Great Rides: Bikepacking from Surrey to Dorset
A badger waddles out of the undergrowth to my left and then proceeds to barge along the dirt track ahead of me, ignoring the blazing beam of my light and the large bike attached to it. Brock doesn’t even seem to register that I’m less than a metre away, and trundles on ahead oblivious, until finding a suitable entrance in the undergrowth to my right she disappears from view like the Cheshire Cat – leaving only a smile behind, but on my face.
It’s about 9pm on 22 December, and I’m five hours into my 100 mile off-road ride from Guildford to North Dorset as I head home for Christmas. Despite being on my own, in the dark and with many difficult miles behind (and ahead) it’s hard to think of anywhere else I would rather be.
I’d encountered a small herd of deer along the way, a truly friendly horse (who says horses dislike cyclists? This one simply loved my saddle bag…), inquisitive steers, hooting tawny owls and now a badger. In many ways it’s all part and parcel of the pleasures of night riding, but it is impossible to tire of the unexpected encounters you find along your way.
The Cycling UK office in Guildford had closed a bit early for the last day of 2017 at around half three, and since then I had been bouncing along the North Downs Way as I attempted my off-road journey to cycle some 100 miles to my family home in Dorset.
To say I was filled with good cheer and warm wishes to all would have been an understatement, as I bellowed out Christmas tunes on the empty trails, only stopping to pant for breath as the inclines grew and my tyres struggled to find purchase on the loose sandy soil.
I bellowed out Christmas tunes on the empty trails, only stopping to pant for breath as the inclines grew and my tyres struggled to find purchase on the loose sandy soil.
Sam Jones, Cycling UK's Senior Campaigns and Communications officer
The surface was also relatively blissful (read: not too muddy) and I found the miles and time flew, with only my belly’s gurgling informing me it was about time to stop for a refuel. Dutifully I did so at the next pub after my encounter with the badger, the Red Lion in Oakhanger.
A warm fire and welcome greeted me as I stepped into the bar and then had to remove my specs immediately due to the instant fogging up. I wolfed down a couple of bar snacks, and while I supped on a refreshing pint of ale, found myself telling a kindly group of revellers about my mission to cycle home for Christmas. They scoffed good naturedly at such an attempt, and tried to entice me to enjoy "another" and abandon my plans for sleeping out by staying with them!
It was a tough decision to resist the siren call of more good ale and even better company, but I’d set myself the task of reaching the boundaries of Winchester, another 40km away, before I rested my head. I bid the festive party a “Merry Christmas” and headed back off into the mild dark night.
Surrey born poet, keen cyclist and explorer of England’s natural environment, Edward Thomas described my route that night perfectly: “The next turn may reveal / Heaven: upon the crest / The close pine clump, at rest / And black may Hell conceal.”
For my turns through Surrey had been heaven, but as I entered Hampshire and the pines grew thicker and the night darker, I began to encounter the hell which would plague much of the rest of my journey: thick clay. Gone was the light sand which my wheels gleefully flicked up, only to be replaced with the thick cloying clay the South Downs is infamous for.
Several times through the course of the evening I had to stop due to the build-up of clay. Using either a sturdy stick or my hands (and a ford at one point) I had to resort to clearing the worst of the mud from my front wheel, which would only turn under great duress.
It was relentless, and by the time my watch showed 1am, Winchester was still 10km away and I’d only made 30km in the three hours since my pub stop. The legs were keen, but mentally I was wavering and I decided something to eat followed by a sleep would be a good thing.
Not a wind stirred the still night nor my tarp as I rigged up a rudimentary shelter designed to block the morning sun’s rays and keep the dew off me. For December it was incredibly warm, and as I set up camp it was the first time that evening I put on gloves and a jacket over the solitary shirt I had been riding in.
Bivying by a hedgerow, I carried out a precautionary thorn and sharp stick search for where my inflatable mattress would lie. If it had been colder I would have packed another roll mat making giving greater insulation, but also protection from the means to burst a peaceful night’s repose. I then polished off my last sandwich, toasted the clouded sky with the bottle of homebrew my thoughtful friend and colleague Ian had provided, and fell into a swift and deep sleep.
For some reason, many people imagine sleeping in a bivy is the recipe for a terrible night’s rest. In a howling gale with the rain lashing down, I’m sure they’re right. However, if there's no rain, I find sleeping beneath the open sky with direct access to the night’s fresh air one of the most relaxing ways to find some rest.
The night had been so warm that I didn’t even feel the need to sleep with a hat (something I did more or less every night when I had been in Iceland over the summer), and I woke a little after half 7 to the confused woofing of an early jogger’s dog coming from the other side of the hedge.
The important thing when bivying is to leave no trace and respect the land you stayed on.
Using the last of my water I made the all-important cup of restorative tea and contemplated the day ahead of me while nibbling on a Clif bar. According to my GPS I had about another 90kms, with a series of ups and downs, and what I hoped would be a cessation of my battle with the clay. The sky looked grey, but did not seem to promise rain, and I felt confident I’d make my destination in time for a late supper that evening.
Post-tea, I broke camp and packed everything away. The important thing when bivying – or camping for that matter – is to leave no trace and respect the land you stayed on. It’s the very least you can do, and also with a little forethought and consideration not difficult at all either.
Having made sure my campsite was clear, I turned my attention to my poorly bike. It was encrusted with gunk, and deserved a bit of TLC which my used toothbrush I’d brought to brush the chain, mech and hanger was not going to deliver. I did my best, and with the worst of it off, both the bike and I with gritted teeth were back on the trails by half 8.
I was soon on the official South Downs Way which I was shocked to find so empty for a Saturday morning. As I battled along the clay, wheels slipping in their coy dance. I only encountered one pair of mountain bikers who nodded a greeting as they worked their way down the slope I was inching up. I’d only see on other couple of cyclists that day and many miles away close to Salisbury.
Any cyclist can relate how heartbreaking it is to put their machine through wrangler, as they listen to the tortured grating of the gears, all the while knowing there is nothing they can do about it apart from inflict more punishment. I’d run out of water when I made my brew half an hour before, so couldn’t wash the worst muck off, and while I considered dropping my wheels into the next trough I found along the way to wash the worst grit off, I guiltily rode on.
Just as I was reaching my nadir, salvation was at hand. Turning left from a farm track close to Beacon Hill, I hit upon one of the many water taps and repair stands provided by South Downs National Park. I couldn’t have been more excited than a child with their stocking on Christmas Day!
I drank my fill, cleaned the worst of the misery from my bike, lubed the chain and tuned the gears and was soon back on the trails and rolling into a Winchester in full Christmas market swing. There I procured a pair of arancini stuffed with mozzarella and chorizo. Italians may label such a choice heresy– but the Sicilian who procured these delights did not make “arancini con ragu” and I was too hungry to debate the issue!
My plans to save these for lunch for later on fell flat, as I scoffed them both in a matter of minutes.
Climbing out of Winchester onto the Clarendon Way was gradual, but after the struggles on the clay I felt some relief to be on the road if for a little while. That feeling soon dissipated when a VW Golf shot past me leaving inches to spare as the driver raced to secure a place in an empty car park 100 metres up the road. My reaction was not charitable, and tidings of goodwill were not what I wished upon them.
Fortunately, I was soon back off-road ploughing a muddy furrow of fun on the empty Clarendon Way where I mused about my late conversion to off-road riding.
Having grown up in Dorset and spent most of my time cycling along that blessed county’s idyllic empty lanes, road riding in Surrey was a bit of a shock. It’s not so much the landscape but the sheer amount of motor traffic that litters the roads, and occasional inconsiderate behaviour which can daunt the most frequent of cyclists.
On the urging of my colleague Julie Rand, I headed off-road and discovered the joys which come from a more peaceful setting, where the only safety concerns you need to have are directly related to skills you employ on the trails and courtesy extended to others is greeted in kind. It’s incredible – and all the more for when you realise how empty the countryside is once you range further than a couple of miles from a town or village.
The bridleways, byways and occasional footpaths I cycled along for much of my journey were pretty much empty over the night and day of my journey – I must have encountered no more 30 people in total, and all of them close to a village or car park allowing access into the countryside. Having all this space just for me was a privilege and worth all the troublesome mud.
Such noble thoughts were in my mind when the my knobbly tyres turned into slicks with a thick layer of slime, resulting in my heading over the bars into a thick patch of icy cold mud. There’s nothing like crashing to earth to disturb lofty thoughts!
I soldiered on, and despite my best efforts at recreating my Knards tread, came a tumbling off on another slope. Misery was added to humiliation as I heard the tell-tale hiss of an unhappy inner which I then spent some time wrestling with in King’s Somborne: mud + plus sized tyres is not happy combo.
It was mid-afternoon by the time the tyre was fixed and pumped, and the general conditions had meant for slow riding. I’d only made 40km since leaving my bivy that morning, and truth be told I was growing a little bored with tearing clods of mud from my wheels and falling off. When I creaked into Broughton, a little village around 20km east of Salisbury, I rode my steed several times through a convenient deep ford, and planned a road route into Wiltshire’s famously spired city.
To abandon the trails was no easy matter, but at 4pm and still a large number of kilometres to log, I was at risk of forgetting why I had set out in the first place – namely to enjoy the pleasures that come with cycling in new and different places.
As I waited in the gloaming for a train in Salisbury to take me that bit closer to home (another 9 km ride), I was a little sad to give up on a journey that had seen me slip slide my way across Surrey, through Hampshire and into Wiltshire. It really had been a truly beautiful route despite the struggle…and as I sat in the warmth of my carriage pulling away into the darkness, I knew I’d return to finish the job properly – but this time with friends, sunshine and hopefully no mud!