February half term came around so quick this year that our week away mission was all very last minute. I opened up my Ordnance Survey map to look for the nearest bit of road/track that goes somewhere and is safe for children to ride their bikes without the roaring fast swish of cars charging past their elbows. Within seconds I had plotted a rough route: West Dean to Saltdean. It looked like fun (plus it rhymed)and went via Chichester, Bognor, Littehampton, Worthing, Brighton and Rottingdean.

Following Chichester canal in the pouring rain.

Gary and Molly had opted to stay home (Gary to work, Molly to see friends) so I arrived with my game duo (Daisy 8 and Jack 5) late afternoon in West Dean at the the start of the Centurion Way – a bike path that follows part of the old dismantled Chichester to Midhurst railway line. Because of a major 3-hour delay earlier in the day it was nearly dark by the time we set off from West Dean. For all our previous biking voyages Jack had always ridden his pedal-less balance bike as he liked doing tricks on it. But this time, just as I was packing the last of the bags up at home, I decided, and Jack decided, he was too big for his little bike now so his pedal bike it had to be even though he had hardly ridden it. Ideally, Jack’s first go on his bike away from home would have happened in daylight hours along flat smooth surfaces. But sometimes life doesn’t always work out as ideal as you’d like hence Jack’s initiation into off-road cycling occurred in the near-pitch black across muddy flooded fields. No complaints though from Jack. After an initial uncertainty with his balance he speedily got the hang of it and charged by bright bike light across the River Lavant until we joined the dark path busy with the kew-wick and ter-whit-ter-whoos of tawny owls towards Lavant and Chichester passing Devil’s Ditch and Brandy Hole Copse along the way. Although it only takes about 10 minutes to drive from West Dean to Chichester it took us nearly 3 hours and 7 miles (the Centurion Way, as we discovered, doesn’t go direct). Bikes and travelling with children really does make a magnificent meal of things.

One of the highlights of this little stretch was meeting an elderly man who got out of an elderly Jag and wavered about on his unsteady legs in a very drunkenly way. We were in the multiple residential back streets of Chichester and I was trying to cut through to come out behind the hospital. He said, ‘Down the end here me darling turn right and follow the twitten through to the main road.’  What a very marvellous word twitten is. It’s Sussex dialect for a narrow path between walls or hedges but I think it would work just as well for drivers who pass cyclists too close.

Mud-splattered path alongside Chichester Harbour.

Cheeky-chap Jack at Dell Quay.

After a night in  Chichester  I was hoping we could walk/cycle the 10 miles to and around Pagham Harbour before taking the bus back to Chichester. When I had checked at the bus station whether it was permitted to put 2 children’s bikes on the bus the bus station woman said confusingly, ‘We don’t allow that.  Though it’s at the bus driver’s discretion.’ Which translates as: If you get a chirpy chappy (or chappess) driver then all is fine and dandy and you can pile on board with your wheels. But if you get a miserable sod then you get left at the wayside.

Anyway, instead of Pagham, we had a very fun 13-mile round-trip jaunt in the pouring rain and mud following the path beside Chichester Canal (busy with remarkably tame coots and moorhens) all the way to Chichester-mostly-rich-and-fancy-boats-Marina. We then followed a fantastic path which from Dell Quay followed the edge of Chichester Harbour where the saltmarsh and mudflats were alive with the beautiful bird sounds and sights of waders and curlew and shelducks and geese.

Daisy setting Jack’s sights on the alluring distant spire of Chichester cathedral.

Daisy bridging a bridge.

Rickety bridge near Fishbourne.

Over the next few days we cycled and pram-ran 66 miles and made it along the lovely high white chalk cliff underpath to Saltdean. In Brighton we had the good fortune to come across a slightly bonkers tennis coach on her way to London who, despite not knowing us from Adam, said, ‘I have a boat in the marina. Here’re the keys. Help yourself and enjoy a night or two on there!’ So we did. Jack and Daisy found this very exciting. Jack adopted the role of Captain Pirate Jack while Daisy, getting caught up in the seafaring moment said, ‘Hey, mum! We could escape school and sail to France!’ Which actually sounded like a very good idea indeed and I was sorely tempted. The only thing stopping me was a lack of nautical knowledge. Also, I didn’t think Jack and Daisy’s head teacher would take to kindly to me ringing up to say that they wouldn’t be at school for a bit because I had just rammed a super-tanker in the middle of the Channel.

That night, asleep in our gently swaying bunks, I was awoken by the rotor-whirring racket of a helicopter hovering for half- an-hour directly over our buoyant vessel. There was a long strong blinding beam of a searchlight shining from the helicopter into the deep dark waters of the marina so I knew something was up. In the morning we found out. Shortly before 12.45am police and coastguard teams were alerted that someone had fallen into the marina. The next day divers recovered the body of a man.

On the way to Saltdean along the seaside Undercliff path.

Exploding wave near Rottingdean.

Heading back towards Brighton.

Jack, Daisy and Donald . Brighton seafront.

Our most exciting day occurred between Bognor and Littlehampton. After following the seafront promenade until it ran  out we then encountered a beautiful and rare bit of undeveloped coast for this part of the busy south-east – a shingle beach with sand at low tide backed by fields. The only way we could do this stretch with bikes and a heavy unwieldy pram was at low tide as the sea goes out far enough to walk around the end of the groynes. Low tide was 16.28. We were on the beach before this time and hurrying along as I knew when the tide would turn. I’d been told that the beach part was only a relatively short stretch before you could climb back up across the shingle to join a seawall that met the River Arun to take us to Littlehampton. But as darkness started to fall we kept going on and on while all the time the sea crept closer and closer. But still there was no sign of any seawall. The sun set behind us turning the sky into a spectacular explosion of pinks and oranges and reds. Up ahead, a Supermoon, the biggest and brightest of 2019, rose dazzlingly into the darkening sky. It was so big it looked like it had slipped its moorings and was on course to crash into Earth. It was a tremendous sight and added to the perilous excitement of the whole occasion. By this stage we could have been on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast for all I could tell. The beach was deserted, the sea was closing in. And in the twilight, all was wild and lovely. But still there was no sea wall. In these sorts of situations all senses come alive. You are aware of every little nano-second that passes. I had to keep Jack and Daisy safe and happy and alive. They were loving this whole beach shenanigans, careering across the sand on their bikes, splashing at speed through rock pools like racing horses through a water jump.  But every so often they would call, ‘How much further, mum?’

‘Not far,’ I’d reply, ‘We should be there before too long. ‘Look, you can see the lights of Littlehampton over there.’

‘But that looks like miles away!’ they said.

‘It might look like miles away in the dark, but it’s much closer than it looks!’ I said even though I thought: ‘they’re right – it looks bloody miles away!’ But you’ve got to keep up morale somehow. Best to keep positive even in un-positive situations because the moment you stop being positive, un-positive things start to happen.  Actually, a slightly un-positive thing did happen. It was now near-dark and Jack rode into a rock pool thinking it was a shallow one when it was actually very deep. Result: his bike came to a sudden halt and he fell off into cold water. But children are amazingly resilient. I had spare kit and clothes but Jack said ‘I’m fine mum, I’m not cold. Full steam ahead!’

If either Jack or Daisy had given up the ghost we would have been doomed. But they both seemed to sense the urgency of the situation and rallied all supplies of diminishing energy determined to keep on going. The beach turned rocky, the sea not far away and I knew we would have to drag ourselves up above the bank of shingle to safer ground and somehow head inland. By lucky chance, having seen no one for nearly 2 hours, I spotted a man in the moonlight standing up on the bank surveying the sea. I made a bee-line for him and when I got up close he told us that the sea wall  we had been hoping to follow had been washed away in a storm last summer. So that was that, there was only one way to get to Littlehampton now: head up towards Climping to join the footpath-cyclepath alongside the horribly noisy and traffic-rushing A259. This we did, in pitch blackness, lit by the brightness of our headtorches and bike lights. Finally, we darted across a busy roundabout and followed a grassy muddy verge into the centre of Littlehampton. We had hit civilisation and survived. We felt euphoric. ‘We’re alive!’ we shouted and burst into laughter as a posse of passers-by gave us strange looks. After 14 miles of slightly hair-raising perambulations never have Daisy and Jack deserved and enjoyed a takeaway of pizza and chips quite as much.

Bognor seafront. Daisy atop exercise apparatus. Jack making a break for freedom over wall.

Daisy cycling on the beach between Bognor and Littlehampton.

Jack among rocky rockpools.

About to board the train home from Shoreham-by-Sea