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Trip Report A winter cycle ride along the English south coast

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Coincidence- the lazy plotting device of the amateur writer- had me turn on the TV in my cheapo Brighton hotel at the beginning of my cycling journey from Brighton to Folkestone- the view to the grey sea from my window predicting a cold start to the day slowed my preparations for departure- and the channel that appeared was Yesterday and its programme was the definitive guide to global conflict: the World at War with the inimitable Larry Olivier as narrator. In this episode, the British Army had been expelled from Dunkerque and the coastline I was to travel was shown as guarded by a skeleton force of defeated soldiers with few tanks and no anti-tank weapons. We were all lucky that Russia was the priority for the Hun and no invasion was mounted.
The backdrop of battle was to follow me along these fifty miles of varied coast.
Half way along for example, the Old Town of Hastings had served well as the scenery for Foyle’s War, with its narrow high street and raised pavements; and it was not difficult to imagine the barbed wire all along the long shale beaches to the east of the town. The Battle of Hastings itself was in fact ten miles to the north of the old town and William followed my path towards Dover after shooting Harold in the eye and winning the war. There were castles along the way: the most impressive of which was Pevensey its walls abutting the minor road that winds through the village. And on a clear sunny day such as I had, five hundred years on from William the Conqueror, one could have seen from its high walls the remnants of the Armada as it escaped into the North Sea, a battle that if successful to the Spanish would have had as many ramifications as came from the Norman invasion (“invasion” and “success” in my text both being Norman language imports, perhaps our word today for school would have been eschool with its Castilian inflection and many more Iberian borrowings).
The road out of Brighton tracks high above the sea line and the first building of note is Roedean School which reminded me in its turn-of-the century grandeur of Peebles Hydro. No doubt the rigours of both establishments in their quest to quit the body of human frailty and imbue it with fine outcomes were not so different in their intent. No gals could be seen that day on the frosty playing fields however; perhaps standards have slipped. The official guide says: School has a healthy spirit so the allusion to a Hydro is not inappropriate. Peebles Hydro was built ten years after Roedean.
The busy road then crosses a stretch of unloved urban sprawl that reminded me of working residential areas of Australian cities; with its parades, hairdressers, and white render. It was not desolate and had none of the boarded-up shops and tattoo parlours that I was to see later, just rather mean-spirited in look. The car of choice was a Vauxhall or an entry-price Skoda.
My depression was lifted by arrival into Newhaven, down a side road recommended by the ever-reliable route 2 of the national cycle route. I glided down into the port just as a large ferry passed between a narrow opening in the housing, like a scene from an enchanted film of Spielberg or Rowling. I was then back into ancient dwellings as I rounded the port area itself decorated by rows of cormorants on rotting timber posts.
At this point I should have headed inland to avoid Beachy Head but chose to stop for advice at the Seven Sisters Country Park, a lovely stretch of oxbow-river and part of the South Downs trail. The A259 is impossible for cyclists, so I choose to set off up a sheep path across the pastures, pushing my laden bike for at least an hour, watched only by the resident sheep and a dozen or so bulls. Stiles and mud added to my misery.
At last I freewheeled down into Eastbourne a fine Victorian town much bombed but now restored as a delightful place to retire. It struck me that Australia has its Gold Coast and we have our Old Coast. The prevailing median age of the inhabitants was sixty but in that rather Andy Capp dowdy way rather than the modern Mick Jagger/Bill Clinton sort of ageing. There were bowls clubs and beetle drives and mobility shops; bungalows; and an entertaining way to get some fresh air parking under a seawall to read the paper. Nevertheless I could have lived in Eastbourne: it has a certain style.
There is now a long coastal stretch towards Bexhill with beach huts and other paraphernalia of an English coastal holiday: caravan parks and mobile homes. I was by now weary from the efforts on the sheep path of Beachy Head and took the train the last few miles from Bexhill into Hastings, where I stayed in a four-star hotel the Lansdowne for thirty quid, with a fine view onto the now quiet and azure sea. Sandra and Lorraine took me into the boho-chic area of vintage clothing, antiques; and lively pubs with micro brewing and live bands: our choice was the Filo pub which served partly as a pick-up joint for fifty-plus hoofers.
Hastings is a Cinque port and one of those benefits was a degree of self governance which allowed a certain amount of lawlessness and encouraged smuggling. Every village I passed seemed to have a Smugglers Inn. Like privateers, smugglers clearly enjoyed a high reputation with the locals.
Leaving Hastings on two wheels is not a happy experience and the cycle track takes you onto an ancient pilgrim’s path high above the town; icy roads were a problem along Battery Hill with its beacons to warn the citizens of imminent attack.
Fortunately this was the end to steep hills and I drifted down towards Rye a delightful port village and tourist centre. I took coffee at the busy Apothecary cafe where county ladies meet and greet.
The next leg was desolation, a post-apocalyptic scene of marsh and wind farm, dominated by the grim outline of the Dungeness nuclear power station on its coastal tip. Lydd airport is still functioning and it was from there that my father took his Austin Cambridge and his family on an air ferry to Le Touquet in 1961.
The coast is ideal for links golf courses and the low sun threw strong shadows across the well-tended sandy bunkers to make a picturesque scene for the compilers of the club catalogues.
The final stage around Dymchurch takes you along the sea wall for a long stretch and I was happy that the wind had abated on its exposed pathway. Houses on the land side were thirty feet below the sea wall and winter storms must trouble the lives of those people who are unfortunate enough to live there.
The journey was sixty miles in all but with the hills and the cold weather it had felt more. My destination of Folkestone was full of weekend senior tourists: in coaches from distant counties in Wales and Yorkshire there to take the sea breeze on the Leas and afternoon tea in the splendour of the Grand Hotel.

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