Bike & bivvy on the South Downs Way

With a commitment to crank up the sense of adventure in 2016, we opened this year’s account with a trip south to pick up a section of South Down’s Way we’d briefly encountered when cycling the Shipwright’s Way last September.

Despite a fairly miserable weather forecast, and the usual pressures on our time, we wanted to start the year as we meant to go on and head to unfamiliar territory rather than the relative comfort and familiarity of our local hills. Our starting point was in the village of Buriton, south of Petersfield, picking up the SDW the other side of the hill from the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. We’d scaled that hill back in September en route to Hayling Island and neither of us fancied the long, draggy climb out of QECP as the first action on heavily laden bikes!

one
Setting off from Buriton

Our plan was quite a simple one on paper. Head east for a couple of hours on what looked relatively easy gradient (for the South Downs Way!) and find somewhere reasonably inconspicuous to sleep. What with all the rain we’ve had recently, and my limited experiences of riding the South Downs in Winter, we expected heavy going, but the first couple of miles were fairly easy going as we hacked along stretches of country lanes and farm tracks.

Once these disappeared our pace slowed significantly and if we weren’t grinding up the hills in the granny gear we were off and pushing through the slop, often made worse by the various farm vehicles using them on a regular basis.  I was also wearing my Shimano DX shoes, which are to hiking what chocolate teapots are to brewing.

two
A murky January day on the SDW

Making slow but steady progress and battling an increasing wind we stopped to take on some fuel after an hour or so of riding and walking. It was at this point I made a very costly error. I leant my bike against a newly erected fence to retrieve some food from my Camelbak and, in an instant it seemed, a combination of a strong side wind and slightly downward gradient combined to move my bike enough for it to run a couple of metres along the fence, catching my stashed waterproof and saddlebag on the barbed wire top. The jacket was ripped in two places across the back and the seat pack had an inch slash in the side. I was gutted to say the least, but all I could do was grit my teeth and use some Gorilla tape to patch the seat pack. As temporary fixes go it was decent enough – I’m just glad I carried some tape wrapped around the handle of my pump.

We pushed on through the mud which seemed to drag us backwards with increasing frequency. Nearing the end of our second hour of riding our thoughts were turning to finding a likely spot to pitch for the night. We knew from the OS map that there looked a sizeable wooded area off the main path, the only problem was accessing it as we were effectively penned in by fences either side of the trail. Eventually we hit a couple of bridleway cross-roads which gave us the opportunity to ride down into the treeline and look for a spot for the night.

three
The wild camping equivalent of adjoining hotel rooms!

Though there was plenty of cover, the challenge was finding somewhere flat enough and big enough to pitch two tarps. Eventually, after a bit of scouring and perseverance, we found an ideal spot. Flat enough to sleep on and open enough for our tarps. We even had the benefit of a thick layer of moss underneath us for a bit of added comfort.

We wasted no time in getting tarps set up and everything underneath them as the threat of rain wasn’t far away. Camping out in the winter months makes for a very long night and when its raining it seems even longer as you’re holed up under your tarp. Thankfully our ‘adjoining rooms’ set-up made for a very sociable evening as we cooked our dinners at the front of our shelters.

To add insult to injury from my earlier run in with the fence, it soon became apparent that the wire had also penetrated the seat pack and snagged my Thermarest which was going down at a rate of knots. Once again the Gorilla tape did a good enough job of fixing it for a good night’s sleep to be had.

four
Spirits not dampened despite 12 hours of overnight rain.

Emerging from our holes once the rain had cleared, and slightly later than usual, we got some hot tea and porridge inside us before packing up some very wet kit. Whilst the rain had cleared it had certainly left its mark on the trails and a dense fog was keeping visibility to a minimum. The problem with an out-and-back type ride is you know what you’ve got to get back up and over on the return, which can be a little dispiriting on a cold January morning.

Nevertheless we pressed on and actually the route back was, on the whole, a much easier proposition than the previous day’s efforts. Descending two hills we realised quite how much steady climbing we’d had to do on the Saturday and we were quickly eating up the miles on the way back.

five
Making steady progress on the return leg.

Soon enough we were hitting the firmer farm tracks which gave way to the country lanes leading us back to the car park. We might not have travelled very far but in the sapping mud and with a total ascent equivalent to a much longer ride on our home turf, we felt like it had definitely been the challenge we were looking for to kick off the year.

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