Biking King Alfred’s Manner, the brand new off-road path round Wessex | Biking holidays
F.From the top of Tan Hill, in the milky light at the end of a pristine autumn day, Wiltshire rolled beneath our feet into deep history. The views of this quintessentially English lowlands – a landscape that inspired Richard Jeffries, Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy – were superb.
Our old relationship with these chalk mounds represented mounds, burial mounds, embankments, and stone circles. A hobby hovered below us, then it tumbled and sped up, shading the shape of the hill. We were only two days on our journey along King Alfred’s Path. I couldn’t remember the beginning.
The mostly off-road 350 km drive begins and officially ends under the statue of King Alfred on High Street in Winchester, Hampshire. However, the route is circular and can start and end wherever you want. In addition, there are train stations on or near the route – including Winchester, Salisbury, Swindon, Reading, Farnham and Petersfield – which offer flexibility, certainly compared to other UK long-distance cycle routes such as Coast to Coast in Northern England. the Pennine Bridleway or Scotland’s North Coast 500. That flexibility means King Alfred’s Way can be completed over several at once, over two weekends, or even with good planning (and a bit of luck getting bikes on our Covid battered rail services) one day trips.
Cyclists ride through an old holloway near Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey. Photo: Pannier.cc/Cycling UK
Two of us completed the route clockwise over five days, an average of 70 km per day, and seven friends got together at different points for a day or two. We carried our kit in bike packing bags and rode a variety of bikes – from a gravel bike to full suspension mountain bikes to a steel commuter bike with flat handlebars.
Every style of cycling had its moment: the gravel bike led the way on the well-graded, Tuscan-white military roads across Salisbury Plain; The commuter bike reigned on quiet alleys, past stately houses beside the Thames. Full suspension was the best option when riding down steep, ridged trails that were covered in loose gravel. A hardtail mountain bike is best for a gentle five-day tour like ours. Those who want to ride the track in two days or less prefer a gravel bike with handlebars.
King Alfred the Great statue, Winchester. Photo: Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy
We were lucky with the weather – the sun was shining almost continuously every day and a slight tail wind followed us around. Driving over the same chalk patches after heavy rain would be a much more difficult proposition. However, we were challenged in a less predictable way. Jim had to go home early when his mother got sick. Mark tipped on his head on the descent to Ogbourne Saint George, landed awkwardly, and broke his arm – a small break, but the end of his journey.
The owners of the pubs and B & Bs we stayed in had mostly heard of King Alfred’s Way and had already greeted guests who drove on it, even though the route didn’t start until late August. Tracey Pullen, who runs Fairlawn House B&B in Amesbury, said, as she served us huge breakfast plates of scrambled eggs and mushrooms, “We have had more cyclists on King Alfred’s Way than any other cycle route since it opened. We hope it will be a great route for the future. Everyone says the landscape is beautiful. “
A non-navigable section of the Thames path, one of the four national paths that the König-Alfred-Weg connects. Photo: Pannier.cc/Cycling UK
It certainly is, and this superb route makes the most of established, marked trails such as the South Downs Way, Thames Path, and Ridgeway. The rest of the route has been carefully sewn together by the Cycling UK charity. This was a big job in which the paths were upgraded from footpaths to bridle paths. The excellent companion guide is available as a free download or as a £ 14 book. Although King Alfred’s Way is not signposted, we navigated easily using a GPS app on our cell phones.
Near Barbury Castle on the Ridgeway. Photo: Sam Jones / Cycling UK
King Alfred isn’t seen every mile of the route, but he’s an obvious choice. The Anglo-Saxon king of cake-burning fame was born in Wantage (now in the south of Oxfordshire) and buried in Winchester. He had royal residence and fought the Vikings at Chippenham, built a military road or path near Avebury, created fortified citizens in Wallingford and Wilton, and owned estates in Lambourn and Edington. There is even speculation that the enigmatic Uffington White Horse, one of the wonders of ancient Britain, may have been cut to commemorate Alfred’s victory over the Danes in 871.
What we enjoyed most was the constant change in the landscape – from the wide, rolling arable fields and white horses of Wiltshire to the rich pasture of the Berkshire Downs and from the sandy heather and wooded hills of Surrey to the windy chalk plains of Hampshire. We stopped at notable historical sites like Salisbury Cathedral, Old Sarum, Stonehenge and the Devil’s Punch Bowl, not to mention the rivers and roadside hostels. We swam in the Avon and the Thames.
Tan Hill in the Pewsey Valley, near Devizes. Rob Penn’s group had much better weather than this! Photo: Pannier.cc/Cycling UK
King Alfred’s Path praises the extraordinary grid of bridle paths and back roads that have been cut, chipped, scraped and trampled into the landscape over thousands of years. Many of these historical routes were once important communication and transportation routes. The right to run or ride on them is enshrined in common law of the Middle Ages. Until relatively recently, bicycles were not allowed on bridle paths – under Section 30 of the Countryside Act of 1968 – but now more than 40,000 km are open to cyclists in the UK offering everyday protection as our roads have become more dangerous.
Uffington horse. Photo: Simon McComb / Alamy
Taken together, this matrix of ancient ways is a foundation of our cultural heritage and part of the story of who we are. Rohan and I cycled past prehistoric pit houses, Neolithic carts and stone circles, Iron Age hills along skylines, battlefields, Roman roads, Saxon camps, castles, fortresses, fields of medieval strip lynchers, Tudor houses, water meadows and closed commons. We followed canal towpaths built for the industrial revolution and disused railway lines. We even raced through pill boxes from WWII. In the end, it felt like we’d checked off every era of our millennia-old history.
Stonehenge. Photo: Kevin A Scherer / Getty
Occasionally, as I rolled through a clearing in a Scottish pine forest or descended into a tree-lined hollow path, I experienced that hair-raising, numinous feeling that is sometimes found in our ancient landscape: the spirit of everyone who has walked these bridle paths before we, be it cattle breeders, druids, merchants, soldiers marching into battle, or – presumably at some point – King Alfred himself.
The mother of all bridle paths is the Ridgeway, which is speculatively referred to as “Britain’s oldest road”. It is certainly home to the greatest concentration of prehistoric sites outside of Orkney. Under blue skies we bowed our heads for the long ascent of Silbury Hill and the Neolithic Hen at Avebury to Chalk, past Barbury Castle to Waylands Forge, where we sat in the shade of beeches next to the 5,000 years old. old funeral cairn eating pork pies. It was bliss.
Rob Penn (left) and friends out and about. Photo: Rob Penn
I originally rode the Ridgeway almost three decades ago – in the opposite direction on my first mountain bike. For the past few years I have driven the South Downs Way and parts of the Thames Path. King Alfred’s Way has successfully refreshed all of these long distance walking trails and could easily be used as a starting point for longer journeys that radiate to other parts of southern England. The last few miles to Winchester follow the pilgrimage route which was new to me so I looked it up. When a wonderful journey ended, an idea for a new one was born.
• Complete route details at cyclinguk.org. Rob Penn is the author of “It’s All About the Bicycle: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels” (Penguin)
Five more long-distance cycle routes
Coast to coast (C2C)
Photo: Stephen Fleming / Alamy
From the Georgian port of Whitehaven on the Irish Sea to the Castle on the Rock in Tynemouth overlooking the North Sea, this 220km journey is one of England’s most iconic road cycling routes through some of the country’s most dramatic landscapes – the shimmering silvery plains and high cliffs of the lake District, the vast, eerily empty moorland on the Cumbrian Fells, the Pennines and the Tyne Valley. There are several alternate C2C routes that will bring you back to the start.
Great North Trail
This is a mostly off-road drive of 1,300 km from the bottom of the Peak District to the top of Scotland. An epic adventure for the summer months, the route bisects the British Isles. It leads from the old packhorse tracks of the Pennines into the wilderness of the Great Glen Gleann Mor.
North coast 500
Predominantly a driving route, this is also a great way to see some of the UK’s most spectacular scenery on a bikepacking adventure. The 800km loop begins in Inverness and winds through Wester Ross, Sutherland and Caithness, past whiskey distilleries, golden beaches, lakes and endless heather-covered mountains. May and September are the optimal months.
South Downs Way
Photo: Steve Speller / Alamy
A well-established rolling 160 km bikepacking route from Winchester to Eastbourne that follows bridle paths over chalk fields, over sluggish rivers and through thick beech forests.
Coasts and castles
This route stretches 200 miles from Newcastle to Edinburgh and is mainly by road. It is rich in history and full of character. The journey is determined by both the water and the land: the River Tyne, the North Sea, the mighty Tweed and the Firth of Forth form an almost continuous, flowing companion along the entire route.