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Dirty weekender: Hitting the gravel trails of Sussex

In-depth
10 Jun 2020
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Two days on the trails that criss-cross rural Sussex prove you don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth for a true bikepacking adventure, as we found in July 2019 This article was originally published in issue 2 of Cyclist Off-Road magazine

Words Sam Challis Photography Camille McMillan

Stepping off an air-conditioned carriage onto the platform at Haywards Heath train station, the high summer heat feels stifling. It’s Friday evening and commuters are bustling this way and that as their working week draws to a close. If any of them looked up from their phones long enough to notice my bike, with its burly tyres and bikepacking bags, they’d probably assume I was off to some far-flung location hours away from civilisation.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The 18:05 train from London Bridge took just 47 minutes to get me here, and even the furthest limits of my expedition over the next two days won’t take me beyond the boundaries of a single county: Sussex.

On the face of it, my fully laden bike is overkill, but Sussex is England in microcosm. There is the scope to do some proper adventuring – the county has a rich and colourful history with its own distinct local culture and produce, not to mention unusually diverse geography.

You can even use it as a departure point and strike out into Europe via the port at Newhaven. It’s this mix of elements that makes Sussex so ideal for exploration by gravel bike.

My companions for the weekend are local riders Claire, Nick and Cal, and after meeting at the station we spin lazily the few kilometres to our campsite. The easiest way to get there is by road, but either way we are still treated to a few tantalising glimpses of paths into trees as we pass through sections of dense woodland.

As a devout road rider up until now I’d never normally have given the openings a second thought, let alone a wistful stare, but the rhythmic buzzing of wide, knobbly tyres on tarmac keeps reminding me that the bike I’m riding now is capable of a lot more than the machines I usually ride.

Nick chuckles knowingly when I mention this to him. He runs cycling adventure travel company RPM90, and so has seen the temptations of gravel work their way under the skin of roadies many times before.

‘I’ve no doubt you’ll scratch that itch tomorrow. We’re in for a big couple of days,’ he promises as we pitch our tents. ‘It’s worth remembering that you can’t judge distance from a road cycling perspective. So 100km is a huge effort on gravel – probably the equivalent of 160km of road riding – and we’re doing two 100km days back to back.’

Cal and Claire may be all smiles at this, but it prompts a gulp of cartoon-like proportions from me. I suddenly see the merits of getting an early night, because it sounds like I’ll need all the rest I can get if I’m to survive the weekend.

Into the unknown

Sleeping in a tent during the summer means an early rise is unavoidable, so we’re up and on our bikes before the proverbial cockerel has finished his crow. It is to be a gentle introduction to the day, involving a roll down into Ditchling to stop at Velusso, a bike-friendly cafe that acts as a hub for cycling in the local area.

We’re served a supreme spread of delicious and nutritious breakfast food washed down with a few cups of strong coffee. I can’t imagine a better way to kick off the day, and already I’m seeing benefits to gravel riding I hadn’t previously considered.

Those massive tyres are incredibly comfortable to ride on; my several-days-unshaven legs haven’t once been scoffed at; and the absence of Lycra jerseys means the bulge of my breakfast-stuffed stomach goes unnoticed.

Broadly speaking, our route today will cover the western side of Sussex, with tomorrow exploring the east. We’ll be returning to the same campsite tonight, meaning we can leave a good chunk of our gear back at base and only pack the day’s essentials.

Tomorrow will be all about the South Downs but today is about weaving in and out of the Weald, the densely wooded area between the chalk escarpments of the North and South Downs.

A short stretch of road riding is necessary to start us off and I’m pleasantly surprised at how quickly our sluggish-looking get-ups allow us to clip along on the tarmac. But it isn’t long before the roads get smaller, their surfaces rougher, and it’s here that our bikes truly come alive.

The Weald is criss-crossed with bridleways, byways and singletrack, and whizzing along at 30kmh over rutted, winding mud paths half the width of a bike lane while being whipped by branches and brambles is a bit of a shock to the system.

We dart between sections of gravel linked by short stretches of tarmac, repeatedly crashing through undergrowth only to be spat out onto Sussex’s B-roads like whack-a-moles. Cal draws parallels to the cobbles of northern France and Belgium and I’m inclined to agree.

Each off-road segment involves a few minutes of chaos, concentration and effort, then a switch is flicked and suddenly you’re back on the tarmac and everything is all calm and controlled again.

As we meander our way across rolling fields, past farms and through quaint villages, I begin to understand that gravel riding is more about improvisation than rigid planning. Little bolt-on sections can be ad-libbed mid-route secure in the knowledge that gravel bikes are versatile enough to handle it.

It helps that Cal works for Mason, a Sussex-based bike brand, and knows these seemingly random and often invisible trails like the back of his hand.

‘Our route is serpentine, mirroring the fact that for many years the Weald was impenetrable to humans and the routes taken were shaped by the will of the woods,’ he says.

Buckhatch Lane is documented as having had repair work in 1649, so is at least 370 years old, while Sponketts Lane was used as the main way to Shoreham in the 13th century and was frequently targeted by highwaymen who buried their victims in the surrounding woods.

Fortunately, all I have to worry about is negotiating some tricky cross-country mountain bike singletrack. The others don’t hesitate and flow serenely away as I hack my way up and over, round and down the sinuous trail.

Learning curves

A bit of elevation gain has gone unnoticed – trying to avoid bailing spectacularly into hedges while chasing my more adept riding companions will do that – and over the next few kilometres we spend those banked metres by flying down some wide, chalky tracks.

I’d liken gravel descending to skiing off-piste – the thrill comes as much from the technical challenge as it does from the speed.

Just outside of Shipley we turn onto Boar Lane and Cal pipes up with another nugget of local history. ‘Supposedly there is a “zero station” buried somewhere along this lane that was used to intercept radio communications during World War One.

‘Between here and St Leonard’s Forest there have been loads of finds from the war. A lot has happened here that hasn’t found its way into the history books – the locals claim that’s down to the impenetrability of the Weald. It hides all sorts in its trees.’

I initially dismiss Cal’s ominous tone, at least until we reach the two-metre fences of the 3,500-acre Knepp Estate, which look like something out of Jurassic Park. Fortunately those fences surrounding this rewilding project are to protect the carefully cultivated wildlife inside, rather than to stop it from getting out.

It’s welcome news as by now I’m really starting to feel today’s effort – there are no free kilometres on gravel, and a sprint away from irate wildlife might not end well. Instead, we proceed carefully through our chunk of the estate, keen not to disturb the boars and deer that live here.

‘As gravel riders we must be stewards of the Earth that we ride on,’ says Cal. ‘This is a well known and respected notion in the adventure sports community, but for riders new to the scene it’s not the first thing they think about.’

‘Gravel riding fosters a more inclusive culture, providing ample opportunity to connect with not just local riders, but local producers for food and drink too,’ Nick adds.

‘For example, tonight’s dinner is sourced entirely from Sussex – there’s beef and veg from farms just down the road, bread from a bakery in Glynde, a village on tomorrow’s route, and earlier we rode past the brewery that is supplying our beer.’

Back at camp there’s a lot to reflect on, but I start seeing the bigger picture as we tuck into dinner, the high-quality local food easing muscles deeply fatigued from the day’s efforts as we sit around the campfire sharing stories. Gravel riding really is so much more than just riding a bike.

Up onto the Downs

Unsurprisingly I’ve barely found my way into my sleeping bag before I’m out like a light, only to be woken by the sound of rain drumming on my tent the next morning. It rouses everyone and concerns Nick, who’s routemaster today and planning to take us on the chalky rises and drops of the South Downs.

‘Dry chalk is grippy but wet chalk is a very different matter. We might end up walking bits today,’ he says, looking disappointedly up at the dank sky.

Thankfully, however, the rain abates and soon we’re being warmed by the summer sun. Our route is practically bone dry by the time we hit the first white track up onto the Downs at Blackcap, with just the odd patch of damp keeping us on our toes as our rear tyres occassionally spin and lose traction. While the peaks in the Downs aren’t especially high, never reaching more than around 250m, the routes up them are all short and sharp.

As the gradient ramps up into double figures I’m thankful for my bike’s one-to-one gear ratio – it allows a quick cadence so I can maintain some semblance of forward motion when the ruts and gullies need to be powered over, around or through. A few minutes of hard effort sees us crest the hill and roll onto its grassy top.

Being one of the first high points inland from the south coast it’s windy and exposed up here, but the views are expansive. To the north and west the rolling pastures and trees of the Weald stretch into the distance, the smoggy grey of London’s concrete and metal hidden beyond the horizon.

We really could be miles from anywhere, and it’s hard to believe I’m less than an hour from the city.

A steep descent through a hillside copse spits us onto the outskirts of Lewes, and riding into the town via its impressive castle gates we ogle at the remains of the castle, which was built to guard the gap in the South Downs cut by the river Ouse. We stop for a coffee.

‘This was the site of the battle of Lewes in 1264 between Henry III and Simon de Montfort, who was victorious,’ says Nick. ‘And at the time of the Marian Persecutions in 1555-1557, 17 Protestant martyrs were burned at the stake in front of the Star Inn, about 50 metres from here.’

Lewes is also famous for its Guy Fawkes celebrations, during which flaming tar barrels are rolled and carried through the town, and for its use of the Lewes pound, a local currency equivalent to sterling that can be used in 130 local shops. Brilliantly, it comes in £1, £5, £10 and £21 note denominations, and some shops charge less if Lewes pounds are used to purchase goods.

The Downs dominate the landscape here so it isn’t long before we’re toiling up our next meaty ascent, this time up onto Mount Caburn, the site of an Iron Age fort that gave its inhabitants a defensible position over the valley north along the Ouse.

Livestock have kept the grassy route neatly trimmed so for once the speed of our ascent is governed by power rather than technical skill, and these more familiar road-like demands mean I reach the top comfortably.

Mount Caburn kicks off a rollercoaster of technical ups and downs. We blast through Glynde, then across to Firle, a historic village that sits at the base of a prolonged climb up to Firle Beacon, but then our progress is hindered by the combination of chunky flint, greasy chalk and steep ramps that have us hike-a-biking to rejoin the iconic South Downs Way, a prodigiously challenging 160km off-road point-to-point route that winds from Winchester to Eastbourne.

The tumultuous first half of today’s route on top of yesterday’s effort is taking it out of all of us, so I’m glad we’re only riding a fraction of it before turning back into more Weald-esque environs.

Just a couple of quick pit stops are all that’s needed to get us back to our campsite by early afternoon. I’m a curious mix of worn out and invigorated at just how much we’ve achieved in a single weekend.

All that remains is to break down camp, re-stuff it into my bikepacking bags and pedal the short distance back to Haywards Heath station to catch the train home. My weekend adventure is over before I know it, but as I sit staring out of the train window as the landscape changes back from rural to cityscape, I know I’ve got a lot of great stories to tell in the office tomorrow. And a £21 note with which to buy a coffee on my way in…

Weekend whereabouts

Follow our two-day adventure

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/or2/sussex. From Blackberry Wood Campsite, travel west until just after Albourne, where you’ll get onto lanes and then bridleways as you begin to track north. Cross Cowfold Road to the right of Cowfold, and continue north until you reach Colgate. From there take a left onto Forest Road then another left to turn south.

The serpentine route circumnavigates the east side of Mannings Heath, then Maplehurst, cutting through woodland to reach Shipley. Keep tracking south until you reach Steyning, then loop underneath the town and ride parallel to Edburton Road in the fields to the south, before turning north and retracing your steps from Hurstpierpoint to Blackberry Wood.

On day two, head east up onto Blackcap. Descend off the hill into Lewes, then climb Mount Caburn. Drop down into Glynde and then Firle before joining the South Downs Way at Firle Beacon.

At Berwick head off-road north to Whitesmith, where you can then wiggle west though Isfield, Barcombe Cross and South Chailey. Make use of the small local roads to head southwest to pick up Plumpton Lane, then retrace your route back to Blackberry Wood.

The rider’s ride

Rose Backroad Force eTap AXS, £3,084.83, rosebikes.co.uk

Gravel bikes have to cope with far more diverse terrain than road bikes, so component choice is often key to the success of the bike’s performance. To spec Sram’s Force eTap AXS on a £3,000 bike is impressive, and it made all the difference too – the tactile lever paddles and Orbit fluid clutch meant gear changes were always slick, even on rough ground and under load.

Hunt’s 650b Adventure Carbon wheels were a change to the original spec but were needed to make the most of the Backroad’s wide tyre clearances. The 47mm WTB Sendero tyres mounted on Hunt’s wide, light rims were comfortable, grippy and forgiving of all manner of user errors that would otherwise have seen me end up on my backside. Centrally, though, these components were supported by an accomplished frame design.

The Backroad was robust enough to take a beating along the Weald’s rutted singletracks yet the total build weight of 8.3kg was light enough to allow me to climb the steep chalk tracks up the South Downs efficiently.

The frame’s geometry put me in a shorter, higher position than I’m used to on a road bike but this made it easier to maintain comfort over two long days and aided my control over the technical terrain.

How we did it

Travel

It’s simple to reach rural Sussex from central London. Cyclist Off-Road took a train from London Bridge to Hayward’s Heath station – it took less than an hour and return tickets can cost from as little as £15 if you book in advance. From there it is a simple 10km ride south to the Blackberry Wood campsite.

Accommodation

Talking of which, Blackberry Wood is a secluded campsite at the foot of the South Downs. Each pitch is surrounded by trees and includes a fire pit so groups have their own space to make camp.

There are basic amenities such as showers and toilets, but if regular camping isn’t your style the campsite also has luxury cabins and treehouses. There is even a converted double decker bus, helicopter and gypsy caravan if you want somewhere truly eccentric to bed down.

Regular pitches in peak season (May to September) cost around £17 per night for one adult and one tent. 

Thanks

A lot of individuals deserve credit for making this trip as successful as it was. Thanks to local rider Claire Frecknall for being good company all weekend, and thanks to Cairn Cycles for supplying the e-gravel bike for our photographer.

Velusso Cafe laid on a fantastic spread to set us up on our first day, and huge praise must go to a whole group of local producers for providing the fare that comprised our amazing campfire dinner: Andrew Knowles at Trenchmore Farm for the Wagu beef and Silly Moo cider, Paul Swaffield of Bestens Brewery for the pale ales, Barcombe Nurseries for the organic veg and Flint Owl Bakery for the bread.

Cal Nicklin of Mason Cycles deserves credit for his logistical efforts, input into the routes, cooking prowess after a long ride and useful nuggets of local knowledge as we rode. For more information on Mason, visit masoncycles.cc.

Finally, thanks to Nick Miles for doing the bulk of the organisation as well as acting as a ride guide, chef and historian on the trip. Cyclist Off-Road has never seen someone handle so many logistics so calmly. Nick runs RPM90 Cycling Adventures, a bespoke cycling adventure travel company. For more info visit rpm90.com.