We start the climb up to Black Hill in darkness, up through Five Hundred Akre Wood, a tunnel of trees lit by the many lumens of our front lights. With few leaves on the trees the ridge of the Ashdown Forest can be seen shadowed ominously against the last remnants of twilight. It’s a long climb, one of those ones that is steep, shallow, downhill, false flat, shallow, steep, steeper, shallow,flat. It’s longer than I remember it being. By the time we reach the ridge the sky is completely black. It can feel like the top of Sussex in daylight up here, when you can see all the way down to the South Downs and all the way up to North Downs, but in the dark of winter it feels even more like the top of the county. All around you can see the glow of towns and villages. Crowborough sits down to the left and Haywards Heath casts orange light into to sky to the west, and inbetween the lights of houses and villages sparkle like fairy lights. We ride back past the garden centre at Duddleswell and start the fast descent back into Uckfield where we started this ride this morning.
We set off from Uckfield fairly late in the morning due to some extra kilometres riding to the start via Mark’s house for morning tea. As well as me and Mark there’s also Vic. Mark is aiming to complete a Brevet des Grimpeurs du Sud this year, and Vic is just along for the ride. She also rode The Reliable AAA perm yesterday, not for a GdS badge, as training for an endurance thing next year. I’ve long since given up on trying for a GdS for this year as loads of other stuff has got in the way. This is only my third one of the year and I can’t be bothered to try and squeeze in two more in December.
Like many GdS audaxes the Down to Downs is almost all on home territory but not quite. Once over the A25 and inside the M25 it’s too close to London for comfort so is far less well known to me. The southern most parts around the Ashdown Forest are very familiar, though having said that the first section out of Uckfield into the forest is via lanes none of us have ever ridden before. There’s nothing like an audax you to show you lanes pretty much in your back garden yet never been traveled along. Sussex is crisscrossed by hundreds of lanes so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. More dots joined and one or two fewer main roads to navigate in future.
The first climb of the day is up through Duddleswell and over the top of the forest down to Pooh Corner, where we follow the most direct but undulating (it is a AAA audax after all) route to Edenbridge crossing the border into Kent. Edenbridge is the first control and the highstreet is closed due to a French market. We unclip and wend our way between the stalls and punters, find a cash machine for a receipt before choosing a stall to buy lunch from – Mark and Vic opt for pastries, I head for the tartiflette stall.
From Edenbridge we head over Toys Hill which I find fairly painful as I can only climb in the saddle. I crashed my mountain bike yesterday and hit my ribs so every time I get out of the saddle I get a twinge of pain forcing me to sit again. In Brasted we stop for hot chocolates before the climb up Brasted Hill (not as horrifically revolting as I remember it from the Greenwich Mean Climb) onto the Kent Downs. Over the top of here we’re into unknown country. I know some of the roads from Audax Club Hackney rides (The Shark and aforementioned GMC) but those head into London via Bromley and this ride heads down towards Orpington. It gets all quite suburban with big roads and traffic as we get to Green Street Green. It’s not that green though. I suspect it was once a pleasant little country village before it was consumed by the spread of the capital. We stop long enough to gather receipts from a petrol station before leaving as quick as possible along a cycle path and back up on to the downs.
After a beautifully fast sweeping descent we’re back over the M25 and A25 and into the safety of familiar countryside. Over the Greensand Ridge at Ide Hill, parallel with our traverse of it via Toys Hill a little earlier, we can see Bough Beech reservoir far below us, our next destination. It’s a view I’ve never seen before and afforded due to autumn leaf fall. Light is starting to drain from the sky and by the time we pass Penshurst Place we’ve flicked our lights on.
In Penshurst we turn right rather than left which is new to me. It takes us to Groombridge Hill a more direct way than I’m used to via a couple of long draggy climbs and a lovely descent which swoops down across a narrow humpback bridge. We could re-route ourselves via some quieter lanes without adding much distance and with similar amounts of climbing, though with shorter acuter ramps. However this time of year those lanes will be covered in gravel and leaf mulch so in the dark will have required a lot of concentration to stay upright.
After gathering more receipts from a petrol station in Langton Green we plummet into Groombridge for the final climb of the day back up over the Ashdown.
“If you haven’t got a lock you can leave those in here if you want” Turns out the duty manager at the Maccy D’s in Uckfield is a cyclist. It’s not a proper audax if at least one of the receipts isn’t for a Hot Apple Pie and a cup of tea.