Riding high

FREEWHEELING 1: THE SOUTH DOWNS / In silence broken only by the bleat of distant sheep, Martin Wright joined the cyclists on the South Downs Way for the first of our series
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The Independent Culture
LOOK at a map of southern Eng-land, and the South Downs seem no more than a puny thread between the stockbroker belt and the seaside sprawl. But stand on their ridge and everything changes. In a silence broken only by skylarks and distant sheep, you can look down on an impossibly green and empty land: the towns and highways of the Sussex weald seem to have sunk without trace into a vast, gently rolling chequerboard of woods and fields.

This vanishing trick is one of the delights of the Downs. For cyclists, there is an another bonus. The South Downs Way follows the ridgeline for most of its 99 miles from Eastbourne to Winchester, and you can cycle along virtually all of it. Depending on your gears and muscle power, you can expect to get off and push occasionally, but most of the route is easy going and clearly marked with acorn waymarks. For pubs, shops and other services, just descend to the valleys.

We put our bikes on the train from Victoria station in London to Pul- borough, north of the Downs, and cycled to meet them at Steyning, where the Adur River cuts its valley through the chalk. In the Middle Ages, Steyning was a bustling port; then the river silted up and it has the air of having slept ever since. Like many towns along the Downs, it was by-passed first by the industrial revolution, then by the explosion of the seaside resorts. As a result, it has stayed compact, its clapperboard and flint houses exuding an air of gentility, somehow summed up by the sight of a workman assiduously polishing the windows of a phone box.

The next morning dawned grey and heavy, but by the time we had ridden (a bit) and pushed (mainly) our bikes up the steeply wooded slopes to the ridge, the sun had burnt off the mist and was beginning to soak the Downs in heat. Up there on the plateau we made surprisingly easy progress, bouncing west over the flinty track; through swathes of close-cropped grassland interspersed with fields of thickening corn.

This is not a natural landscape, but a sheep-made one. Take away these eco lawnmowers and the Downs would be smothered in thick beech woods, as they were before Neolithic farmers embarked on some systematic deforestation 5,000 years ago.

As we rounded the corner we saw why the bleats were so animated: a mobile sheep-shearing team, made up of - yes - Australians, was out there on the open downland with what looked like mini-chainsaws. Each sheep was stripped at astonishing speed, the fleece unrolling off the back and on to the turf in a single clump, the animal shaved so close you could see the pink beneath the wool as it scampered away.

Leaving the bleating hanging in the air behind us, we headed up a long slope to Chanctonbury Ring, one of the high points, literally and aesthetically, of this part of the Downs. This ancient round earthwork - hill fort or sacred site, maybe both - is crowned with a circle of huge beech trees. They were planted, it is said, by a romantic young squire in the 14th century, who toiled up the slopes from his house in the valley each morning carrying water to nourish his saplings. Though some of the trees were shattered in the hurricane of 1987, they still make for an imposing landmark, visible for miles along the hump of the Downs.

The track sloped smoothly down from Chanctonbury, before pitching us with sudden steepness into one of the dry valleys that cut through the hills. Braking hard, flints skittering out from under my wheels, merely sent me and the bike sliding inelegantly into the bank. Time to get off and walk. A rarity on the Downs: for the most part the Way rolls gently along the crest, sometimes dipping down into shallow valleys, with pansies and poppies clustering at the edge of cornfields, then rising to the ridge for huge views of a hazy Weald to the north, and glimpses of the sea to the south, and always the soundtrack of skylarks, poised above the grasses, piping through the stillness.

It all made for easy, even exhilarating progress. Each time we looked at the map, we found we were further on than we thought. By late afternoon, we'd reached the Arun River and the tiny village of Burpham, the site of another ring of earthworks, the enclosed ground put to sensible use here as the village cricket field.

From the embankment, we looked out across flat, marshy farmland to Arundel, and the looming bulk of its castle. The next morning, we cycled down the valley for the train back to London. Even with such a short trip (about 40 miles over two days), it felt like a shock after the stillness of the Downs, but the skylarks were still chiming in my ears as the train squealed into Victoria.

GETTING THERE

Many trains from London Victoria to Eastbourne, Brighton and Hastings stop at stations close to the South Downs Way. Since these are essentially local services, there are few res-trictions on taking bikes on the train, but phone first to make sure. With journey times of little over an hour, a day trip from London is feasible.

STAYING THERE

Martin Wright stayed at Springwells Hotel, Steyning (01903 812446, pounds 26- pounds 34 b&b); and Burpham Country Hotel, Burpham, near Arundel (01903 882160, pounds 30.50-pounds 34 b&b).

INFORMATION

The South Downs Way National Trail Guide (Aurum Press) comes complete with large-scale maps and even a list of local cycle shops. !

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