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South Downs cycle hire

Muddy tries a new hire service, including electric cycles, and takes a bike and beer trail in the Downs.

New Chalkpit Trails, at Amberley, is one of the few cycle hire businesses based on the South Downs Way. Not only does this mean you don’t have access problems if, like us, your car won’t take your trusty metal steeds, you also get to use some really beefy proper bikes.

Our route took us along part of the South Downs Way

You don’t necessarily have to make circular routes to the same start point either as Chalkpit Trails can pick you up from certain agreed points, which helps keep things more interesting. Though with sprawling vintage-focused Amberley Museum right at the station too that’s another good option to end the day.

The company was founded by husband and wife team Abby and David Rice who cycle regularly with their four children.

There are several suggested trails and you can make your own but, liking the idea of an incentive for our pedalling, we opted for one of the special Cycle and Brewery Tours that Chalkpit is running on selected dates with Langham Brewery.

View from the bridge at Amberley

We met Abby at Amberley Station (where there’s free parking, great if you don’t arrive by train) and she had our bikes ready – pre-set to the heights we’d given her. She also provided a puncture repair kit and a first aid kit – which came in handy later when we met another cyclist who’d gashed his thumb when he took a tumble.

I’d been itching to try an electric bike ever since a cycling holiday in Italy when I was repeatedly overtaken by them as I struggled up hills with the wind in my face. Chalkpit Trails offers both regular and electric mountain bike hire, so, with my husband’s and my own cycling ability rather mis-matched, it was a great opportunity to book one of each type.

The electric bikes have a choice of levels from a slight boost to turbo (great fun). You can also click out of the power when you want to ride unaided. It was all controlled by a simple gadget on the handlebars and I ended up using the gears less as a result.

Hey, what’s taking you so long?

We followed a short feeder trail then were soon climbing up onto the South Downs Way and enjoying the view.

Our route took us over Bignor Hill and Sutton and Gratham Downs then down into the villages of Graffham and Selham and towards Lodsworth. It was hard work but the views from the top were fantastic.

On our way we passed a field of sunflowers, went through patches of woodland and paused by the signpost for ‘Londinium’ at the top of a Roman Road.

Now, where are we…

We had a basic map with us and were following the route Abby had set on Strava though I’d recommend studying the turn points in greater detail before you set out or, like us, you might overshoot and end up backtracking down a hideously steep and rutted path.

The route passes through the National Trust’s Slindon Estate.

A lot of the route was steep and it was flinty. As it had rained the day before it was also muddy in places and I took a dip in a Doctor Foster-type puddle with a front tyre and one foot! I also got bits of dry mud flicked up into my hood as I rode along.

Puddle foot

My other half called it “the toughest 13 miles I’ve ever done” and he regularly runs half marathons so I’d say this one is definitely a route for more experienced cyclists or to take your time over with more stops than we made, or to try an e-bike on (I certainly had the last laugh on mine after my husband had mocked my so-called ‘laziness’!)

If you take less time than us on the Downs part of the trail you’ll have time to stop in a village for lunch and Abby provides some pub suggestions.

Brewery tour

It was a welcome sight indeed when we came to Langham Brewery and locked our bikes in the courtyard outside. We joined a large stag group (and a rather cute dog) and with Abby taking us back to Amberley and me driving us home my husband was able to reward his efforts with a few pints.

We heard some amusing tales about how the various names for Langham’s beers came about then the more technical-minded got to ask questions. There’s not a great deal to actually see as everything’s going on in tanks but they were very generous with their tasting, circulating regularly with pitchers of various beers. Though I’m not a beer lover it worked out well for me too as I was able to sip a few and discover some I liked.

I also learned some interesting facts. Brewers could more accurately be described as ‘yeast farmers’; it’s the roast that affects the taste, just like coffee; as no alcohol percentage can ever be wholly accurate it’s never a good idea to drink close to the legal drive limit. Oh and thanks to the craft beer explosion Langham was one of only 10 breweries in Sussex when it started, there’s now around 130!

Electric bike verdict

So, how did the electric bike work out? On the whole, I loved it. The route we took would have been a real struggle for me without and I took great delight in letting my husband go ahead while I finished a sandwich then overtaking him at the top of the next hill. It also proved really handy on the final road stretch when we were running late for our brewery tour.

It was simple to use and had none of the slippage you get if you suddenly try to change gear on a hill.

Did it feel like cheating? Well, yes and no. I obviously wasn’t making as much effort as without it (though having said that, I’d have had to walk a lot of the hills otherwise) but I was pedalling throughout and certainly felt like I’d had a work out. I rarely had it on the top setting so generally I felt like I was on the flat when I was on a slight incline and on a mild hill when I was on a steep hill.

The e-bike’s power is controlled by simple + or – buttons on one handlebar.

The downside? As expected, the bikes are heavy. You don’t notice this when you’re riding along but I found it tricky when I wanted to make the kind of minor adjustments by hand I’d easily make on my regular mountain bike – lifting myself out of a rut for example. Stopping and pushing the bike round gates up hill was also hard work.

All in all though they’re a great option to help people with less physical strength or cycling experience to keep up or tackle routes they’d otherwise find too daunting. And they’re fun! If you’re considering buying an electric bike, or even renting one for a full holiday, taking one for a spin with Chalkpit Trails is also great way to test them out.

The Chalkpit Trails service is a great idea and the Amberley area offers plenty of potential for cycling – and staying over should you wish. At £40 to hire a regular bike and take the brewery tour, with ample drinks (£60 with an e-bike) the Cycle and Brewery Tour is good value too. There are plenty of other route options and if you don’t fancy doing the Downs you can cycle the Centurian Way using a former railway route.

Chalkpit Trail’s bike hire options are the X-Caliber 7, Specialized Rockhopper Comp or the electric Powerfly 4. You can also hire children’s trailers. chalkpittrails.co.uk   

The next combined Cycle Tour and Brewery Tours are on 17 Aug, 7 September, 19 October, 16 November and 14 December.

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