Friday, 20 September 2013

Bikepacking the South Downs Way

Bikepacking – I had never done it before, but decided that I really wanted to. I had already known about the South Downs Way for some time, and had decided that this would be the ideal route for my first bikepacking trip.

Not wanting to do the trip alone, but not knowing anyone who I thought would want to do this trip, I advertised on Explorers Connect for team mates. This turned out to be a brilliant idea, as I ended up with a really great group to do this with. We had a mixture of experience between us, and crucially one of the guys, Chris, was pretty experienced at bikepacking and it was brilliant to have him with us. The others were Moritz, who I had already met up with a few times for planning the trip, and a friend of Chris’s, Harry, who was also an experienced rider.

On the first morning I met up with Moritz in London to catch the train to Winchester, where we met Chris and Harry for the first time. Introductions complete, we set off down the hill from the station to find the start of the trail. 

99 problems...

The start of the trail was a little tricky to locate at first, but once we were on our way it was beautiful – although pretty hot!! The sun beamed down on us, and we all developed fantasies of finding a lovely country pub and sitting in the beer garden for ice cold drinks… mmmm…   We found the perfect pub, complete with beer garden, and closed! The next pubs were also closed, but when we found a lovely looking place with a cool stream at the bottom of the beer garden, we decided to wait until it opened. The sun-warmed water we carried with us just couldn’t hold a candle to the thought of a nice pint of something cold…

While we waited we did a bit of admin, sorting out bike niggles and cooling our feet in the stream. The pub opened, we got our drinks, and refreshed we headed off once again into the English countryside. As evening drew in and the sun sank lower, it cast a beautiful golden glow over the fields of golden wheat, rewarding climbs with glorious views over rolling countryside.

We continued following the single tracks, not making quite the progress I would have liked - unfortunately my fitness was not where I wanted it as I had been injured and unable to do any kind of training for a few weeks before the trip, and I was not used to pedalling with so much weight on my bike. We had also made a later-than-ideal start due to the restrictions on taking bikes though London stations during rush hour. Therefore we didn’t make it all the way to our planned first night’s stop, but instead wild-camped in a handy field. We lay out ground sheets and sleeping bags, then prepared and ate our camp food as the sun went down, and we even enjoyed a tot of whisky thanks to Harry and his hip flask. Then, lying under the stars with curious sheep for company and the glow of the lights of London visible above the horizon, we settled for our first night’s sleep on the trail.

Home Sweet Home for night 1

In the morning I was surprised not to be aching more after the unaccustomed effort the previous day, and after breakfasting and breaking camp, plus a little bit of posing with our various bikepacking set ups, we hit the trail again. More single track led onto some larger rolling hills and some very fast descending into the Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP), at which point coffee and cake was a lure too strong to resist. It’s a tough life on the trail… ;)

Coffee and cake at Queen Elizabeth Country Park

Here we discovered that we had inadvertently managed to coincide our trip with the Oxfam and Gurkhas Trailwalker event. This walk goes from QECP to Brighton via a significant section of the South Downs Way trail, and for the rest of the day we had to share the trail with hundreds of walkers, constantly calling out to them so they could move aside to let us pass – or in my case on the steep uphill sections, trying not to feel too disheartened as the walkers passed me!

The ground now is very chalky, and the clouds are rolling in. We divert a few kilometres off the trail to get lunch at a pub, and here Chris’s first aid skills are called upon as not only did Moritz take a tumble on the track down to the road, but an old lady arriving at the pub falls and injures herself, requiring an ambulance to be called. At this point I am pretty knackered, and with Moritz in pain (though not admitting it at all) and Chris busy helping various people, lunch is much deserved and we take a decent break before leaving again.

Moritz's poor knee

This allows the clouds to further gather, and it starts to rain. Chalk + water = very slick ground, and we have to work hard to keep control of the bikes. The wheels slip around making it slow going, and there is a real risk of falling at some points and picking up more injuries to the group. We push on as there is nothing else to do, but the rain falls harder and I for one can feel it leaching away my morale.

Descending again, carefully this time rather than enjoying the cruise, we arrive in a field to a round of cheers as the Trailwalker volunteers are welcoming in the Trailwalkers to a checkpoint. All the volunteers are really friendly and they take pity on us in the rain, letting us have some tea and cakes in their refreshment tent. Moritz is able to get some more attention for his badly cut knee, and his wrist is now hurting him quite a bit where he sprained it when he fell. We also make use of the giant route map they have up to try and identify a suitable camping spot for the night. While we’re there, I spot someone I know – I previously worked with one of the Gurkhas there, and he’s the site commander for this checkpoint. He offers us the chance to shelter at the site for the night, and we have a difficult decision to make. The point of the journey was to be self-supported and taking up help seems to defeat this objective, however our shelters are not really adequate for the heaviness of the rain, the wet chalky ground is treacherous and darkness is close. 

Photo courtesy of Chris

We settle on a compromise; identifying on the map a potential spot for the night, we decide to ride out to it. If it’s suitable we will camp there, and if not we will return to the checkpoint. We pedal off again through the mud and on towards the trees we saw on the map, but when we get there it realy isn’t a great camping site, and feeling soggy and chilled we all decide to head back to the friendly Gurkha checkpoint. There, we have the opportunity to dry off and get into clean clothes, and warm up with some very welcome cups of tea. 

Cooking dinner, Gurkha-style

The Gurkhas are awesome and really know how to look after themselves – they have a fire going and I join in for a bit as they prepare and cook up a brilliant communal meal. We all eat and chat and express our thanks to our unlikely hosts, and then us bikepackers head off to our shelter. It is full of midgies, and there is an interesting interlude as Harry plays a weird kind of Pied Piper, switching off all lighting within the tent and leading away streams of midgies with the light of his head torch!

Settling into our sleeping bags for the night, I realise that I feel really happy. I hadn’t been at all confident in my physical ability to cycle like this for days, had not felt hugely confident in my ability to organise it happening, hadn’t even been sure whether I would go through with it all! But here we all were, after two days on the trail. I had actually managed to overcome my insecurities and organised and took part in this trip. I may not have cycled as well as the others, but I had got out and done something, and it felt so good.

We ended our journey here – we had another day at our disposal, but Moritz needed to protect his injuries as he was to be a skipper on a charter yacht shortly after this trip. Chris had bad saddle sore despite his good equipment and experience, and my leg muscles were really starting to rebel with soreness and stiffness. Harry was fine, though he is a machine – at one point while cycling uphill on a road section, he had actually been strong enough to give me a push when I was struggling! We are near to Amberley, so we get breakfast overlooking the river and then jump on a train back to London together.

Homeward bound

The South Downs Way has not been completed this time, but that’s all the more reason to go back again.

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