Blazing saddles through the North Downs

Blazing saddles through the North Downs

One of the vital balancing pleasures of this frustrating, disturbing and tragic summer has been cycling the local North Downs.

There are often loads of cyclists with the same thought at weekends and on weekday evenings in this area but the backroutes I use are almost free of all kinds of traffic.

I’ve been really enjoying exploring the lanes between Downe, Cudham, Knockholt Pound and Brasted; to improve fitness and stamina, because they are beautiful and in the hope of ‘creeping up’ on wildlife. Well, I’ve become a bit fitter – though not lighter – and, yes, I never tire of the area’s aesthetic qualities, but the wildlife has been somewhat elusive. The escarpment near Chevening is always good for buzzards, however, and the odd red kite, but my birdspotting by bike adventures have fallen generally flat. Yes there are deer, and I’ve had close up encounters with bats, tawny owls and dragonflies. But that’s about it.

I’ve cycled around the area from my front door in SE London but also take the bike by car to Downe or Cudham and cycle from there for 90 minutes or so. Clear evenings, such as those we’ve had lately, are particularly atmospheric as the skies to the west turn orange and pink and long shadows are punctuated with the gold of the setting sun. And with hardly any traffic there’s quite a profound silence much of the way, with only the odd bit of birdsong and the occasional growl of a Spitfire cruising back to Biggin Hill at the end of the day’s joyrides to break it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of my favourite parts of the ride, although I only deviate my route to take it in if I have extra time, is the Pilgrim’s Way, which runs west to east towards the bottom of the escarpment. The views to the east are superb as is the view back up to the ridge. The hill I take to get back up the escarpment is Sundridge Road, a never-ending lung-buster of a climb, and yet as you stand at the foot of the North Downs the ridge seems mild and shallow. Appearances can be deceptive, believe me.

Since lockdown started at the end of March I’ve seen bluebells come and go, birdlife spring into action then go silent, trees turn from brown to emerald and now to all shades between yellow and black, peacock and red admiral butterflies fill the lanes and now berries ripen, lining the hedgerows with scarlet and midnight blue.

Some of this gently rolling landscape routes appears bland in photographs, which tend to flatten it out. You need the wider perspective of the naked eye to really appreciate these surroundings – but here is a pictorial record anyway.

• You can follow my recommended cycle routes in the area here

I’ve got something concrete to say about heat in my street

I don’t use these pages to vent usually but something’s got me hot and bothered, and the beauty of running a website is that you are your own editor. Not always a good thing I suppose. Anyway, I’ve realised on my evening cycles that my street is actually hotter than surrounding areas. My one-hour route takes in Lower Sydenham, Beckenham, West Wickham and Hayes, taking in urban environments that lean on the lush side.

I’m a casual cyclist with an old bike and not much appetite for speed or lycra but this is beside the point. When I re-emerge onto my own street I feel a blast of heat. It’s because there’s far too much concrete in relation to greenery. Other streets have trees and front gardens, but here people – not necessarily current residents – have paved over their lawns, the council has removed anything arboreal (thanks guys, it looks like s*** now), and there is no strip of grass by the pavement. Just concrete mercilessly radiating heat. The water run off, if it ever rains again, will be pretty appalling and I imagine the street is now vulnerable to flooding thanks to the collective thoughtlessness. Doesn’t anyone care about aesthetics or the environment? You don’t have to be a keen gardener to have a patch of grass and a few plants. I think it’s pretty poor.

River Pool path with no litter – for a change.

Now for a rant that’ll echo what we’ve all heard on the news and elsewhere. Close to my road there is a park and a stream: the River Pool. It’s pretty nice. I think it’s grand for the kids to go paddling in it (mind any glass though) but for adults to leave litter everywhere and not consider taking it home is beyond the pale. I’ve often tried to clean it up a bit myself and I know the Friends of the River Pool do their best too. So I say shame on you selfish people who foul up the place. Does this happen in Germany, France etc? I don’t think so, not to the same extent.

Three classic cycle routes around Downe and Cudham

Cyclists from all over south-east London head off for the nearby North Downs lanes on weekday evenings and at weekends, often en masse as part of clubs. A lot of popular routes (like this one) leave from Crystal Palace/Elmers End and involve Westerham, Downe, Brasted and Cudham with some testing climbs, great scenery and relatively car-free lanes. You can do one of these routes on an old hybrid or mountain bike… you don’t need the latest road bike. There are hills, of course, though so a smidgeon of fitness is required. And although the lovely green lanes are nearly car-free at times, always bear in mind a Range Rover is about to come round the corner.

I’m partial to a good cycle too, along with various members of the fam, but we don’t think heading out on the busy ‘A’ roads is a lot of fun, so we plonk the bikes on a rack and drive to Downe or Cudham, park up, shed the bikes and off we go.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here’s route one (Downe, Knockholt Cudham, Downe):
https://www.plotaroute.com/embedmap/432060

Route map for Downe/Cudham Cycle, 1 Hour by Adam McCulloch on plotaroute.com

Go to menu (top right) and click on ‘hills’ to get a profile view of the route with terrain guide, gradients and heights above sea level. The second half of the route, after Hawley’s Corner, is remarkably traffic free but at all times, however quiet, you should anticipate a Range Rover swinging round the corner ahead of you. There are some fabulous downhill sections later in the ride (Shelley’s Lane, Knockholt and Downe Rd on leaving Cudham) where really high speeds can be built up quickly but please just imagine a car pulling out (there’s one or two driveways) or coming round a corner quickly. The final (steep) hill, back up to Downe village (Cudham Rd), is through Downe Bank, one of Charles Darwin’s research zones. Some massive history right there in those woods.

Here’s a link to a topographic view of the route; there’re more uphills than down but don’t be misled; most of the uphills are gentle whereas the downhills are sharper.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Route 2 (via Chevening): Downe, Horns Green, Chevening hamlet, Knockholt, Cudham, Downe
https://www.plotaroute.com/embedmap/432067

Route map for Downe/Chevening/Cudham by Adam McCulloch on plotaroute.com

This one’s a bit longer at 16 miles (say 90 mins) and adds in one gorgeous downhill (Brasted Hill) and one strenuous uphill section (Starhill Rd). The route is easy to extend to Brasted and Ide Hill, even Hever, if you like, but those roads tend to be a bit busier. On the map it looks as if you have to double back at Chevening but in fact you can take your bike on a footpath behind the church to join the road and crack on up Starhill Rd. Oh yes, Chevening House is where Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis periodically hang out. The church and houses there are very nice though. A third Downe variation, taking in the very quiet but taxing Sundridge Hill (rather than the busier Starhill Rd) is here:https://www.plotaroute.com/embedmap/447637

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Route map for Downe/Knockholt Pound/Cudham by Adam McCulloch on plotaroute.com

Route 3: (Downe, Knockholt, New Years Lane, Cudham, Downe). This third route is very quiet traffic-wise and, at 14 miles, is a good little work out with a couple of steep hills. A nice road to cycle down is Blueberry Lane just before Knockholt Pound.

If you don’t fancy parking on the street at Downe (sometimes awkward) there is the car park at High Elms country park a mile to the north and the car park at Cudham recreation ground. Or just cycle all the way from Peckham/Lewisham or wherever. Or get the train to Orpington or Hayes and cycle from there. Take care on the busy roads though.