The end of January arrived, with much relief, fairly swiftly. I don’t want to wish my life away and I am all for making the most of a situation but January really is the pits sometimes. If it wasn’t for good whisky and central heating I think this January, in particular, would have been insufferable. The end of the month gave us the first of the Brevet Des Grimpeurs Du Sud rides to look forward to, the Hills and Mills classic early season AAA event now in it’s 9th season.
The South doesn’t have hills, so they say. Northerners like to brag about their hills don’t they? Well, true there’s nothing in East Sussex above 248m above sea level (Ditchling Beacon), so in order to achieve the AAA points (Audax UK climbing points – rides qualify if they have a certain distance travelled to climbing ratio per kilometre. The ratio is to be found here), Grimpeurs Du Sud events tend to involve a lot of going up and then down. The official climbing figure for the Hills and Mills audax is 1950m.
Sussex doesn’t have big hills, but it does have a lot of horrible little short, sharp, steep hills the High Weald in particular – relentless, energy sapping paper cuts. The Hills and Mills route takes on some of the best lanes the High Weald has to offer. The High Weald is a geological and topographical curiosity, at its core the Weald Anticline which runs between southern eastern England and the Artois region of northern France and dating back to the Jurassic and Cretaceous period when the Alps were beginning to form – the glacial melting, eroding the land and the chalky crust exposing the clays and older rock strata, leaving behind the rim of the North and South Downs as inward facing escarpments and eventually raising sea levels and cutting us off from the continent.
The result of all of this geological activity and subsequent millenia of human interaction with the landscape has produced deep, steep sided valleys or ghylls, sunken road ways and many small rivers coursing their route to the sea. 1500 years ago the High Weald was a thick impenetrable forest since reduced and fragmented by agriculture and mining, though still densely wooded by UK standards. The Hills and Mills route takes a meandering route, traversing the many ridges and valleys from Hailsham, on the edge of the Pevensey Levels, to the top edge of Ashdown Forest passing through the historical village of Mayfield twice (once on the way out and then again coming back), making a nice squashed figure of 8 GPS trace on a map.
The weather on Saturday morning, as we had come to expect, was a bit windy and raining – we’re used to the dark and the wet now, right? The start of this audax, and a few of the others in fact, is just a stones throw from my front door, and amongst a few friends we had agreed to either meet at mine for pre-ride coffee and group ride faffing or at the sign on. Audax, as I have come to learn (recorded for posterity by my friend Gavin here), is about self reliance and good time keeping so we all made the start in good time to receive our brevet cards and hear the pre-ride briefing by the organiser. Hot tea and coffee as well as an abundant selection of breakfast food was on offer at the start and you were encouraged to help yourself.
Without too much ceremony we made a start and began at a progressive but social pace out into the busy Hailsham one way system and out into the Sussex countryside. Weather conditions had improved but there was a lot of surface water and spray so it wasn’t long before a dampness had started to set in. The roads around the Weald are somewhat shonky by nature anyway, but with the constant rain and wind there was a lot of debris; grit and sticks and other detritus, to navigate around especially at the bottom of the ghylls. The water courses were full, more so than I have ever seen, and there was flooding in places.
The route traversed up and down the steep contour lines from Hailsham to Cowbeech, Woods corner to Brightling and the first info control. Then on to Burwash, Witherenden and the manned control at the Peckish Café in Mayfield. Here we stopped for tea – the result of flickering blue skies had made the mercury drop and we were in need of a warming cup. Once brevet cards had been stamped and those who kept their hands in their gloves updated their info control answers we were soon on our way again.
Navigation was done with the aid of a route sheet with each of the roads and turns and directions along the route marked in 4 parts on a printed sheet of paper folded into a sandwich bag, and the route loaded on to a Garmin so that we could trace the GPS trail and maintain our course. On from Mayfield to Chuck Hatch and the Ashdown Forest cutting a line up and down the north side of the forest to Hartfield before a sharp change of direction, skirting back towards Chuck Hatch and Mayfield, up to the roof of Sussex by making an ascent of Kidds Hill.
At Crowborough we stopped for chips. It wasn’t planned, but someone spotted a chip shop and the idea could not be killed. The back of the ride had been broken at Crowborough with a chunk of the big hills already covered, but between Crowborough and Hailsham the route would continue it’s theme of relentless up and down. Back in Mayfield for another visit to the Peckish Café, another stamp, another cup of tea and grab a bun for the last 15km home. Mayfield to Broad Oak, to Heathfield and finally back to the leisure centre in Hailsham for the brevet card to be given it’s final stamp and ride validation.
A perfect day out that cost £6, a couple of inner tubes and a few brake pads. A route and distance that could be felt just right in the legs, introduction to unfamiliar lanes and linking other roads I know well and producing the best nights’ sleep I’ve had in a long time.
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