Feast of the east
Jonathan Manning tucks into a tasty route which features stunning views, a vast beach, an ancient town and a famous house
Few rides pack so much interest into seemingly quiet, rural roads than this route to the East Sussex coast from Fairlight Wood Club site. A handful of miles take in High Weald ancient woodland, where bluebells and wood anemone carpet the forest floor in spring, miles of shingle shoreline, a dazzling Grand Designs house built by the former manager of the Pet Shop Boys, and a historic town swallowed by the sea only to be reconstructed inland.
Emerging from a woodland canopy, a challenging climb leads to a spellbinding vista over the sea and surrounding fields, followed by a brake-testing descent to Pett and the coast. A sea wall blocks a clear view of the beach from the road, but several paths head up to the shingle for anyone who fancies dipping a toe in the Channel, and a 20-yard diversion leads to Eaters café, which serves up spectacular views over the waves.
It’s a pity the beach access road is so short, but on the plus side is the chance to visit the marshy nature reserve of reeds and rough ground at Pett Level, which offers a protected habitat for birds and bugs, including dragonflies. The route also provides the opportunity to gawp at the Bauhaus-inspired beachfront Big White House (it does exactly what it says on the tin, although was sadly shrouded in scaffolding during this ride) which featured in Channel 4’s Grand Designs. The property is now flanked by other impressive houses, each one designed to maximise the coastal panorama.
The sea and its tides are the great influencers in this landscape, bringing wealth to the region as Winchelsea became, with somewhat dodgy mathematics, the seventh of the so-called Cinque Ports alongside Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich and Rye, and a powerful force in the medieval wine trade.
Coastal erosion of the shingle spit upon which Old Winchelsea was built threatened the town, and at the end of the 13th century it relocated to the top of Iham Hill, where Winchelsea stands today. It claims to be the smallest town in England, but more interesting is the grid system of its neatly planned layout – more similar to an American city than the organic twists and turns of typical British villages and towns – and its beautiful architecture. There’s a small village shop that serves hot drinks, and the fine-looking New Inn.
Keep an eye out, too, for the differences between the rickety wooden church of St Richard's towards the end of Pett Level, and the imposing 13th century stone church of St Thomas the Martyr in Winchelsea.
You can download this route from our dedicated Strava page here.
1 From Fairlight Wood Club site turn left and follow the road for 550m to a T-junction. Turn right at the junction and in 500m look out for a turn on the left just after the end of the village.
2 1km – Turn left along Peter James Lane, signposted to Fairlight. This turns into a long, steep climb that eventually reaches a T-junction.
3 2.7km – Turn left at the T-junction, signposted to Fairlight and Pett. In Pett, turn right at the sign for Eaters@Pett to reach the shingle beach, before returning to the road. A few metres further on is The Big White House of Grand Designs fame. Continue along the Pett Levels, with the sea wall on the right, staying on the road until a T-junction with the A259.
4 11.9km – Turn left at the junction, signposted to Hastings, and in 150m turn left again to Winchelsea. Ride through the stone arch and up into the beautiful village. Continue through the village, passing the impressive church on the left, and keep going until a tall, stone wall ruin on the left.
5 13km – Just before a tall, stone walled ruin, turn left along Wickham Rock Lane (if you reach the A259 you’ve gone too far). Stay on this road and at a grass triangle junction keep straight on, following signs for Pett and Fairlight. Continue to reach a T-junction.
6 18.1km – Turn right at the T-junction, and in 1km towards the end of the village, turn right along Watermill Lane to return to the Club site.
About the route
- Start/finish: Fairlight Wood Club Campsite, Watermill Lane, Pett, Hastings, East Sussex TN35 4HY.
- Distance: 12.5 miles/20km.
- Time: 2 hours.
- Level: Suitable for fitter cyclists and e-bikers – there are a couple of challenging ascents.
- Terrain: Asphalt all the way.
- Landscape: Dense woodland, coastal wetlands and an ancient village.
- Refreshments: Cafés and a pub along the seafront in Pett, and in Winchelsea.