Distance 58 miles (93km)
Duration 3.5-8 hours
Maps OS Landranger 187 Dorking & Reigate, and 188 Royal Tunbridge Wells
- Download the route here
Hell does freeze over. Anyone who has ridden the Hell of the Ashdown, one of the best-known events in the early sportive calendar, can tell you that. Some years the weather has been cold enough to freeze water in riders’ bottles.
Today, though, hell is in a sunnier mood. It’s one of those perfect winter days that make a welcome change from the long slogs through the dark, wind and rain. I’m heading out to test my legs on a circuit that takes in most of the official Hell of the Ashdown route, heading south from the North Downs in Kent to the Ashdown Forest via a relentless succession of climbs. After taking on Kidd’s Hill, better known as ‘The Wall’, the ride loops back past castles and country houses – with plenty more leg-testers thrown in.
I set off from the small town of Westerham and roll east along the A25. The sky is clear, the air is crisp and, on the first day without rain for what seems like weeks, life is good.
There’s not long to get warm before a right-hand turn in Brasted and the first climb of the day. Chart Lane takes riders to the top of Toy’s Hill. It’s not the steepest climb on the route but it’s steep enough at this time in the morning. And it drags on. From the start in Brasted it’s close on two miles to the top.
The reward for cresting the hill is a spectacular view. Like a preview of coming attractions, from here you can look south, with a succession of sharp folds in the landscape defined against the low sun. The next few hours are not going to be easy.
Any time to contemplate the rest of the ride is short, though, as the road drops away like a rollercoaster. It’s a descent that demands your full attention, especially if it’s wet or frosty.
The next few miles offer nothing as demanding as Toy’s Hill, but there are enough short, punchy climbs to keep the heart working.
You can’t ride far in this part of Kent without passing a castle or historic house, and Hever Castle is probably the most spectacular of the lot. The childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Hever is well worth a visit. You can’t see it from the road, but the pretty parish church and the timber-framed King Henry VIII pub are some compensation.
ZIG AND ZAG
The route continues to zig-zag south towards the forest. Be ready for the descent of Blowers Hill. It’s dead straight and steep, so riders can easily hit 40mph plus without even trying. I hit the pedals hard as I go under the railway bridge at the bottom to guard as much momentum as I can for the climb up the other side.
Flat stretches of road are few and far between around here, but there is a level stretch on Furnace Lane. By the looks of the road surface Furnace Pond must have flooded a few days earlier, but it’s within its banks now, reflecting the watery blue sky.
After playing dodge-the-pothole for a while, there’s a brief stint on the A264 before swinging south again. There are some more climbs along the way to soften up the legs but it pays not to go into the red too often as I know the biggest tests of the day are still to come.
From Ashurstwood, I move into the big ring for Wall Hill Road. It’s another dead straight descent that gives away some hard-earned height for some much-welcome speed. Then it’s onto the A22, over the River Medway and into Forest Row. It’s the hometown of cycling legend Sean Yates, and the roads I’m about to ride are very definitely his territory.
Forest Row is the gateway to the Ashdown Forest, and the next few miles are the best (if you’re feeling good) or worst (if you’re not) of the ride. Whatever messages your legs and lungs are sending, you can’t deny the beauty of the place.
Priory Road takes me away from Forest Row, climbing gently at first but gradually becoming steeper. After an S-bend the road kicks upwards, and as I climb, the scenery changes. The sun flickers through birch trees casting slender shadows on the road. The farmland of the past 20-odd miles is replaced by heaths, gorse and patches of woodland.
The effort of the climb has brought me to the top of a ridge, and for the next few miles the road clings to the top. Gaps in the trees reveal spectacular views across the Weald and beyond towards the North Downs. Luckily my eyes are on the road when a deer jumps out just ahead of me. Then another appears, this time even closer, and I grab fistfuls of both brakes to avoid a collision.
BRICKING THE WALL
My heart rate is about to spike for a different reason. A sharp right-hand bend and a short descent takes me to the bottom of Kidd’s Hill, nicknamed ‘The Wall’. This is one bloody-minded stretch of road. There’s no looking for the path of least resistance, or zig-zagging up the hill via a series of hairpins. It just goes straight up the side.
There’s a gentle left-hand turn at the bottom but from then on the road aims directly up the hill, goading gravity to do its worst. Trees hang over the road on either side, closing you off as you ride. There’s nothing to take your mind off the gradient, just an uninterrupted view of the climb ahead of you, and a summit that only seems to inch closer, however hard you ride.
TAKE THE HIGH ROAD
At the top, the road emerges from the wood onto open heathland and I feel like I can breathe more easily again, spinning a low gear to get my heart rate and lactic levels back to normal. A right turn onto the imaginatively named High Road gains a few more metres of elevation, and the wind, which was hardly noticeable in the valleys, can really be felt up here on this exposed plateau.
There’s an ice cream van in the car park up ahead – an incongruous sight on a lonely hilltop in the middle of January. Instead of stopping for a 99 I turn sharp left at the top of Black Hill. It’s the start of the homeward leg.
I’m steadily losing height past Five Hundred Acre Wood, hitting high speeds again with the wind at my back. The roads are rolling rather than steep now, cutting north-east away from the Ashdown Forest towards Groombridge Place – another of the area’s historic houses. I take the chance to grab some food from my pockets before the serious climbing begins again.
And Groombridge is where it starts, leaving the main B2110 and grinding up the single-lane Groombridge Road. It’s not in the Kidd’s Hill league, but it’s still quite hard enough.
After my miles in Sussex I’m back into Kent again, riding past oast houses, crossing the River Medway and heading back towards the North Downs. Like Groombridge Road, the climb of Top Hill Wood might have felt easy early in the ride, but with 40 or so miles covered it’s a definite effort. Note to self: train harder next winter.
IDE HILL BASTARD
That message is hammered home on Ide Hill. From one of the lowest points in the ride by Bough Beech Reservoir, the road steadily ramps up. It’s one of those annoying climbs that doesn’t look as hard as it feels, or perhaps the day’s exertions are catching up with me. Either way, I’m soon running out of gears and plodding to the top.
On the plus side, there’s just one serious climb to go. The road drops steeply from Ide Hill village, and when the road splits I follow the right-hand fork towards Sundridge, just in time. The route crosses first the A25 and then the M25, busy even on a Sunday afternoon – there’s no way I’d trade cold fingers and a reddened face to sit in all that traffic. For the next couple of miles the B2211 shadows the motorway, before a left turn marks the start of Star Hill.
There’s only a mile or so of climbing but it’s steep enough and far enough into the ride to make a real test. Tired legs make for slow going. At the top, the final climb worth naming has been ticked off, and I follow small lanes along the top of the downs. There’s still more up than down, though, so I can’t relax just yet.
The day’s work is over when the route reaches Westerham Hill. It’s a beast of a climb going up, but a fun and fast end to the ride going down. I put the chain in the big ring, move my hands down onto the drops and blast all the way back to Westerham, and the coffee and cake treat I’ve been promising myself for the past few hours. Hell might not quite have frozen over this time but I’m glad to thaw out.
Oxted is only a short distance to the west along the A25. www.nationalrail.co.uk
Food and drink
You won’t run short of pubs to stop at on this route. The Hatch Inn www.hatchinn.co.uk near Coleman’s Hatch is popular, but keep in mind that you’ll be riding up Kidd’s Hill almost as soon as you get back on the bike.
Where to stay
For suggestions of all sorts of accommodation, take a look on the Ashdown Forest website www.ashdownforest.com/categories/places-to-stay
Try In-Gear www.ingearcycles.co.uk in Forest Row. The route goes right past the front door.
Images: Geoff Waugh