From the top of Tan Hill, in the milky light at the end of an impeccable autumn day, Wiltshire rolled away beneath our feet, into deep history. The views of this quintessential English downland – a landscape that inspired Richard Jeffries, Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy – were outstanding.
Representing our ancient relationship with these chalk hills were hillforts, burial mounds, embankments and stone circles. A hobby hovered below us, then banked and accelerated, shadowing the shape of the hill. We were only two days into our journey along King Alfred’s Way. Already, I couldn’t remember the beginning.
The 350km predominantly off-road ride officially starts and finishes under the statue of King Alfred on High Street,Winchester, in Hampshire. The route is circular, though, so can begin and end wherever you like. Furthermore, there are railway stations on or near the route – including Winchester, Salisbury, Swindon, Reading, Farnham and Petersfield – which offer flexibility, certainly compared with other long-distance UK cycle routes, such as the Coast to Coast across northern England, the Pennine Bridleway or Scotland’s North Coast 500. This flexibility means King Alfred’s Way can be completed in one go, over two weekends, or even, with good planning (and a bit of luck getting bikes on our Covid-battered rail services) over several, single-day excursions.
Two of us completed the route, riding it clockwise over five days, averaging 70km a day, and seven friends joined for a day or two at different points. We carried our kit in bikepacking panniers and rode a variety of bicycles – from a gravel bike to full-suspension mountain bikes and even a steel commuter bike with flat handlebars.
Each style of bike had its moment: on the well-graded, Tuscan-white military roads across Salisbury Plain, the gravel bike streaked ahead; on quiet lanes past stately houses beside the Thames, the commuter bike ruled; plunging down steep, rutted tracks covered in loose gravel, full suspension was the best option. On reflection, a hardtail mountain bike is most appropriate for a gentle, five-day tour like ours. Anyone seeking to ride the circuit in two days or less will prefer a gravel bike with drop handlebars.
We got lucky with the weather – the sun shone, almost uninterrupted, each day and a light tailwind followed us round. Riding over the same chalk downs after heavy rain would be a much tougher proposition. We were challenged in less predictable ways, though. Jim had to head home early, when his mum was taken ill. Mark tipped upside down on the descent to Ogbourne Saint George, landed awkwardly and broke his arm – a minor fracture, but the end of his ride.
The owners of the pubs and B&Bs we stayed in had mostly heard of King Alfred’s Way, having already welcomed guests who were riding it, even though the route was only launched at the end of August. Tracey Pullen, who runs Fairlawn House B&B in Amesbury, said, while serving us enormous breakfast plates of scrambled eggs and mushrooms: “We’ve had more cyclists on King Alfred’s Way since it opened than any other cycling route. We hope it will be a great route for the future. Everyone says the countryside is beautiful.”
It certainly is, and this excellent route makes the most of established, waymarked trails such as the South Downs Way, the Thames Path and the Ridgeway. The rest of the route has been stitched together with great care by charity Cycling UK. This was a huge task that included getting trails upgraded from footpaths to bridleways. The excellent accompanying guide is available as a free download or a £14 book. Though King Alfred’s Way is not signposted, we navigated easily enough using a GPS app on our phones.
King Alfred is not in evidence on every mile of the route, but he is an obvious choice. The Anglo-Saxon king of cake-burning fame was born in Wantage (now in southern Oxfordshire) and buried in Winchester. He had a royal residence and battled the Vikings at Chippenham, built a military road, or herepath, near Avebury, created fortified burghs at Wallingford and Wilton, and owned estates at Lambourn and Edington. There is even speculation that the enigmatic Uffington White Horse, one of the wonders of ancient Britain, might have been cut to commemorate Alfred’s victory over the Danes in AD871.
What gratified us most was the constant variation in the countryside – from the vast, rolling arable fields and the white horses of Wiltshire to the rich pasture of the Berkshire Downs, and from the sandy heathlands and wooded hills of Surrey to the windy, chalk escarpments of Hampshire. We stopped at notable historic sites including Salisbury Cathedral, Old Sarum, Stonehenge and the Devil’s Punch Bowl, not to mention the rivers and the roadside hostelries. We swam in the Avon and the Thames.
Above all, King Alfred’s Way extols the extraordinary lattice of bridleways and byways that have been cut, chipped, scraped and stomped into the landscape over millennia. Many of these historic trails were once important communication and transport routes. The right to walk or ride a horse on them is enshrined in common law dating back to the middle ages. Bicycles were not permitted on bridleways until relatively recently – under section 30 of the Countryside Act 1968 – but today, more than 40,000km of them are open to cyclists in Britain, providing everyday sanctuary as our roads have become more perilous.
Taken together, this matrix of old ways is a foundation of our cultural heritage, and part of the story of who we are. Rohan and I cycled past prehistoric pit dwellings, neolithic barrows and stone circles, iron-age hillforts hugging skylines, battlegrounds, Roman roads, Saxon camps, castles, keeps, fields of medieval strip lynchets, Tudor cottages, water meadows and enclosed commons; we followed canal towpaths built to service the Industrial Revolution, and disused railway lines; we even sped by second world war pillboxes. By the end, it felt like we had ticked off every era of our millennia-old history.
Occasionally, coasting through a clearing in a Scots pine forest or descending into a tree-lined hollow way, I experienced that hair-raising, numinous sense you sometimes feel in our antique countryside: the spirit of all the people who have trod these bridleways before us, be they drovers, druids, merchants, soldiers marching to battle or – presumably at some point – King Alfred himself.
The mother of all bridleways is the Ridgeway, speculatively called “Britain’s oldest road”. Certainly, it is home to the greatest concentration of prehistoric sites outside Orkney. Under a blue sky, we put our heads down for the long climb from Silbury Hill and the neolithic henge at Avebury on to chalk downland, past Barbury Castle to Wayland’s Smithy, where we sat in the shade of beech trees beside the 5,000-year-old funeral cairn eating pork pies. It was bliss.
I originally cycled the Ridgeway almost three decades ago – in the opposite direction, on my first mountain bike. In the intervening years, I have ridden along the South Downs Way and parts of the Thames Path. King Alfred’s Way has successfully refreshed all these long-distance trails though, and it could be easily used as the beginning for longer rides, radiating out into other parts of southern England. The final few kilometres into Winchester follow the Pilgrims’ Trail, which was new to me, so I looked it up. As one glorious journey ended, an idea for a new one was born.
• Full route details at cyclinguk.org. Rob Penn is the author of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels (Penguin)
Five more long-distance cycling trails
Coast to Coast (C2C)
From the Georgian port of Whitehaven on the Irish Sea to the castle on the rock at Tynemouth facing the North Sea, this 220km trip is one of England’s signature road cycling routes, through some of the most dramatic landscapes in the land – the silvery, shining levels and the high crags of the Lake District, the vast, eerily empty moorland on the Cumbrian fells, the Pennines, and the Tyne valley. There are several alternative C2C routes that take you back to the start.
Great North Trail
This is a mainly off-road, 1,300km ride from the bottom of the Peak District to the tip of Scotland. An epic adventure for the summer months, the route bisects the British Isles, travelling from the old packhorse trails of the Pennines to the wilderness of the Great Glen Gleann Mor.
North Coast 500
This is predominantly a driving route, but is also a great way to experience some of the most spectacular scenery in the UK on a bikepacking adventure. The 500-mile (800km) loop starts in Inverness and winds through Wester Ross, Sutherland and Caithness, past whisky distilleries, golden beaches, sea lochs and endless heather-covered mountains. May and September are the optimum months.
South Downs Way
A well-established, rolling, 160km bikepacking route from Winchester to Eastbourne, following bridleways over chalk downs, across lazy rivers and through thick beech woods.
Coasts and Castles
Stretching 320km from Newcastle to Edinburgh and mainly on road, this route is rich in history and strong on character. The ride is as much defined by water as it is by land: the River Tyne, the North Sea, the mighty Tweed and the Firth of Forth form an almost continuous, fluid companion the entire way.
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