The Brighton Bimble is the latest in my growing series of GoCycle route guides, and will soon be published. This is the story of when I went to cycle it the first time.
I’m a huge fan of what I call Gentle Adventures. These are multi-day rides, though usually only around 100 miles long. The idea behind a Gentle Adventure is simple: to get you out of your comfort zone, and out on your bike, to have an adventure. Most people have a somewhat skew idea of adventure, thinking that it must involve wading through chest-deep, fast-flowing rivers that are infested with crocodiles and piranhas. The truth is far simpler, and I strongly suggest you go read this post on adventure.
If you still don’t know what a Travelling Ouballies ride is, or how to pronounce it, I suggest you go read this post first. The short version is that my Travelling Ouballies rides are open-invite, meaning almost anyone can join be. There are a few Ts & Cs attached though, beginning with the fact that I always wild camp on these rides.
Let me start by pointing out that I live in Devon, where you usually have to hunt to find any road of any distance, that can be considered flat. I like hills though, as it makes cycling more interesting. So much so, I developed a cycling philosophy, which has since become a life philosophy, which goes like this: The hill isn’t IN the way, the hill IS the way.
What does this have to do with Sussex Hills? Simply this: Devon hills are brutal, but they’re honest about it. They say “You’re going to suffer, and we’re not hiding that fact from you”. Sussex hills, however, are bloody sneaky! They say “Oh, this little hill? Why, it’s only a gentle 4% climb, and you can see the spot where that gentle incline ends, just up there.” Only, when you get to that point, the Sussex hills say “Well, actually we meant the 4% incline ends here, so now it’s a 17% incline, but only up to that bit over there”. When you get to the next bit, the hills say “Guess what? We have some GREAT news! From here on in, past the next 12 false summits, it’s only a 9% incline”
If ever you’re planning on cycling in Sussex, ensure that you’re mentally prepared for that. And accept it’s OK to get off and push your laden touring bike up the hills.
Decrepit riders & decrepit gears
I’m not making excuses for myself. Before going on this ride, I knew I was going to suffer, as my fitness is still poor, following first COVID, then a serious cycling crash that ended up with my collar bone being broken in two places. I simply haven’t been able to do anywhere near the amount of riding I needed to get myself back into shape. Add to that the fact that my bike took serious damage in the crash, and I though it was OK for this ride. However, quite early on, it became clear that my rear derailleur was damaged beyond repair. I suspect it may have gotten bent a bit more by how I laid bikes down during the first night’s camping, but the main cause was the crash. Not being able to shift gears properly, on a very hilly ride, is certainly sub-optimal!
Having spent a paragraph or two apparently slagging Sussex off, allow me to say it is a stunning county. Then again, I’ve yet to see anywhere in the UK that isn’t stunning. My cycling companion, who doesn’t want to be named, and I parked my van in Handcross, south of Crawley, then set off. It was already late in the day, and we only cycled a short distance, before pitching our tents in a farmer’s field outside a village. By the time we walked back into the village, the pub had closed, but there was a quiz night in the village hall, so we headed there and had a few pints, before heading back to our tents.
Day 1 – hills and derailleur trouble
We packed up reasonably early, and after using my trusty AeroPress Go to brew that all-important first coffee of the day, we set off. Though we were ultimately heading for the coast, initially the route goes almost due East. In Ardingly (pronounced Arr-ding-lie, as I was corrected by the owner of a lovely little café) we had breakfast. Not long after, it was easy and very pretty cycling along a disused railway line, now called The Forest Way. Seven miles later, we were back on lanes, mainly following NCN21. By Eridge, we twice missed the turning, as it was quite clearly marked “Private Driveway”. This is the Hamsell Manor estate, once the home of Winston Churchill. You’re meant to ride down the driveway for a bit, till you get to posh gates, then it’s uphill along a nasty, narrow track, as the road through the estate is not meant for riff-raff like you and me. That track is officially still part of NCN21! Fortunately, it isn’t overly long, and soon after we were cycling on a quiet road, up a longish climb. We interrupted the climb for a coffee stop at the lovely Deer Park Café – my legs really needed the rest by then!
From there, we simply followed lanes down to Heathfield, and continuing along the gorgeous, traffic-free Cuckoo Trail. We followed it all the way down to Polegate, then veered left to do a 26 mile, there-and-back detour. After crossing the A22 by bridge, we were riding on a totally quiet, if rather bumpy rural lane. That was followed by an unpleasant stretch along a B-road, to get to the Holly Blue pub.
Obviously, we had our meal in the pub, but at 47 rather hilly miles, we also reached the end of the day’s riding. I was very impressed by the pub – the food was delicious, and the staff very friendly. So much so that, after asking the manager if we could pitch our tents in their garden, he immediately agreed. If ever you visit that pub (and if you can, you really should) please tell him I sent you there? At that stage, my legs were enormously grateful not to have to do any further cycling, though to be fair, I’d identified another camping spot very nearby. What certainly didn’t help my legs is that my rear derailleur wasn’t working properly, and I had vastly reduced gears available to use.
Day 2 – disappointments and a worsening derailleur
After the UK had experienced unprecedented heat, and the driest July on record, we awoke to grey, moody skies and quite strong winds. After brewing coffee with my AeroPress Go, we packed up and set off. The reason for the detour is simple to explain: I wanted to visit the Sovereign Light Café, in Bexhill. And the reason for that? Simple: because I promised myself I’ll go visit it since I first heard the Keane song of the same title. Oh come on! That’s a great excuse for a bike ride! On and off during the morning we had soft drizzle.
The ride to Bexhill was along NCN 21, and took us along very quiet and stunning rural lanes. Bexhill itself wasn’t particularly memorable – just another British seaside resort that’s a bit past its sell-by date is the impression I got from my very limited time there. The Sovereign Light Café was a huge let-down though. For starters, we got there at 9am, and was told – quite abruptly – by a lady replacing a door handle to the front door that “We open at ten!” Now to be clear, I certainly didn’t expect a red carpet, and for them to change their working hours just to suit us, but she could at least have put in a tiny bit of effort at being friendly. Based on my very limited experience of the Sovereign Light Café, I suggest you do what we did: find a different café that’s open, and actually friendly.
Cycling back from Bexhill seemed to go quicker, and soon enough we turned left, onto the Cuckoo Trail again. Once in Polegate, the traffic-free bliss ended, and we were cycling on roads again. That’s when I received a close-pass from a liveried Sussex Police van! Our route took us to Jevington, where we had an extended lunch in the Eight Bells pub – another pub that’s well worth visiting! Next, we turned right onto the South Downs Way. I managed to cycle the first bit, up to the church, but then had to get off and push my bike up a bloody steep hill! We gained roughly 80 metres of elevation in under half a mile.
Brutal climbs. AKA, the South Downs Way
The South Downs is a stunning area, but challenging to cycle. Despite the morning’s drizzle, the ground was dry – that’s due to the heat, of course. After a while, we descended into Alfriston, where they have the poshest pub ever. The descent was down a very bumpy, uneven track, with loose stones and a poor surface. I was seriously concerned about re-breaking my collarbone, if I should crash. A cider or two later in the posh pub, I’d recovered enough to set off again, up Kings Ride. I managed to cycle to the end of the tarred bit, where we had to stop: a digger operator was scraping the path, and we had to wait for him. Now it’s great that they do maintenance, but the path surface was left as soft, loose, powdery chalk and gravel. Forget about cycling, walking up there was hard! We went from 10 metres above sea level to 180 metres in not a very big distance, and I was seriously suffering. I kept having to stop to catch my breath!
Just don’t crash!
Nearing the end of the day’s riding, we still had a big descent to contend with. On a full-sus MTB I’d imagine it would be great fun, but it’s less fun on a laden touring bike, with road tyres. Even less fun is doing that descent with a clavicle letting you know it’s not yet fully healed! My arms were rather tired by the time I finally made it to the bottom. The likely camping spot I’d picked was popular – at least on that day – with a group of young lads, so we pushed on (via yet more hills) to the pub in Rodnell, the Abergavenny Arms. We waited at the pub to be joined by Katy (@KatyCycles on Twitter, so be sure to follow her, as she’s definitely one of the good people!) After a meal and a few drinks, it was time to head uphill again, back onto the South Downs Way. Our camping spot was at just 80 metres elevation, but it was exposed to a fair old wind that was blowing. Katy wanted to join us wild camping, and told her partner that I “seemed like a good sort” and that we blocked the same type of people on social media. I’m rather pleased to say her judgement that she’d be perfectly safe was spot on!
Day 3 – calling it quits
Day 3 started as a beautiful morning. I brewed us all some coffee, and soon enough we were packed up and cycling again. Katy and my other riding companion were casually having conversations, while cycling up several bumpy climbs, whereas I was puffing like a steam engine. I had a poor night’s rest, as my collarbone kept waking me through the night, reminding me that it hasn’t yet fully healed. Despite hurting a bit, my biggest issue was my bike not working properly – clearly I’m going to have Words with my cycle mechanic! Of course, my second biggest issue is the fact that my fitness is still so poor.
With another 5 or so miles of the bumpy South Downs Way to ride, I was suffering, and to make matters worse, my derailleur wasn’t working properly at all. My gear-shifting was mainly reduced to 2 gears at the back, and not my lowest two gears either, or switching chainrings at the front. Before we even reached Brighton itself, I told my riding companions that I’ll be ending the ride at Brighton station, and catch a train back to near where I left my van. There was simply no way either me, or my bike, would have been able to cope with another 30-odd miles in addition.
We stopped for a breakfast at a delightful little café, then Katy cycled with us to the train station, where we said our goodbyes. With a train ticket bought, we were soon at the train station nearest my van, and only had another four miles to cycle. I was rather glad when we made it to the van!
I learned several things on this ride:
- I absolutely need to get the dynamo charging working again on my bike. Relying on just a power bank, even a 20 000 mAh one, isn’t enough.
- A fold-up solar panel does help, even when overcast.
- My fitness is poor, and this is a challenging route, with lots of climbing.
- I may need to reduce the weight of my camping gear. The obvious target is my tent, which weighs almost 5kg.
- I overestimated my current abilities, and underestimated the challenges of the route.
- I redeemed myself by knowing when to call it quits.
Overall, I’m very happy with the route, but I undoubtedly would have enjoyed it more if I was fitter. Equally, while you’re nursing a still-healing collarbone, after a very bad break that left it in 3 pieces, is not the time to go for a challenging, bumpy ride.
Will I release this as a GoCycle route guide? Oh, absolutely! But it will be a route guide that comes with health warnings: This route is not easy!
Still, I can’t wait to have another go at riding the same route, only this time with a bike that’s fully functional, and with FAR better fitness.