Cycle Pilgrim – North Downs, England

The North Downs are a long line of green high ground to the south of London. The Downs have become a place of pilgrimage for cyclists on and off road and here you can find sunken roads, great views plus killer climbs – not a place for the pious rather a place for any cycling pilgrim, saint or sinner.

Relics and shrines
Pilgrims for centuries have trodden well used tracks and paths to pay their debt to their god, to relieve themselves of handicap, guilt or for a bettering of their own souls. Some were just simply religious tourists. The A2, now a motorway in Kent, UK is an ancient pilgrim’s route running from Wales through London and onto Canterbury Cathedral (and Dover). Holy sites would vie for devotees by offering a chance of bearing witness or touching a holy relic – the more holy the relic the more important became your church or monastery that held it etc. The shrine to Saint Alban in Herefordshire is now a Cathedral. He is venerated because he was the first-recorded British Christian martyr (killed by the Romans in Verulamium, now St Albans). Even better if a cult could be formed around a martyr etc. such as was the case with Saint Alban. For instance, St. Pantaleon’s Church in Cologne also has St Alban’s relics and there are references to him across Europe.

A holy sites cashbox would ching with coinage more often if the relic and accompanying shrine could draw the crowds and this, often lucrative, religious side-line fostered a network of pilgrims’ routes across the country and Europe.

Pilgrims’ Way
The Pilgrims’ Way runs the whole of the North Downs (151 miles) and has evolved with modern developments, some sections are typical tarmac roads now, but the track made up of ancient (incl. stone age), roman and medieval ways and trails can still be found and travelled. Victorian writer Hilaire Belloc is said to have re-invented the track with his book the ‘Old Road’.

The martyrdom and canonization of Thomas Becket in 1173; “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (Henry II) and the construction of a shrine to the fallen Archbishop at Canterbury drew pilgrims in huge numbers, making it the holiest place in England. The Pilgrims’ Way we know today was once a major conduit for devotees until the dissolution of the monasteries (1536) when Henry VIII grabbed their money, land and power for himself.

Henry Chaucer gives flesh and blood to the lives and hopes of pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales published in 1476, and his mix of social classes among the story tellers helps to convey why people were willing to make a pilgrimage joining the Pilgrims’ Way as part of their journey from London to Canterbury to visit Beckets shrine.

Cycling pilgrims – the roads
The roads of the North Downs are most often narrow, scoured deep into the ridge and heavily seasoned with fallen foliage and debris. Roads and trails that run along the top of the Downs are seldom straight and dive down and up regularly whilst the links between communities either side of the ridge are steep to go up, and then steep to go down again. At Box Hill a serpentine ascent softens the blow rather than the up and over that cracks your knees and explodes your lungs that can be experienced at York Hill, Downe Road or White Down Lane.

The ‘road’ section of the Pilgrims’ Way I have ridden on my bike is topped and tailed by steep climbs – this ride would see me descend Titsey Hill, turn sharp left onto the Pilgrims’ Way for a magical few kilometres taking in sweeping turns, sharp but short ascents and descents, and for a time allowing you to ignore a number of killer climbs before I have to ultimately pay the price and ascend Sundridge Hill and up to Knockholt to return to the road along the top of the Downs.

Cycling pilgrims – the climbs
For Londoners the North Downs Way is a cycling place of pilgrimage and the climbs range in styles, severity and temperament, but all are holy in a non-holy sort of way to me. There are other climbs, but the ones I talk of have meaning to me and I don’t need to close my eyes to conjure up memories of ascending them.

Most memorable in my mind is Downe Road, close to Charles Darwin’s House and it features a section of 25%, which is reached just where you can chicken out by taking a spur road down along another route, but if you stay true, it can be ridden.

Ranmore Common Road up to the top of Denbies Vineyard, or as I know it, Tanners Hatch, is used for the Surrey Classic road race – the climb is not so tough but it has a wee sting at just the point when you think the struggle is over. Then there is White Down Lane near Dorking, over a small bridge and then you are hit by a wall. An old military pill box juts out a little into the sunken roadway and can seem like a major deviation as you have to adjust your line to avoid it –that pillbox is a psychological barrier that has to be overcome. It is the strength of your mind that often gets you over a climb.

These hills naturally have to be treated with the utmost respect when descending, and although not much of a climb, the descent of Green Dene down to the Guildford Road near Shere offers a good view of the road ahead and magic speeds can be achieved without too much of a test of nerve.

A great curio of a bygone time is the now abandoned Old Polhill Road, it is overgrown in places and would make a great gravel hill climb course.

BEC CC Hill Climb – a bit of London in the countryside
The North Downs are very much part of London’s Zeitgeist – now, as in the past, it was customary for London workers to take a charabanc to enjoy a day out at Boxhill (the hill is featured in Jane Austin’s novel ‘Emma’). In 1867 a train line was built (Box Hill and West Humble station) and as bicycles became affordable, people would ride out.

Most likely the oldest organised bike race in the World is the Catford CC York’s Hill Climb. Organised by a south London cycling club this race against the clock and hill has been held since 1887, defying riders to take on its 25% sections. The competition draws not just participants but many spectators who line the road.

Likewise the BEC CC Hill Climb held on the same day and after the Catford CC event, and it is the one I know best and the pictures featured are from 2008 (dry) and 2009 (wet).  The event is not as old as the Catford CC climb of York’s Hill and it was born post World War Two (1956), it is also short in comparison, being held over just 700 yards. White Lane is not as steep as others and has an average gradient of 13%. What it lacks in steepness and length it makes up for in atmosphere. The roads are closed to motor traffic, meaning that spectators and riders can enjoy the action free from interruption, and the tea stall at the top has a village fete appeal. It’s more than a race, it’s all about being social.

Still a pilgrim
As a London Cyclist my pilgrimages on the roads, trails and climbs of the North Downs, including the Pilgrims’ Way, may not have been pious in nature, but I was then and remain a cycling pilgrim still.

The Climbs
London cyclist Simon Warren has written some great books about climbs and his ‘100 Greatest Cycling Climbs: A Road Cyclist’s Guide to Britain’s Hills’ features many I list below-

– Coombe Lane, Guildford GU5 9TD – The climb up from Shere.
– Green Dene- Down the north side of the Downs to the Guildford Rd. (the only descent in this list)
– London Lane (B.O.A.T), Guildford KT24 6ES – Off road and good fun!
– White Down Lane, Dorking RH5 – Look out for the pllbox.
– Crocknorth Rd, East Horsley KT24 – Up from Greendene and under the bridge (past motor race constructor Ken Tyrell’s old house).
– Ranmore Common Rd, Dorking RH5 6SP – I know it as Tanners Hatch approached from Chapel Lane.
– Zig Zag Rd (Box Hill), Dorking RH5 – The serpentine nature of this road makes this a big chain ring climb.
– Leith Hill, Leith hill Rd, Dorking RH5 6HE – So much tougher than Box Hill! Approached from the Abinger Road.

Away from the area around Dorking there is a warren of climbs near Westerham to the east of the Downs. All are evil and with much in common.

– Rectory Ln, Tatsfield, Westerham TN16 2DA
– York’s Hill – The home of the Catford CC Hill Climb! 25% plus!!!! In places!!!!
– Westerham Hill –
– Hogtrough Hill, Westerham TN16 1NX.
– Brasted Hill, Sevenoaks TN14 7PL.
– Sundridge Hill, Sevenoaks TN14 6AJ.
– Pohill A224, Sevenoaks TN14.
– Old Polhill, Sevenoaks TN14.
– Toys Hill Westerham TN16 1QD –  Chartwell, Churchill’s home is nearby.
– Ide Hill, Sevenoaks.
– Downe Rd, Downe, Sevenoaks TN14 7QJ – The evil thing about this climb is just when the going hits 25% you have the option to bail out and that can mess with your mind!
– Titsey Rd, Oxted RH8 – Long but not so steep although the off road route is.
– White Lane, Oxted RH8 (BEC HC) – A spur off Titsey Hill, not too steep or long but made famous by the BEC Hill Climb.

See also Three Pimples – North Downs Gravel Fahrradtour


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