From Butser Hill

Hike a bike, South Downs Style: Classic Type 2 fun on Butser Hill

There is a theory that there are two types of fun. The first is something that is fun when you do it. Type 2 is something that is fun in hindsight, when you look back on it. Type 2 fun is almost never an enjoyable experience at the time. This is ride around Butser Hill had a lot of the latter.

Not fun now.

I am shouldering my bike for the third time today, trudging slowly up a climb, eyes fixed on the floor in front of me: classic hike a bike. The ground is steep and treacherous, it would be difficult enough to keep my footing if I didn’t have a bike on my shoulder. Where, I hear you ask, is this steep and demanding terrain? The Lakes? No. The Peak? No, Butser Hill in Hampshire. Yes, you read that right: Hampshire.

A quick Ride

One of the odd truths about this profession is that the pre-riding of routes is often dictated, not by my desire to ride, but by factors unrelated to riding, fitted in around my need to be places for other bits of work. This ride was on because I was due to have a meeting at Queen Elizabeth Country Park in the afternoon, so there was time to squeeze in a quick 27km riding beforehand. Perfect, for a ride that was scheduled to start for the Park.

It was a nice, bright, early March morning. The kind of morning where you start off in a jacket and then stop on the first climb of the day to take it off because you’re overheating. The kind where you reach the top of the first climb and hastily put it back on again to keep the wind out.

I can see the sea!

I can see the sea!

Actually, this morning I topped out the first climb and was treated to spectacular views out to sea and across the Downs towards the Hangers. On a warmer day I would have stopped to watch the buzzards soaring on the thermals. It was not a warmer day, so discretion kept stops to a minimum.

Snow fun when you have to hike

When I ride alone, I usually have waypoints, where I check in to make sure that, should anything go wrong, then people know where to find me. It’s all part of the safety protocols. It also means I have a pretty good idea of where I am compared to the schedule most of the time.

The first stop was due at the top of the first of three big descents for the day. On the traverse through the woods to get there, I encountered banks of snow left over from the Beast of the East that had dumped snow all over the south the week before. It was fun to plunge through the, slightly decayed, drifts.

The approach to the antennae at the top of the first drop was a different story. This had a large stream running down it that I hoped was meltwater from drifts on the summit, rather than the sheep pens up ahead. Cresting the top, I dropped the saddle and got ready to roll.

A little snow never bothered anyone...

A little snow never bothered anyone...

I know this descent relatively well, it’s a steep-ish sunken lane, loose flints and chalk all the way down. In the dry it’s a rocky rocket from top to bottom. In the wet, it’s frictionless. Today, I didn’t know what to expect. What I wasn’t expecting was a few hundred yards of deep snow piled up between the hedges on the roll in to the drop. I genuinely tried to ride it but gave up after twenty yards or so as the wheels just stuck in the snow. Pushing was even less effective. So, somewhat unexpectedly I shouldered the bike and began the first hike a bike of the day. I’ve never had to hike a bike on the flat. Every step plunged me up to my shin in snow. Suddenly the ¾ length tights seemed like a poor call as snow piled up behind the tongue of my boots. Even better was when the snow hid deep puddles of meltwater, only revealed as I plunged my foot in. Definitely Type 2 fun.

...that was no fun

Eventually, I got through and readied myself for the plunge off the scarp edge. A plunge of uncertain grip. With friends, I might have been tempted to stay off the brakes. On my own, speed was an unreliable friend, the kind that’s fun to be around but can get you into trouble quickly. Brakes are a more sensible friend in this circumstance. My approach turned out to be prudent when I encountered a stretch of gully that was filled with an off-camber snow bank. Foot out, yes. Flat out? Not so much. It was fun, in a slightly unsettling kind of way and nothing that couldn’t be cured by a lack of snow.

Ecclesiasticy

That’s not even a real word is it?

East Meon is a pretty village. Many of the villages in the Meon Valley are, so I was expecting the chocolate box houses and clear chalk stream down the high street. What I was not expecting was the Romanesque tower underneath the spire. I really like Romanesque architecture in churches, there’s something about the simplicity and robustness of the style that speaks to me, so this was a real treat. Enough of a treat to stop for a quick snack.

Time to check in again: still ahead of schedule. Good, because the steepest climb of the ride was next on the agenda.

All Saints Church East Meon

All Saints Church East Meon

It’s a real sucker-punch of a climb this. It saves all the steepness for the end. It’s a climb to keep your powder dry for as long as you can. On a good day, it’s eminently cleanable. It didn’t take long to work out that this was not that day.

There’s a dog-leg in the path that approaches it, from there the gradient begins to deceptively ramp up before you hit the climb proper. Turning the second corner I was greeted by the sight of the sunken lane filled with snow. Completely filled to the top. I reckoned it was a good four to five feet deep in places. Not something that could be described as rideable, ever.

Fortunately, evasive action was easily sorted as lots of people appeared to have used the adjacent field as an escape route. So, I rolled along above the snow chute up the edge of the field. It was bumpy and a bit unfriendly but nowhere near as bad as attempting to wade through the snow. When it abated, I was able to get back through the hedge and attempt to remount.

Sadly, I was faced with the path ahead suddenly becoming a wall. I got on, and then got off again. Then remounted and made some progress before the front wheel lifted off the ground. Careful now, until the back spun out. It was a fairly small rock step that signalled it was time to accept that there would be some pushing involved. When the gradient slackened slightly I tried again, cursing the lack of gearing that my 1x10 set up allowed me. Specifically, the lack of low gears. It just about went. An odd technique of standing up in the pedals whilst trying to keep the front wheel down and meter the power to stop the back spinning out.

Doesn't look to bad from the top, does it?

On a good day, it’s a fun challenge. Today, I was glad to see the farm at the top, knowing that a level and partly tarmacked stretch lay ahead. I was genuinely pleased by how much I’d managed to ride. I was also more than a little concerned about how tired my legs felt, given that there was still another big climb ahead.

This is supposed to be the good bit!

The next descent was not one I’m particularly familiar, that’s the point of the ride after all. One reviewer described it as “fabulous in the dry but treacherous in the wet” so I was keen to see how it had held up to the wet winter and the recent snows.

It started with a gentle descent along the shoulder of Butser Hill. It was clarty, and a bit skitey, but the amount of wheel squirm was under control. I slithered down to the fork where my trail should bear right and drop into the combe. I was ready for some slippery helter-skelter action.

Rutted Horror Show

Rutted Horror Show

What I got was a horror show. The point where the trail peeled right and dropped over the edge bore a trio of large, deep, meandering, mucky ruts that dropped into a sea of exposed roots. Given the row of barbed wire either side of the trail, there was no margin for error and no runout. It was an accident waiting to happen, and I had no idea what was beyond the blind corner. Carrying speed through the section was not a sensible course of action.

I got off and pushed down it. It was like wading through cement. My boots turned into platforms. But I got down in one piece.

It calmed down after about twenty yards so I got back on. Got off again, cleaned my boots and tried again. I rolled on down and the trail straightened up so I could see where I was going. The three ruts became one gulley, about three feet deep with an eight-inch tyre width rut at the bottom. Everything bar the rut at the bottom was covered in a skein of sticky, slippery cement-like chalk clay mud. The saving grace was a thin shelf on the right-hand shoulder which looked rideable. Just. I rolled down cautiously. As I approached the next bend the shelf disappeared into the gulley. The bike and myself went in with it and stopped, dead as the bike wedged in the hole.

A while ago I wrote about a horror-show of a local descent. This knocked it out of the park. It’s steeper, the rut is deeper and everything was covered in that horrible chunder. Unrideable doesn’t get close. The gulley was deep enough that, on the bike in the bottom of it, the edge was about level with my waist. Which made climbing out a challenge. Some grunting and swearing saw me perched on one shoulder of the gulley, with the bike on the other.

This is the rideable bit!

This is the rideable bit!

That worked until the frame accumulated so much muck that the back wheel stopped turning and slid into the hole again. There was nothing for it but to perch on the edge with the bike over my shoulder, expecting at any moment to slide into the gulley in a painful heap. It was not the most impressive moment of my biking career.

This trail is a BOAT. I’d love to see someone get a horse and carriage down it.

It did finish though.

At the bottom of the hill. That’s right, the fun descend bit was one long push/carry. The riding began when the trail flattened out. Such as it was. The trail was still marginally downhill. Actually, it was downhill enough that, occasionally, I didn’t have to pedal. Then I came round a corner to be faced with another steep quagmire. This time it was wide and deep so I just ploughed through. I went a goodly distance with my front wheel at forty-five degrees and the bike careering straight on regardless. I was quite relieved to get to the bottom of that and on a surfaced track.

Things, can only get, better

All that was left was to climb back up to where I started this descent into folly. Nae bother.

It started steep.

And then there was a tree across the path.

I moved the tree and remounted the bike after another exercise in boot cleaning to make the cleats engage.

I cursed my lack of gears, dumped the mech into its lowest setting and got on with the job of crawling my way back out of the combe.

It worked for a while.

Then another gulley opened up. I managed to stay out of it for long enough that I thought I might get away with it. When I attempted to go around a bramble bush the back wheel broke traction and slid sideways from under me.

One graceful dismount later, I was pushing again. Then I stopped and cleared the mud out of the rear triangle so the wheel would go around.

When the gradient receded, I took the opportunity to ride the bike again. And set, stoically, about winching my way to the summit. The only problem was that mud, reattaching itself to the bike, like an anchor. I got off and cleaned it and got back on again. And then got back on again. Something had to give. It turned out to be my legs. It’s not that the gradient was too steep, it was that I didn’t have the power in them to overcome the friction of the mud stuck in the frame.

There was nothing for it but to pick the bike up and…Oh my god! How much does this mud weigh? You can just do one! Seriously, this has stopped being funny. A sense of humour failure was very much on the cards.

I took a deep breath, muttered some words of encouragement and got on with the task of carrying the bike as far as it took to get to ground that was rideable. That turned out to be quite a long way. In fact, almost to the point where the treacherous descent of death from earlier had split from this trail.

Almost there. Almost there. Almost there.

The gradient eased slowly but surely. Brambles and hawthorns that could be rolled through on the way down were an irritation on the way back up. But I got there and emerged into the sunlight at the top of Butser hill. That had been horrible. But, and this is a big but, it would be cracking going down that ascent. It would be whooping good fun all the way down. In the dry.

Some lovely Downs

Last but by no means least

All that was between me and a hot brew was the descent of Butser Hill.

Some descents are sinuous, sweeping back and forth. Some descents are steep, requiring you to hang on. Some descents are rocky requiring skill and commitment.

Butser Hill is none of those things.

What Buster is, is a wide swathe of grass tilted to about forty-five degrees. It’s a wide-open plummet to the bottom. You can see everything that’s coming so it’s not stressful. And it’s fast. I was looking forward to it.

Being downland, the point at which ascent becomes descent isn’t necessarily clear. It ramps up (or should that be down) gradually, allowing you to pick up speed almost without noticing.

All of a sudden you realise you’re down about mach 3 and have just remembered the gate halfway down. With a little planning, and a friend willing to sacrifice their descent, you can send someone on ahead to open the gate and give everyone else a clean run at it. Even so, it’s not a wide gate and I’ve never had the nerve to stay off the brakes through the gap.

I was on my own and didn’t expect this. I arrived shortly after a runner who, very kindly, held the gate open for me allowing me to only slow down.

Then open the taps. The only obstacles are the rabbit holes. Stay off the brakes, keep the weight in the right place and make the jump to light speed.

By modern enduro standards, Buster is nothing special. Given that, it’s important to say I’ve never failed to enjoy the sheer, unbridled speed and calmness of that drop. Big grin every time.

And this time was no different. All that awfulness was left on the other side of the hill and replaced with the glow of a great ride. I rolled into the car park buzzing and just in time for a quick wash before my meeting.

Homework

That awful descent on the other side of Butser is clearly not a seasonal issue. It definitely wasn’t like that last time I rode it. Some sunshine is not going to cure the damage to that trail. So, I returned home and pondered the map.

There is a solution. There’s an answer. The clue is in this article.

If you want to see this ride when it’s in season with all the bad bits taken out, then why not join us in May as the Secret South Downs series heads to Butser Hill.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy

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