"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Down to Downs Permanent Audax (106k / 1.75AAA) - Dec 24th 2023 - Edenbridge

This ride was an overdue return to hilly Audax riding, with the aim of reminding my legs I might just ask them to do a long or mountainous triathlon sometime while at the same time clocking up some ascents as part of my Sixty Hills plan/aspiration/project. I came the day after a 4 hour hill running epic on the Greensand way, on Christmas Eve 2023. The weather was mild on paper (around 10 degrees) but with a chance of some drizzle and pretty much a certainty of some strong winds. So, I layered up as per usual just in case. I chose this Down to Downs route because I was going to be in Surrey for Christmas, in this same corner of the country, plus I wanted to scope out my ancestral home. My grandad and his six brothers hailed from this little Kentish town, so I felt a strange urge to go and explore this countryside that he would have known well as a lad. Apparently after school he and a brother or two would push a barrow round the hop farms, selling groceries to the eastenders who in those days came down for the picking. Later it was the likes of me in the New Traveller community who took over that role when the Eastenders didn't want or need it any more, then more recently students and overseas workers took over. And now, as I rode through the kentish countryside, I realised that every single Oast House I saw was now converted to a living space. I think most of the hops come over from Czech. How times change....

With a tired, stiff body and a dozy mind from the day before, I started out from Edenbridge at a slow pace. I'd chosen to use GPS for nav, but the ride was an old school one with a paper Brevet card to fill in and proof of passage needed from the start/finish plus 3 other controls. I rolled down Edenbridge High Street, soaking up the vibe to see if I felt any kind of family connection, then rode up to the cash machine at Tesco to get a print out as proof of my start time. Out of paper. Aha, now I remember how often that happens on an Audax! I went into Tesco and grabbed a cookie dough protein bar more for the receipt than the calories. Then it was off into the blustery, grey morning on the lanes I had driven into town on, before a turn off to the day's first ascent. Toys Hill took a while and was quite a grind, but I had come here for hills so I couldn't complain. It went on and on but finally rolled me over the top on to a plateau of the North Downs before I plunged down the dip slope and saw ahead of me climb number 2, to Brasted Chart. This one announced itself well in advance as I approached it through open country - and although it wasn't that steep in real terms, the leaves and grime and the rain-soaked road made my wheel spin the instant I tried to come up out of the saddle. So, I stuck to the low gear grind method and wound my way up.

By this time the doziness of the morning had turned into a rough, head-achey, out-of-sorts feeling - definitely the hangover of the run the day before - and I found my neck starting to hurt. I realised that this was down to my new helmet light, a rechargeable one and therefore pretty heavy. At the top I whipped it off and stashed it in a pocket which actually made me feel better pretty quickly. I rolled down towards the great beast, London, barely having to pedal for several miles, then hauled my way to the first control after around an hour and a half. It was less than a quarter of the way and already I was revising my target time from six hours to seven or perhaps more. I just wasn't in great shape. Still, this was a training challenge rather than a race so I refuelled a little (cold drinks only in the garage, costa machine hors de service sadly) and headed back south from the edge of the suburbs. At first it was a busy-ish A road and I was glad I was in mega hi-viz with loadsa flashing lights, as most people gave me plenty of room. A couple of what we used to call Boy Racers were the exception, but you can't win em all. Soon after the A road I turned off through Pratt's Bottom (insert tasteless joke here) to tackle the long ascent of the dip slope of the downs, Rushmore hill, a challenge for sure that slowed me right down but not quite arduous enough to make it into my sixty climbs. Who knows, I may change my mind if I find myself on 59 hills come April 12th!

On the way up Rushmore I got overtaken by a slim roadie on a decent bike with more section on his wheels than I have, so I tried to keep pace with him, forgetting I was not fresh enough. Sadly he punctured, but had all his gear so I didn't linger. Instead I just kept the slow ascent going, enjoying views from the top down over the Darent Valley and a steep downhill towards Riverhead. The course took a sharp right here and followed parallel to the downs, where I was buffetted by horrible headwinds. Respite came with a southward for a long slog up to Ide Hill then a rattley downhill towards, and alongside, the Bough Beach Reservoir. This reminded me of Blagdon and Chew Valley lakes nearer home, but then I saw something entirely surreal. The water level was half way up the trunks of some of the trees - creating the most bizarre looking forest growing out of the lake. It was a very unsual site and something you just don't normally see in these parts (these parts being England). It was reminiscent of the swamps and lagoons I've seen out in Malaysia and Indonesia but seemed more than a little incongruous in Kent. I had a strange feeling that if I rode back along the road it would have disappeared, having just been a cosmic prank.

Out of the hallucinatory sunken forest, I soldiered on across the endless rolling hills of the High Weald, a beautiful landscape punctuated by fast-flowing rivers and steep ridges, with the awesome palace of a stately home at Pensford one of the most arresting sites. By the time I lamely hauled my tired frame into Langton Green for the second control I was more than ready to sit down somewhere warm and recharge with some hot food. Everything was closed though, apart from a garage, so I treated myself to a caramel latte from the costa machine and a veg somosa followed up by a twix. It was not the half way stop I was hoping for but it was something. Next came the long ascents over the South Downs, which proved lower but just as testing as their northern cousins. Chruch Hill followed by Black Hill brought me to the top of Ashdown Forest, though I don't remember every part of that climb. Although I usually try to blend with the landscape and really feel my connection with it on these long rides, I had got so tired at this stage that I was dissasociating from it and my mind, instead of being clear, was just full of endless distractions from ancient tunes to future plans. At least my mind had a pleasant surprise when I woke from that state into full awareness that I was up on top of Ashdown Forest, the grey of the sky and the black of the rain-soaked road brightened by the flaming hues of bracken and gorse, as well as the bright red of berries and endless holly and rhododendron providing vivid greens. This windswept upland had a few rolling hills of its own before it allowed me the respite of a long, long down hill section into Uckfield. Here there was a road closure sign but the smaller sign beyond it said No Motor Vehicles so I went for it on the assumption I would be able to get through. A delightful, winding lane carried me at very slow speeds (as the unswept surface was covered in pine needles, leaf mould and general sludge) to a broken bridge that appeared to have had one side of itself washed away. The good half was more than wide enough for a bike though, so I was through and into the main drag of Uckfield, my Farthest South, in no time. Just as I came into town I spotted some mad topiary in a garden. A quintessentially British art form and one that always delights. Are we not a nation of gardeners, rather than shopkeepers?

In Uckfield a cafe was open, so I settled in for a proper break and a cooked veggie breakfast. Hot chocolate went down well too and I exchanges some messages with Kokila who was already getting her bearings in Albania, where I hoped to be in a few days. Before the flight to Tirana though would come the climb back up over Ashdown Forest and I knew that would be quite a challenge. I retraced my route over the broken bridge and the slippery lanes to the north of it, then came out on to the B road with about 5k of solid climbing ahead. I winched my way up it, past the imposing church at Fairwarp (a great place for a Star Trek convention?) and once at the top I pulled into one of the Ashdown Forest car parks for a proof-of-ascent photo.

From that summit of the afternoon I had plenty more tough miles ahead of me. Endless climbs like Jib Jack's Hill and others whose names I forget came like ocean waves to test my tired legs, and the brief flat sections between included a ride through Pooh Bear country, close to the original Pooh Sticks bridge and the 100 Acre Wood. The hills ended just a few K from the arrivee, so I had the blissful and contented experience of rolling a flat road into Edenbridge. I paused on the old stone bridge itself for a few moments, remembering my late Grandad (a great character and a true lefty) before clocking in at the Tesco to end the ride. Meditating in the car afterwards I suddenly recalled I hadn't grabbed a receipt - doh! So I pulled in to Waitrose where the cash machine did have paper on the way out. That meant the ride of 7 hours clocked in at 7.14. Later on, chatting to my mum in Bookham, she told me Grandad had indeed hung out on that old bridge, and had had some kind of incident there that ended up with him getting a broken nose. Just larking about, she called it. Well I was glad to have followed in his footsteps, but equally glad to have had a more peaceful time in Edenbridge.

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