Ham Sandwich — the full story
Ham — Corfe, 5th December 2015
After a wonderful evening with Rob and Veryan Young in Ottery St Mary, Rob braves the pre-dawn to wake Woody the campervan, carrying Charlie and me to Ham.
Ham — not quite a hamlet. The name is a late add on to a road sign. The ham sandwich is more epic.
I set off giggling and singing to myself; within a few moments I am almost knocked off — another cyclist heading down the middle of road. Neither of us expected anyone else to be out here at this hour.
The countryside is stunning — despite December’s best attempts to make it miserable. Grey clouds glower on the horizon, while bare trees frame stone cottages nestling in the landscape. Terraced slopes home agile sheep. Groves of white stemmed birches stand out from a carpet of golden leaves, purple branches quivering above.
Hills rise and fold, curving away from you, then hitting you in the face with a steep climb.
“Ride it Tough Guy!” The hill goes on, each bend laughing as the challenge extends on up. Charlie squeaks and squeals, change gear: up — click; down — kerchunk. grimble grimble, shish shash, and on we glide.
Soon we’re into Hardy country. I understand why Tess found work as a dairy maid — cows are everywhere. Furry beasts peer out under deep fringes; long horns catch on the long grass; a field a panda cows defy logic.
Once grand houses flake quietly away behind potholed drives. Shutters are drawn closed, the grounds returning to the wilderness.
Flattened bracken and distorted trees point North East, a natural compass bent into shape by prevailing winds. The gusts are from behind, pushing me up hills, only to blast me sideways as the road turns.
There are cars that wait, cars that smile and wave. There are cars that hoot a warning shot far back then race past, shaving hairs from my arms as they go.
Roads for cars are long and straight, build despite their surroundings. Ameliorating diversity, interest and curiosity, surrounding areas recast to make way for The Road. Cats Eyes are the only feature available to name a cafe after. Cyclists get the old roads — twisting single lanes that follow the land wherever it will go.
Corfe Castle rears up into the night, uplit on its fearsome mound. Closed all day due to high winds. I spend the evening in cutesville, postcard photographers ogling every cottage and cobble. I head out to sleep in front of a gate down a bridleway. National Trust Purbeck Coast — No Camping. I snuggle deeper in my bivvy bag.
Corfe to Chicester, 6th December 2015
A deer in the headlights scampers into the brush.
The chain ferry — the road falls into the sea. A stop line, no barriers. People round here can be trusted. The tickets, along with their bag and their ticketmaster, are haven’t changed since the 50s. Clunk diddy clunk diddy clunk diddy clunk, we trundle across the mouth of Poole Harbour to the landed yachtsmen of Sandbanks. Boat-like white and glass houses squat between palm trees. General Boom lives on. A retired sailor walks his suburban vision of dream, the morning papers clutched tight.
Bournemouth beach front: Beach huts. Brick, wood, glass and concrete. Old and new. Peeling white, velvety black, and even a paint chart rainbow. Single storey and double. Hidden in the hills, or perched on the shingle. This is hutsville.
Sandstone cliffs reach up high above, gnarled into gargoylesque forms by cantankerous winds, basking in a golden sun. Pines and gorse pierce through the rock face. Is this Poole, or is this California?
Steps and groynes are submerged in a desert. Ripples of sand meander over the beach, over the prom; the tarmac slithers. Berms have formed, ready for the tractors to clear. Charlie tries his hand at the beach cruiser life, but it’s not his forte.
The New Forest: a museum wilderness. “Lockslide Bottom”, “Lockslide Heath”, “Lockslide View”. Each viewpoint is labelled, cars queue up to take their place at their chosen exhibit. The glistening lights of Southampton Docks are only the other side of the hill. Walkers, spaniels and ponies dot the scene, little horse arses poking out of the bracken.
Sven joins me me to get me through the grimmest section. Grey drizzle washes away the grime on under used footpaths in suburbia and industrial parks. In central Southampton we race through the parks, a green respite, then past the remains of St Marys bedraggled shopping centre. The deserted malls are gone, only the concrete ramp leads up to where a car park once stood, its truncated end torn apart, innards of twisting rebar laid bare to gawping eyes.
Bridges, bridges, bridges. The Test, the Itchen and railways. Gotta cross them all! We skip Portsmouth, spy a few castles, then watch inlets, mudflats and salt marshes from our very own cycle byway.
The rain and dark set in — Chichester can’t come soon enough. We wolf our pub dinners, then try not to drift as we rack up the courage to test the night air. Sven — to London, me — to nowhere. I am dreading finding a place to sleep. I head into the night to a place away from lights, away from the road, without fences or livestock. I pass a promising scrub with containers — they appear too eerie — though the dead buildings are no threat.
I find a footpath through a ploughed field. I sleep on a narrow strip at the edge, behind a low grassy bank, my bum in a perfectly formed dip. Who needs a memory foam mattress when the land comes pre-shaped for your convenience?
Chichester — Pevensey , 7th December
I am dry as I wake and pack. The drizzle sets in as I hit the road. I prefer it this way round.
I stop under a tree for first breakfast. Stood at the side of the road, apple in hand, a cyclist then a car pull up to check I’m ok. Yay — people.
I take second breakfast at Barham Coffee Bar. “The best coffee in Barham!” — Barry, customer. I wonder if there’s much competition.
I creep. I creep through the flatlands towards Littlehampton. Rustington is cobble-oplis. Every building is made of cobbles. I’ve never seen anything like it, as on I creep.
I hit the sea at Worthing, where carrion crows rule the beach. I follow the prom — sea, salt, shingle — lovely.
As I head East I see an ever changing face to the edge of this island.
Worthing — old fashioned sea side, formal, but relaxed. Lancing — quieter, and more personal. Gone is the grand prom, the beach creeps into the land, for those who live nearby to enjoy.
Shoreham-by-Sea is a port, steep heaps of aggregates, dry docks, and unlabelled sheds holding unknown cargos. Don’t ask. Zig zag through the quais, steel walkways creaking. Cycle signs disappear beneath the barrage of “Private. No Access.” on spiky palisade gates. The correct route is the only way available, offering the merest glimpse of another world.
Hove hoves into view. “Don’t cycle on the prom. DO NOT cycle on prom. NO CYCLING on the prom. Seriously cyclists — you can fuck off now. NOW.” I peer into the distance, two, maybe three, people visible on the whole expanse. I cycle on the prom. The only hazard are the heaps of pebbles thrown up high by Desmond a few days before.
Brighton swaps bowling greens for funfairs, but the anti cycling force remains strong. I sigh and carry on.
I slide out of town, realising too late I’m high above the sea. Fuck — it’s not just Beachy Head I need climb. I quietly curse the Seven Sisters, wishing she’d been an only child. I am rewarded the Roedean, disguised as a prison, fences reaching beyond retaining walls. The best cliff top views are saved for the headquarters of the Blind Veterans association, adding insult to injury, or a beacon of hope?
Rottingdean offers a a forgotten prom, clinging to the base of ivory cliffs, now glimmering golden with the sinking sun.
Peacehaven high, Newhaven low, then the cyclists’ lush version of the A259 twists along to Seaford, where they are busy rebuilding the beach.
The Final Sister, my nemesis — Beachy Head, glows ominously. I take in the beauty of the chalk from beneath, then fire myself up for the road the Eastbourne.
1&1 gears. Tick.
Fully fuelled with sugar. Tick.
A back catalogue of inspirational music in my cranial jukebox. Tick.
“Can’t Stop Me Now, cos I’m having a good time, Can’t stop me now…”
I glimpse Cuckmere Haven — the first haven to deserve the name. The elegant meanders slowly swirling through the plain, a vivid mirror of the orange sunset cutting through the gloom. I catch my breath — wonderful.
“Moving on up, Mooooving on up…”
The sky gets darker, the cars pass closer. I ride down the middle of the lane, so I can only be overtaken when the road’s clear. Seriously.
I sink suddenly to Eastbourne, fingers straining on the brakes. A grin cracks my face. Elation. “Can’t take me Down, can’t take me down…” I’d finally triumphed cycling over the South Downs. They’d been the dark demon looming large at the end of the day, making every mile won a mile closer to the dreaded. Every cafe, every photo, every map-check mere procrastination.
Yet for all that, the ride up the Downs was far easier than the flat roads leading there.
Cyclists need hills. Without a challenge there can be no success; no serotonin, no adrenaline pumping us up with joy. We need to push ourselves to go forward, to make it worth going forwards. And to freewheel back down, squealing with delight — again, again!
And it makes those fish and chips earnt.
I sleep in Pevensey Recreation Ground. No Camping. Paths of deep mud squelch between nettle islands. I settle down in the stinging patch, easing my exhausted body onto the soft ground, safe in my bivvy cocoon.
Pevensey — Sandwich, 8th December
Shingle and Sheep.
Hastened away by fear of an angry vicar defending his precious public space from vagrant cyclists, I shelter in a bus stop to repack away from the steady rain.
Dawn blurs in through the fallen clouds. No glittering sunrise, only a vague sensation of darkness losing out to a new day. The flat landscape of ditches, reeds and sheep adds to the beautiful bleakness.
Bexhill on Sea. I admire the new landscaping of the prom — though the miniature planted gardens feels too intricate (and high maintenance) for a long prom, they are playful and engaging. The De La Warr Pavillion, something I’d longed to see, but a disappointment in the flesh. A good Art Deco edifice, but I was expecting too much from the hype, giving myself dreams of the unimaginable, leaving reality with no choice but to fall short.
St Leonards rolled past, with still no sign of an open cafe until Hastings town centre. They were still cooking pastries and moving tables when I arrived, but they gave me sustenance, conversation, and a place to warm up while the rain cleared.
The Jerwood Gallery stood gleaming on the shingle, black clapboard still a little too pristine to fit in. Glimpses through locked glass doors gave me incentive to return. A laminated “no Jerwood” placard still hung from a fisherman’s hut opposite, faded in sun of summers past. Too little, too late.
All Saints Street stretched up the hill, a rich mosaic of mismatched houses jammed together, each with its own style and angle. I admired the diversity, a planner would never allow this now.
We rose up to Fairlight as the mist descended over the quiet roads. Break pads wore thin as we sunk back down to Pett Level. Space passed by, open stretches of shingle, bounded by the ocean one side, fields of sheep on the other. I was alone in the expanse — just me, Charlie and the weather. I sang a song on how to cheer up an unhappy friend. “So I’ll take you down to Winchelsea, and we’ll dance upon the shingle sea…”
The harbourside led me up to Rye, past decaying warehouses back to civilisation. Jempsons — a local supermarket — offered journey staples of Rye bread and Ham, and Sussex Scrumpy — cheese with cider. Yes.
Excitement hit at Camber Sands — a Pontins! Real, live Pontins. “Welcomed to Jollity Farm. You will be happy here, you will.” The joy was so determined even the kerbs were multicoloured.
Lydd, Romney and Dymchurch sped by in a haze of grasslands, sheep and juncus ditches. I followed Hythe’s sea front for as long as I could before the cliffs rose up to steal me ease.
Googly — noun. A curveball, an unexpected, difficult situation. For example when Google Maps directs you to take a fully laden touring bike a steep, narrow, muddy footpath. With steps. Many steps. Bad Google.
Lifting the seat stay with every riser, holding the brakes to stop us both sliding back to beginning, I heaved Charlie up the scarp slope of the Downs. The top brought elation, having beaten vertigo, the rain and gravity by replacing common sense with brute force and stubbornness.
I was rewarded with a gorgeous ride, gently rolling hills, woods, and St Ranigunds ruined abbey. This fell sharply away to Kearnsey, or “River” as it was helpfully signed. Said river waterfall through windows and doorways of a ruined watermill, walls barely higher than the lintels. The crumbling edifice had become part of the river once more.
Googly, part 2. A gap that requires me to empty my panniers, then refill, and try to start with no momentum on a near vertical old road, strewn with lumpy rocks and slippery leaves. Again, the North Downs had me defeated.
Crossing the A2 — slipping between crash barriers, waiting for a gap in the roaring lanes of traffic — took me on to the Old Sandwich Road, the former highway converted into a cycle route. Faded lines disappeared beneath the leaf litter. The path flowed gently towards my destination.
16:55 — Sandwich. 17:00 — Sandwich closes.
I eat my Ham Sandwich in the market square, my bike becomes a table, panniers a plate, for my celebratory feast. I’ve eaten a pack of dirt already this trip.
I stink. Sweat, mud, and happiness. I really stink.