Taking you from Shoreham up and over the Downs to Hassocks, this hilly ride provides fantastic views across the saltmarshes of the River Adur estuary, Shoreham harbour, the coast, and the closely cropped hills of the South Downs. This is a tough one, with some steep inclines, and you need to be fit and skilled with a mountain bike.
The route takes you through one of essential reasons this area is a designated biosphere: the rare chalk grasslands. Settled since the Iron Age, they have a staggering diversity of plants, insects and other invertebrates, many of them rare. These in turn support many birds and other creatures.
You can take bikes on trains except during peak hours. Normally only a few are allowed on any one train. The ride links with National Cycle Network route 90 at Shoreham.
From Shoreham this ride is on paved roads until you reach the youth hostel at the end of Mill Hill. Traffic gets lighter as you head up Mill Hill, but there’s always the odd car to be mindful of. Beyond the youth hostel you are on the South Downs Way and undulating chalk and gravel bridleways for most of the ride.
There are road crossings at Devil’s Dyke, Saddlescombe, Poynings and Clayton, and cars can go quite fast especially on the Saddlescombe and Clayton roads. The track down the scarp slope can get slippery and at the bottom there is increasing traffic as you head into Hassocks on the paved roads.
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As you cycle up from Shoreham-By-Sea you pass through Old Shoreham. People have lived here since pre-Roman times, although the town and port of Shoreham-By-Sea was established by the Norman conquerors towards the end of the 11th century.
Your route up to the South Downs is via Mill Hill, a local nature reserve. The reserve’s chalk grassland is rare and is a haven for indigenous flowers and insects. Today, only 3% of heritage chalk grassland remains in Sussex . The south- and west-facing Downs attract at least 33 species of butterfly including Chalkhill Blues and Adonis Blues, and this is one of the best areas in Sussex to spot them.
As you climb you can enjoy fantastic views across the Adur valley and the Adur Estuary which is an RSPB reserve. It is the only local saltmarsh habitat with extensive mudflats and supports many water birds, mostly in winter, although you can see species including oystercatchers, plovers and dunlins throughout the year.
On the South Downs Way you pass through a good stretch of the Beeding Hill to Newtimber Hill SSSI, a biological and geological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and one of the best sites in the biosphere for heritage chalk grassland. It’s home to a diverse range of wildlife, including a nationally important collection of harvestmen (daddy longlegs). You can also see rich areas of flowering plants, including the Frog Orchid, Round-headed Rampion and the nationally uncommon Red Star Thistle.
Devil’s Dyke was a settlement site in the Stone Age and ‘Dyke’ is a Saxon word for a fence or entrenchment built from earth, stone or wood. This high point was once the site for an Iron-Age hillfort, and you can still see remnants of ramparts and round barrows. Devil’s Dyke is also the site of an awe-inspiring dry chalk valley. The 100m deep V-shaped valley has been referred to as the ‘grandest view in the world’. There are many myths and local stories about how the valley was formed.
Your route then takes you down and right through Saddlescombe Farm which has a collection of 200 archaeological objects that were found locally, mostly tools from over 400,000 years ago to the Bronze Age. There have been people living in this area continuously for hundreds of thousands of years. Saddlescombe Farm is currently occupied by sheep farmers, Camilla and Roly who supply meat to some of the best restaurants in the area.
Your next climb takes you up to the Clayton Windmills (commonly known as Jack & Jill) which stand above the village of Clayton. Jill is a post mill, the earliest type of European windmill where the whole body of the mill can be turned to bring the sails into the wind, and Jack is a tower mill with a base of bricks and mortar on which sits a wooden cap that rotates to turn the sails into the wind. Jill is still working today and produces flour on occasion. Jack is currently occupied by the people who own it. The escarpment here is a biological SSSI.