‘Littlehampton’ is a UK village more likely to produce blank looks than inspire images of a picture-perfect sandy seaside spot that feels like being five years old again. This was a route inspired by an urge to visit its gorgeously strange architecture cafe on the coast, that took an equally stunning route through some refreshingly untouched parts of England. And hills. There were a lot of those.
We wanted to go and see East Beach Cafe on the seaside designed by Heatherwick, the architects behind the new(ish) London busses. My friend Chris is an architect and likes cycling. It was an easy pitch. We roped in our friends Clarence and Magda, too. There are a bunch of added extras on the way: riding through two London parks filled with deer, sailing past Hampton Court, throwing in Box Hill for the views before disappearing off to the coast. After the lush greens of Surrey Hills – and meeting what is now one of my favourite pubs in the UK – take on the rolling hills of the North Downs, and a route that skims past Arundel Castle you’re finally there. At the cafe, by the seaside, and relieved. It’s a 70 mile route. What we didn’t anticipate were the beautifully mad hills that rose up to greet us on the way. Luckily, Magda was on hand to swear at them. It was the hardest ride I’ve done, involving a hangover which we’ll quickly glide over before moving on to gushing about trees, views, the seaside, and how good chips can be.
Ride London was taking place on Saturday. A bunch of the city’s roads had been shut down for cyclists, and it was nice to see families pushing their bikes there. It’s easy to forget how inhospitable central London can be for families. Chris spent these moments accidentally cutting-up small children and gallivanting around the roads in an entirely well-meaning way. We then headed out through Richmond Park and Bushy Park. Seeing the deer and dried out grass that suddenly turns into lush forest in Richmond Park always blows my mind. I had a terrible hangover, spending the first few moments of the route quite ill to the bemusement of my co-riders. Clarence began wondering if we’d actually make it out of London. Excitingly for all, that wore off.
Busy Park, meanwhile, has a strange roundabout around a lake that feels like it was built for flying down on a bike. There are also more deer in this park, if you’re lucky. You can follow this up by the most glamorous pit-stop in Hampton Court, if you fancy a quick saunter about (read: bathroom). I don’t think Magda had been before and hearing her excitedly chirp about our unexpected 500 year old castle pit-stop was kind of golden.
We counteracted Hampton Court’s cultural aspect of the trip by stopping for dry bread sandwiches and over-heated canned soup by a roundabout in Leatherhead where I happily declared it to be the best meal ever, whilst hugging myself in the sunshine. My Garmin then died, but luckily Clarence had a backup. I remember when I first started obstinately cycling around the routes feeling that they should be accessible to everyone – not just those with Garmins. And they are – this is a route you could use Google Maps for. You’d just need a phone mount (and probably a battery pack), to make life easier.
”The views are worth it. They are stunning and breathtaking.”Then we’re on to Box Hill. The more I cycle in life, the more I realise I’m interested in cycling for the journey to places rather than cycling for the sake of logging miles right now. Doing a single trip specifically to Box Hill is never somewhere that’s leapt out at me, and the small detour out to Box Hill is not the most glamorous, but I’m glad we’re incorporated it in the route. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise and the views are worth it. We glide down the cycle path along the A-road the links us there, along with a bunch of folk in matching kit.
It looks like a green wall when you first see it. “What is that thing?” asked Magda, not connecting what was directly in front of us to with the direction we were riding. “That is Box Hill,” we shouted back. “One did not expect it to be so steep,” Magda muttered, in her Peckham accent.
”It felt like sneaking off to a secret part of England”But it’s gorgeous, and the hill itself is long and winding but completely manageable. We’d all braced ourselves for something resembling Ditchling Beacon – and looks-wise, it’s similar. We pedalled up it, waiting for a horrible kick that never came and came away surprised. Factor in time for a triumphant feast pit-stop at the top, with an athlete’s diet of ice cream and fizzy drinks, and enjoying the view. Then, sailing down it again was blissful. It was only when we’d come down again that Chris questioned: “we just did a detour to get to that hill, didn’t we?” Box Hill, whilst not topping my hot destinations in the UK, is a view that’s absolutely worth fitting in if you’re in the area.
Then the hills really begin. Beyond London and the small crowds of Box Park you’re suddenly in deserted, forest-filled Surrey Hills. When I had been merrily plotting out the roads on the Garmin mapper, I hadn’t paid any attention to the elevation graph. I’d assumed we’d be fine. And we were – everyone was easily more than capable. But there were a lot of hills.
Despite growing up next door to Surrey, the route took in a path through Surrey and Sussex that was totally unfamiliar. As we disappeared into the Surrey Hills, it felt like sneaking off to a secret part of England, winding through a quiet path with silent houses, miles from anywhere attention-grabbing. They take you above everything, up to the very top of the world and when the huge trees suddenly break, let you stare out across huge middle-England fields that disappear into a green distance. The forest feels different to the farming fields that soon follow when you reach Sussex.
It’s a challenging route, as the Surrey Hills break into Sussex Downs and incorporate a 15% hill – one which was signposted and some which felt equally as hard but simply lacking the signposts. “That’s steeper than Swain’s Lane!” Chris shouted gleefully before bouncing off to speed up it.
Last month, someone pointed out that my gear ratio on my 80s/90s Giant steel frame racer is pretty low. “You’d be a demon if we got you on a proper road bike,” they added. As with anyone who loves their bike to pieces, I’d given them some quiet side-eye, before lurching off down a 25% hill on some busted brakes. But on this ride, I really felt the difference. Clarence glides past on his new road bike, but he’s an interesting sort that casually discusses 250 mile day rides alongside ‘popping to the shops’ and could easily tackle this route on his fixie. He chats through the hills whilst we gasp for air, and doubles back to keep us all together.
The views are worth it. They are stunning and breathtaking.
Next, a tiny flower-filled pub pops out of nowhere. I’d totally recommend stopping here. It is covered in flowers and inside, the owner is the friendliest chap, bemused by how ecstatic we are at his scones. “My wife made this fruitcake,” he adds. It’s rude to say no, and we almost try to order one of everything the pub sells. Then we’re off again.
“At least the views are good even if you almost vom trying to get to them. Approx 55 miles deep.” – Magda.
Once you’ve cleared the hills, you’re in Arundel. The village of Arundel is almost a teaser for the quaintness of the seaside, which we’re itching to reach by this point. You fly down the country lanes, past the huge church and down round the castle and by minature shops, you’re almost immediately back out of the village as soon as you’ve entered it. I understand why my parents came to this tiny village for a little walking holiday: it feels alive in its own quiet way but removed from the real world.
I’d never really thought anything about Littlehampton until I was digging around for strange little spots in the UK. The Guardian called out the Heatherwick cafe. I mentioned the location to MJ, a cycling pal, once. He called the place nice but the car route uninspiring and remembered it only as a foggy blur passing by on a December car journey. My instinctive reaction was that surely there had the be some good in it. A fun little challenge. Which was lucky, because the route was like a present for your eyes and Littlehampton is a crazy beautiful seaside haven that’s almost like a postcard. Except, it feels sort of like a secret, because for such an unassuming place
I know you do not typically stare at a map and jab at Littlehampton, shouting “I’ve always wanted to go there.” But I’ve really come away from this route wanting to do that. So now you must follow the advice of my newly-birthed one man tourist board.
By the time we reach Littlehampton the Heatherwick-designed cafe, the reason we even got on our bikes in the morning, is a distant idea. We roll down the beach to go and look at it, more interested in chips honestly. It is very nice, in its predictably strange way.
By this point sitting by the sea and eating takeaway chips is of more interest. It turns out we’re all very good at eating chips, and it’s one of my fondest memories of the area. It normally is. Try the chips at ‘Fred’s’. Chris is so excited that he rides into the back of a taxi, thinking only of protecting the chips. They survive.
“End goal and 70 of the most brutal and hilly miles I’ve ever cycled, this cycling life is no joke.” – Magda.