bike and pedalled on towards the coast. The way was busy with walkers and other cyclists. The route passes through rural land and there are many gates to open and close. But they are a great place to stop and catch your breath after slogging up yet another hill.
The more I travel, the smaller the world seems. And in the space of a few hours I’ve met a family whose next-door-neighbour, Paul Howard, biked the Great Divide in 2009 (the same route I am going to cycle later this year), a guy who travelled through Africa 20 years ago (he’d taken an almost identical route to the one I just cycled) and I was spotted by Al Humphreys (a round-the-world cyclist and adventurer who I’d met a few weeks ago).
It was with tired legs that I arrived in Eastbourne on Saturday evening, just 30 hours after starting. I took the train to visit a cousin in Brighton where I devoured a well-deserved Chinese takeaway. The following day was wet and I took my bike on the train back to Winchester and cycled those last few miles back to the car.
The South Downs Way is a great ride if you like to keep off the roads. It can be biked in a weekend and there are good train connections to and from both Winchester and Eastbourne. If you prefer to go at a more leisurely pace or take in some side-trips, then 3-4 days might be better. That said, some people do it in just a day, although I think that must be without gear. The route is well sign-posted, with one or two exceptions, so a map and/or gps should be taken.
And here’s the gps tracks of the route…