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NCN 20 & 21 - John C. Kirk

Apr. 22nd, 2011

05:06 pm - NCN 20 & 21

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Last month I planned to cycle from Croydon to Brighton, although I gave up at Three Bridges. Last week I tried again, and this time I made it the whole way. I followed NCN 21 as far as Three Bridges, then NCN 20 from Three Bridges to Brighton.

Last time, I left Croydon at 12:00 and reached Three Bridges at 16:15. This time I intended to leave earlier, but I didn't actually set off until 12:38. Having said that, we're in BST now, so by GMT/UST I actually left 20 minutes earlier than before. I reached Three Bridges at about 16:15 (BST), i.e. the same time of day as before. However, this journey was quicker, and I had more daylight left (since the days are getting longer). My original plan was to go for a quick swim in the sea when I reached Brighton. My revised plan was to get there in time for sunset (19:45 BST), so that I could watch that from the beach. I actually arrived at about 20:00, so there was still daylight. I went for a quick paddle in the sea, then came home.

NCN 21 is a bit of a fiddly route, so I recommend that you go with someone who's already used it on your first time. After that, you can go solo or guide someone else. NCN 20 is a lot easier to follow, although it can be a bit unsettling when you go a long time without seeing any signposts. Both routes have the basic attitude of "keep going until I tell you otherwise", so if you don't see any signs then that may mean that you don't need to turn or it may mean that you're completely off-course!

Here are the altitude charts from my Polar gadgets:

NCN 21NCN 20

The first image shows Croydon to Three Bridges, and my route is very similar to last time. However, I've found a button that toggles between distance/time on the X-axis. That's "distance travelled" rather than horizontal distance, so it's not exactly a cross-section of the land, but it gives a more realistic idea of what the hills are like.

Imagine a right-angled triangle where the sides are 3 cm, 4 cm, and 5 cm, as used to illustrate Pythagoras' theorem. Base = 4 cm, height = 3 cm, hypotenuse (slope) = 5 cm. Using the Polar software, the triangle would be drawn with the same height, but 5 cm on the base and 5.8 cm on the slope. In other words, the hills look longer and shallower than they really are.

The second image shows Three Bridges to Brighton. I've fiddled with the Y-axis so that I'm using the same range for both. Since Brighton is on the coast, I finished my ride slightly above sea-level rather than 75 m below it. Unfortunately, I forgot to recalibrate my watch. Still, the relative heights should be correct. I've included the line for heart rate, to give an idea of how much effort it takes (and explain the intensity bars).

Last time I joined NCN 21 at Woldingham, but I had to dismount when I came through the golf club due to the loose surface. This time I stayed on the roads for a bit longer, going via Leas Road and Bug Hill. The OS map shows a chevron on Bug Hill; following up on a previous discussion, I can confirm that these definitely point downhill! At the bottom of Bug Hill, you need to follow the road straight ahead (don't turn left). You will then see a sign pointing to the right where you can join NCN 21 (off-road).

This will take you through a school. Once you leave the school grounds, you join the North Downs Way. This starts out being quite a bumpy downhill stretch, then you approach what looks like an industrial car park. When I first saw that, I assumed that I was in the wrong place, but it's actually correct. As you go through the car park, the road leads downhill, so you can pick up speed without pedalling. However, there's a sharp turn to the right onto a rough path, so you'll need to be in a low gear for that. Slow down, but don't stop altogether, because you'll want as much momentum as possible to get you up the hill. If you're using cleats, unclip at least one foot, so that you can put it down on the ground if necessary. The uphill stretch is very bumpy, covered in loose stones. The first time I did this (in March), I pedalled up the whole way. This time, I decided to dismount and push the bike instead, since I'd be going so slowly. However, even slow pedalling is faster than walking speed, so I recommend staying on the bike if you can. It makes sense to cycle in single file up this hill, so that you can zigzag around the bumps. If there are just a couple of you then this won't be a problem, but it may be more of an issue for large groups. By the time you reach the top of the hill, it's still bumpy, but a lot more solid (i.e. the ground isn't covered in loose stones).

You will then go past Paddock Hill Farm, and the next bit is very badly signposted. Basically, you need to do a U-turn to your left, and cycle alongside the A22. There's an arrow on a telegraph pole, but it appears to be pointing straight ahead, through a depot; don't go that way! So, you go along the side of the A22, then cross a bridge over the road. On the other side, you join the path that goes uphill. (There is a sign here, but it's a bit vague about whether you go uphill or downhill.)

This was definitely the steepest hill of the day. My heart rate was 178 beats per minute, and I was only going at 4 km/hour (= 2.5 miles/hour). I was in my lowest gear, and I almost did wheelies a couple of times, i.e. my front wheel lifted slightly off the ground. So, be warned! On the plus side, if you can handle this hill then the rest of the route will be fine. On the chart above, this hill was just before the 15 km mark.

Once you reach the top of that hill, go past the dog kennels and turn left into Topwood Lane. This brings you out into a place with a glorious view over the North Downs. It's particularly impressive since you've been "enclosed" by trees on both sides of the road until you get there. There are some benches here, so this would be a good place to stop for a rest break.

When you go past there, you have to turn left (off the road) to follow NCN 21. I missed that sign last time, which is how I lost the route. The path through the wood is a bit bumpy, but not too bad, and there are NCN signs to point you in the right direction at each fork. When you come out at the other end, turn left onto Brewers Lane. This is where NCN  21 meets the Surrey Cycleway. This is where I rejoined NCN 21 last time, so I was feeling quite confident. I then missed a sign, and wound up taking a 20 minute detour!

So, look out for a building on the left with this sign outside:

There's a (small!) sign on a telegraph pole pointing to the right. This takes you past Lees Chartered Accountants, i.e. that building is initially on your right (on the other side of the road) and then you will pass it on your left.

More generally, as I said before, you have to keep your eyes open when you're doing this. It's very easy to miss these signs, particularly if you have the sun in your eyes. I also need to figure out how to read OS maps properly, because I think I'm missing something fundamental. On an A-Z, it's simple enough: I just find a street sign, look up that road name in the index, and it tells me where I am. After that, I can figure out how to get from there to where I ought to be. However, I seem to get a bit stuck with OS maps. Ah well, hopefully I'll improve with practice.

A short while after that, you will cycle on an off-road path with the M25 on your right. When you get to the top of that hill, the signs are a bit confusing. You have to turn left, then you have the option of turning right (towards the road) or going straight ahead (past some concrete blocks). You want to go straight on, and join the road a bit further on. I turned right in March, and that's where I came off my bike, due to the poor surface.

The road you join is Warwick Wold Road. You turn left onto it, then you come to a T-junction. At that junction, turn right onto Bletchingley Road. There is a sign, but I couldn't see it until I was already turning left, so I had to do a U-turn.

About 10 minutes later, I reached Nutfield, and The Inn on the Pond. This was about 26 km/2 hours from my start point, and it would be another good place for a rest stop. I didn't actually stop there myself, but it looked nice. In fact, it would even make a decent destination if you're doing a round trip, i.e. cycling home afterwards rather than catching a train.

After that, I came into Redhill. As you approach the station, NCN 21 forks, going left and right. However, you need to choose the appropriate lane on the road before you're close enough to read the signs (unless you're Superman). If you're heading towards Crawley, you need to turn right here.

I've been a bit critical of some of the signs, but I do have to compliment Sustrans on one point. At Earlsbrook Road (near Earlswood Rail Station), the sign was pointing in completely the wrong direction last time I went past, so it sent me off on a detour. They've fixed that since my last visit, so it's now pointing in the right direction. That's encouraging, so hopefully the other confusing signs will improve over time as well.

In Horley, it gets a bit confusing, so pay close attention to the signs. In particular, you have to dismount at one point and walk your bike through the subway that goes under the station. Unfortunately, the entrance to the subway is on the opposite side of the road, so I almost missed it.

When I reached Three Bridges, I took a break for lunch, and stopped at the Snooty Fox pub, opposite the railway station. (I locked my bike to the railing in their car park.) Last time I took sandwiches, but the spot on the North Downs was the only place I spotted that it would be convenient to sit down and eat them. Anywhere else, I'd really need to buy food rather than taking my own. I bought a Coke, and ordered a jacket potato with cheese and beans, then settled down to plan out the next leg of my journey. However, it took about half an hour for the food to arrive, which seemed a bit excessive for something you could microwave in a couple of minutes. It tasted ok, but I don't recommend stopping there if you're in a hurry.

After that, I pressed on, but I had a lot of trouble finding the route. As you enter Crawley, the cycle signs start to show two options, for NCN 21 and NCN 20. I chose the fork for NCN 20, but I must have missed a turning because I wound up back on NCN 21, which is how I came to be at that pub. My Sustrans map ("Downs & Weald Cycle Route") has a close-up section for that part of Crawley, i.e. with street names, and that was useful (essential in fact). I also relied on my compass, so that I could figure out which direction I was going in. Even with all that, here's what my route looked like:

Leaving Crawley

I started at the top, heading east. I then completely missed the place where I was supposed to turn right, so I had to backtrack. This got me back onto NCN 21, so I followed this south, then west. The plan was that I'd meet NCN 20, then follow that all the way to Brighton. I did see a sign for NCN 20, and turned right onto that. That's the long sticking up bit, where I realised that I was going the wrong way, i.e. I was indeed on NCN 20 but I was heading away from Brighton! So, I backtracked again, and retraced my path to the east.

According to my map, I needed to go down a side road to join NCN 20, although the first stretch was "Uneven track through golf course - signage not yet in place". However, it's been a few years since the map was printed, so I hoped that the signs had been put up since then. The side road wasn't named, but the one next to it was (Laurel Close). That bit at the bottom of my route that looks like a Lambda (λ) was my attempt to find this side road. I literally went up and down that main street four times looking for it. When I went down the relevant side road (Forestfield), there was no sign of any golf club: all the branches were dead-ends (cul-de-sacs) for some kind of residential home. I've now checked the Sustrans website, and according to that I was supposed to go down the adjacent road (Rosamond Road). I couldn't see any relevant sign, so I eventually gave up. That's where my route disappears off the bottom-left corner of the screenshot: I figured that I'd follow the road signs in the direction of Brighton, and figure it out as I went along. I then stumbled across a sign for NCN 20 at Southgate Roundabout.

At times like this, I can see how a sat-nav system would be useful. However, there are some drawbacks to that. Firstly, it has to be designed for cycling rather than driving, since cars aren't allowed on off-road cycle paths. Also, I heard about someone who wound up going in a huge circle on his LEJOG trip because the satnav favoured fast roads over shorter distance (the exact opposite of what you want on a bike). Secondly, it needs to be up to date. Looking at Google Maps, they don't show the road that runs past our office building, even though it's been there for at least 3 years. Thirdly, it's often an excuse to switch your brain off and lose all sense of where you are.

As a compromise, I'm going to get a dongle for mobile internet access, and take that on my LEJOG trip. That way, if I really struggle then I can pull out the netbook and look up the road name. However, I won't rely on this for routine navigation.

Once I got onto NCN 20, it was fairly easy to follow it. There was a brief stretch on the A23 near Pease Pottage, which involved changing lanes on a big roundabout. Compared to central London, this was fine; at least nobody drove into me! However, this is definitely the busiest part of the NCN route, so if you're not confident then I recommend cycling with someone else. Looking at the Sustrans website, they suggest dismounting at that point to cross the road, and it looks as if they're changing the route to avoid the A23.

The other tricky part was just after Staplefield. I went south (east of the A23), then crossed over the A23 on the B2115, and followed the NCN 20 signs down a sliproad. As I approached the dual carriageway, I was a bit concerned: surely they didn't want me to join it? Just before I got there, I saw a sign saying that the pavement was a cycle path, so I went onto that. That was fine for a little while, until the pavement came to an end. I stopped to ponder the situation, then something else occurred to me: the sun was on my left. Since this was afternoon, the sun should be in the west (setting). As I learnt in the Cubs, Never Eat Shredded Wheat. I.e. based on compass points, if west is on my left then I'm facing north. I took out my compass, and verified that I was in fact going in the wrong direction. So, I backtracked to the sliproad, and saw an NCN 20 sign pointing the other way (towards Brighton). To reach it, I had to cross two lanes, i.e. traffic joining the A23 and traffic leaving. I think I was supposed to come down the sliproad on the pavement rather than the road, and then I would have seen the sign, but that wasn't obvious (or at least not obvious to me).

A lot of the route to Brighton ran parallel to the A23: some of it was on cycle paths (or shared use pavement), and some of it was on the road, but I don't remember any problems with the road surface. Even in the on-road sections, it was very rare to see any cars: they were all on the A23 instead. This is the other problem with sat-navs: they send everyone the same way!

When I got closer to Brighton, I saw the South Downs ahead. Happily, I didn't have to go over these, but it was a nice reminder of how far I'd come. I also got a bit nostalgic when I saw the Jack & Jill Windmills mentioned on my Sustrans map: I visited them when I was little (growing up in Sussex), but I haven't thought about them in years.

I was starting to get tired by this point, so I took a break to eat a banana. I didn't sit down, but my legs felt better after I'd had a few minutes of rest. However, my watch decided to get sarcastic, saying "Check speed". This is its terse way of saying "Hmm, the speedometer has been saying 0 for a little while - longer than I'd expect you to be sitting at a red light. Maybe you should check it to make sure that it's still working. After all, I assume that you are still pedalling, yes? You're not slacking off and taking a break after a mere 50 miles?" This is how the robot revolution will start, you mark my words...

When I came into Brighton, there was an interesting gadget by the side of the road that counted cyclists: I think I was #315 that day. I assume it does that by measuring weight in the cycle lane, then discounting any heavy vehicles. I thought that I'd lost NCN 20 at one point, but I figured that could rely on street signs to point me towards the town centre. However, I then saw another sign for it, so either I lost it and found it again or I just followed an unsigned stretch.

NCN 20 doesn't actually go up to the seafront, so I had to abandon it when I saw that it was leading me in the wrong direction. I could see the pier from there, although the 1-way system is quite complicated, so at that point it may be easiest to get off and push. There's a cycle path that runs parallel to the beach (part of NCN 2), so you can join that.

I aimed for the naturist section of the beach. Based on past experience, it's roughly a 20 minute walk from the pier. On the bike, it takes about 5 minutes at a gentle pace, and most of that is on a cycle path. Since it was now getting dark, I didn't see anyone else sunbathing or swimming, but there were a couple of people fishing (?) nearby, and a family having a barbeque. It was still light enough to see what I was doing, and I've swum in colder conditions before, but I didn't want to offend anyone by stripping off so I settled for just taking my shoes and socks off.

After that, I cycled to Brighton station and caught the train to East Croydon. I did about 6h 45m of cycling to get down there (including detours, not including lunch break), and it took me 1 hour to get back on the train.