London to Brighton - The Hard Way

Adventure

I left the step-by-step directions at work, so this meant handwriting them out from the internet...

They call it the Green Monster.

I wasn’t convinced. From what I’d heard, it could justifiably be called ‘the beast’, or something similar, but the Green Monster? Come on people, do me a favour, let’s not make a mountain out of a moderately steep road.

But then I met it. I became acquainted – seriously acquainted – and I now realise there is no other title it could possibly deserve other than the Green Monster.

The monster I speak of is known to mapmakers as Ditchling Beacon. It towers 250 metres above sea level. It is the highest point in the county of East Sussex. The road that snakes up it rises 160 metres in just one mile. My first glimpse of it was on the high street of Ditchling Village, a sleepy little place just north of Brighton. I had paused for breath, hoisted my bike onto the pavement and was waiting for my cycling buddy, Tom, to catch up.

Don’t be misled by ‘catch up’; he was roughly three seconds behind and had been patiently humouring my pathetic pace for the last 40 miles. He’s a lot fitter than me and is more than a cycling buddy – we’ve known each other since birth, remained best friends ever since, and I couldn’t imagine a more apt partner for the gruelling challenge we had set ourselves on this overcast day in June. We spent our childhood pushing boundaries and this trend has continued into adulthood.

And here was our latest boundary, right before our eyes – the Green Monster.

At first I had assumed it was simply a low line of cloud. But then, with mounting dismay, I understood it was a ridge of land. A ridge of land with an unmistakable tinge of green to it and most definitely connected – albeit at a hideous gradient – to the very ground upon which I stood.

Faced with hopeless odds, as I was then, I tend to shrivel into defeated submission and enter a meek kind of sulk. Tom, on the other hand, grins and charges at the problem with the force of a bull. If he hadn’t been there to set an example, I do believe I would have crawled into the nearest garden shed – there were plenty to choose from; we were in rural Sussex – and wept for the next fortnight. But as it was, he simply said: “We just need to pace ourselves and we’ll get through it – trust me.”

Easier said than done.

Credit: Will Jones

To give some context, the annual 54-mile London to Brighton bike ride had taken place the weekend before. We had initially planned to join in the fun and games, but alas, the night previous happened to coincide with a poker game with some close friends, resulting in a three hour sleep followed by one of the most monumental hangovers in the history of the human race. A hangover you could sell to science, to borrow some words from the great Bill Bryson.

So we rescheduled, in a vague sort of manner. “We’ll schdoo it next weeksch inschtead,” one of us said, before embracing a lamppost and declaring undying love, and that was the last I thought about it. Deep down I knew it was going to happen, but like an appointment at the dentist, I shoved the impending occasion to the back of my mind and lived life as normal. Alas, the time came when I could ignore it no longer, and three hours before we were due to set off, I called Tom to ask if he was: “…like, prepared and that?”

“Yeah, man! I’ve been mentally building up for this all week, and I’ve been training every day for my triathlon as well, so you know, I should be in pretty good shape for it! How about you?”

“Just working on my epitaph.”

Before we set off, I was in a state of nervous restlessness. I could feel that itchy buzz that I used to get before running cross-country races all those years ago, before I discovered the various insalubrious vices that appeal so strongly to teenage boys. My mind was already five miles down the road, but my bumbling body was left losing keys and knocking things over and losing keys again and generally being a complete ass. A serious hindrance was the realisation I had left the step-by-step directions for the route at work, so this meant handwriting them out from the internet, which due to my hurried carelessness would inevitably cause some issues later in the day.

Eventually we made our way out the front door, snapped the obligatory pictures, and turned the wrong way down the street.

Getting out of Colliers Wood – my neck of the London woods – was entirely predictable in its tediousness. The place is a web of tarmac, knotted with traffic lights, and it felt more like an escape than a natural part of the ride; logic rather than stamina was leading the way.

We were out soon enough though, and to our utmost delight the signs from the ride last week were still in place, indicating the way to go, meaning we didn’t have to resort to my scribbled directions for the time being.

We were both amazed at the abruptness with which we were in suburbia. The change was seemingly instant; the streets were suddenly quieter with more trees and less traffic lights, and the detached houses had character, not to mention hefty price tags.

The first hill – and it really wasn’t much of a hill – came at roughly the nine mile mark, and it instilled me with crippling doubt. Until this point, it hadn’t actually occurred to me that I might not be fit enough to complete the challenge, but as the sweat began dripping off my nose and my heart started accelerating into overdrive and my legs began crying out in furious resentment, a single expletive became the dominant force in my mindscape.

Credit: Will JonesCredit: Will Jones

My concerns were quelled somewhat when I looked back at Tom, who was wearing a similar expression to the one he had adopted the previous Friday night when making friends with that lamppost – a kind of demented look, enhanced by crossed eyes and a lopsided face, and if I wasn’t mistaken a small amount of runaway drool. In the interests of morale, I didn’t comment at the time.

After an age, we found ourselves at the top, still victoriously perched (or rather crumpled) upon our bikes, which were promptly flung to the grass in favour of the trunk of an enormous felled tree, which was covered in carvings. We had reached the village of Woodmansterne, and it felt as if we had won the first battle of the war. So I had a fag to celebrate – and then a banana to square things up.

*          *          *

If you’ve ever wondered, the best cookies in England – and possibly the world – can be found in a random little farm shop called Fanny’s, on Markedge Lane, just outside the Surry village of Merstham. I won’t insult the cookies by trying to articulate why they were so stupendously glorious; I would just like you to be aware of their existence. The shop was the only sign of commercial life we’d seen since leaving Woodmansterne, which was now five miles behind us, and had such a curious amalgamation of sentimental junk we couldn’t resist the temptation to have a nose around. It was almost a caricature of rustic, with everything you’d expect to find at a farm shop, complete with livestock, but interspersed with anomalies like rusty bikes (for sale), second-hand books and comics, bunting draped across the gravel paths and humorous signs everywhere. It was all very charming, in a sickly kind of way, and certainly no secret, for the place was crammed.

After gorging on those heavenly disks and sitting down for far too long, we limped back to our bikes and continued on our merry way. Soon after, we zoomed under the M25, the outermost moat that encircles the sprawling metropolis of London and its boroughs, and turned onto a road called Gatton Bottom, which I found amusing for various childish reasons.

It was around this point – in the wake of another gruesome hill – that I began to switch off. The cycling had become so excruciatingly difficult, I took in my surroundings on only the most basic level. Everything became geared towards simply pedalling, and continued in this vein for the next 20 miles or so. I was faintly aware of being in the heart of rural England – cricket games on manicured lawns, horse paddocks, duck ponds, tiny flint churches surrounded by mossy graves, thatched cottages drowning in ivy, old Tudor houses with dark wooden beams sagging under the weight of time – but my true focus was on the patch of road three metres ahead, the patch of road that when traversed would bring me three metres closer to the pebbles of Brighton beach.

And so it was, we pedalled and we pedalled and then we pedalled some more. We struggled up hills at walking pace, flew down them at driving pace, but always we would cover ground.

Until eventually, after five hours and 40 miles, we reached the village of Ditchling, and I paused to survey the green bulk of land ahead. And I think this is about where we came in.

Credit: Will Jones

Words simply cannot do it justice. Suffice to say, it was the hardest thing – on both a physical and mental level – that I have ever endured. We had to go at our own pace for this; it was the only way either of us could get through it. So Tom, being in better shape, was soon out of sight, and I was left alone on this monster of a road, and soon retreated into this strange world inside my head, where a raging battle between willpower and instinct got underway. The sweeping panoramic views barely registered, and I knew if I got off to admire them I’d never be able to get back on. My legs were screaming in pain, my mind was frazzled, my shoulders were trembling, my body was a waterfall of sweat.

Was it worth it?

Of course it was! Churchill said: “If you’re going through Hell, keep going,” and he was quite right, as usual. Never mind that my body was spent and that my mind was a wreck. I had conquered the Green Monster – and it felt good.

The views were predictably spectacular – to the north, a vast, velvet-green patchwork of fields, sprawling into a misty horizon, and on the other side, the slopes of the South Downs folding over one another, dotted with sheep – but the most wonderful thing about being at the highest point in East Sussex, the buffeting wind cooling our aching limbs, was the happy knowledge that from there to the ocean would be downhill, and downhill only.

The buzz that came with cruising into Brighton, seeing the pier and the sea, sucking in the salty air and hearing the cries of the seagulls, was one I’ll never forget – which is good, because I won’t be refreshing my memory any time soon.

*It is strongly recommended by sensible people everywhere to drink something with high levels of protein upon reaching the finishing line of this ride. It restores various things and is important because of some reasons which I forgot.

Alternatively, you could find the nearest bar, order a real drink, and give yourself and whoever else you are with a serious slap on the back.

Credit: Will Jones