Feeling the need to get some branches in my hair, I devised a mash up route of the Downs Overnighter and the King Alfred’s Way, to spend a long weekend bikepacking up and around the North and South Downs.
Day 1: Oxford to Reading (to Ash)
After much faffing and wondering whether I’d brought enough/too many clothes, I set off pedaling south. There’s a ford between two bridleways in Drayton St Leonard that, on paper, provides a great off road route going south from Oxford. I thought I’d have a quick look to see if it was crossable. Unsurprisingly given the recent rain it was more at a swimming height rather than a wading height. Long way round it was then.
Even though it’s not far from home my route took me on some lovely new lanes over the Ridgeway with swooping descents down to Goring. From Goring I picked up the King Alfred’s Way route and the Thames path to Pangbourne. This cuts away from the river for a bit with some surprisingly steep short climbs and drops that had me walking the bike. The trail brings you almost straight into the train station at Reading where I hopped on to take the train to Ash.
From Ash I rode 15 minutes to the campsite at Hampton Estate near Seale. Unlike many new “eco” campsites that charge you £20 to camp in an empty field, these folks have actually made a leave no trace campsite. Compostable toilets, own spring water supply, tap stations built with trees from their wood that they planted more trees in place, cold showers in the woods. The North Downs Way goes through the edge of the campsite, so I walked along it to the pub in Puttenham for dinner.
Day 2: Seale to Cocking
Rain always sounds worse on canvas, except when it actually is as bad as it sounds. With the forecast not meant to improve for a few hours I began the delightful task of packing up camp in the rain. Packing up a wet tent may be my least favourite part of camping, but starting the day having packed all of my belongings onto my bike (or back, if hiking) is something I find immensely satisfying. I felt very self sufficient until I stopped at a cafe 5 miles in for a breakfast coffee and pastry.
Today covered stages 7 and 8 of the King Alfred’s Way and it was delightful. The KAW connects up larger trails with quiet lanes or lesser used bridleways. The recent rain had churned up some of the paths but for the most part it was very rideable.
The forestry tracks through M.O.D. areas were great fun and easy riding through the pine trees. I did a slight detour around some soldiers laying seige to a hill. Frensham Common and the purple heather was beautiful and probably actually a bit better for the rain, else the sand would be rather hard going.
The rain eased off and I removed my rain jacket as it became increasingly humid. I played leapfrog with a couple riding the KAW, huffing and puffing up the rocky ascents.
“I’m trying to avoid the big ones…” one panted, referring to the rocks on the track. “But they’re all big!”
The climb flattened off and we were riding along the edge of the Devil’s Punch Bowl – so called because the devil teased Thor by jumping around the hillside until Thor scooped up a fistful of earth and chucked it at the devil. All I can say is that it has a great National Trust tea room.
After a short muddy woodland section I bombed down a fast open descent to a gate at the bottom. The gate was padlocked, which meant I had to lift my bike over the stile. As I was contemplating quite how I was going to do this, two strapping young men skidded up beside me, lifted their fashionably retro bikes over with ease, then hauled mine across. [I looked on an OS map afterwards and apparently the bridleway runs along the fence for ~200m, but I couldn’t see anything.]
I rolled along on quiet lanes, but seeing the dark skies ahead and the rain being dumped on the hills, I took a tactical pub stop for an early dinner at the foot of the South Downs.
Up onto the downs the trail switched between doubletrack, grassy paths, light gravel and chalky, rocky descents. There were very few other people around in the evening and I mooed at the cows as I pedaled past them in the sunset. After a particularly long and rocky descent, I arrived at Manor Farm, just south of Cocking and right on the South Downs Way. They have a small field for walkers and cyclists that has great views north from the downs. I swapped ride reports and route choices with another rider who turned out to be doing the Downs Overnighter loop – but actually doing it as an overnighter rather than my more casual speed.
Day 3: Cocking to Truleigh
I wasn’t riding particularly far today but I had lots of cafés to patron, so I left at the same time as the other riders and walkers.
Despite the overcast skies I wore my sunglasses to reduce the glare from the chalk trails. Having walked the South Downs Way before I knew how hilly it was going to be today but when walking you don’t really clock the roughness of the rocks, and the trenches and grooves of the trail.
At the bottom of a characteristically steep descent, a new cycling themed café had appeared on a farm and I pulled in for a coffee, leaning my bike against the rack of very fancy road bikes. My disc brake rotors pinged faintly as they cooled down from the descent. The coffee was fantastic and it was nice swapping trail stories and riding plans with the other cyclists. High end aero road bikes are like nice cars to me; I can appreciate them, but I do not covet them.
There’s a beast of a hill after dropping down to the A24, which I climbed almost entirely with my ego. I got caught up in a charity MTB ride and overtook some of the riders on unladen bikes, and got cries of support and surprise. It was then a gradual descent along the ridge where I had brief exchanges with some of the riders as we whizzed down the rough doubletrack together.
I pulled off from their route and the South Downs Way to drop down to Shoreham-by-sea to sit on the beach. I highly recommend the chips from the Perch on Lancing beach. I rolled along the promenade until I picked up the gravel trail along the river to rejoin the South Downs Way. One final climb up to the YHA – hostels are always on a hill.
This was my second time staying at the YHA Truleigh, and it was the second time I switched from a camping booking to a room because of the weather. I gave my room a distinct eau de wet tent smell as I unpacked all of my sopping wet gear. The shower was, by all objective measures, terrible, but it was heaven to me as I washed two days of grime away. I had dinner in the café, clean-ish and dry, watching the storm roll in from the sea.
Day 5: Truleigh to Reading (to Oxford)
The keen eyed among you will notice that I’ve skipped from day 3 to 5. I took a pause day at the YHA on the South Downs as the idea of riding all day and camping in a Met Office yellow rain-and-thunderstorm warning didn’t particularly appeal. No points for suffering on my rides. This meant that I had a day to get home – the plan was to ride as far as I felt like, then get the train home.
The ride up to Guildford was on the Downs Link which is an old railway line between the North and South downs. It’s mostly a flat and wide light gravel trail and can be quite busy with walkers and cyclists, but was pretty empty when I rode it on an early Tuesday morning. Unfortunately the surfacing varies significantly, and given the amount of rain that fell yesterday, in places the trail resembled a string of sloppy puddles more than solid ground.
I stopped off in Cranleigh for elevenses – one consequence of Covid and the flourish of alfresco dining means it’s much easier to get a table at cafes where you can keep an eye on your bike.
“Is this your bike?” I looked up from my french toast to see an old man admiring it beneath the mud. He told me about his cycling adventures when he was younger, cycling Lands End to John O’Groats, road racing, and how he’d just had surgery for skin cancer which he attributed to all his time in the sun on the bike. He wished me well and left me to it. I put on some more sun cream.
I caught a glance of myself in the mirror in the café bathroom, and where I thought I’d been brushing off some of the mud on my back, I’d actually been rubbing it in. With the notion that I would finish today looking anywhere near decent firmly dispelled, I returned to attacking the mud puddles with more gusto.
I cut across from Guildford to Farnham on the North Downs Way. Very different to the South Downs Way, it meanders through old woodlands and holloways. The paths felt old, as if I might turn the corner and meet a horse and cart, or travelling pilgrims. From Farnham I picked up stage 6 of the King Alfred’s Way. I passed a cottage with eggs for sale on the drive, as is common, but each chicken had their own row for offering. I felt sorry for Dinah, with no eggs, and had visions of a Chicken Run style ending for the poor hen.
Heading into Riseley I joined the “Devil’s Highway”, an old Roman road connecting London and the west country. This started off as a nice quiet lane, which soon gave way to light gravel, then rough gravel, then a muddy track through head-height nettles. Closer to Reading the bridleways were smaller and slower going in the mud, but in the dry they would be very pretty.
I followed the cycle paths along the river into Reading and only had to join the roads for the last few turns to get to the station. I thought someone might object to the amount of mud I was bringing in, but I proceeded to the platforms undisturbed, to get the train home.
This was a very relaxed affair with plenty of picnic breaks; you could definitely ride it in fewer days than I did. I had 2.25″ tyres which were great on the South Downs but overkill on the Downs Link, and for those sections of the KAW if it’s been dry. Even if you’re not camping at Manor Farm I’d recommend it as a stop on the way for their ice cream and to refill your water bottles. The benefit of off-road trails in England is that if they’re too boggy there’s normally a quiet road nearby if you need to make faster progress.
- Handlebar bag – tent (Tarptent Scarp 1), sleeping mat
- Bar bag (in the loop of the Jones bars, on top of the handlebar bag) – waterproof jacket, wallet, food, mask, hand sanitiser etc.
- Cockpit bags (borrowed from a friend as an experiment and I’m totally sold) – water bottle, sunglasses, glasses, snacks
- Fork bags
- Stove and cooking kit, towel, first aid kit
- Sleeping bag
- Frame bag – 1.5L water bladder, pump, food, kindle
- Down tube – repair kit
- Saddlebag – electronics, clothes, wash bag