On his birthday, I always like to take Steve somewhere that’s a surprise — last year it was two days in Brighton (the wind as we walked along the seafront was bitingly cold and the pier rides weren’t going, but the sun was warm and we ate fish and chips on the pebble beach — it was wonderful). This year I spotted a wowcher deal for an hour of quadbiking near London. Because one must always do this when one does not have a car at one’s disposal, I then checked whether we could get there via bus from the train station. A straightforward bus ride along the A22 then a short seven-minute walk to the quadbiking, Google Maps said. Perfect, I said, as I bought the wowchers and train tickets and felt suitably pleased with myself.
Fast-forward to the day, 20 minutes before we’re booked in for quadbiking with Amazon Events, and we’re trudging through the soft snowy mud along the side of the A22. We’ve been walking for almost an hour and still don’t know if we’re going the right way — or what to do about it if we’re not.
How did we get here? With a little help from a bus full of people. An hour previously, we’d easily found the correct bus and settled into our seats tasked with looking out for a ‘Medway’, whatever that was (Google Maps said the stop from which we should alight was ‘opposite Medway’). Eventually, we spotted a bus stop that said Medway on it. Before getting off, we asked the bus driver if she knew which direction we needed to walk to get to Knockhatch Adventure Park, roundabouts where the quadbiking would take place. She didn’t know, so turned to ask the passengers.
‘Oh dear, you should’ve got off three stops back,’ said one. ‘Did you see the KFC? If you walked through that industrial park, you would’ve got to the right roundabout,’ said another. ‘If you get off at the next stop, you could walk onto the main road from there, but it’s a fair walk,’ said someone else. A woman gave us a set of directions and guidance, including how to get back once done with quadding. Stunned at how eager to help these strangers had been, we thanked them profusely and stepped off the bus to a chorus of ‘Good luck!’. It seems when you live in London too long, kindness from strangers comes as a shock — and there was far more to come.
Round the bend
‘What they call a fair walk is probably just 10 minutes’ worth,’ I said, as we walked down a curving road that led (we hoped) to a roundabout we had to cross (according to our directions). The outside temperature was -1°C but we’d worn enough layers to prevent us from freezing (one long-sleeved top, two jumpers, a coat, woolly tights, skinny jeans and furry boots for me). We eventually reached a roundabout, rejoice, then (with some difficulty, with there being no path) crossed it. We walked some more, in fact quite a bit more, until we began doubting our direction as there were still signs of civilisation. Thankfully we spotted a little cafe, in which we went to ask directions.
On the road again
‘It’s back to the roundabout and then first turning up the A22. At the next roundabout, it’ll be just on the right,’ the smiling proprietor said. So we’d gone the wrong way again and wasted yet more time. But at least these directions sounded simple, which renewed my optimism. We thanked her and set back the way we came. The new road we had to take had no path, leaving us to trudge wonkily along the A road through uneven soft mud and snow mounds, ducking under spiky trees as cars sped past us at 70mph. No doubt the people driving past thought we were either lost or mad (they’d have been right on both accounts). This was the longest part of our journey — after twice mistakenly thinking we’d reached the roundabout at two junctions, we finally reached the roundabout. And hallelujah! — it had a brown attraction sign pointing to the adventure park.
But it was far from over yet. We were now walking down a twisting and turning single-track road, with still no path to speak of, very occasionally dodging a single car coming from the other direction. This curvy road went on for what felt like miles. By this time, I was heartily regretting wearing two jumpers — it may have been like the arctic outside but inside my coat it was a sauna (from a combination of exertion and stress, I expect). I took off and carried my coat, still sweltering in the freezing air.
Reaching a car park, we ventured towards a spookily empty ticket office as gunshots rang out from within. Ringing the quadbiking centre, we were told to exit the car park and keep on ‘driving’ (everyone assumed we had a car and we didn’t have the guts to tell them we were haplessly on foot) until we reached a ski slope. And so we walked some more.
We reached another car park, with a ski-slope towering over. We briefly glimpsed a man on what looked like a quad bike driving past in the distance. I wandered into the ski lodge, asked how to get to Amazon Events and was told with a friendly smile to ‘return to our car in the car park, then walk past it out of the car park’s other exit’. As we were following these instructions, the aforementioned man on a quad bike appeared in front of us and asked if we were here for quad biking. YES!
Let the fun begin
He led us to a set of quads, we filled in some forms, he sold us some ridiculous onesie overalls to keep our clothes clean and finally we were off. We began by following him round a snowy track marked out by stacked tyres to build our confidence, then were taken along a muddy and bumpy woodland course with lots of dips, humps and slanting hills that were a challenge to traverse without falling sideways into the trees — I generally avoided falling off yet drove out of the obstacle so fast as to go hurtling into said tree.
Mud and glory
We both managed to sink our tyres in deep muddy puddles, forcing our guide to tow us out. He was so good-humoured and patient though, we never once felt discouraged. Steve’s favourite part was going through a lake then up a hill out of it — I was however towed through that section (don’t think I could be trusted to do it without sinking myself and quad). The onesies and helmet visors were essential — the bikes threw up clumps of snow and spatters of mud (generally into the face of the person behind) spectacularly, especially when stuck in the mud. The messiness only made it more fun! The best fun for me came from drifting in wide arcs through the snow as we took sharp corners.
Hitching a ride
We sheepishly told all about our walking misadventure and, at the end of our session, breathed a huge sigh of relief and gratitude as our lovely guide said he’d drive us out of the middle of nowhere and to wherever we wanted. Starving as we were (it was 4pm, but we’d skipped lunch due to walking for the entirety of the lunch period), I asked him to take us to Route 22, an American diner I’d selected for Steve’s birthday meal (ironically, because it was supposedly on the bus route halfway between Polegate rail station and Knockhatch). It was dark and empty when we arrived but, having been told it opened at 5pm, we were allowed to sit inside and read the menu while we waited.
Some Mexican heat
We plumped for potato skins loaded with cheese and bacon to share as a starter. Gooey and fattening, it was exactly what our exhausted bellies were crying out for. This was followed by a Route 22 burger with fries and extra chili for Steve and a giant plate of fajita components for me, to assemble myself. Sour cream, guacamole, tangy tomato salsa, shredded lettuce, a pot of grated cheddar cheese, warm tortillas rolled up in foil and a luscious mass of tender chicken strips, stringy caramelised onions and melting chunks of pepper, all smothered in a delicious smoky syrup of spices. The decorous deliciousness of this meal persuaded me to eat beyond my stomach’s natural capacity but even as I was falling into a fullness-induced slumber at my seat afterwards, I knew it had been worth it. Steve enjoyed his burger too — after all, it combined two of his favourite meals in one.
Service with more than a smile
Steve had a chocolate milkshake — I wish I had, but I made the same mistake as always of waiting for dessert then being too full to manage one — and a toffee cheesecake for dessert. I managed to fit a crumb or two down my gullet. For how full and satisfied we felt, the meal price was a bargain — just £31 for the lot, drinks included — and the service, provided by one waiter who had no one to serve but us, was extremely warm and friendly yet not intrusive in the slightest. I asked for the nearest bus stop and the chef came out to help too, providing directions and offering to call a taxi for us. We said we’d try our luck with the buses — another mistake.
Groping in the dark
So there we were, walking haplessly down another road, this time in pitch darkness (except for whenever cars sped past with blinding headlights). We found a small bus stop sign and waited. And waited. And waited. A bus came by, we flailed our arms madly in its headlights, only to have it drive right past us (almost taking off our outstretched arms in the process). We waited some more. It was only once Steve used his keyring light to read the bus timetable that we realised buses only stopped here in the morning…
So we gave up and blindly trudged back to the diner (streetlights would’ve been really useful). Just as our waiter was ringing the taxi (the place was still empty), the chef came out and told him to stop — he had a delivery, so would give us a free lift to the train station! Though inevitably a little dubious about getting in a car with this stranger whose accent we couldn’t understand very well, we waited by the fire as he went to get his keys. The kindness of strangers had got us this far — it looked like it was about to get us home too.
Coincidence of the century
Bundled into the back of his car, the smell of pizza wafting warmly around the confined space, he drove us first to a petrol station and then into Polegate. He began telling us his recent life story — how he’s only been here six months, moved to Sussex for work, but doesn’t like living here — it’s too quiet and full of old people. He preferred his old life in Nottingham.
‘I’m from Nottingham,’ I pipe up.
‘Really? Whereabouts?’ he cries back, excited.
‘West Bridgford,’ I reply.
‘JESUS CHRIST!’ he exclaims, ‘Me too! Do you know Central Avenue? I used to have a pizza restaurant there!’
Central Avenue is the single short road that I’ve been down more times than any other in my entire life. We spend the rest of the journey chatting about the night life of West Bridgford, which, for those who haven’t lived there (why not?), is a suburb in the East Midlands with a population of around 43,500.
Despite everything, we’d still managed to reach the station about an hour early so decided to shelter from the cold in a warm local pub. Its inhabitants were a group of people sat around the bar, variously aged and all chatting jovially with the smiling barman. We snuggled into a corner with our drinks until it was time to catch our train. The journey home was delayed slightly, due to problems at Clapham Junction, but compared to the rest of the day it was a welcome break. We got home a little muddy and very tired but, most of all, warmed by the extraordinary kindness we’d received from total strangers that day. Thank you, people of East Sussex, for showing two Londoners (unaccustomed to such benevolence) some much-needed warmth on a freezing-cold day.