For one reason or another I’ve not ridden much in Sussex this year. There have been trips overseas, to mountainous lands, stage races and iconic summits, tours and audaxes, foreign counties, long long rides to way over there and then back again. Some of these were planned long ago and some impromptu and immediate desires to get away. Home lanes haven’t really been included and there has not even been that much commuting as week days have been spent resting between weekend escapades. When I have ridden Sussex lanes it has been to get to somewhere else, my usual escapes too close to home.
A week or so ago I rode around Sussex, all the places that have been missed. A 200km DIY by GPS audax, a route that was plotted long ago and sat waiting, an idea for maybe a real audax one day, one with info controls and tea and cake in a village hall. A very deliberate route borne out of previous whimsies, meanderings that settled on a course. Stretching back and forth and from there to here and almost back to there again, it’s a convoluted route to include favourite lanes, cover the many landscapes of Sussex, and make up the distance. So many shortcuts possible but not to be taken. Starting in the lee of the South Downs it crisscrosses the low weald and climbs to the Ashdown Forest before descending back into the weald before dropping even lower to Pevensey Marshes. Then it finally climbs onto the South Downs before depositing you back at the starting point. From chalk to clay, fields and forest, high points and land salvaged from the sea.
I rode with a friend I’ve barely ridden with since spring. We started early, both leaving home in the dark to meet in Lewes at sunrise. Once the sun crept over the hills is stayed with us all day, arcing over us before finally dropping beyond the horizon out to sea, ten hours and 175 kilometres later. We set off in the shadow of the downs and finished in the Earth’s shadow.
Starting with bits of new and old commutes we crossed from East to West Sussex in the bright coldness, the strong sunshine belied the chill in the air, noticeable in the long shadows of early morning. Sunlight caught in mist draped across fields, snagging on branches and hedge tops. Easy careless miles, almost on autopilot whilst chatting. Lanes I rode day in day out at either end of days for years, roads I could once have ridden blindfolded but this may have only been the second time this year, the skittishness of gravel replaced by the slipperiness of fallen leaves in the corners.
We were too early for the Tea Rooms as it was Sunday and winter opening hours have kicked in. Dropping past the reservoir I’d never seen it so low, overflowing across the roads yes, but never fishermen casting off from exposed gravel beaches. We climbed almost to the Ashdown but turned away abruptly simply to include a favoured lane. We’d soon be in the Ashdown anyway, once we’d ridden almost back to the starting point, but first we rode off route to find warm drinks and cake before energy dipped into the reserves. Sat in a window in the sunshine. Two sugars in my tea.
Back outside we headed east and north, into the Ashdown proper, over the cattlegrids. A long steady climb all so we could turn back on ourselves and lose all the height in a few minutes, back down to the weald to wiggle around, up and down, in and out of ghylls and hollows. A day after rain means the lanes were mucky, tyres picked up flints and punctures. Onto the marshes and we found New Bridge Road has been resurfaced plus we had a tailwind, an absolute joy. The sun was low again like the land around us and it finally drops as we start the final climb and when the Jevington Road opened out into the saddle between the hills a giant pink moon sat on the ridge as if carefully placed there. By the time we descended to Exceat the moonlight overpowered the remaining traces of the day’s light, the Cuckmere shining like quicksilver as it snaked out to sea, nestled in the blue-black shadow of the valley under the deep twilight. The most beautiful either of us have seen the river, and a view we’d not have seen had we not both punctured a few miles before. The slight annoyance of that delay forgotten. Happenstance.
Towns spread along the coast sparkled sodium orange but we followed the red shining beacons atop radio masts on the hills inland. Skirting the floodplain on the edge of the forest we hear a tawny owl cry. The zigs and zags of the flatlands around Ripe. We ended in the pub where plans and ideas have been dreamed up over the years. We sat with ale and crisps and the warmth of satisfaction and fatigue.
A gentle reminder that what lies just outside the front door can be more than enough. Home feels like home again.