New Tracks: Gravel Riding in the Surrey Hills

A resident of Cranleigh in Surrey, Sportive Breaks tour director Adam Wolley normally spends most of his year leading gravel and road tours around Europe. 2020 has not been a normal year so he has swapped the Stelvio for the Surrey Hills and explored every track possible in one of England’s most popular cycling regions. Here is one of his favourite 80km gravel routes, come and ride it with us on October 10th…

Words cant truly describe what a strange year it has been, I was leading a trip in sunny Nice when the travel bans and lockdowns started to roll in and we had trips running in 4 countries at that point. Once home and once the dust had settled, I like many others spent plenty of time on the bike as my government mandated one form of exercise per dayLockdowns’s saving grace was allowing me to get out on the gravel routes and discover the many gems away from the road. 

A resident of Cranleigh in Surrey, Sportive Breaks tour director Adam Wolley normally spends most of his year leading gravel and road tours around Europe. 2020 has not been a normal year so he has swapped the Stelvio for the Surrey Hills and explored every track possible in one of England’s most popular cycling regions. Here is one of his favourite 80km gravel routes, come and ride it with us on October 10th…

Words cant truly describe what a strange year it has been, I was leading a trip in sunny Nice when the travel bans and lockdowns started to roll in and we had trips running in 4 countries at that point. Once home and once the dust had settled, I like many others spent plenty of time on the bike as my government mandated one form of exercise per dayLockdowns’s saving grace was allowing me to get out on the gravel routes and discover the many gems away from the road. 

We are phenomenally well served here in the Surrey Hills with a labyrinth of lanes and climbs, it is in part what drew us to live here and every day you can see hundreds of riders that have made the ride down from London to explore the North Downs with its twisting roads and the steep inclines. The hills are also a mecca for Mountain Biking, I am forever finding through conversation with riders that they have driven 2 hours to get stuck into the legendary downhill trails around Peaslake and the Winterfold woods. 

It is perhaps no surprise then that if one looks between the amazing roads and incredible trails you have a gravel riding nirvana just waiting to be discovered. Thmore you pull at the thread of the Surrey hills gravel riding the more there is to see and experience. It is my pleasure to take you through one of my favourite routes which will form the first of our exciting new Gravel Series from Sportive Breaks.  

 

Setting out from The Fettling Room, a new café and bike workshop in Cranleigh we start out on the road riding past Cranleigh School and up into the Winterfold Woods, this incredible area is mostly ignored by all but a few dog walkers and we traverse the beautiful smooth pale yellow gravel down into the idyllic village of Shere. 

From here we join National Cycle Route 22 heading over towards Abinger Hammer, the gravel changes in Shere and goes briefly sandy before becoming a smooth chalky white as we hug the North Downs. There is a cross on the side of the trail with a plaque which could not be more quintessentially English. It marks the spot where the late William Wilberforce ‘himself the Bishop of Winchester’ died following a fall from his Horse whilst riding with Lord Cranville. Different times I guess… 

 

As we continue along the base of the North Downs we approach Dorking and take in a short tour of Denbies Vinyard. The testing climb up towards Ranmore common is worth it for the view southwards through the vines. Apparantly the unique characteristics of the North Downs landscape with its south facing slopes, chalky soil and micro-climate, make it ideal for creating cool climate sparkling wines. Denbies is in fact England’s largest vineyard, but he wine tasting will have to wait! 

F2M5P3 Denbies Wine Estate near Dorking,

 

We then cut south and take in a rolling grit and compacted mud trail up to Coldharbour village and then to the famous Leith Hill Tower. The hill will be well known to anyone that has taken on the ride 100 and is a staple of Surrey road riding but the tower which is only accessible by gravel or on foot gives incredible views. The second highest point in South East England the tower boasts 74 steps of spiral stairs and a telescope. On a clear day one can see the Wembley Stadium Arch and the London Eye! The tower was built in 1765 by Richard Hull of Leith Hill Place as ‘a place for people to enjoy the glory of the English countryside’ and it’s thought that the materials needed to build the tower were quarried on site. There is coffee and flapjacks available from a small hatch at the base but we will hold off, I promise it will be worth it. 

 

As we drop into the picturesque village of Holmbury St Mary it is finally time for refreshments. The Heartwork Café is made up of a horse trailer, a few hay bales and two former basketball coaches with a passion for good coffee. It is fair to say that this spot on the edge of a stables has become a Surrey Hills institution in 2020. As regular cafes were forced to close these guys powered through with takeout coffee and a laidback atmosphere. Every time I’ve been they’ve been playing a little country music from a small speaker and every weekend the parking area is stacked with pinarellos as London riders make the pilgrimage to the best coffee in the hills. 

 

Once our caffeine levels are suitably raised we head into the Hurtwood which along with Winterfold makes up the most popular mountain biking area south of London. Before you ask the wood is named for the ‘hurts’ which are a type of wild blueberry which grow in the area and not the pain our legs will suffer on the climb! Whilst we will avoid some of the more serious downhill trails that are best enjoyed with a full face helmet and full suspension we get back onto the pale yellow gravel and pine forest that makes up this beautiful area. We drop down briefly into the village of Peaslake, the Mountain bikers will be out in force, some interested in the gravel bikes we ride and others with a wry smile at our road bikes with chunky tyres. 

We hit a steep climb up to Peaslake’s Church and back into the Hurtwood. There are more fabulous views from the ridgeline before we reach the road and take a fast descent it the village of Ewhurst. We then take a winding tour around the fields and tracks between the Hurtwood Park Polo club and the Gatton Manor golf course. 

As we wend our way into Cox Green it may feel like a long time since that coffee and flapjack at the coffee stop, lucky then that the famous Milk Churn is dead ahead! The home of both the Sussex Charmer chedder and the Firebird Brewery who could say no to a stunning cheese on toast and a cold pint of IPA?  

 

It is possible to loose track of time at the Milk Churn, you can visit the brewery and taste a few different ales and try every type of cheese on toast. Eventually its time to get back, we join the Downs link which was the old railway line which since the trains departed in the 1960s has formed a link between the North and South downs way. This fast, smooth and very straight path takes us shooting back into the heart of Cranleigh and the end of our exploration of the Surrey Hills.