Setting off from Winchester on an un-seasonally chilly morning for June it wasn’t long before arm warmers and outer layers were being discarded as the ride headed up onto the South Downs in Chilcomb.
Conditions were perfect on the Downs as asphalt gave way to gravel. With tracks baked dry by weeks of dry, sunny weather progress was swift as the group crossed the A272 at Cheesefoot Head and disappeared into Hidden Hampshire.
The South Downs Way is an off-road cyclist’s paradise – an amazing route that starts in Winchester and ends in Eastbourne some 160 km (100 miles) later. Re-crossing the A272, we set off along trails that took us up to Preshaw and on to Beacon Hill before plunging down into Exton, a picture post card brick and flint village through which the River Meon, one of Hampshire’s unique chalk stream flows.
From Exton the peloton of ten scampered up the Meon Trail, in now sweltering conditions, before tackling Old Winchester Hill, which has a savage sting in its tail (a hike a bike segment for sure!) This part of the route encompasses all that makes the South Downs Way so popular; large skies that give way to fields of gold and rolling chalk downlands dissected by dry valleys and winterbournes with views that stretch for miles in all directions.
Having crested Old Winchester Hill, the group enjoyed an excellent coffee at Alan’s mobile cafe (actually he’s called Andrew) and the chance to cool down in the shade of ancient beech trees that line the road all the way to the top of the hill.
The homeward leg took us through ancient, wooded trails towards Hinton Ampner eventually emerging at the source of the River Itchen. We then passed through the village of Cheriton, following the course of the Itchen and into the hamlet of Tichborne where asphalt gave way to a flint and cinder trail that gently dragged us back up and onto the South Downs.
With one last stop to take in the magnificent views of Winchester and beyond at the top of the Chilcomb climb we then slipped back, at full gas, into civilization.
To the Gravel Peloton of - Brenda, Isla, Paul, Ed, Jamie, Ysarn, Rob P, Andy and Rob thanks for joining me on the ride and see you, and hopefully many more members, on the next club gravel ride in July.