Up The Downs


The landscape and related scenery we see around us whilst cycling is primarily the result of geology and time, which amongst many features results in hills of various types.  The geology of the south east of England consists of a large, east-west trending anticline (regional arch-shaped fold), the centre of which has been eroded away to expose older sandstone and clay rock strata, collectively known as the Weald.  The remaining outer chalk edges of the anticline form the conspicuous range of hills called the North and South Downs.  These rocks dip gently outwards to the north and south respectively, which on their inward side marks the edge of the aforementioned Wealden basin in the form of a steep slope or scarp that also runs east to west (diagram below: From the Box Hill & Mole Valley Book of Geology by R C Selley, 2006).  Crossing this scarp by bike is hard work as it is the location of a number of climbs, many of which are infamous amongst cyclists.


One such ride is Box Hill.  Situated on the North Downs near Dorking, the hill has increased in notoriety since featuring in the 2012 London Olympic Games men and women’s road races and still forms part of the annual Prudential London-Surrey 100 ride, as well as often the Tour of Britain bike race.  Ditchling Beacon is another similar hill. Located near Brighton on the South Downs, this climb was included in the Tour de France in 1994 and is part of the London to Brighton charity ride which takes place in June each year; I have participated in this ride a number of times and can testify to the hill’s difficulty, especially with 40,000 other cyclists in the way.

Box Hill viewed from the Brockham Big Field, home of Dorking Rugby Club.

Less than 9-miles from my home, I have cycled up Box Hill and around the area many times and routinely view it from afar when cycling about the aforementioned Wealden area to the south.  The hill has long been an attraction for motorcyclists, who hang out at Ryka’s Café near the start of the climb by the A24.  However, since the 2012 Olympics it’s cyclists who have literally taken over the hill, presumably in order to emulate their cycle racing heroes.  At weekends the National Trust café at the top of the hill is completely full of cyclists, frequently posing with their carbon fibre +£3,000 road bikes and clad in Rapha lycra!  In truth the hill is well graded and is not a difficult climb but the aforementioned carbon fibre + Rapha brigade seems to see it as something of a challenge and rightly enjoy it nonetheless.


The road gradually winds up the North Downs scarp to form the eponymous Zig Zag Road, which thus achieves a more benign gradient.  Following the Olympics the road surface is now very good but in order to restrain riders’ downhill speed, a number of rumble bumps have since been installed. Excluding the lower section from the A24, from top to bottom the Zig Zag ride is about 1.50 miles and ascends some 400 feet.

The climb starts just past Ryka’s café, where after turning right onto the Zig Zag Road, the road rises very gently along the bottom of a dry chalk valley before reaching the first hairpin bend.  Thereafter the road climbs more steeply as it traverses the chalk scarp of the North Downs before reaching a tight, right-handed hairpin bend, followed by another traverse this time to the south east and at a slightly lower incline than before.  On the upper slopes of this section distant views briefly emerge on the right, with Leith Hill to the west and the Weald in the distance to the south.  Towards the end of this stretch the view is obscured as the road enters woodland and meanders on for a short distance to the top and the National Trust café.  Continuing just beyond the café is located the main viewpoint, which provides the best wide-reaching views to the west, south and east as well as the River Mole Valley and town of Dorking immediately below.

Panoramic view from the top of Box Hill

Thereafter, I have always found the ride along the top of Box Hill to Pebble Hill rather disappointing; it’s quite up and down terrain, a poor road surface, fairly busy and the view from the Downs is obscured by buildings and trees.  Notwithstanding, there are plenty of other good cycle routes that link up with this area, including the full Olympic circuit, which make Box Hill a worthy destination as part of a ride.  Just don’t expect Alpe d’Huez, this is not as some would have it – the Surrey Alps!



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