I probably should have been paying more attention when I got sent the information about a new trail being launched, as I didn’t realise I would be test riding it right away... in December, in the UK.
Luckily for the potential trail conditions we’ve been charmed with an incredibly dry summer, and the autumnal rain we've experienced between then and now won’t have had a chance to make too much of a depressing impact.
The weather over our ride dates was likely to be more of an issue though, and after a week of perpetual weather forecast app refreshing, we were not exactly blessed but we found a three-day window. While it was permagrey and a bit miserable in parts, it wasn't finger or toe-numbingly cold or perpetual rain (of course the following days were bright blue sunshine, but never mind eh).
We, that’s partner Claire and I, are wrapped up warm pedalling along the newly created North Downs Way Riders' Route. While the original North Downs Way has been around since the late 70s, it couldn’t be cycled from end to end because some sections were footpaths, and riders would have to make up their own bits in between. Now, though, there’s a definite route that detours these unrideable sections and links together bridleways, byways and quiet roads to create a continuous North Downs Way, stretching for 153 miles (246km) across the Surrey Hills and Kent Downs from Farnham to Dover.
Work began on creating the Riders’ Route in 2018, and it’s recently benefitted from investment thanks to funding from the European Regional Development Fund EXPERIENCE project allowing for improvement and enhancement works to be carried out by Kent Downs Area Of Natural Beauty, which should make it even more accessible for those on two wheels.
Routes that were previously inaccessible for cyclists have been improved so it can be ridden the entire way, while new maps and interpretation panels have been created to improve navigation along the trail.
The route will be a good two-day effort for keen riders (no doubt someone will be along to tick it off in one swift go) whilst others might prefer to split the route into more manageable sections and have a nice day out on each, pausing to look at things along the way and stop in a cafe or pub or two.
The latter option is greatly eased by train stations, not just at the beginning and end but dotted within easy reach all along the route, serving London and the South East of England. The close proximity of major roads will help with easy transport, too.
We’ve assigned three days to do the trip as we have to juggle daylight, possible weather, slower riding conditions, booked accommodation and days off.
Like other Cycling UK routes such as the Cantii Way and the incredibly popular King Alfred’s Way, these routes aren’t just about getting from the beginning to the end as fast as possible. It’s also about enjoying the riding and the countryside, and stopping frequently to enjoy what you’re pedalling past.
The North Downs Way Riders’ Route allows visitors to cycle through the protected landscapes of the Surrey Hills and Kent Downs Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, passing through a diverse landscape that follows a chalk ridge which winds over hills and grassland and through valleys and ancient woodlands.
If you prefer your history over flora and fauna, then you’re well catered for as the trail passes eight castles, three archbishops’ palaces and three cathedrals, as well as neolithic sites, Roman and Napoleonic forts and WWII fortifications. Even when you’re not looking at old buildings and crumbling ruins, your wheels are rolling over history as much of the trail follows the legendary Pilgrim's Way, the route the devoted used to travel from Winchester Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral.
On top of all this there are plenty of cycle friendly places to eat, sleep and drink along the way, with cycle hubs accredited by Cycling UK showcasing promoted routes and cycle hire options.
While the South Downs Way is one of the classic mountain bike rides to do, it’s 100 miles of undulating whaleback hills, and under a sea of blue sky it's a doable challenge in one long day in the summer; for the hardcore, a there-and-back double could even be a thing. Crucially it's all rideable bridleway, while the North Downs Way, a mere 30 miles to the north, never really gets much of a look in. Riding-wise it's a totally different kettle of fish, being far more wooded and with a much spikier profile.
Mountainbikers also prefer to honeypot to the trails and jumps of the Surrey Hills that lie a feeble stone’s throw to the south, but the creation of a definitive and legal route might change that a bit if you have a more wheels on the ground sensibility.
The start is officially in the shadow of Farnham Castle, but we tighten bag straps and clip in down where we get off the train and join the route from there after a brief squiggle through town.
We squeeze up between the fences, across a park, around an industrial estate and down an underpass, and we’re quickly onto dirt tracks and scruffy tarmac... then very posh tarmac as we meander past the large CCTV gates of well fancy houses that like to hide behind thick rhododendron bushes in this part of the world.
Heading out of town the wiggly way and then hitting dirt seems to be a traditional start to any adventure, and our first day is a feisty 100km. Luckily both Claire and I are used to longer hours in the saddle and facing up to a bit of just-getting-on-with-it, and we’ve packed our bags with kit to cope with anything the weather might surprise upon us. And plenty of snacks, of course.
The trail is designed to provide a wide variety of riding that would suit both hardtail mountain bikes and gravel bikes. The Surrey half is more mtb-friendly with its steep climbs and sunken descents, while the more sedate landscape of Kent with its quiet lanes and farm tracks suit a gravel bike more.
Our choice of bikes bore this out: Claire was on a Mason ISO gravel bike but with big 2.3 tyres, and I was on my old cross-country Pace rigid moutainbike.
Both bikes found their moments to be the ideal thing for the job. My mountain bike with its wide bars and chunky tyres definitely had the advantage during the first half of the ride, especially as trail conditions were early winter squishy in parts, whilst the gravel bike romped along tarmac and across the easier terrain later on the route.
Either bike would be fine, ride what you have and all that, but in the summer with drier trails a gravel bike would be good for the whole ride. A bit of tongue-out concentration might be required in places, and I’d suggest the biggest tyres you can fit for some of the more technical sections, but if you’d still prefer a mountain bike then you’ll appreciate some quicker rolling tyres over your sticky gnarfest rubber.
The trails on the first section are made up of a sandy soil, so are well drained and fast moving; apart from the bits that are softer deeper sand, and then churned up by horses and a bit more like a cyclocross course where some serious grunting is required.
A testament to the route designers expertise in threading a quiet and almost secret way through this hectic part of commuterland is the little southerly loop, that totally avoids the busy mess of Guildford and takes in the scenic towpath along the River Wey instead before we climb back up onto the downs for a coffee and bacon sandwich at the popular viewpoint of Newlands Corner.
On a good day there’s a great view across this bottom corner of England and the purple smudge of the South Downs on the horizon, but today’s not the day so we crack on eastwards along the ridge towards Ranmore Common. I’ve ridden here before at the wrong time of year, and it’s best avoided if you treasure your drivetrain and bearings. We’re fortunate though, and while there are a few large puddles that require tip-toeing through and around, there’s nothing that would require us to go bottom bracket-deep.
We drop down through Denbies Wine Estate, but miss the turning for the underpass so fumble across the busy A24 to the base of Box Hill. We avoid the road bike stravafest of the popular climb and turn right onto the steeper, rougher and harder off- road chalk track. The cafe at the top is a welcome reward and a chance for a refuel and a flapjack for the back pocket for the next section that parallels the M25; although apart from having the soundtrack of its hum through the trees in places and crossing it a couple of times, you’d never really know as the route continues its out of the way way.
The popular image of the South East of England is all open, rolling downland and Vaughan Williams, white chalk cliffs and chocolate box villages, but the Weald doesn’t ever get mentioned... because it is a scary place! Sandwiched between the North and South Downs it’s a furtive place of sunken shadowy lanes, thick tangled woodland and cold dark corners. It also has mud that even in the middle of summer can suck your soul and keep it.
Anyone that has cycled in the Weald will tell you of both the steepness and unrelenting nature of the hills, and how it casually laughs at the belief that it’s flat in The South.
We enter the Weald at exactly the wrong time. It’s dark (even though it’s only teatime), cold and we’re both a little weary from a long day in the saddle already. With only 20km to go we stop in Oxted and have emergency petrol station snacks, and as petrol station fuel goes it’s not high octane: the last of the donuts and some chicken bits. It’ll have to do.
The route climbs harshly out of the town, and from here to where we’re staying for the night is lumpy Wealden terrain that doesn’t care how tired you are. We’re off and pushing several times, the steepness of the hills, depth of sticky fallen leaves and frequency of stuttering hidden ruts putting pay to any pedalling. Distance off-road takes time in winter, distance off-road with bags on takes time, distance in the dark takes time and this last section takes big bites out of our average speed; so it is with much relief that we roll up to a pub that’s conveniently on the route, with just a short distance to go to our overnight stay and an inviting warm light spilling out the windows.
The pub can’t do us food as it’s pre-christmas function fully booked, so they point our visible disappointment to another pub that’s a small detour away. Being able to sit by a window and being able to keep an eye on our bikes is great; but the food doesn’t really meet the promise of the menu, and it really isn’t enough to compensate for the calories we’ve burned over a full short day and part of the night in the saddle in December. Still, we’re indoors and warm, until we have to brave the cold of the night again for the last few miles to our overnight stay at Bore House to be super cosy, thanks to the beauty that is underfloor heating.
While our bikes might be strapped with bags, we’re bikepacking lite and not carrying any camping or bivvy kit, and there’s nothing wrong with that as no one needs to sleep in a hedge in winter, no matter how many Instagram likes it might score. We crank the thermostat up as high as we dare, spend longer than strictly necessary in the shower, make ourselves cups of tea and upon discovery of a washing machine, quickly bosh some cycling kit through it.
A bit of research beforehand would have meant we could have travelled even lighter, taking just overnight clothes and any possible extra layers needed for the day and washed and dried our riding clothes overnight instead of taking a whole fresh set of kit.
This bed doesn’t come with breakfast, so it’s a quick google and a mini detour off route after a few miles of pedalling into the next morning to the Teal Cafe for a Full English, all the hot drinks and not quite ready for the cold quite yet.
It’s another flat grey and chill day, but it feels a little different to yesterday as the countryside is a little more agricultural, a lot more open and with less wiggling between the houses. It’s thankfully a shorter day than yesterday too at only 60km, but it's not any flatter with some brutal get-off-and-push climbs that would be tricky to clean even in summer.
The route swings back up into busier terrain, and there’s an extra loop here that continues north to the Medway river and Upnor Castle. We pass on that and continue towards Snodland, a place name that doesn’t conjure up too many visions of the picturesque and romantic, which was to be entirely the case but there was the vision of the golden arches at just the right time.
We usually try to avoid McDonalds, but sometimes on a long distance ride they are just what’s needed. We take the no shame option of burger and fries with hot apple pie for pudding, while the short break gives us the chance to fix a troublesome slow puncture that was hindering the day and making it a little bit grumpy.
Lunch was instantly absorbed into our bodies, which was lucky as immediately afterwards we had to face two of the steepest climbs of the trip in quick succession.
Some of the hills on the route are tough, and that’s speaking as riders who have ridden all over the world and done a lot of quite hard cycling stuff. Don’t be tempted into thinking it’s easy in the south, as some of it can require a lot of determination and effort. If you’re a less experienced rider, or just want a nice time and are going to split the ride into several manageable chunks then some of the climbs are going to make sure you’ve had a memorable day out.
We roll into Stable Oak Cottages just as darkness falls, which makes a nice change from the previous day. Once again we abuse the benefits of being indoors with heating, hot showers, thick towels and even a hot tub, before we walk into nearby Harrietsham for a curry that is distinctly more voluminous than last night’s dinner, and definitely replenishes our outside for two days wintry pedalling energy reserves.
Ingredients for breakfast are supplied here, as are alpacas, pigs and chickens to fuss over before our departure into another grey day that threatens with mizzle, promises a splash of rain and allows the sun to come out for the briefest of excitable moments.
Our last leg to Dover is a not-insignificant 75 kilometres, but is far easier going with quicker rolling trails; although, that’s not to say there weren’t a couple of knee-trembling climbs in there, but overall it’s a fast day in the saddle and we eventually finish an hour ahead of our booked train schedule.
The proximity to Canterbury means the paths are very friendly under the tyres, as we follow the Pilgrims Way that undulates easily along field edges, and for large parts tunnels through tree cover designed to keep the devout in the shade over the last few centuries. It also keeps the weather off waterproof-layered cyclists, as we discovered, and is a path that’s been trodden deep into the countryside. You can tell it’s an ancient and well-trafficked route despite it being empty on this chilly nondescript winter day, as we only encounter the infrequent hardy dog walker.
Approaching Canterbury the route climbs into Chilham, mainly so that you can ride past the opportunity of a castle on top of the hill. Our attention is instead drawn towards The Church Mouse Tea Rooms.
From a lot of previous experience we know that it can be time-suckingly tricky to find somewhere to stop for food in a city when you have two bikes to look after; so we take the chance to use the immediate possibility just 20 feet away, with bellies full of baked potatoes big enough to floor a cow pedal straight on through the cathedral city.
The approach is along the River Stour on a gravel bike path; and while Canterbury is a city in name because of its cathedral, it’s only a small town, so quick and easy to negotiate a way through although it’s medieval centre and cobbled streets.
After Canterbury the route continues in a religious vein as it follows the ancient Via Francigena, the cultural pilgrimage route that heads all the way across Europe to finish in Rome. If the North Downs Way Riders' Route isn’t enough for you then you can just hop on a ferry at Dover and keep on pedalling, or if your plans are a little less ambitious you could link up with the Cantii Way, which creates a longer version of the east Kent loop to explore more of the coastline.
This last bit swiftly rolls under our wheels as we go past Garden Of England Orchards, and scamper across open fields and with little warning and an unnecessarily steep road climb up to the shut castle gates... we’re in Dover.
If we had time, a little more daylight and less, y’know, winter, we could continue the route along the coast and loop back up to Wye near Ashford. As it’s getting dark, we pass on the tempting reward of fish and chips and rush to jump on the next train to head the easier way to Ashford and then along the coast for home, muddy bikes mixing it with commuters and school kids.
Squeezed in the corner next to the toilet, as is traditional, we conclude that despite agreeing to ride a long distance trail in the winter, we got away with it. This was helped significantly by having cosy overnight accommodation to look forward to, and we realise that it could have been a whole lot worse and much more miserable. We were impressed with just how fantastically quiet the route was, how tough it was in some parts and we can’t wait to come back and do it all again in the summer.
For more information to help you plan your ride, have a look at the itinerary on the North Downs Way National Trail website. You'll also find a really useful interactive rider's map showing accomodation, refreshment stops, bike shops, points of interest and travel links. You can find the North Downs Way Riders’ Route map and GPX to download here.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.