I’ve never been much of a drinker, so going ‘dry’ for the month of January has never really been something I’ve thought much about. I did, however, wish with almost every turn of the pedal on my latest little adventure, that the rain had taken a month off.
Perhaps we should be used to it by now? British winters are becoming milder and wetter and on the evidence of this season at least so far, cold, bright and frosty days are increasingly rare as our climate is changing and not for the better.
After what can only be described as an out-of-balance life for the last couple of years, I was determined 2020 would be different. Rather aptly I guess, I almost found myself waving goodbye to January before I felt it had started, so I took the last Friday off from work and kept my commitment and hopes of a bivvy a month alive. At least for the time being!
The only plan I had was to ride from home and end up somewhere fairly near Reigate to meet by wife and children as my eldest has just started doing the Park Run there, after completing his ‘half marathon’ at the local junior run. I also wanted to test a new set up of my bikepacking gear which has enabled me to ditch my hydration pack and hopefully a bit of back pain on longer rides. More on that in a future blog.
Reigate as the crow flies from my house is not a huge distance east, so I headed west. The first few miles I covered in auto-pilot. Up to Polesden Lacey NT and beyond to the North Downs Way, but not before shedding layers as I overheated in the double-digit temperatures. Utter madness. From the top it’s a straight run on the old Drovers Road, which these days sees too many wheels of the 4×4 variety, so a straight run becomes a never ending zig zag around huge ruts and, after heavy rainfall, huge puddles of water. I pushed on to Newlands Corner and straight through the car park, doing my best not to breathe in the tempting smells of bacon and eggs wafting from the cafe. I had my eyes, and taste buds, fixed on a future prize.
Dropping off the North Downs Way here brings an end to the miles of leg-sapping mud only for it to be replaced with the leg-sapping sand of the Pilgrim’s Way. In actual fact the sand of St Martha’s Hill, which can be problematic in the height of summer, looked like a beach with a retreating tide, so damp and flattened from all the rain. It made for quick progress via the Downs Link over to Blackheath where again the sandy tracks were fairly easy to ride on.
Beyond Blackheath lay Winterfold Wood, which was as wet as I thought it might be and I was thankful for the combination of waterproof socks and gore tex boots. One dab going ‘upstream’ would have resulted in a pretty soggy foot. I pressed on for Peaslake, negotiating endless puddles, the depth of many I didn’t want to test.
I ignored the prospect of a legendary Pork and Leek slice at Peaslake stores and winched back up Radnor Road to the reservoir on Holmbury Hill. Until then I’d only been getting wet from the ground-lying water, but the low cloud and mist forming over the hill had brought plenty of moisture with it and I was quickly getting damp and cold. The layers that had come off earlier, went back on just as quickly.
My decision to eschew a sausage roll a mile down the road was the result of a crude calculation made an hour earlier when I thought I’d be in with a good chance of making a late lunch at The Stephan Langton pub in Friday Street.
When I arrived a large shooting party were just leaving to go and take arms against more helpless birds, so I ordered a burger with all the trimmings and took up residence in front of a log burner. Sixty minutes later, fed, watered, dry and a lot warmer, it took immense will power to even get up out of the chair, let alone get back on the bike.
It was getting on for 3pm and it felt like it was getting dark already so I had to push on. The downside to the pub’s location is that it’s pretty much a climb back up in all directions and mine was heading for Leith Hill so I set in for a prolonged winch up on a full stomach. I passed the shooters on their next beat and a minute later, after turning off the road, I flushed a Woodcock – a magnificent bird – which not only made me jump but thankfully darted off in the opposite direction from the guns and from what might have been its impending doom.
Climbing to as good as the top of Leith Hill I was once again in mist and low cloud and my glasses required wiping on a very frequent basis. I didn’t have the legs or inclination to ‘bag’ another summit, so carried straight on for Coldharbour rather than visit the famous tower at the top.
From Coldharbour my route should have been fairly straight forward. Fire roads through Redlands Wood and then ‘minor’ roads all the way to Reigate. Unfortunately I hadn’t bet on a film set of some magnitude in full swing in the middle of the forest. My usual tracks were cut off and in the distance I could see huge mobile floodlights, projecting lumens my local non-league football team could only dream of!
It started a frustrating 20 minutes or so which resulted in a bit of a sense of humour failure, it must be said. It also saw the start of heavy rain which had me reaching for my rain jacket as quickly as possible. I eventually got back on track and made my way down to Holmwood Common and from there some back roads took me ever-closer to my end point. I was well into early rush hour by then and the rat-runs were in full swing, so I was glad to get back onto the traffic free heathland.
Whilst my adventure was almost at an end, certainly in terms of distance travelled, it was really only beginning. Up to that point, save for a few back and forths in a relatively unknown forest, I’d been on tracks and paths I knew well. Now I was looking for somewhere discrete to pitch my tarp.
I’d shortlisted three places the night before through a combination of paper and online mapping, but the reality you are met with can quite often be a different story. One, a copse of trees close to the river, I ruled out on the fly as it would have been too wet. The next, a large expanse of woodland was, in the main, private land and fenced off or just too boggy. That left my least favoured option – the heath – and finding somewhere inconspicuous among patches of gorse and thinly wooded fringes along the fairways of the golf course. In the end I opted for a ‘hiding in plain sight’ strategy and pushed into some low level bushes a few yards off a main track crossing the heath. Despite it being dark, a number of dog walkers were still out so I waited a good half an hour before finally committing to it.
In that time my eyes had adjusted to the light (or should that be dark?) sufficiently well to get my tarp up without a headtorch. I really didn’t want to draw any attention to my position. Thankfully the rain started again almost as soon as the last peg went in the ground so the prospect of anyone coming past seemed limited to only the most hardened or time pressured of dog walkers. I began to relax a bit and put some water on for a tea to warm me up – the hanging about in soggy clothes had chilled me quickly despite the relative warmth for the time of year.
I managed to get out of my wet stuff and into something a lot drier lying down – an art you sort of perfect over time sleeping under a tarp – and with plenty of layers and a cup of tea I was warming up nicely. In truth I still wasn’t that hungry after a late lunch so ditched the super noodles and chorizo in favour of a pork pie (oh, the glamour!) and sorted out my sleep system. I’d packed my sleeping bag already inside the bivi bag and the liner already inside that so it was just a case of pulling it all out of it’s dry bag and up over my body.
I slept relatively well. It certainly wasn’t cold and I was too warm if anything. Most of the time wild camping, sleep is a series of naps rather than one long stint and so it played out. I woke a few times to some tawny owls arguing about territory and just after 2am I heard a lady calling her dog fairly close by!
I’d set my alarm for 6 to get everything down and away before first light really kicked in and I had everything back on the bike before the first of many joggers and walkers trotted past. By that time I’d moved to a nearby bench overlooking one of the fairways where I had a bit of a clean up and change the batteries in my Garmin which had died whilst I was reviewing the weather forecast the evening before.
I only had a mile to go to where the Park Run takes place and I arrived at 8 just as the cafe opened its doors. I ordered a latte and their biggest breakfast (I was only cheering the runners after all) and sat keeping half an eye on my bike until the family arrived.
The stats would say I covered about 36 miles and around 3,500 feet of ascent, but its what that represented that is the most important thing. I’d not been defeated at the first hurdle, I’d recharged my batteries (and changed those of my Garmin!) and got away from it all for just under 24 hours. Here’s hoping the next adventure is just as fun.