The day before this trip began, I awoke not knowing that within 24 hours I would be looking out upon the ocean wondering how far my bike would take me. It was only the night before, looking at the weather forecast that I decided, It was time to pack the bike.
This would be my second ever bikepacking trip, following my adventure along The South Downs Way.
I have already begun to realise what is essential whilst on the road and what is not, what is worth that extra space in the bags or what I can do without.. More space for food, less space for clothes seemed to be the common theme.
The aim of this ride was to see The White Cliffs of Dover for the first time in my life. As a 32 year old English man, that’s quite an impressive and embarrassing statement. The White Cliffs of Dover are a testament to the ruggedness and beauty of the English coastline. Facing France, The white chalk cliffs stretch for around 8 miles around the fishing town of Dover and reach a staggering height of 350 feet (110m) in places. During the second world war, soldiers arriving from the great evacuation of Dunkirk are said to have been welcomed by the sight of the cliffs whilst reporters gathered on the cliffs wishing them a safe return, watching the aerial battles above them between the German and British aircrafts.
I used various apps and websites to research a route. Seeking out local knowledge and previous rides logged on applications such as Komoot and Strava. I stitched a route together that suited my adventurous style of riding. I estimated I would take between four to five days to complete. However, that was loose. Bikepacking or Bike Touring, however you would like to call it is about the experience not the times or the miles.
I endeavour to make this my rule – smiles over miles!
I woke up at 3:30 am the next day, and had my now customary bowl of porridge with fruit and yogurt and a fresh cup of coffee. A staple for a pre-ride I have come to learn. I attached my Wahoo, my lights and myself to the bike and began to pedal. Dover, here I come.
The first day, I left the hustle and bustle of London life and headed south into Surrey to pick up the first of my stitched together routes. The trails of Surrey and the hills surrounding this area deserve a blog post on their own, the place is full of adventure. I was soon greeted by one of the vistas that makes the place so special. As I pushed up the gravel track to Reigate hill, opened and closed the gate behind me and looked to my right. The sunshine cleared the sky before me, the horizon stretching over the towns and villages in the valley below and onwards to The South Downs, remembering the times I had there just weeks ago. It was a nice moment.
As the Great British summer time settles in to provide yet another season of roulet weather, the colours are changing. Lush greens dominate the landscape, splashing of dark yellows pinpoint the growing corn fields and dashes of warm reds notify me of the poppies in their infancy. It is hard not to fall in love with the country I inhabit.
Following National Cycle Routes (NCN’s), through farmers fields and small quaint English villages that all seemed to be surrounded by hills. I continued, my legs were feeling it after around 6 hours on the bike. I decided it was a good time to begin the hunt for a campsite and somewhere to fill up on water for the night.
I found such a place in a sleepy village called Hollingbourne. I reached the village just as the shelfs were being packed down for the night in the local shop. I couldn’t help but raid the fresh pastry section for a little post ride treat! I was soon chatting with the owner of the shop and explaining my ride. Impressed at my efforts it was suggested that camping up on the meadow at the top of the village would be fine. What a win! A campsite right next to the local shop, this had worked out great. I would return in the morning for a coffee.
Thanking the shop owner, I jumped on my bike and headed up the small winding road to the meadow, hopped over a fence and peddled to the upper most corner, there was no one around, the sun was setting and I was beat. I set up camp. The days tiredness only hits me once I am done for the day, once my brain tells me body you can rest, shut down begins, I only have a short window to set up camp before I am sleeping in a bush.
Camp set, stove boiling and sunset outside my door I laid down to read my book.
It was the dog I heard first, sniffing and rubbing on the tent, then the footsteps and then, the voices. “Hello? Is anyone in there?” said a woman. “Yes, I am” I replied and after a few back and forths between myself and the couple they seemed to be annoyed but walked away. I remember thinking I should pack up the tent and just move, however, shut down had begun and it was an effort now to do anything but lay back and read. I sat with the tent door open and watched through the bush in front of my tent as another person walked past and stared back at me, I smiled but I got no response. I am not sure if they saw me. They were certainly checking out my tent.
Then, a faint buzzing began, louder and louder as it approached and soon overhead. A drone! Someone was watching me. I got out of the tent and waved at the drone but could not see the pilot. This is getting strange now. I just wanted a cup of tea and to sleep and it felt like the world was watching.
More footsteps, approaching the tent directly this time. “Hello, are you in there?” “Yes sir, I am, how can I help?” I peered out of the tent and smiled. It turns out, the man was the custodian of the meadow and that the entire meadow was publicly owned by the village, each person owning a tree following a buyout with the government years ago. As such, it would seem the tree owners are very protective of their land. I explained my trip, my leaving no trace mentality, no fires and that I would be out early in the morning.
Thankfully, he was more impressed by my efforts than annoyed about my camping. We shared a laugh about the situation and he told me that I was currently the talk of the village and pictures of me were all over the local Facebook page, they thought I was moving in. Happy with the outcome, he walked away promising to call off the village, celebrity manhunt and wished me a good night.
It was all very strange, the shutdown was over and I closed my eyes.
View the ride.
The next morning I awoke to a sunrise that matched the sunset, warm reds, purples and yellows filled the sky. The smell of damp, freshly cooked grass filled my tent as I opened up for the old man, stretching and groaning. I was excited for the day ahead, barring anything cataclysmic, I would reach Dover by late morning safe in the knowledge that I was a local celebrity. I wish I had asked to see the Facebook posts. Nevermind, I was packed and back on the bike waving around the town that provided me with a night I will never forget.
I reached Dover around 10am, climbing up the road to reach Dover castle first and then along to the White Cliffs. I somehow managed to get a little bit lost and ended up carrying the bike and myself up graveled steps to the summit.
Once at the top I passed the visitor centre, filled with happy motorcyclists or cheaters as I like to call them and smiling cyclists who have just cycled up the calm winding roads on the other side. Fantastic.
I found the view and stopped. I placed the bike on the ground and sat besides it, like an old couple who had experienced so much we looked out to the ocean. I let out a WOOOOP! I could contain my excitement and sense of achievement. Successfully scaring the passing tourists walking past. I didn’t care, I have done it! I set myself a goal, and I achieved it. There is no better feeling. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
The White Cliffs did not disappoint. Pictures do no justice. The atmosphere of the place is why you should visit. The sheer scale of the White Cliffs is immeasurable. The white chalk, stained deep with black flint showing the scarring of years of ocean corrosion. The result of which leaves sharp lines, insteps on which Peregrine Falcons nest, circling the air above, hunting down breakfast at tremendous speeds. They have been clocked at reaching over 200MPH in this area. Their calls are loud and proud over the fields of native wildflowers. The result of all this, a sensory explosion.
Descending down from the cliffs and into Dover, my plan was very loose. I didn’t map the route. It was simple, keep the sea on my left shoulder, push the pedals and if you see something interesting, stop and look. Oh, and keep eating and drinking!
I continued down and passed another very special place called Samphire Hoe, only accessible by an old train line bored out of the white cliffs themselves, closed to the public due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I sneaked through and had the whole place to myself, more incredible views along the British coast to Folkestone and beyond, It was very tempting to stay here for the night but I decided It was too early to stop. I pushed on.
Following the sea, I passed thousands of people enjoying the weather, laughing, eating, drinking, sunbathing, kitesurfing and swimming. Families making the most of their time together, It was nice to see and it was an even better bike ride. The surface was smooth and the avoidance of people rather than potholes was a welcome change.
I finished my day just outside of Brighton, making the most of the sunshine. I achieved more than I thought possible but enough to ensure that tomorrow I would be able to get home for that recovery pizza. Thankfully, having learnt my lesson from the night before I waited until the sun was very low in the sky before making camp. I found an abandoned pub and pitched in the beer garden. Settled and fed, shut down was fast. I didn’t read, I closed my eyes.
View the ride.
After a solid night’s sleep without any paparazzi at my door, I was once again on the road at 5am heading towards Brighton. The route of the day was one I had done just a few weeks ago during my South Downs Way ride. Once I hit Brighton I jumped onto the old railway lines that link The North Downs and headed…up! I was on my way home.
Brighton is a strange place now, one that seems to be lost and a little left behind. The hotels that were once full of tourists during the 19th century and the seaside boom are now eerily empty. The steel remains of a once great town centrepiece, the pier, stands alone in the ocean a victim of an arsonist attack in 2003. Heading through the town the tram shelters are full of people drinking alcohol and whatever else they fill their time with, the beach was full of rubbish left behind by the sun worshippers of the day before, showing complete disregard for anyone and anything. I was happy to leave.
Once on the old train lines and heading north the route is simple and predominantly flat. Entering back into Surrey the trail changes and from train lines to canal towpaths, locks become the normal. Wonderful symbols of past engineering masterpieces separate the river to ensure safe passage, once for the builders of the industrial revolution and now for weekend adventures.
I reached home with plenty of time to spare. It had been a great trip. I had set out with a target of four to five days and completed it in two and a half. Maybe I should have stopped more, spent more time enjoying the scenery or taking it in, maybe, but I was happy. This is just the beginning of my adventures and it’s good to know where I am at, how long and far I can go, what is needed to do it and how much food I can eat to keep myself upright on the bike.
View the ride.
Ride by the numbers
23.74 Hours of Riding
15,105 ft Elevation
If you have any questions, leave a comment below.
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