The South Downs Way: a proper adventure right on our doorstep
It was one of those moments when you have a second or two of clarity. Was this really a good idea?
100 miles to Winchester. A glorious Saturday morning in Eastbourne, for sure, but here we were: me and my son (Monty, normally known on our socials as HMC Junior), a pair of cyclocross bikes, and a century of ancient tracks stretching before us. And hills, lots of hills - over 3000 metres of climbing. Oh, and for reasons of convenience, we were doing it the ‘wrong’ way, east to west, a decision I was rapidly questioning the sanity of as the headwind stiffened.
But we were committed now, and we were off.
I only have a partial history with the South Downs Way, despite the fact it starts (or finishes, in our case) in Winchester. We’re at the ‘low’ end, where the hills are shallower and the paths easier. I’d never travelled further than Chichester along its route, so we set of with blind hope and not a little foreboding.
This was to be my annual micro-adventure with HMC Junior, which generally are built around a bike ride, an overnight and and very tired young lad by the end of it. This was a step up though, and with him just turned 13 I was worried it was a big ask. HMC Junior is a font of positivity about these things though, a well he would need to dip into liberally across the weekend. As a nod to the intensity of the ride we’d sacked off the initial intention to wild camp en route, and so we had the luxury of Mrs HMC and my daughter acting as support in an amazing VW California camper van (blagged for the weekend from a friend at Marshalls VW), for greater overnight comfort and the option to call in an airlift as needed.
We were settled in for the long haul. Lots of stops, a proper break for lunch, tons of fuel. Ah yes, the fuel:
One big pack of:
• Werthers Originals
• Wine Gums
• Jelly Babies
• 10x rice cakes - the Allam Lim magic ones that are the best bike fuel ever
• 8 x cereal bars
• Magnum ice cream
• Massive Mr Whippy
• Coca Cola
...Comfort eating on the bike basically, a constant grazing through the ride - the best way to celebrate ticking off a milestone or cresting a hill.
And what hills they are. Not the highest - just 270m at Butser Hill - but steep, and constant. Despite their low(ish) level, the views are frequently staggering, especially looking north across the Weald to the North Downs and Surrey Hills. The Way follows the ridge of the escarpment, so the views are many and frequent. All of which leads to a glorious ride - pockmarked with deep valleys riven through the chalk by rivers, leading to the saw-tooth profile of the ride, its biggest challenge.
It’s also remarkably wild for a ride that never strays more than a few miles from the coast. You need to carry your fuel, because you’ll not pass so much as a petrol station along the way, with the exception of the cafe at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, the pub (and the view, what a view!) at Devil’s Dyke and an ice cream van at Ditchling. Other than that, you’re on your own.
On. Keep moving, even if slowly. Some tough, steep, rocky descents that tested both our Forme Calver ‘cross bikes and our nerve. Some tough, steep, rocky climbs where we ran out of gearing and cursed and lusted after e-bikes in equal measure as we pushed our way up.
A long, hard slog of a day, six hours total and 35 miles complete. We knocked it on the head at Devils Dyke, just 5 miles short of our planned campsite: we could have made it, but day two loomed large and I took the decision to call in the VW airlift. HMC Junior was asleep within a minute of getting in the van (and had recovered enough to play football as soon as we reached the campsite - turns out a 13 year old’s batteries are rechargeable, and quick to charge too).
It was at the campsite that we realised our biggest problem. Given time alone with the VW camper van, Mrs HMC had fallen head over heels. Completely smitten. We used to have an old Mazda Bongo van that was a bit like an unreliable uncle, or a badly behaved family pet. We adored it, but it was not to be trusted, and frequently let itself down. The California was your charming cousin, the one that goes to a really good school, who is great at sports, knows where he is going in life. You should really hate him as he’s just too perfect, but you just can’t - he is just so damned nice. I drifted off to sleep dreaming of HMC branded VWs, the ultimate CX team van. Well, we can all dream…
Day two: longer, shallower, but still another 1550 metres of up. Rubber band boy’s legs had recovered and he was optimistic for the day ahead. Despite a pounding, our kit had proved itself worthy and we were hopeful of slightly easier paths - we’d soon be on more familiar routes. The day was longer, with 55 miles planned, and we mentally set Queen Elizabeth Country park as Monty’s potential finish line for the day, some 35 miles down the trail.
And the kit? We were on cyclocross bikes, and while we saw a couple of other riders on gravel rigs it’s really an MTB trail, if only so you can relax a bit and really enjoy the descents. but HMC Junior doesn’t have a mountain bike, so we rode our CX bikes in solidarity, took the occasional pounding, and made the most of the flatter, faster, funner sections that the western end brings.
• Bikes: Forme Calver and Forme Calver SLC
• Wheels: Mavic All-road
• Tyres: Hutchinson Overide 38mm, tubeless - no punctures, but we were glad it was dry, slippery wet chalk would not have been fun no matter which tyres you rode.
Day two passed in more a blur, less stops, steady progress, less photos, and the alarming sight of HMC Junior dropping me on a couple of hills. His determination and stamina was really astounding, he had never tried anything as tough as this and not one word of complaint was passed across the whole weekend.
However, as we rendezvoused at QECP (for many the end of the ’true’ SDW) and he fell asleep at the table we reluctantly took the decision to pull him from the remaining 20 miles. He could have done it, he wanted to do it, be we were worried that he would break himself through his own determination. And - selfishly - I didn’t want to put him off future adventures. As your kids grow these moments are to be treasured, preserved… two days with him all to myself, a tough, hard, glorious treat.
We parted, and I flew the last score back to Winchester and home, with new found respect for the trail, for those who scale it in a day, and making a personal vow to never, ever, be talked into the ‘double’.
But most of all I came away with some new perspectives. I’d come to appreciate just how wild, rugged and downright beautiful the countryside was on our very doorstep, every inch as beautiful as anywhere in the country. And I had a new view of my son. I’d been able to see just how much he has grown, how strong and fit he now is and had a glimpse of what he may grow to become. I’d seen him draw on reserves that i don’t think either of us knew he had. And I hope that for him too, this little adventure will have allowed him to learn about himself, to learn even more how to appreciate the world around us, to know that no matter how hard the challenge he can dig deep and overcome - and that every challenge should end with a comfy bed and mum’s spaghetti bolognese.