Bikepacking the North Downs Way

“Hello, just checking you’re still coming?”.
It’s 5:30pm on the hottest day of the year and I’ve been slowly cooking in what feels like an open air furnace, like a lamb shank marinated in my own sweat, for 8 hours.

Checking the map I decide on a detour hoping it will get me to my destination on time. It does, just, and I arrive at camp with 30 minutes to spare before check in closes.

The plan was a simple one – load up my Genesis Longitude, follow the North Downs Way (or at least the rideable bits) for 50 miles to a camp site for an overnight pit stop, setting out the next day to ride the western section of the NDW to the Kent/Surrey boarder, turn around and retrace my steps back to camp before heading back home on day 3.

The reality as it turns out was far from simple. Booking my overnight stops in advance added a degree of civility to the trip, it would allow me to dump my kit at basecamp and ride the western part of the trail unencumbered by tent, sleeping bag and food but conversely offered less flexibility. Having booked and paid for the two nights, I was committed to the ride, 30 degree temps or not.

The first few miles rolled by easily enough, following the Pilgrims Way before hitting the top of the Downs, some fun trails around Hastingleigh followed by a rapid and welcome descent into the pretty village of Wye.

From Wye it was a steep climb to get back on the North Downs Way, with the temperature rising I’m not ashamed to say I resorted to hike-a-bike to tackle the Byway that would take me up into the shade of Kingswood.

Winching my way up the rutted and loose surface I was only too glad to pause, giving way to a mountain biker making his way down the trail. We stopped and exchanged a few words about our respective journeys, he had been dropped off that morning at Hollingbourne by his wife and was making his way to Folkestone (if I remember rightly) and seemed equally impressed with my own mission.

Cresting the high point above Ashford, I promptly got lost in Kingswood and managed to exit the forest onto a busy A road. Rather than retrace my steps and take the longer option back through the forest, I battled it out with the motorists for a couple of miles, eventually reaching the safety of the next trail and another drop in altitude towards Charing.

The North Downs Way between Westwell and Hollingbourne offers up superb riding – an almost unbroken ribbon of rolling trail, only punctured by a few short stretches of tarmac and offering fantastic views from up high. Sadly, after Hollingbourne the trail turns to tarmac and although a relatively quiet and pretty stretch of road, it was a slog on my semi fat tyres and loaded bike.

Reaching Detling I could tell the wheels were starting to come off. Stopping at the community store to top up my water, I took an extended break of about an hour, guzzled plenty of fluids (including a refreshing ice cold Coke) and took on some much needed calories.

I don’t remember much of the ride from Detling until I took a wrong turn on Bluebell Hill and then another a few miles later approaching the M2 bridge over the river Medway. Somehow I managed to fork off to the left of the main trail which would have delivered me to the crossing but instead I ended up in Wouldham. It was at this point whilst checking the map that the campsite rang to enquire if I was actually coming and with time pressing on I made my decision to detour across the new “Peters bridge” and once again carved my way back up Downs.

Fortunately this was the last climb of the day, having navigated the busy bridge and survived the grimness of Snodland, I near dragged my bike up Birling Hill. I’d last ridden this particular hill back in 2011 as part of the Birling Beast triathlon. Much fitter back then as I managed to avoid walking on that occasion although in fairness I wasn’t carrying three days of food and kit!

I quickly set up camp and suffering somewhat from heat stroke, promptly stripped off to my birthday suit in an attempt to shed some heat. Fortunately the site was near empty and I didn’t manage to upset any of my fellow campers!

A hearty feed, camp fire and solid nights kip in my Stratospire saw me feeling refreshed the next morning. With the mercury still pushing ridiculous temps by 8am, I made the decision to abandon the western leg of the trail, opting instead for a more sedate ride around the local woodland before seeing out the day in camp, enjoying the tranquility of the woodland.

Day 3 rolled around and it was time to head home. I broke camp early, hitting the trail by 7am in an attempt to beat the heat. I opted to skirt the North Downs and instead cut cross country, dropping down from the chalk escarpment to enjoy a late breakfast in the cool air of Mereworth woods, then pressing on towards the flat cycle path running along the Medway into Maidstone.

From Maidstone it was another climb back onto the North Downs Way but slow progress meant I was now punching the heat of the day again and I called it quits at Harrietsham, opting to let the train take me the rest of the way home.

Once home I felt a little deflated at my failure, at not having achieved what I set out to do. But writing this now, nearly four months on, that seems ridiculous. If I was an ultra racer earning my keep based on my performances in races then sure. But I’m not, I do this for fun and whilst at times it didn’t feel like fun, it sure beat sitting in an office in that heat!


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