Head in the clouds, Feet of Clay

Head in the clouds, Feet of Clay

Sometimes you ride under a cloud less sky, sometimes under a blanket of white. Sometimes a ride takes place inside a cloud. This was to be one of those rides

Head up

One of the fundamental tenets of good trail riding is to keep your head up. It’s also a tenet of good navigation. The more you keep your head up, the further ahead you can see, the better you can prepare for what’s coming, the more in control you are when it arrives. The further along the trail you look for that difficult-to-spot right turn, the greater your chances of seeing it before you go past. The only problem with this approach is when you’re riding through low cloud and can only see a few yards in any direction. That is the situation we found ourselves in on this ride for a considerable time.

It’s made worse by the navigational black hole that plantation woodland offers. Even the beechwoods mean that, just because something is marked on the map as a significant track, doesn’t mean that is exists on the ground. More confusing is that the broad track in front of you may not appear at all. That’s why we took the scenic route off the ridge line. It definitely wasn’t that we missed the right turn. That’s not what happened at all. Having said that, the route we did take was lovely as was the scenery that we could see.

Clouded judgement

Clark and I found ourselves out in the South Downs near Cocking (no laughing at the back) on a Tuesday morning in April in the name of a ride recce. There was a window in our diaries, and we went for it regardless of whether there was a window in the weather. The forecast was for intermittent drizzle all day, so we prepared to get damp. Better yet, it had rained persistently for days before the ride, which can play havoc with trails in this part of the world. So, we were prepared to come back to the car filthy as well as wet.

What I hadn’t expected in the South Downs was for a goodly chunk of the day to be above the cloud base. However, it wasn’t actually raining so we decided to get on with the lesser of two evils.

The first track was a pretty unremarkable track, except the farmhouse with the canary yellow UPVC windows. It’s a relatively easy way to gain a fair bit of height and the price you pay for a downhill finish. As it levelled off we found ourselves surrounded by some brilliant archaeology in a landscape littered with cross dykes and round barrows reminding us that people have been living and working in this landscape for a very long time. The views out across the scarp face towards the Weald. Or, at least we should have.

Cocking: there's a view out there somewhere

Cocking: there’s a view out there somewhere

Instead of the archaeology and the vista we were treated to the atmospheric tendrils of cloud wrapping themselves around us, obscuring anything more than a few metres away. Instead, Clark had to content himself with my colourful descriptions of what he should be able to see. I can spin a pretty good yarn, but there are only so many synonyms for “massive” that I could think of whilst avoiding the potholes and quagmires that presented themselves. Oh, and keeping an eye out for that elusive right turn.

The lively discussion of the Bronze Age landscape might explain why it took longer than expected to arrive at that right turn.

Head down, eyes up

Gently downhill duplex in the summer can be a ticket to light-speed on a bike. In early April after the wettest winter in recent memory it was a little different. We still whipped along at a fair lick but found ourselves having to time manuals well so as not to lose front wheels in opaque puddles or piles of sodden leaves. Closing my eyes occasionally helped keep the grit out of them.

I had a clear memory that there were a couple of slightly tricky junctions from a navigation point of view, you know the ones where two trails run off almost parallel where the map says there should only be one. So, I was keeping my wits about me for these choices approaching at speed, through the cloud and the spray of my front wheel.

Which is why I was more than a little surprised when the trail ended abruptly at a gate into a field. This was not right. This was definitely not where I had anticipated ending up. I thought we had gone a long the ridge for longer than anticipated. This gate confirmed that we were not where we were meant to be. The problem with missing your turning is that it can be hard to work out at what point you have deviated from the plan. A perusal of the map revealed that we had simply missed the turn and taken a path that ran parallel to our original plan. After a quick recalibration, a new route down was hatched that went through the gate ahead and joined up with the route as planned at the bottom.

Initially, I was disappointed. The descent to the combe floor was a grassy field. No fun in that. Still, make what you can of it. I kicked off and set off down the hill, very quickly picking up enough speed that washing out on the sopping grass became a realistic hazard. Stay loose, stay relaxed, trust your grip on the off-camber hillside. The problem with descents like this is that there’s very little calibrate your speed against. Ahead of me was a lynchet, it was approaching at warp speed, and the sharp break in slope meant that the crest was entirely blind. I had no idea what was on the downslope. Attack position. Commit.

It was relatively steep but nothing terrifying, granting plenty more speed. The bottom was a sharp enough trough that it needed a manual to get through smoothly. The horrible buzzing sound of rear wheel on mudguard confirmed that the rear suspension had absorbed considerable compression. Head up, look for the next one. Approaching even faster, this was much more fun than I was expecting. A few more lynchets between me and the bottom were despatched with increasing velocity before the reality of the rapidly approaching fence at the bottom of the hill made braking a priority. Clark appeared, grinning like a loon. For an accidental descent, this one was a keeper.

The archaeology is exciting, but can we do some riding now?

The archaeology is exciting, but can we do some riding now?

“So, are they barrows?” he asked

“No, these are lynchets” and proceeded to explain what lynchets are. To save you having to listen to me explain it as well: here’s a link.

The particular lynchets we were looking at turned out to be relics of a Bronze Age field system that, until recently was thought to be lost. This relic is a scheduled monument that, until recently, was thought to be the only remnant in the area. A LiDAR (follow the link) survey showed that the whole ridge here is covered in Bronze Age fields. We archaeologist are still very excited about it.

Clark was less impressed, so we rode on.

Going the wrong way

The difficulty in planning rides in this area (and to be fair most areas) is which way round to do it. If you’re riding a loop then, for every cracking descent, there’s going to be a climb. For every climb someone will tell you that you should be riding down it. The next climb was very much one of those. Maybe on a drier day it would have been rideable, but not today. I know why the ride is planned this way around, and this was something of an experiment. That didn’t change the fact that we were off and pushing up the kind of steep, sinuous woodland singletrack that people would bite your arm off to ride. We were definitely doing it the wrong way, and we seemed to be doing it the wrong way for quite some time. There has got to be a way of doing it the other way. This is one for the OS map, later.

On the up side, we seemed to have dropped out of the clouds. But it was still sweaty work, gaining considerable height ready for another descent. At the top there was a longish, straight tarmac transfer to our next point of interest, so time to get our heads down and make up for some lost time. It wasn’t quite a team time trial, but we weren’t hanging about. Straight past Goodwood racecourse and on to something that, for me at least, was far more impressive.

Trundling along

The Trundle, and Chalkpits Lane, in particular, holds a certain significance in the history of mountain biking in this area. Many of the bridleways that drop off this hill were within the reach of early mountain bikes and were something of a Mecca in the 90s. But that’s only the most recent episode in a long history of significance to this hilltop. As far back as the Neolithic, people were building things here. Many of them can still be seen. I get very excited about these things. I explained what a causewayed enclosure is, stating that the banks probably looked more impressive but they’re quite old.

I can see the sea from here. Normally

I can see the sea from here. Normally

Clark was impressed too: “are they old then?”

“About 5,000 years old.”


This Neolithic site sits squarely in the middle of an Iron Age hillfort with an impressive bank round the outside. What makes for a strong defensive feature also makes for an excellent spot to have lunch. The view from here is spectacular. Given that it was all ensconced in cloud, Clark had to make do with my description. Again. It was a little bit “here’s what you could have won” I’m convinced I could just about pick out the spire of Chichester Cathedral, but there was no way I could see the sea. Shame really. And, it turns out, kind of chilly. Time to get on.

The drop from the Trundle is one of those old-school South Downs descents. It’s a wide-open field with a notional path down the middle. It’s steep enough that you can play the “how long do I stay off the brakes without riding into the fence at the bottom” game. It is, as always, over too soon. It took us back below cloud base though, so we began to warm through a little.

I found the black and white filter settings

I found the black and white filter settings

The South Downs is well catered for in pretty streams and rivers from the Itchen to the Adur, but this section of the Lavant is up there with the best of them. The draw to get moving and generate some heat was strong, but not as strong as the need to get some snaps of this pretty valley. Clark seemed happy to do the obligatory ride back the we he’d come for “one last shot”. I suspect he was being put off by my description of the “big climb of the day.”

The language of guides

I often joke that part of my leader’s training is how to lie about what lies ahead. “It’s contouring from here.” Means that there are several big climbs between us and the café. “It’s mostly downhill” neglects to mention the one really big climb. It is a joke really, I think it’s important to be honest with people.

The climb up the side of Kingley Vale is one to tell people about. It’s mostly not desperately steep. Nor is it particularly technical. It’s mostly not too boggy. Mostly is the important word, because it’s all of those things at one point or another. And it keeps going. And going. It gains over a hundred metres in little more than a kilometre. There’s a false flat at the summit too. It’s no horror show and a reasonably fit rider will have no problem getting up, but you’ll be glad to get to the top. Partly because the climb is over.

The top is just around the corner...

The top is just around the corner…

Partly because of the view: you can see miles to the east and west from the top. But you won’t take that in straight away, because your eye is drawn to the four massive burial mounds lined up along the ridge. When I say massive, I really mean it. Leaving the bikes behind, we climbed the nearest one and sat down for another bite to eat. While sitting there, Clark spotted something remarkable above us. A small patch of blue sky. The cloud was lifting! From being too cold on the Trundle we were now too warm and shedding layers.

Clark endured (or possibly enjoyed) discovering the difference between a bowl barrow and a bell barrow (the clue is very much in the name) whilst looking for buzzards.

It’s all downhill from here

Duly educated on prehistoric monuments, we remembered we were here for a bike ride. The traverse along the top of Bow Hill is normally not much to write home about. Normally. Today it was a touch slippery, a touch slidey and occasionally that kind of muddy where you have to put the power down to keep moving forward. I looked round to see Clark covered in mud from shoulder to knee. “I fell off.” Was all he would say.

The thing about a vaguely rubbish traverse to the top of a descent is the knowledge that, as a guide, your clients are all thinking “this had better be worth it.” I remember the descent past Goosehill Camp being a good-un on previous visits, but the dampness in the ground today had already taught me that all bets were off. Even I was thinking it had better be worth it.

It started innocuously enough, for long enough that I was concerned I had misremembered it. Not to fear though, it casually tips more and more downhill, introducing a tangle of small roots into the mix as it goes. In the summer it has those leaf-dappled shadows that make picking out roots impossible. The flat light of late winter was better for seeing them. Or, at least, seeing how slick they looked. It’s fun to see how much speed you can rack and whether there’s a good line through the roots.

The trail is a diagonal drop from the shoulder of the hill until, out of nowhere, there’s a right-left dogleg accompanied by a sudden narrowing of the trail. It’s quite easy to go straight on into the undergrowth here. In the damp, I was taking no chances. I’m not sure Clark agreed with me. Which is probably why he came around the left-hander trying desperately to clip back in.

Doing the left-right shoogle

Doing the left-right shoogle

Wandering lonely as a cloud

Now we were pointing for home, with only one big climb between us and the car. Thoughts naturally turned to food and the viability of vegan chilli (we both thought it would definitely work). On the map, it was a gentle fire road grind back up to the South Downs ridgeway. In reality, it was a lovely hollow way with old trees flanking both sides and obscuring the pine plantation beyond. Then…

“Clark. Get off your bike.”


Because that,” pointing, “is a field of wild daffodils.”

“That’s amazing.”

Wild Daffodils

Wild Daffodils

He was right too. From a pleasant but unremarkable coppice, there emerged a carpet of yellow flowers. Impressing a South Downs rider with a carpet of woodland flowers is a challenge: April & May are usually wall-to-wall bluebells. This was a real treat, it was like bluebells, but yellow. It was probably going to be the best nature moment of the day, made better for being completely unexpected. So, we stopped and took a lot of photos that would probably fail to do the scene justice.

It was one of those sights that’s hard to tear yourself from and remember you’re here for a bike ride. So, with heavy hearts (and legs) we got on with the job of reaching the top of the hill.

On the ridgeline again for the first time since this morning, we found ourselves back in the cloud. Brilliant.

I’d planned a small detour on the final leg. I wanted to check out another trail: an extra descent in case clients are still wanting more. Clark was up for it so we peeled off the ridge ready to drop off the scarp face.

Then we stopped.

“Is that enough buzzards for you, Clark?”

“I think so.”

We counted twenty of them, emerging one after the other from the trees the cover the slope, silhouetted against the cloud. Planted to the spot, we watched them soar and climb before sliding off the thermal to wherever buzzards go. The daffodils had been good, but this was gobsmacking.

However, time was passing. Wake up: time to ride. The trail became a wide chalk track that pointed down. It was smooth enough to pick up significant speed. It felt slick enough that your wheels might disappear at any moment, and that you would slide a long way before stopping. Relax and everything will be fine. It was. We reached the junction, only about halfway down, grinning from a descent that had been adrenalin filled far beyond its technicality. What might the second half bring?

Luke, you’ve turned off your targeting computer

Turning the corner onto the second half of the drop, quick reactions stopped me from disappearing into the muddy ruts that suddenly bracketed the trail. Just. Something big had driven this way and carved two trenches that could grace the Death Star (if the Death Star was made of mud), and definitely swallow a bike. In between was a narrow ridge, with an even narrower groove down the middle. Coming off was not an option. The track was still pointing downwards, adding momentum to the equation. It was also meandering adding steering to the mix. Speaking of steering, the groove was the kind of slick mud where the bike goes exactly where it feels like, you just relax and accept it. On several occasions my front wheel was at forty-five degrees and the bike ploughed straight on regardless. Relax, it’ll be fine, a nudge of the hips now and then to keep the bike upright. Remember those mud-riding skills you’ve spent the winter honing. And don’t try dabbing, as the ground is about three feet lower where you want to put your foot.

It was a giggle. For a bit. It seemed to go on a very long time, and I was getting mentally tired from concentrating too hard. Then the track fired us out into a steeply-sloping field at warp speed. Here the wheel-ruts went in all directions and just pointing at the bottom was an option. We both breathed a sigh of relief at the bottom. We also saw the cause of the ruts. Four massive Scottish and Southern Electric off-road flat-bed trucks, there to replace electricity poles. That would explain it.

Not enough to want to do that descent again though.

All that was left was the short climb back to the car. What it lacked in length, it more than made up for in steepness. The chalk track was flat enough, but every pedal stroke was a battle to keep the front wheel down, turn the pedals over and stop the back wheel from spinning out too much. Push hard enough to turn the pedals and the back would spin and stall. There was a delicate balance to be struck in applying just enough power to get the wheels to turn without breaking traction. It’s a while since I’ve felt so pleased for cleaning a climb. That was the glow that took us to the car.

A very short conference resulted in us agreeing that this diversion wasn’t really worth it. That’s what a recce is for: to see if the trails are fun to ride. This one wasn’t, really.

The rest of the ride had been great though, in spite of the unseasonal mulch that had coated everything, including our bikes. Clark pronounced himself a happy man, though a tired one. It’s easy to take a ride for granted once you’ve done it a few times, but this one is a classic for a reason.

This might take a while to clean off

This might take a while to clean off

Now to plot doing it the other way round so we can descend that steep climb…

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
Secret South Downs: Cocking, Sunday 21st April

Secret South Downs: Cocking, Sunday 21st April

We’ve still got a few places on this Sunday’s ride from Cocking

The weather forecast is glorious for Sunday, the trails are drying out and I’m really excited about getting out to West Sussex.

So, why not join us for our season opener that features everything you could want from a South Downs ride. This one is an absolute classic: big skies, bigger views, ancient woodland and more archaeology than you can poke a stick at. The riding is good too, with a couple of absolutely cracking descents on a route that weaves its way through every terrain that the Downs have to offer.


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Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
Off the beaten track: the hidden archaeology of Avebury

Off the beaten track: the hidden archaeology of Avebury

Where is the best place in the world to find both quality riding and stunning archaeology? I may just have the answer to that.

I am sitting on the massive embankments of Oldbury Castle in Wiltshire, gazing out at the landscape laid out before me to the south west.

Two things are apparent. The first is that this landscape is full to bursting point with archaeology and the relics of thousands of years of human occupation. The second thing is that the landscape is rapidly disappearing under the curtain of an advancing, and heavy looking downpour.

What makes this moment ironic is that part of this route was inspired by the work of Tom Hutton, famous mountain bike routes expert. In his article about the route, he describes sitting in almost precisely the same spot, watching the rain come in and experiencing that complete lack of friction that wet chalk brings to a ride.

I thought briefly about describing this irony to Mel, but erred in favour of diving into my bag to fetch out my waterproof and suggesting we get on before everything became too slippery to ride.

Cider: the ideal preparation for archaeology

I’ve been itching to do some rides that focus on the incredible archaeology of the Avebury World Heritage Site for some time. There is some cracking riding to be had and there is a lot more to the area than the honeypots (incredible though they are). All I needed was a route and an excuse to get out.

The route has been percolating in my head for a while, but Avebury is just far enough from home that I had to really want to go there. The excuse presented itself in a friend’s birthday party in deepest Herefordshire from which Avebury was only a very short diversion on the way home.

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The plan was laid, the bikes were loaded and we headed off to celebrate.

In hindsight, staying up until four in the morning drinking rhubarb cider and gin (not in the same glass) might not have been the most sensible preparation. Fortunately, I was not due to drive so we were safe.

That part of Herefordshire, near Ross on Wye, has a landscape that just screams to the mountain biker that there is some seriously good singletrack to be had in the woods and on the scarps. On any other day, we might have allowed ourselves to be swayed from our path and gone exploring red sandstone paths instead of chalk tracks. But not today.

A date with history

Apparently, we weren’t the only ones. One day, I shall go to Avebury and the car park will not be rammed. This was not that day. We arrived twenty minutes before the campers were due to vacate the overflow car park, so it was bedlam. Somehow, we managed to grab a space that had somewhere to unload the bikes. We received some properly peculiar looks from the people there to see the stones as we unpacked and saddled up. It seems that many people regarded the couple of hundred yards to the henge as exercise enough and only the half-crazed would do any more.


Crossing the people line

There is a line, at most attractions, beyond which most people do not go. One moment you are tripping over the world and his dog, the next you are in blissful solitude. We found the people line by pushing our bikes through the other gate out of the village church yard. From bank holiday Sunday to midweek morning in about two yards.

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Now it was safe to do so, we saddled up and went for a ride. First up, a gentle roll round the back of people’s gardens on a National Cycle Route that seemed to have less traffic than our cul-de-sac at home.

Crossing a small bridge over a dry river bed, I looked left and was greeted by the best view of Silbury Hill I’ve seen in a very long time. One of the hardest questions to answer in archaeology is “why?” Why did people in the past build the incredible things they did? Sometimes they leave helpful evidence, sometimes we can make an educated guess, but sometimes, we have to admit that we really don’t have a clue.

Silbury falls, squarely, into this latter group. It’s a honking great artificial hill that served, as far as we can tell, no actual purpose. Archaeologists have been prodding it for hundreds of years trying to get it to give up its secrets. The hill stays resolutely taciturn. I love the sheer bizarreness of it. So we stopped and stared again, hoping for inspiration.

However, it was not the only archaeology of the day, so our bemusement gave way to pedalling.

Messing about in BOATs

Speaking of enigmas, BOATs (Byways Open to All Traffic) are tricky from a route planning perspective. Those fat green crosses on a 1:25k map can hide a multitude of evils on the ground. Some of them are completely overgrown jungle clearance exercises. Others are 4×4 chewed swampy morasses that can eat bike and rider without pause for thought. Other still, are wide gravel tracks. There is simply no way of knowing until you get there.

Our first piece of off-roading for the day was along one such path. Admittedly, I could have paid more attention to the “Voluntary closure” sign. Instead, I ploughed on to see what there was. What there was, was a pair of tractor swallowing ruts, with a narrow ridge in between. This narrow ridge had an even narrower rut running down the middle. This path was overgrown by tall grass, which hid the bombhole-like depressions every few yards or so. It managed to combine a feeling of claustrophobia with one of exposure. Later in the day, with our eyes in, it would probably have been a lot of fun to pump through these hollows. Fifteen minutes into the ride, it conspired to throw us off our game and require total concentration. It was only a few hundred yards long, but we both breathed a sigh of relief when we got to the end of it. It was, fortunately, not a sign of things to come.

The long and the short of it

The climb to Oldbury Castle is a long, drawn out affair. It’s not particularly steep to begin with. Much of the first leg is along the Old Bath Road, looking down on the “new” A4. Contrary to the popular image of Downland riding, there was plenty to engage. An unexpected beechwood section had roots galore and a few features that, had we been going the other way, might have served as quite good jumps. Sadly, we weren’t coming back this way. So, Onwards and upwards. There was a fun little bit that was as close to a pump track as I’ve seen in the wild. There may have been whooping. Actually, there was a lot of Mel shouting “hole!” each time the trail pointed down.

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However, this fun had to come to an end. The trail turned left and stopped skirting the issue to point straight at the Iron Age ramparts on the hilltop. Conversation stopped and we dug in to getting to the top. The only pause was where one of us was surprised by a cow. Don’t ask. I cursed my non-wide-range 1×10 setup when I ran out of gears early on, forced to stand up and pound the pedals to get to the top. Mel, meanwhile, spun away on her “old school” 3×9 drivetrain. I needed more gears, bigger lungs or better legs rather than relying on belligerence where finesse was the required approach.

My Eyes! My Eyes!

It was worth it though. On arrival at the summit we slumped on the ground and gorged on eccles cakes, while we took in the view.

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It went on for miles. Everywhere we looked there was more and more archaeology. Yes, Avebury is jaw-droppingly impressive. But there is a lot more to this landscape, and this view nailed that home. We could see for miles. Listing them doesn’t do it justice, but any one of the many monuments we could see would have been remarkable anywhere else. Here there was just layer upon layer of occupation from the Neolithic to the Second World War. There were lines of Bronze Age Barrows, next to Saxon ramparts. There were medieval lynchets next to a wartime radar station.

There was also a ribbon of white running down from our feet to the plateau below. It swept down the hill between two banks in a particularly inviting way. It would have been rude not to. So down we plunged, sweeping back and forth as the track swung left and right. I rounded one corner fast enough that stopping for the gate was not entirely under control, but got it open in time to let Mel plough through at full tilt.

When we regrouped at the bottom, I asked how it was. All I got in response was a grin. I’m guessing that was a vote of approval. I know I was grinning. I’m very much looking forward to showing off that particular gem.

The Orange wash of deception

Some climbs, you see from a long way away, getting closer, and closer until you have to just get on with it. This one appeared, almost literally, out of the blue. It’s almost impossible to see contour lines under the orange border wash of access land. The Bridleway I had identified as our route south was nowhere to be seen as we rolled along. There was only a vertiginous scarp edge and an ephemeral path through a gate heading straight up. Oh. We stopped to check the map while a group of urchins swung on the gate and asked us about our bikes. I looked at the map, looked at the near vertical impression of a path and back at the map again. Bugger.

“Do you think you can ride up that?” asked one of the gate-swinging comedians.

“I bet he can’t” was the reply from his little sister.

“I’ll hold the gate open for you mister.” Said the smallest.

“Let’s see, shall we?” I said, clipping in and heading off towards certain embarrassment.

Straight away, I was uncomfortably aware of the puny size of my 36 tooth cassette. Uncomfortably aware, and resolutely using it, occasionally vainly trying to downshift. Within fifty yards I was out of the saddle, desperately trying to balance the opposing needs to keep the front wheel on the ground, the back wheel gripping and the pedals turning. There as grunting. There was probably swearing (albeit quietly so the children didn’t hear). My vision narrowed to a tunnel, focussed on the gate at the top of the hill.

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A scant handful of yards from the top, crossing a small track, my back wheel began to give up its grip. “You can properly do one!” (Or possibly something much less polite) I shouted at it, willing the knobs to find something to grip. Amazingly, they did and I powered my way to the gate, sufficiently pleased with myself that I thought about hoisting the bike above my head á la sand people on Tatooine.

Then I put everything down and turned around to see Mel pushing up the hill. It was only fair to go back and offer to help. And to help the lost parents of the gate-dwelling urchins find their way back to the car.

Why is this dyke cross?

I’d spotted the Wansdyke on the map. More as an interesting-looking section of trail than as a feature of archaeological interest. Approaching it now, all thoughts of the trail were forgotten. It is a massive bank and ditch cutting across the landscape for mile after mile. When I say massive it is, even now, big enough that I can’t see out of the ditch. We traced it over a series of ridges to the southeast, like a giant millipede that had fallen asleep. It seems to be a Saxon boundary marker, though no one is quite sure what boundary it marks as it runs squarely through the middle of Wessex from Berkshire, through Wiltshire and to points west. It’s such colossal thing that, once you’ve spotted it, it’s impossible not to see both on the ground and on the map.

There is, though, only so long you can spend standing, stupefied by the works of your forebears. Especially when there are bikes to be ridden. In this case, the bridleway runs along the bottom of the ditch for a while, like a grassy Death Star trench with echoes of the old Jump Gully at Swinley Forest. We whooped our way down the ditch, boosting off lips and pumping through depressions until, all of a sudden, the path popped out onto the lip and the outside world was restored.

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The trail was transformed from enclosed to airy as it clung to the edge of the ditch and snaked its way down from the hilltop. If anyone says there is no singletrack in the Downs, this mile or so of trail will blow that perception out of the water. Grins all round were short lived as we flowed straight into a rather rude section of climbing and trials obstacles through a shelter belt to get onto the track that would start us on our journey home.

What goes down

Remember that descent from Oldbury Castle? The one that was steep and swoopy?

Well, that lay between us and home. I can assure you that it is just as steep going up as it is going down. We hunkered down and got on with it Mel spinning with finesse while I vowed to buy a wide-range cassette the moment I got home. Some climbs are harder than expected, others are much easier. This one was precisely as horrible as I was expecting. It went on for almost exactly as long as I thought it would and I felt just as battered as I feared when I reached the top.

Which leads us to sitting on the ramparts, inhaling another Eccles cake, watching the rain come in.

The first big dods of rain smacked into our bags and we looked at each other. One the one hand, there was a chunk of the ride still to do, which may contain brilliant riding like we had experienced already. On the other hand it was about to be a slippery as a bar of soap in the bath. Oh, and it may well turn into that special type of clay mud that is the reason Downs riders use mud tyres all winter.

I don’t recall much discussion before we set off directly for home, down the path we climbed up from Avebury. There was a certain hint of time trial about the return leg, going as quickly as felt safe to reach the fun bits before they became like a greased ice rink.

The drop from the fort may well be a cart track but, send it at speed and it’s a hoot. Mind out for the gate though, especially if grip is at a premium. I managed to use the gate to stop rather than as a launch pad for a re-creation of Danny Mac’s front flip. Just.


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Right turn around yet another Bronze Age barrow and pile into that pump track section. By now the rain had settled in for the afternoon and the prevailing wind was blowing the rain directly into my ear hole! It was deeply distracting from the matter at hand.

The we dropped into that shelter belt of trees we had lamented not riding down earlier. It turned out to be just as much of a giggle as it had looked. A roller coaster of roots rollers and kickers was taken in at breakneck speed. It was over too soon and we both popped out into the wind and the rain.


Heads down for the short section along the A4, we had the scent of the car, the pub and dry clothes in our nostrils now. That’s not to say that we didn’t stop on the Kennet bridge to take in the view of Silbury one last time.

The car park was much less busy when we got back and dumped wet gear on the grass behind the car. For all the helter-skelter nature of the run home, it had been a cracking afternoon’s riding. Never too hard, never too steep but always engaging. When the trail did not require full attention, the scenery did. There are few places you can ride anywhere in the world where the sheer depth of human habitation in the landscape is so obvious, where the marks of generations and generations are so many.

Either alone would have made it a top day out. Both together? Now that’s a little bit of magic.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
Ancient Britain: Devil’s Humps and Jumps

Ancient Britain: Devil’s Humps and Jumps

From hillforts to Bronze Age cemeteries, this ride takes in some of West Sussex’s most impressive ancient monuments. If that weren’t enough there are massive views and cracking riding too.

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What is it?

This ride really is a grand day out. Riding under big skies for most of the day, you’ll get views over Chichester, the Isle of White and out to sea. You couldn’t ask for a more scenic ride.

Along the way we’ll stop off at The Trundle, an Iron Age hillfort with impressive ramparts; the Devil’s Humps, a collection of Bronze Age barrows in a spectacular hilltop location and the Devil’s Jumps, another collection of Bronze Age barrows. It’s as spectacular a selection of monuments as you could get on a single ride.

I’ve got this far without mentioning the riding: It’s got everything the South Downs has to offer. You’ll get broad tracks under open skies, you’ll get winding woodland trails and helter-skelter down-scarp plummets. It’s got everything you could want in a ride.


Where is it?

The ride starts in the South Downs Way car park on the A286 just south of Cocking in West Sussex.

We’ll be taking in part of the South Downs ridgeline and two hills to the south.

Who is for?

This is a ride for those who enjoy riding and like views.

We’ll be going up and down a fair bit, so some fitness is needed for this ride. You need to be confident you can ride for a few hours.

There’s nothing too technical and certainly nothing that can’t be ridden at walking pace should you prefer. Should you wish to, the descents are a lot of fun taken at speed too.

The pace will be determined by the group, so don’t worry about not being able to go fast enough.

How far is it?

Expect to be riding for about three hours. We can add or subtract bits of the ride to suit the group.

There will be plenty of stops, particularly at the monuments so definitely bring food.

pdfImportant information

When is it?

The ride is on Sunday July 24th.

We’ll start at 10 am, so aim to be there at least 15 minutes beforehand so we can get faffing and fettling sorted.

We should be back at the cars between 2:00 and 2:30.
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Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments