To the Coast!
My alarm woke me up in the darkness of the well curtained room in the Cranston House B&B. Bleary eyed I got up, showered, repacked my bags and headed downstairs for a Full English. I’m not normally one to turn down such an opportunity anyway but the possibility to get properly fuelled up for the day outweighed the rather disappointing quality of the fare.
I set off with a quick ride through East Grinstead town centre which still looked nice in the morning light, and then headed for the start of the Forest Way cycle path at the edge of the town.
The second section of disused railway line on the route, the Forest Way runs direct from East Grinstead to Groombridge over a distance of roughly 10 miles. Knowing that the easy gradients on this section were going to give way to a much more hilly ride across the Weald later in the morning I made the most of the largely easy going and beautiful (hint: the clue is in the name) route. The weight on the bike (not just me) and an easterly headwind made the ride a little bit harder than hoped for but the route was still fairly easy and before I knew it the track had petered out just outside of Groombridge where the old train line had diverged from the remaining London – Uckfield line.
This signalled the start of a stretch of riding on roads. It was all to be on quiet country lanes but I knew from the maps that I was going to find some hard going sections before long. However the first section of road was easy enough and the train line associations of the route continued briefly when I pulled into Eridge station for a quick breather. A main line station on the Uckfield line it is also the southern terminus of the Spa Valley Heritage Railway line running to Tunbridge Wells. I was lucky enough to time my arrival with that of a steam train into the station before heading back underway.
The main A26 road passes close to the station and in order to avoid it the Avenue Verte at this stage takes an off road, un surfaced turn through some dense and overgrown woodland up a steep hill. On the whole the route is excellent but damn, every now and again they throw in some awful sections and, though quite short, this one was no fun at all.
I think the plan might have been to prepare riders for the climb up and across the Weald. I was soon off the rough track and onto the next section of country lanes which started with a gorgeously fast downhill stretch. Any joy was tempered with knowledge of what was coming next. I faced two big climbs from this point up towards, and through, Rotherfield. The second climb was another of the top six climbs of the whole route and took some work to get up. I’ll confess to not doing it all in one uninterrupted climb. However, although I stopped once for a breather, I managed to resist the temptation to get off and push. Subsequently I soon enough found myself on the outskirts of Rotherfield village where I knew that there was a village shop and a bench waiting for me where I could stop for a glug of Lucozade and Mars Bar and a quick wander around the pretty churchyard.
Another few miles of undulating country roads led me around the outskirts of Mayfield and to the bottom of the hills beneath Heathfield. At this point the formal route heads through unsurfaced footpaths up the hillside but the combination of heavily laden bike, hills and surface led me to take heed my guidebook’s advice to remain on the road instead. The climb up to Heathfield is the toughest climb of the official route (although only the second toughest I was going to face – more about that on day four)! The climb was tough going and lasted about three miles. I had to stop at one point to take my shades off as I could no longer see through them thanks to the sweat dripping across the lenses! It was one of those climbs that would never seem to stop. Every time I thought I must be at the top as the road levelled out, I’d find another steep section around the next bend.
Eventually it was over though and I made Heathfield and into much more familiar territory of its town centre. I rode down the high street to where I knew the Co-op was to gather supplies for the rest of the day and then headed back to look for the Heathfield Tunnel. I knew of the existence of a tunnel under the high street that was a part of the old ‘Cuckoo’ Railway Line but hadn’t realised how big and long and rather impressive it is. Although not a part of the route (in fact it heads in the opposite direction back towards Mayfield) I was keen to take a diversion to see it and was not disappointed. Furthermore, some picnic benches at the far end of the tunnel provided a good place to stop for lunch.
A nice break was slightly curtailed by a short shower so I packed back up and headed back through the tunnel to re-join the Avenue Verte route as it follows disused railway line no 3, The Cuckoo Trail, which was to be an absolute joy for the next 10 miles or so as it heads towards Polegate. Furthermore the whole section in this direction is downhill from the top of the Weald towards the almost sea level marshlands around Polegate and Eastbourne. At the top end of the trail, at the edge of Heathfield the route passes by a house of one of those marvellous English suburban eccentrics. The garden of the house backs on to the old train line and is absolutely rammed full of old railway memorabilia. The garden shed is a signal box; the fence is made of level crossing gates. The owner has even installed an old mechanical signal which passers-by can operate by pressing a button on the nose of Thomas the Tank Engine! Not only does the signal change but it is accompanied by some steam train sound effects and after the train has ‘passed’ the signal changes back again. I do not know the owner of this house but Sir or Madam (I suspect Sir) I salute you.
The Cuckoo Trail really is a delight (though I should imagine that heading the opposite direction up the hill might be slightly less so) passing through some lovely countryside on a peaceful track which it was lovely to see being used by various different groups of people. As if not beautiful enough the route is also lined with a large amount of various bits of trackside art and sculptures. Most seem to have been beautifully crafted from anything left lying around that part of the line; tree trunks or bit of old train carriage; many of the trackside artwork pieces are marked with yellow lines across the road so that speeding cyclists can spot them in advance and ensure that they get a proper look at them – a very thoughtful idea!
On passing the main road at Horsebridge (a road I know well as its on my commuting route on days when I need to drive to work in Lewes) and crossing into Hailsham all of a sudden there was a cloudburst. The rain was torrential and after a nice sunny start to the day it looked like it could be like this for a while. I took shelter under a bridge and dug my waterproofs out of the panniers to try and keep myself (and the bags) dry. As time was still well on my side I thought I’d try and let it pass but after 20 minutes it was showing no signs of stopping so, not wanting to start having to rush later on, I climbed back into the saddle and started on again – getting completely drenched within minutes. I entertained myself squeezing the water from my gloves and watching the water gurgle out of my shoes any time that I clenched my toes. After a couple of miles I took shelter again under an ornamental sculpture cum shelter near a road crossing south of Hailsham and then eventually, with the rain finally starting to ease, continued on until the point at which I was to leave the Cuckoo trail just to the north of the Polegate bypass.
For the next couple of miles I knew that I was in for another off road section; however it was also a familiar one as between Polegate and Berwick I would be on the cycle route that I take between County Hall and home. Almost as soon as I turned off the Cuckoo Trail (National Cycle Route 21) and onto National Cycle Route 2 (Dover to Lands End) the rain not only stopped completely but the sun came out stronger than ever and the track showed absolutely no sign of having rained at all. This made the uphill slog on dirt track around the edge of the woodland easier going; further aided by a tail wind, and before I knew it (but after having to make my way past a group of grumpy horse riders) I was back onto the roads and heading towards Berwick at which point I would again by turning South – this time remaining in that direction until making the coast.
From Berwick a glorious ride awaited along the Cuckmere valley skirting around Alfriston and through Littlington. With the Alfriston White Horse clearly visible on the opposite side of the valley and seeing almost no vehicles or people the ride felt completely timeless until coming back with a bump as the route joins the A259 within a few hundred metres of the sea at the beautiful Cuckmere Haven.
I’d cycled the road from the Haven up into Seaford once before. In 2001 when, whilst living in Tooting, I had taken a day off to travel on the train to Hastings from where I cycled across to Brighton. On that day I hated the climb out from the valley up to the town and had really struggled, so I was pleased that even with all the extra weight on the bike I flew up the hill today and was on Seaford prom and within touching distance of Newhaven Harbour in no time at all.
Seaford prom was busy and has no designated cycle path so I took what would have been a nice leisurely ride had I not had to dodge around people changing tack on the prom every few yards. I’m sure I must have added some distance along that stretch of prom just from having to change course so often. Not that I was complaining – it’s nice to see so many people out enjoying the sea front and I still had several hours before the ferry was due to depart.
With so much time in hand I diverted slightly off course between Seaford and Newhaven to pay a visit to the Tidemills which I had never previously visited. They were a large collection of tidal powered mill buildings that had built up from the 1760s to become a self-contained village with its own train station. The mill had closed by the start of the 20th century and the village deemed unfit for habitation in the 1930s. It was finally abandoned at the start of the second world war during which it was bombed both by German planes heading for home with but also by allied troops who used it as target practice. Access to the ruins today is down a track leading from the Seaford to Newhaven road and across the train line at one end of the abandoned station platforms. Traversing the (still in use) train line is done by the old fashioned look before you walk approach – there are gates that you need to open but I saw no sign of warning or other security equipment. Resisting the temptation once on the rail line to wander onto the platforms, I crossed over and walked around the rest of the mill complex and village. A couple of neglected information boards were hard to read and many of the remains were completely overgrown which added to the sense of melancholy surrounding them. Despite that, or probably because of it, there is certainly a good sense of the past here and I’ll be looking forward to making a return visit at some time.
However for now, even though I still had another 5-6 hours before sailing time, I was tired and wanted to get to the end of the day so crossed back over the railway and onto the cycle path down into Newhaven Harbour where I parked and locked my bike up at the ferry port terminal.
Having changed in the truckers toilets (during which I had a lengthy conversation with a west country trucker about riding in France whilst I was getting dressed) and ensuring that I was OK to leave my bike for a couple of hours I put the carry straps on my panniers and made my way to the station to get a train into Lewes. At one stage of the planning I was going to be doing this leg of the journey on the Friday and part of that plan had been to dive into the office for a shower and freshen up there! Being Sunday however that was not possible so I used the extra time to have a well-earned pint at the Lansdowne pub opposite Lewes station before heading for some food in another functional but uninspiring chained Italian restaurant in Lewes. The staff there did kindly charge my phone for me whilst I ate and in case you are wondering, although nothing special, this was much better than anything that Newhaven might have had to offer. Furthermore my annual rail season ticket allowed me to do this short train ride into Lewes and back at no cost.
Feeling more human for some food, and having had another beer on my way back past the Lansdowne I headed back to the station and on to Newhaven. After collecting the bike and easily clearing customs I joined up with a number of other cyclists and spent a while chatting with a friendly Frenchman named Phillipe whilst waiting to board the boat; along with brief conversations with a party of Italians and a couple of young lads from Portsmouth who turned up a bit later. Although the ferry company dedicate an area of the loading/waiting area to cyclists there are no facilities easily to hand there so it was lucky that the evening was still fairly warm and was remaining dry.
Eventually it was time to board the boat. I had expected the bike storage area to be a properly setup corner of the ferry but instead we were all left to try and secure out bikes as best we could using just the chains that we had with us. Fortunately though, the sea was looking calm so the bikes should be fine during the crossing. Once locked up and in place I made my way up onto deck, checked in to pick up the key to the cabin I had booked, and made my way straight to it.
I was warned that my cabin was directly under the bridge and that I should keep my curtains shut as the light from my room could cause problems to the captain! I soon confirmed I was indeed right at the front of the ship as the front of the ferry was still open for loading and as such the prow was directly in front of my window. After showering, hanging up my cycling gear to ‘air’ and stuffing my still soggy cycle shoes with half a roll of toilet paper I turned the lights out and risked opening the curtain so that I could watch as the prow closed and then we slowly slipped out of Newhaven harbour before I started to try to get some sleep. It came easily enough once we were properly out to sea.
Day Two Stats:
- Distance: 55.05 Miles
- Ride Time: 4 Hours 37 minutes and 2 seconds
- Maximum Speed: 42.2mph
- Average Speed: 11.9mph
- Average RPM: 58
- Revolutions: 16,068
- Ascent: 2,169 feet
- Strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/173201201