The Wealden Dome

In geological terms, things take time, long unimaginable lengths of slow unfolding time. Like organising a group ride, waiting for Christmas when you’re five or getting any good at smooth ‘cross dismounts in a race. Another of these things that falls into truly massive time periods was the creation and fall of the Wealden Anticlime. Without describing every geological event, it was basically a huge mountain that’s outer edge is now the North and South Downs, with what is now The Weald in the middle.

Or as wikipedia puts it: The major geographical features of the county are determined by a series of ridges running from west to east across the county. These ridges are the remains of the Wealden dome, a denuded anticline across Kent, Surrey and Sussex, which was the result of uplifting caused by the Alpine movements between 10-20 million years ago. The dome was formed of an upper layer of Chalk above subsequent layers of Upper Greensand, Gault, Lower Greensand, Weald Clay and the Hastings Beds. The top of the dome eventually eroded away through weathering and ridges and valleys resulted across Kent and Sussex due to the exposed clay eroding at a faster rate than the exposed chalk, greensand and red sandstone and normal sandstone.

The first idea for the ride came from a winters ride, and the pints after, in a pub in Eridge. The Wealden Dome would have been a mountain in my back yard, mountain life for all – save for the fact we where born a few million years off target.
So, for the sake of a vague narrative the summit may well have been somewhere near Eridge, a tiny hamlet with a station and a pub. How often to start a ride on a summit? That’ll mean a downhill start right? Except when it doesn’t. Brilliant.

The inevitable, crushing length of time has over time, worn the mountain down into a heady mix of valleys, Gills, Coombes, slumps, corners and climbs. Plus, man and his excellent ability to shape the world to his will, has over time worn in sunken ways, high paths and of course, tracks and roads.

This whole geographic event formed a discussion with a few other interested riders, and I plotted a ride taking in the Chart Hills, (near the North Downs) and The South Downs, with a whole lot of the Wealden in between. Delays for a big day ride are common, getting a date settled in the diary often takes some doing, and has seemingly the same level of effort as the actual ride. There’s the early start location, the end of the day return distance for some and the crucial where are we eating at the end.

An initial group of four showed interest – one for the four points of the compass, a nice synergy and size. Less of the comparisons to the Four Horseman please. Two of us eventually started, under blue skies and picturesque fluffy clouds, with coffee based liquid consumed and some tinkering and bag packing, we rolled off the summit, straight up a hill.

Trying to create a route that strikes a balance between as much off road dirty drop bar goodness as possible, in an achievable distance that’s worthwhile and avoiding as much civilisation as possible is a tricky thing. On the one hand there are a lot of bridleways to explore, but often to link them effectively, efficiently or even aesthetically, results in two sides of a triangle to link minor parts. These minor parts are often the best, little sketchy trails that are over looked by our bigger tyred MTB brethren, but damn lively on a cross bike.

We started the spin south across the Middle Wealden areas, with the first rest point aimed at approximately quarter way at the most eastern tip. The route, on a map is not a neat circle, but reflects the idiosyncrasies of hundreds of years of tracks and trails.

Like a toddler scribbling, this winding, unfurling route runs south over smaller climbs, that are steep, lose and leaf debris filled in nature and very little flat on the eastern side. Eventually, at the most western tip, we ramp up and onto The South Downs, and then promptly swing 180 degrees up North over towards the Chart Hills with the Greensand ridges. Once on the northern tip, a prompt about turn, meandering about and back to the start. I’m going to try and stop mentioning the points of the compass – as it’s just going to get confusing.

Almost immediately the pattern of the day unfolds, up and down. Looking at the contours in these parts, what we lack in total height is made up for in repetition. A plunge down over sandstone blocks and into a stream crossing – unscathed and straight back up again.

The first two notable hills are up towards Mayfield and then Heathfield. The Mayfield area climb is deceptive, traversing across a long saddle of a hill, hidden in lanes, with minor bridleways to add spice. We pop onto a major A road briefly, slip round a roundabout and then punch out and off down a hill, losing height across arable land.

Locating one of the longer off road climbs, we are treated to a hidden roller coaster through bracken, after the long slog up under old railway lines and between old elbowed hedges. The trades of the past still show, where streams run orange with iron, and odd sandstone block structures sit close to streams or into hill sides – past iron works from the long past.

Pulling up onto a managed pine wood, we rest against stacked timber. A quick bite of a roll and various trail food is wolfed down, and we roll on, our first compass point ticked as we shortly see our southern target – The South Downs – like a slow moving earth wave on the horizon. The myriad of lanes lead us down a track and unexpectedly in front of a very big, very posh manor house. Flat capped, wax jacket, tweed types bristle. We stand strong. As strong as you can in Lycra. Apparently its not a bridleway, point made we trundle up a little further to where we should have been. The rich ways of the country, shot guns and sharp stares.

Rolling into East Hoathly, coffee and some pastry based snacks and supplies. A quick map consult. 23 miles in. Feeling good, sun shines, blue skies bloom wide overhead, satisfying progress and pedalling. We pick up the pace into a slim, tunneling furrow of a trail that drops and whoops us, sunlight strobing through Chestnut and Hazel coppicing, dry dusty summer sluices over as the brambles close in, a million miniature Samuari swords attack, ending stuck and webbed in the green armed embrace. A short sharp pull and bike launch to flatten out the rest of them, we then rob them of all their fruits, a fair trade of blood for berries.

Following the double track across Vert Wood, and heading into Laughton, the geography surrenders its short, steep hills, saving them for
us to roll round a few corners and abruptly, unexpectedly ride onto chalk and flint as we see The South Downs rearing, a silent sentient ahead. Of course, the route chooses the direct approach, slight incline to a first gate and then just up and round, just rideable, the sheep trodden contour bumps, loose chalk and grass, the singing of bugs and the scream of legs. Heart beatingly alive, flowers wave, colourful, quiet mocking. Lie down on the bank, staring at the openness and the distant North Downs.

Whilst sat contemplating the journey laid out in front of us, with the Ashdown Forest middle distance, and the Chart Hills hazy on the horizon, All Day breakfast pastries are consumed and calculations on calories required versus intended distance. The conversation changes, and we roll along the ridge, past tall radio masts and plunge down a broken brick and tarmac track off Beddingham Hill. Cleverly circumnavigating a tempting pub, and crossing the roaring A27, loud, rolling metal boxes seem alien after prolonged time offroad lost in spinning legs and maps.

Starting North, its this point one of us realises that things may not being going to plan. Larger gears, a summer of less riding than hoped and a startingly long-distance looking stare. Past Glynde we turn pedals, pushing squares and slumping, like coming a weird come down, the lowlands suck our will to ride with any gusto. In Ringmer, we demolish cans of pop, milk shakes and chewy cereal bars. Pensioners and kids on summer holidays stare past us, we stand invisible as sugar creeps into our systems, until one of us asks the question: “shall we?”

We shall, and we ride, caffeine fuelled across flood plains, a glimpse of the River Ouse as we move towards Barcombe Cross. A small nondescript Bridleway reveals a Meridian line, placed in 2000. Green algae wood, hidden on a track side. An invisible line made solid and tangible. The bridleway unleashes a rooty, stony and puddled dash of enthusiasm, like a final lap sprint. We pop out to thundering lorries and scarper off from Chiltington, where the map reveals a Roman Road – more signs of the age of place.

I find myself with thoughts of lost places, people and instances. Immersed into the experience. No conscience effort pedalling, as you’ve been doing it forever and its natural, like breathing. Zen cliches and fluff aside, the ride is long haul, outside of regular effort, on new trails – its that something. It’s not epic, its never epic, just experiences beyond the before.

Bumbling along lanes, the tired legs return. Navigation becomes frustrating – left, left, right, field, no way marks, pointless extra tracks to avoid property, every path that avoids a house, avoids interaction, the direct opposing situation of what makes for discovering more about places – the interactions, dialogues and even casual head tips as you pass strangers. We’ve seen few people, a couple of road riders, all soaked in efficiency and effort. Vehicles sheltering people within, houses hiding society.

The early signs of fatigue appear, chatting is minimal, drinks taken and water levels discussed. We tempo up a main road, spinning out gears, cross tires buzzing against rough asphalt. Emptying what reserve tanks we have. Suddenly, north of somewhere, I am on home ground. A loop so large that it leaves home ground, and grazes it midway and then goes into familiar places – we spend an hour popping out on parts I’ve ridden but never threaded together on the ground, but only traced my finger on paper.

One thought that rose amongst the day was appreciating the sheer number of water crossings – bridge over river, stream, gully, inlet or even ditch. Ponds, lakes, puddles. All the reason for the millennial removal of The Wealden Dome. water everywhere, slowly, pulling microns apart and tearing down mountains. The place names we pass hint at lost forests and times. Cinder Hill, Stumblewood Common, Coldharbour Manor. Summiting up onto the edge of Ashdown Forest, an Organic Diary Farm offers pretty much all the modern treats we could want. Good coffee, and sweet treats. Plawhatch Farm basically saved us. We consult the map. Again.

Our choice is two essentially – push on with the original route, taking 7 or so large climbs and many, many other smaller ones, getting into the finish perhaps before closing time, and certainly after last food orders. Or take a long distance Sustrans route, link into the last 10 miles of the ride over some substantial climbs over Ashdown (again). We debate the pros and cons, we order more coffee. The decision was made on that second coffee. We’re still going to hit around 80% of the route distance, just missing some of the more intrepid and also more dull sections.

Back on the bike, the sense of not riding the intended distance sinks in, I debate heading off and soloing the distance. But then it goes against the concept of riding in a group, not leaving people, being able to amend the route and focussing on the ride. We are soon humming along a gravel path, an old flat railway, heading from Forest Row to Groombridge. To ensure that we are at least a little broken by the end of the day, we turn off the path and go up, up and then down, pausing briefly for a game of Pooh Sticks at Pooh Bridge. No tourists that day, only one dog walker.

The last pull out of the forest, and up the road to the top, past the Ice-Cream van at Kings Standing – hunting spot for old departed Royals – I send us hurtling down a double track of loose rock, dropping down into a gulley, wrapping around a river, a side of an old Beech wood, damp, cooler and tracking a path travelled over hundreds of years.

One last climb I promise, bare sandstone pushes from the track, golden bales in shorn fields. Zig zagging up rain worn grooves, trees shade the effort. Far gun fire from the Army base, training for things that we hope might never come. Thoughts come back on a route cut short, but long enough today. The climb spits us out into an estate of mansions, oddly bold and ostentatious – holding speed down a dip, and giggling as we crest the peak without pedaling. Delirious, dehydrated and desperate.

The last downhill is 4 miles of mostly free wheeling, rocks and rubble, the sweet smell of apples fallen in orchards, and the sun flaring and flickering as we let the bikes lead. High sided lanes, holloways, the droves of traffic, we are just a modern user, wearing our inconsequential mark. We slow, pub ahead, lean bikes against the wall, order beer and water. Crisps, then food. We natter early on and then the silence creeps in just before food arrives. We discuss optimal pudding, and through some delicious twist of fate, the first two items offered to us are exactly what we want. Another pint, my riding companion shuffles for a train. I ride up the local hard hill, tired. empty, but mind racing. They’ll be another go at this route, The Wealden Dome. But we’ve worn a good go on it this attempt.

For you fact and figures types, the aimed rides vital statistics weighed in at 100miles with 2000m of climbing and a mix of nearly 50% proper off-road, and the remainder nearly all on quiet back lanes that in places may as well be off-road. The actual ride was 80miles with 1500m climbing. Its all rideable – there are some small sections where a cross bike is marginally under gunned. But its a case of mostly ok, and sometimes not quite right. We both rode 1x – mine 34t with a 11-32, and a 42 with a 11 x 34. Tyre wise, a mixture of Challenge Baby Limus and Specialized Terra Pros. If you’d like the exact route, message me on instagram @jim_clarkson.