Brian Armstrong cycles the South Downs Way in 1973
It was perhaps just as well I didn't go to Scotland after all. Too expensive, I thought, bound to rain, I thought, too cold, I thought, ought to go with someone.
So I cycled the South Downs Way, West to East and in the first half mile of bramble covered, nettle grown, clay track through the trees from Buriton church, I hit a rut. The heavily laden bike keeled over and the front wheel was buckled badly. I dragged it fifty feet up a bank to a better path, straightened the wheel by the time honoured, scientific method of two hands and one foot and rode on very cautiously and a little erratically to North Marden where there was a CTC handbook address. Although this tiny parish is reported to have only twelve inhabitants, it was surprisingly difficult to find Mrs. Humphreys and when I did she had no vacancy.
To cut a long story short, a Tennis Tournament had filled all available beds through into Chichester where I eventually found room at the Victoria Hotel. After referring me to the nearby fish and chippery, Kate chased after me waving me back to a ham salad which was being prepared for me by the maitresse d'hotel herself, fair Helen.
So I stayed two nights, most of which were spent in the bar as a resident. Admittedly this was a severe setback to my budget which was based on thirty bob to two pounds a day. That sort of money doesn't go far in a round of drinks. Still it was an amusing experience, would you believe as Kate was always saying. She treated me as though she hadn't seen a man for years, which I doubt very much. And amid the comings and goings, the hustle and bustle, the toing and froing and singing and joking, Helen herself introduced me to a completely new experience. After the outside doors were locked, and the public had drunk their beer and left for their houses but while we were still sat at the bar she let me have what was for me something quite different and novel. One of the local fishermen had shown her and she was not slow to learn the art with all the skill her mature womanhood could bring to bear so that she gave me a taste for grilled conger eel.
For those who want routes, I had taken a train from Waterloo to Hook and cycled the twenty-four bird-brain-bespattered miles of the A30 to Winchester City Mill ,which Hostel was as beautiful as I remembered it from a quarter century ago. The only real item of note otherwise was a visit to the Fox and Hounds Inn at Beauworth which stands high on a hill above Warnford and until 1955 drew its water supply from a well 300 feet down into the hill. The buckets were raised by means of a human treadmill which can still be made to work.
There are four cycle shops in the little town of Chichester so I was soon fixed up with a new wheel though again with a depleted purse. A 45 gear is rather high for Halnaker Hill but the walk was well worth while. The tranquillity of the old mill with its sails still set was almost unbelievable after the roar of the A285, 250 feet below.
Somehow for me the mood was broken when I came on the freshly disembowelled body of a little sparrow. Anyway, I hate retracing my steps so the bike and I fought our way round three quarters of a mile of nettle-fringed field to reach Stane Street. But again the effort was worth it for this old Roman Road, now a green way through a forest was open, clear and straight as a ruler and the Commission had happily provided some descriptions of its plantations along the way. What a delight it was to brew tea on a borrowed Optimus petrol stove and look back down eight miles of straight track to Chichester Cathedral.
The view from Bignor was magnificent and unusually stretched through about 300 degrees but I paid for it with a torn ear. As I plunged down a bridleway towards Westburton an overhanging bramble hooked the top of my left ear and stopped me dead in my tracks. After disengaging myself from its tender clutches I went looking for digs with blood pouring down the side of my face. These brambles are growing more widespread since myxamatosis wiped out the rabbits who used to eat the new shoots.
The beautiful back road to Arundel Youth Hostel from Amberley, though a trifle longer than I expected, gave me sight of a cuckoo and a lapwing, the first I had ever seen and a noble view of the Castle hanging on the side of the hill. A party of German schoolgirls enlivened breakfast at the Hostel with songs. They were to sing at Havant after an engagement at Greenwich the day before. Inevitably some of the girls didn't want their meals so some of us were lucky enough to get two.
My route back on to the Downs led through a stud farm which was as neat and clean as a hospital, a marked contrast with the generally untidy appearance of the working farms. Around here I sometimes found it necessary to ignore the "No admittance" signs which were in direct conflict with the advertised public bridleway.
I was grateful to Charles Goring who 200 years ago planted the beeches on Chanctonbury Ring and carried water up to the seedlings daily. Their shade was a most welcome relief from the blazing sunshine of the day. A west wind blew me down a concrete path nine feet wide and over a mile in length , still part of the South Downs Way until I came to Greenleaves at where Mrs. Millman put me up for £2 and very comfortable it was too.
Bramber Castle is a pleasing spot to visit and it was there I heard someone informing his American guests that his neighbour, editor of a popular British Daily, was a complete idiot, all theory and no common sense and his wife didn't know what religion was all about. I did a double-take too when I read a tablet in the 11th Century church to the memory of Ann Michael, widow of W. Michael, W. Jessop and John Davey.
Next day I visited Devils Dyke but need hardly have bothered: this far-famed beauty spot was despoiled with a litter of old settees and bedsteads and motor car rubbish.
Now East Sussex CC (County Council not Cycling Club) are responsible for the signposting and they use those stone plaques on the ground which, when they are there at all, are frequently difficult to see and sometimes unclear in their meaning. In West Sussex and in Hampshire the finger posts are very clear and happily numerous which gives the traveller confidence. (Kent seems to go one better, giving destinations and sometimes distances as well).
I had lunch on the edge of a dewpond on Newtimber Hill and in blazing sunshine watched the hawks sitting on the wind which was sweeping in from the sea. Then I rode on via Ditchling Beacon and Blackdog hill where the beeches were planted for the Coronation. In Lewes, after tea near the racecourse which is now a training stables, I was lucky enough to find B & B for £1.50 at No.7 ?? Street not far from The Volunteer. Both made me welcome that evening but I had to leave the bike at the railway station for the night.
Climbing to Firle Beacon next day I passed cautiously through a herd of bulls who edged closer and closer. I suppose curious about the bike because the walker behind me strode through quietly but without any hesitation. Then he told me they were steers but I am still not quite clear how you tell the difference.
Anyway, I felt it would be churlish to ride off then, so we walked the four miles to Alfriston and had a jar of excellent mild ale at The George, our shorts and open necks contrasting oddly with the stuffed shirts and lacy ladies. I am glad I stayed with him because he knew those Downs like the back of his hand and filled in for me a lot of gaps in my knowledge of flowers and birds, the tracks and bridleways and the barrows and tumuli that abound on these lovely hills.
We parted company and I lost my way almost at once and was obliged to struggle up a steep path through Friston Forest which sloped sideways as well as upwards. With the bike loaded for a weeks tour you can imagine how hard it was to hold on to it. By the time I reached the top road over-looking the serpentine estuary of the Cuckmere it was getting late so I failed to reach Beachy Head at the easternmost end of the Way.
Instead I turned up the valley for Wilmington, paused briefly on a splendid stone seat placed to the memory of J.J. Farnol and then rode across the flats to the delightful Blackboys Hostel where I provisioned for supper and breakfast in the members kitchen and cooked some gooseberries I had acquired, way back in Westburton.
Next morning I helped fix the double clanger of one of my fellow hostellers and she and I rode home together as far as Addington, stopping at frequent intervals to take 'stereo photos' which I still don't believe, as well as at two adequate cafes, one on the Lye Green Road at Crowborough, the other the Wedgwood at Edenbridge.
I could wish that I had had such pleasant company for the whole of the tour.
We have kindly been given the permission to share this article by Brian and the Salisbury CTC