There are a great many trails scattered across the UK that are worthy of attention on a bicycle, and up there with the very best is the South Downs Way. No, it’s not the most technical route - in fact, great swathes of it (if not all of it) could perfectly feasibly ridden on a gravel bike (or even a particularly stout tourer if you were feeling particularly masochistic), but what it gives up in technicality more than makes up for it in many other ways.
Climbs that, putting it mildly, redefine the word ‘stout’; views that go on for literally miles (or 1.6x more kilometres, for those of you with a more European outlook); boundless history from the prehistoric, through the Roman and all the way on to Victoriana. There are also, of course, occasionally sketchy sections which should be straightforward if they weren’t made from chalk and it wasn’t raining.
The route is relatively long, and for ease and a relatively relaxed time we’ve split it into three sections of roughly thirty miles each. This is not a rigid rubric though - plenty of (admittedly rather fit) people have done the whole thing in one go, and a select few maniacs with legs like chicken drumsticks have even done it there and back in one big hit.
Although it’s perfectly feasible to run the Way in either direction, our guide runs the gamut from west to east. There are a (very) few sections which split walkers and cyclists onto different paths for safety, erosion or SSSI (site of special scientific interest) reasons, so take care to follow them. Particularly on the last stretch to Eastbourne, the route splits into two, heading directly cross-country is the bike and walking path, whereas a footpath-only variant heads down to the coast and runs along the clifftops. This is not the one for bikes; should you veer from the path of cycling righteousness you may well find yourself the recipient of more than a few stern rebukes.
Weatherwise, the South Downs enjoy a temperate climate, and there’s a good chance of fine weather in the late spring through to early autumn - although it certainly pays to be prepared for rain, especially as the chalk terrain, as mentioned, can make things rather slippery.
In terms of accommodation, there are a few campsites available, but honestly your best bet may well end up being B&B accommodation. Wild camping without permission from the landowner isn’t legal in England, so if you do find yourself hankering for it, get permission first.
But as an initial foray into multi-day rides, the SDW is hard to beat. Challenging in all the right ways, and forgiving too. You’ll be rewarded with some truly excellent riding, some fantastic views, and an awesome adventure.
The first leg of the South Downs way starts as it means to carry on - glorious, rolling countryside, excellent views, and - for the most part - pretty good going. Don't be put off by the 'difficult' rating of this ride - it's mostly wide tracks, so it's pretty technically straightforward, but at 29 miles (46km) and 2,300ft (700m) vertical it still presents a challenge.
The South Downs Way starts in Winchester, which started as a pre-Roman settlement. Once you've finished gawping at the cathedral, the Way strikes out west towards Chilcombe before climbing Telegraph Hill and meandering gently southwards to Exton. Just before here, cyclists should take the road along the White Way, as walkers get their own special section.
After a quick refresh, if you're so inclined, the trail detours around the Winchester Hill Fort (walkers can climb up and over it; it's worth a stop of you've got time) before visiting the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, where you can work off some extra energy on the mountain bike trails.
The trail levels off here, and becomes less undulatory for the final spin of this leg just below South Harting. Not far away, you can find accommodation and campsites. If you're insane enough to be riding in one go, you can inhale the easy-to-digest food of your choice and take a break at the carpark at Two Beech Gate, assuming you've managed to convince someone to support you in your insanity.
South Harting itself also has a pub with B&B accommodation in the White Hart, a post office and a handful of shops. Some of these may be useful to the weary traveller (Harting Stores and Post Office); others somewhat less so (Barnard and Cook Carpet and Flooring).
I hope you like hills first thing in the morning, as depending on where you overnighted, this second leg of the South Downs Way starts off with a rather stiff one.
Granted, if you’ve spent the night south of South Harting then it’s not nearly as bad - the escarpment is to your north - but you’ve still got to get onto the Harting Downs; get ready for a long day in the saddle. Perhaps that extra sausage at breakfast wasn’t such a good idea?
However, the views to your left will soon make up for any sausage-based travails, as the trail heads east along the ridge, up to the fort at Beacon Hill, and over to the improbably named Mount Sinai (no, not that one).
In fact, it’s a relatively lumpy section for the next dozen miles or so until you reach Burton Down and start a long descent down to more-or-less sea level and the River Arun.
After this, unfortunately, more grindy-grindy uphill then follows, as the trail follows the ridgeline, dropping down to cross a few main roads, before the final, long, gradual descent of the day just south of Washington (again, no, not that one) which finishes up at the River Adur just south of Steyning and the exquisitely named Upper Beeding.
More climbing and undulating then follows to the final point on this leg, the Clayton Windmills, just past the London to Brighton Roman Road. Some 7 miles (10km) to your south is Brighton and its manifold delights, to your north is Hassocks and Hurstpierpoint (seriously, who comes up with these names?).
These options offer accommodation and all the amenities you could realistically require (and sometimes lots of unrealistic ones too, in Brighton’s case). Even nearby Pyecombe offers B&B accommodation and a good pub.
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Here, then is the final final leg of the South Downs Way. It's an easier day than the previous one; slightly shorter, although there are still plenty of ups and downs along the way, as you meander (or manically hurtle, if you like - but the view's not as nice through all that red mist) into Eastbourne.
First of all - Ditchling Beacon! It's a hardly lofty 248m (814ft) above sea level, true, but it's the highpoint, and the views are awesome (in a flat sort of way) in pretty much every direction.
After a little more riding the trail takes a sharp turn south - keep an eye out here, otherwise you'll eventually end up in Lewes riding past Her Majesty's Prison. But if all is well, you'll soon be experiencing Loose Bottom and a variety of other innuendo-prone placenames before dropping down to cross the River Ouse.
Having climbed back up to Firle Beacon, the trail drops to Alfriston, where caution is needed - the footpath heads south along the coast, but the bridleway heads east, above The Long Man of Wilmington. The trail then skirts the west side of Eastbourne before dropping to join the footpath once again and heading to the beach and the finish.
Eastbourne is a fine seaside town, with all of the amenities you could wish for as a result, from accommodation of a variety of stripes all the way through to train access, donkey rides on the beach and soggy, vinegary chips in paper cones. You can savour the latter with a feeling of accomplishment as you survey the sea and the knowledge of a job well done.