Downs link ride

Downs link ride

By Scott Swalling

Last October our Sonder rider Scott Swalling headed off for 180Kms+ loop of the Northdowns Way (NDW), King Alfreds Way (KAW), Southdowns Way (SDW) and Downs Link (DL) on his Broken Road.

A relatively early but civiliased start I casually rode to the start/finish of the loop. Set the Garmin to nav and off I went. The very first thing you do is climb and that is a bit of a theme until the last 60km+ on the DL.

Starting along the NDW out of Guildford, I rode over familiar terrain and predominantly sandy trails. It was great that the sand was still a little wet, making it a bit easier to ride, but not super fast. I crusied along these, passing quaint houses, farms, horse studs and large manor house, across estate fields and wiggled along some single track in places. All in the gloom of the early morning and on/off drizzle for a little over 1.5hrs until I reached the junction with the KAW.

Joining the KAW on a fast section of road as the drizzle started clear. I point down the hill, tucked and went, over the weak bridge, wondering if I had eaten too much the day before. I sped to the next section of trail, a path through pine forest and fenced moor land. The habitat changes between these two main types for some time. Now and then I ride through farm land, sometimes through farm yards (still an odd feeling for an Australian), past more stables and studs.

The KAW section I rode from the NDW to SDW, has a variety of different terrain from sandy moors over Frensham with views of both ponds, slick sandy bridleways, road, muddy fireroads through pine forest and some rocky climbs and descents. The most noteable are, the sandy wall I hit entering Hankley Common, one I thought I would be off walking, but some how managed to clear it, the rocky ascent out of Thursley was slick and loose and had be pushing for a little way. Then after many more K's of fun, undulating, varied trails and roads, the last two climbs up onto the South Downs came at me hard, sapped the legs a little, making the SDW sign post a welcome sight and a good place for more food and a comfort break (when the bike and foot traffic allowed).

Until this point I had seen very few people, due my early start and grey weather. Apart from an 84 year old man out for a run, I passed on the second to last hill before the SDW and a couple of others on the KAW and some dogs walkers. But now things were getting busy as the weather improved. So it was time to be extra polite and smile lots. Along the KAW, I had passed pubs, little villages, cafes and coffee stops, plenty to find along the way, even if you drift a little of course to do so. Up onto the SDW and I know things are fewer and far between and missing the taps can be a right pain in the butt. The times I have ridden the SDW, I haven't missed one. However there is always first time.

Out on to the SDW and the sun even started poking through the clouds, the weather improved and the spirits crept even higher (I am always happy on a bike). One of the things I found riding the "official" cycle route along the SDW was the little difference between it and some of the previous version of the route I have taken, certainly didn't change the level of damage done to your legs and the views even when grey, remain beautiful.

Lack of riding, lack of sleep and the relentlessness of the SDW would have me off walking a few climbs as I crossed the big whale backs of the way. I know the SDW and knowing what is to come and what has passed is actually an advantage in my mind. I can plan, I can literally plan on which hill where I am likely to fail on the singlespeed, accept it in advance and make up for it on the ones I know are on my limit. I know when the taps are roughly coming and can hydrate accordingly with no fear of running out of water. The taps are even better marked now, so the couple that are on fun descents are easier to spot.

Of course I also know that Richline Farm Shop is coming soon, another tap stop there as well. Over hill down valley, up over another hill, the SDW keeps coming at you, but it is a great place to ride. Soon I crest the last hill before the farm and drop down, preparing for a longer than normal stop. "I really need to ride more" I mutter as roll to a stop, say "Hi" to another fellow cycling adventurer (Tony). Richline Farn Shop is basic, the coffee is instant, but the cakes home made, the ice cream is quite decent too.

I sit with a coffee, a large flapjack, can of Tango and some more natural snacks from my Possum frame bag. Tony and I chat about sleeping in ditches, the pros and cons of knowing your route ahead and Tony's best way back to Camberley. It is not terribly direct, but we share ideas. Soon my need to ride on drives me to pick up my helmet, of course place my rubbish and recycling in the right bins and thank the shop owners. From hear on cold legs a farm track leads up to a rock hardpack trail, for the first part of this I hurt, cold legs, singlespeed and straight up hill for approximately 1km, from a stop. The gate 200ms from the farm doesn't help. But once warmed up my rhythm returns and it starts to feel good again.

Climb, descend, climb, descend, it is the charm of the SDW, or is it the curse? As the picture below demostrates, either way, I seem to like it up there.

There are a few more hills, to conquer and descents to enjoy, some of the toughest are to come. I know this, but I also know I am now getting close to my next junction. Strangely as I tick off hill after hill, ensuring I also enjoy views like the one below, I feel a little down, that I won't be riding to Eastbourne.

Crossing the road at Washington signals there are only a few more hills left to worry me until much later, for on the other side of these last couple is Botolphs and Steyning. Where I meet the Downs Link. But frst I must descend Pig Hill. You get the picture.

Down to the trail junction, it is time to update Nik on where I am and that I am approximate 1 hr 30 minutes behind schedule (it was a finger in the air schedule), but strangely bang on ride time. The much longer than planned lunch break had taken it's toll on my schedule. After a 10 minute snack break, I was off again. The DL was going to be tough, not because of hills or anything like that, but because of the lack of them. Spinning a single speed is tough, spinning one with 120km's already in the legs and knowing it is pretty much flat until the outside of Guildford is brutal.

So with my head down, a little too much, I made a slight nav error at one point, I chose a speed (18kph) and did my best to stick to it. This is a boring piece of trail, hardpack most the way, no single track, no descents, and no climbs bar one short sharp and nasty (when it is wet) chalky-flinty climb about 2 3rds of the way to Guildford.
Along the DL, there are plenty of towns, villages and larger metro centres. Plenty of places to stop and stay, refuel and relax. This added to my view that this entire route could be broken up easily, even for those that don't wish to sleep in a ditch or hedge (like me).
Ridng the DL geared, like I have done before, is actually fun, it is fast, wide and has no cars. On the single with 38km's to go, I started to think about the last real climb of the ride to come. St Marthas hill, I know it well, I know the route I was going to be taking well, I know the long soft climb and the sandy Black Heath, just before it well, I know them well in the dark. Fortunately, as it had got dark a while ago and my legs were going to pieces spinning like a loon.
I watched the DL disappear out of the light from my headtorch and Klite bikepacking light under my front wheel, being spat out behind me as the km's went under 20. Soon I would be at Bramley, but more silly spinning first. I saw familiar houses and then the large white gate looming a head in the Klite. "Yes!" My language had more colour if I am honest.
As planned, I ducked down the service station just near the crossing point. Consumed a chocolate bar, a bottle of coke and poured another bottle of coke into a bidon and fresh water into the other. I got back on the bike after a brief call with Nik, and a little pep talk and headed back to the DL, up over the climbs before Black Heath, across the sand, headed past the Chilworth Powder Mills and started up St Marthas, eventually at the left hand turn where the climb steepens, my legs were shot. It was hike-a-bike time, up on to my shoulders it went and a steady one foot after the other followed until I was stood near St Marthas Church at the top of the hill.
From here it is a short dash through The Chantries, turn south and head back to Shalford, cross the Wey and head back into Guildford, pass under St Catherines Chapel ruins, up a very steep alley and back to the start finish, where I started near the Law School.
Happy, relieved and entirely ruined, I stopped my Garmin and turned for home. Around the Guildford area, it would have been easy to bail and head home, without finishing the entire route, but this would have bugged the hell out of me, and I really needed to burn off that chocolate bar. :)
I think I could get use to planning more local (UK) type routes like this and in this manner. Planning things to every little granular detail, sometimes for me anyway, makes such adventures seem almost artificial. From conception to turning the first pedal was roughly 2 weeks, I didn't really look closely at where there was support, I scoped some bail out options and knew that I could get food and water every 50-60kms which off road is a sensible limit. But I wasn't worried about elevation of terrain as such, just go ride the bike for a very long day.
Bike choice for me was simple, if there is fun to be had on a route I will have that fun, no matter what the ultimate plan is and as much as I love my gravel bike and MonsertX, the Broken Road was the right bike.
Would I change a thing? No, not for my first ride of it. Next time I plan to go with a mate and he will prefer gears, so maybe gravel bike next time?
As mentioned the terrain is varied and I think I got the timing about right. The sand along the NDW and KAW wasn't too soft, the mud not too deep, up on the SDW the mud was starting to dry and was a bit sticky, but not it's icy self. Too dry and the sand would suck, too wet and the mud on the SDW sticks to everything, but your tyres don't stick to it.


  • Hi Scott, many thanks for the inspiration with this ride. I read your story back in the gloom of December and set this as a goal for Spring – glad to say that a buddy and myself compleetd it on Friday (April 30th) – it was as you say a long day – we rode 275 MTN bikes – which were brill on the SDW and most of KAW – would have liked 29ers for the DL – but hey, the fun is in the ride! Thanks again for the idea :) Happy trails

    Guy Sellwood

    May 04, 2021

  • Could this tour be done, in stages, on a Sonder gravel bike?

    Brian R

    December 04, 2020

  • Being a Surrey resident I well appreciate the route Scott took, having done nearly all of it myself in parts. I did the KAW in its entirety the week after it was published last october, as a three (become four) day bikepacking event on my gravel bike. Loved it, but my gravel bike wasn’t really up to it. Gears not low enough for many of the uphills, tyres not wide enough for the sand and mud, tiptoed down the rougher descents as a snails pace while missing some front sus. Now looking to get a Broken Road and do it again, and hopefully many more like it!

    Claire Wright

    December 04, 2020

  • Thanks for sharing your adventure Scott. I’ve thought about tackling the SDW on and off for a couple of years now. The main things putting me off doing it are logistics for a linear bike route, knowing the right time of year (chalk hills can be treacherous when wet) and who to do it with. I hadn’t considered making a linear route circular. Thanks again

    Grant Stuart

    December 04, 2020

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