Don’t be fooled by the quaint rolling hills of the South Downs; this chalk spine is no pushover when it comes to racking up the miles.
The ride starts from Queen Elizabeth Country Park Visitor Centre just off the A3 20KM north of Portsmouth.
South Downs Way, Waterlooville, PO8 0QE
Best time to go
The majority of the ride is weather resistant but there are some sections that hold water and can be wet or muddy after rain. Also, keep an eye out for green chalk – it’s treacherous when dry and even more so if wet.
There’s a café at the visitor centre for pre-ride coffee. The Royal Oak in Hooksway (SU815162) makes a good stopping point, being a third of the way round – just don’t get too comfortable!
After that the Hare and Hounds in Stoughton (SU803115) is the next stopping point.
We stayed at The Sustainability Centre 7.4KM from the Queen Elizabeth Country Park centre which has youth hostel style accommodation along with the option to stay in a yurt.
Petersfield is just up the A3 and has a Tesco, M&S, Waitrose and all manner of pubs, restaurants and the like. If you’re after a pizza we can recommend La Piazzetta
Other riding in the area
The brief hike-a-bike up to the top of Beacon Hill is worth doing for the view, but if you’d rather bypass it you can follow the bridleway south (SU803185) that skirts the summit rejoining the trail before the climb up Pen Hill (SU809183). If you are getting tired it’s easy enough to cut corners on this route thanks to the number of roads in the area.
If you want a bit more singletrack and a little less bridleway then there are a network of trails in Queen Elizabeth Country Park woods. Add them onto the end of your ride for a bit of a buzz.
Words and photos: Sim Mainey
Downtown Petersfield on a Wednesday night. Kicking our heels waiting for Italian cheese on toast to come out of La Piazzetta’s oven Rafi and I spot two bikes sat outside the pub opposite like dogs tied up outside a bookies. As usual the opportunity to sniff around someone else’s bike proves too strong to overcome and we wander over. A 1997 Scott Endorphin a 2016 Cannondale Slate gravel bike with drop bars and a Lefty suspension fork make an odd pairing but the geometry is probably reasonably similar despite the 20 year gap. The bike’s owners come out of the pub eyeing us with suspicion before quickly realising we are one of Them. We chat about their bikes and where they’ve been riding this evening before leaving them to claim our pizzas.
“Are we riding where they’ve been?” asks Rafi, the implication being if they rode the trails we’re going to be riding on what amounts to a cyclocross bike and a hardtail from the dawn of V-brakes what was it going to be like for us on our long travel trail bikes?
The South Downs has been a sanctuary for mountain bikers in the south east for as long as people have been riding off road. This band of hills might lack the ultimate altitude of other riding hotspots but with all else around it relatively flat they have a grandeur of their own – a green and white swell of chalk and closely cropped grass.
Running from Winchester to Eastbourne the 70mile length of the South Downs is criss-crossed with trails ancient and modern and where neolithic flint mines butt up against science parks – cutting technology has always been big business in these parts.
It seems appropriate then that this ride starts in the reasonably modern mountain bike phenomenon of a trail centre. Queen Elizabeth Country Park nestles on the hard shoulder of the A3 north of Portsmouth and judging from the number of bikes being manhandled out of vans its red and blue trails are popular with local riders. In amongst the usual selection of Oranges, Whytes and Lapierres is one man and his electric folding bike who zips through the car park towards where the trails start. Either he’s in for a shock or he knows something we don’t – after the previous night’s encounter we’re a little worried.
Expectation management can be difficult. For a start there’s prejudice. When I floated the idea of a South Downs Killer Loop to co-conspirators Rafi and Rob they laughed. Actually, they were a bit ruder than that but the general response was one of ‘it can’t be any good, it’s down south’. The usual scoff of proud northerners. When I dropped the fact that this route would be about 40km long with somewhere in the region of 1200m of ascent there were some quieter, more thoughtful looks. Expectations can also be hard to manage if you’ve never been somewhere before and rely purely on hearsay, gossip, reckons and the internet. My only real knowledge of this part of the world comes from a cartoon of a bicycle riding sheep, hardly a reliable source to make any kind of assumption on. Or so I thought.
We climb out of the forest park on the waymarked blue trail at a steady pace. This immediately sets the tone for the ride – laid back, no rush, enjoying the occasional bits of sunshine and taking in the views. This make for slow going which is further impeded by the temptation to go exploring down some semi-beaten tracks, getting a little lost and finding some jumps to play on.
I’d only heard of the South Downs Way (SDW) in the context of the South Downs Way double. This involves riding the entire length of the SDW and back again, some 200 miles and 7600m of climbing, in less than 24 hours. It’s no mean feat. What’s even more impressive is the current record stands at about 15 and a half hours – which incidentally is the amount of time it’ll take us to do 40km unless we get a move on.
Being an ancient byway navigating the SDW is straightforward with signposts at near every junction. The riding is also pretty straightforward (assuming you’re not going for a record attempt), “I’ve brought the Death Star to a fist fight” remarks Rafi, sweeping a hand below his saddle at his self-built 150mm bike with its 64º head angle. It’s fair to say that you’ll have a lot more fun doing this route on a light, short travel hardtail than a long legged trail bike, but that’s OK. Mountain biking isn’t just one type of riding, it’s not one kind of bike, it’s about variety and degrees – and not just the head angle type.
Chips are downed
Tarmac, flinty gravel, muddy track; the SDW is constantly changing to match up with current usage section by section whether that’s for cars, tractors or tourists. This is a workhorse of a route, an age old living monument that still earns its keep.
Things take a turn for the interesting as we approach Harting Downs. So far we’ve maintained our height on the ridgeline but now the trail starts to undulate and the view opens up, fields of corn become grassy park land with picnic encampments dotted all over. It’s a perfect snapshot of an English summer’s day.
Beacon Hill marks the highest point on our loop. The bridleway takes us from the bottom of the valley straight up the side of the hill. We ride as far as we can to show willing before submitting to the steepening gradient and scramble the grassy ladder that has been worn into the hillside. It’s worth the effort. From the trig point we can see down to the coast, the sea shining invitingly and putting us in mind for a swim and an ice cream. To the east we are treated to a view that shows off the Downs at their finest and for the first time on the ride a real idea of the length of this range. The smooth lumps with their crinkled sides and tufts of trees go on, and on, and on, merging into the haze of the horizon. Very cartoon sheep like. For such rounded hills the descents and climbs can be pretty short, sharp and plenty quick – and with one following the other they are like giant mountain bike half-pipes.
We’re about a quarter of the way around the loop and the sun and mellow pace have put us in mind for lunch. The Royal Oak in Hooksway proves too tempting to ride past. With its carefully manicured lawn and genteel aesthetic we wonder if four slightly salt-encrusted mountain bikers might not be welcome. The smell of chips on the breeze convinces us to click open the gate and slob out in their beer garden regardless.
Lying on the grass with bellies full of potato motivation to carry on is at a low ebb but with another 25km to go we know we can’t sunbathe too much longer. We get back onto the bridleway and ride at an even more sedate pace, something I didn’t think was actually possible.
At this point we feel we’ve got the measure of this ride, with a few exceptions it’s got one rhythm and, at least for us, one speed. We can settle into it and relax, no drama.
Then we spot a set of jumps, some huge berms and a decent sized step down hiding in the dark of a wooded hillside. Stoughton Downhill is a pleasant surprise and is the first opportunity we’ve had to plumb the depths of our suspension. Rob sends it off the step down into the berm and over the tabletop jump. As he take off his rear wheel skews sideways but he manages to pull it round and land safely, if not as smoothly as intended. Despite being expertly built the material the jumps and berms are made of is a combination of chalk and flint. If you’ve never ridden on damp chalk imagine riding on a thin layer of ice, brake in the wrong place or turn with your weight just slightly off and it’ll have you in an instant. Rob goes back up for another go and gets through cleanly before moving on to the next jump. There’s less chalk and more dirt on the landing but there are also lumps of sharp edged flint ready to slice tyre sidewalls or flesh if you get it wrong. With no armour and the sense of inevitability hanging over us we quit while we’re ahead and get back onto the loop swapping flint and chalk for fire road.
The fireroad turns to bridleway which starts to narrow, promising a section of singletrack but instead we are channelled into a funnel of brambles, nettles and gorse. It’s tight singletrack, but not the good kind. Our arms are shredded, this time of year 800mm bars are not a great idea. We emerge out of the very English jungle bloodied and itching, we’ve dodged incident or injury on rocky jumps to get mangled by shrubbery.
We tick past the halfway mark of the loop. There are some bedraggled faces. For all the bluster of the south being a bit rubbish and a ride in the park it’s taking its toll – most likely down to southern sun on northern skin we tell ourselves. Hot and humid as it is the distance and constant pedalling mean our chip-reserve is starting to deplete rapidly. The return trip is going to be a test of our mettle and water reserves.
While navigating a route in the mountains is not necessarily easy it is usually straightforward: you want to get to the summit, look for the trail going up. Here trails are numerous and bunched together, footpaths splintering from bridleways which branch out to join tracks. You have to stay sharp not to miss a turn. After following one bit of bridleway we’re left at the top of a field with no trail to follow – the field has been freshly ploughed and we have to freestyle it to the gate opposite, dodging ruts and dangerous looking lumps of flint leaving four ribbons of tyre tracks in the soft dirt.
We zig-zag across the countryside, following field edges, holloways, tracks and trails. It feels like we’re making good progress, amazing considering how tired we all feel. While there’s nothing on this route that’s overfaced us technically, unless we’ve gone looking for it, it’s certainly proving a challenge in its own right. Ride it slow and steady or flat out and chances are you’ll be equally tired.
The plan to finish the ride with a lap of the red trail back at QECP gets kicked to the kerb as we chug across the last bit of trail that leads us back towards the visitor centre – we’re more interested in getting to the pizza place in Petersfield.
The lesson here is don’t come to the South Downs expecting to unleash the full capabilities of your long-travel trail bike but also don’t come here expecting an easy ride. Manage your expectations and make the most of this green and pleasant ride.
South Downs Killer Loop directions
1. START. (SU718184) Queen Elizabeth Country Park Centre
Leave the main car park and follow road behind the visitor centre. Loop round into forest and join signed mountain bike trail on R, climbing up through forest. Leave forest and turn L following signs for South Downs Way. Descend to car park, take road R. Road then becomes track, SA following signs for South Downs Way.
2. (SU789180) Two Beech Gate. Distance so far 9KM.
Where trail meets B2141 cross road and continue onto Harting Downs taking the higher of the two trails. Continue SA and then descend to Bramshott Bottom. SA up Beacon Hill to summit (see Other Options section for non-hike-a-bike option). Continue East over Pen Hill and on entering woods R along edge of forest.Slight dog-leg left at Buriton Farm before leaving the South Downs Way and keeping R (SU820174) towards Philliswood Farm. R on farm track to Hooksway. L opposite The Royal Oak. SA on track to B2141. R on road, then first L, L up to Bow Hill Farm.
3. (SU819145) Bow Hill Farm. Distance so far 17.14KM.
Continue through farmyard bearing L onto bridleway through fields. At junction turn R. After 1.4KM switchback L. SA for 2KM to Bow Hill. R keeping height on ridgeline. R down fast descent into Stoughton. R then L onto bridleway keeping church to your R. Continue to road then SA. Follow bridleway round to L. At road R then first L. SA crossing B2146.
4. (SU766130) Nore Down. Distance so far 29.33KM
R then L onto bridleway. SA on bridleway for 1.3KM. R then L descending to, and crossing, field and onto road. R then almost immediately L through hedge and onto field. Cross two fields then take track L down to road. SA at junction then first R. SA for 1KM. Sharp R down bridleway joining road above Chalton. SA on road, at L corner take bridleway on R back into QECP. SA following signs back into car park.