It’s just over 2 years now since I completed my first multi-day off road bike tour, the stunning beast that is theTrans-Cambrian Trail stretching across the mountainous heartland of Wales.
It was spectacular ride but, over the course of our three, 30-40 mile days, there were some pretty brutal hills involved and much technical riding. A huge, all-consuming challenge and one I was glad I’d completed, but vowed never to repeat. Nope, never again was I likely to go on an epic, off-road, multiday adventure. And if by some miracle I did, there was no way on earth I was hauling all my camping gear.
Memory, it seems however, is a selective thing. When the King Alfred’s Way circular, a new, 225 mile, long-haul bike packing route was launched not far from home last year a little devil appeared on my shoulder.
Hmmm that could be fun…?!
It seems I wasn’t the only one. Sounding out a previous bike packing companion I found he was already several steps ahead. Not only had Keith already booked a start date but accommodation as well and, guess what, he was camping!
I’m now torn between my previous, never again will I cycle with all my gear off road to….. well if he’s camping I can’t wimp out now and stay in a hotel mind-set.
Mike just flatly refused to camp so, in the spirit of compromise, I told Keith we’d join him and booked the campsites, just in case!
Fast-forward 3 months and it’s the night before departure and we’re playing packing-chicken. That thing that happens before holidays when all your bags are packed but you suddenly become convinced you can’t live without/may just desperately need those extra 5 jumpers, coffee mug, pillow, kitchen sink. There’s a good reason for keeping the weight down too, seeing as we’ll be carrying all of our camping gear with us!!!
That’s right, pride won out. Of our 4 day-3 night trip we have 2 of those 3 nights under canvas. Fortuitously the middle night will be spent in the middle of a large city with no viable camping options and I have a feeling we will be very glad of the warm, dry comfort of the budget hotel chain.
The route itself breaks down into 3 days of 60 miles (100km) per day and a final day of 40 miles. The elevation gain isn’t as steep as Wales but it’s still enough at between 3000 and 4000 feet every day.
As I resist packing my travel kettle (not joking) I’m still a bit stunned as to how I’ve gone from a firm resolve never to tour off road again, to doing a longer trip than before, with far longer mileage and still carrying a bloody tent?
Day One: Winchester to All Stretton
61.3miles (plus 3 more to the pub!), 3900 feet of elevation
It’s always a good start to any cycling trip when it’s peeing down with rain. I’d been watching the forecast obsessively all week and it had been a real roulette of a prediction ranging from blue skies to its current outlook of 4 wet days with some thunderstorms. There’s nothing we can do about the weather though except don waterproofs and hope it clears up. So, at a disgustingly early hour of the morning – 7.30am – it’s four damp but enthusiastic cyclists that head out of the long-term car park and in to the unknown for 4 days of bike-packing adventures.
Mike and I are joined by Keith (from previous Trans-Cambrian fun) and a new companion, Barry, rookie cycle tourist but experienced rider. Between us we have a varied collection of transport from a gravel bike with slimmer/slicker tyres (Barry), a rigid steel frame with plus-size tyres (Keith) with Mike and I on hardtail mountain bikes, with a 29×2.25 tyre set up.
As we’re camping all of us have opted for pannier racks and small, rear pannier bags, with a collection of frame, bar, fork and seat bags between us to carry the remaining gear.
The route starts (and finishes) in the historic town of Winchester, once the ancient capital city of England, ruled over by King Alfred from the tender age of 21. It’s a town that oozes history, packed full of features and buildings dating back well over a millennium. Unfortunately it’s also full of a very confusing one way system and the start of rush hour traffic that we navigate with 3 GPS devices and a few near misses before finally managing to get out of the city walls and on our way.
Relieved to be away from the city, busy roads turn quickly to country lanes and just a few short miles later we head off road down our first forest track. The rain has lessened thankfully but the trails are slippery under wheel and the unaccustomed weight on the bike makes steering, and staying upright a full-time occupation.
As the miles roll by however the sun pushes through the clouds, the trails are bursting with greenery and wildflowers and the bikes settle into a rhythm. The terrain is varied but not very technical, in fact it’s the slipperiness of the mud combined with some interestingly deep ruts that’s causing the most difficulty. A few sideways slips occur but no damage, apart from to the undergrowth, panniers and pride.
Whilst a good proportion of the route is off road, what tarmac there is belongs to pretty, chocolate box type villages full of thatched houses with roses around the door. A few hours in however and the cutesy signs informing us this was once ‘Ye Olde Bakery’ are getting annoying. Four hungry cyclists and not a village shop (or bakery) in sight.
It’s a relief, after 30 something miles, to reach the town of Amesbury which is one of the first we’ve seen with a shop-lined high street promising refreshment. It also appears to be bike-packing central and, rolling past a cake shop, we see over a dozen touring bike rigs propped against walls whilst the owners replenish. With little room at the cafes we search around until spotting a greasy spoon at the end of the high street. Not the first choice, but it has somewhere to prop the bikes and a free table. Those are probably the high points, the best said about the food is that it was hot. Poor Barry, desperate for coffee, endured several attempts at ordering a cappuccino that were successively made either using no coffee or curdled, sour milk. Wisely, he declined a 3rd attempt.
Rested and refuelled and still bathed in sunshine we pushed on. Just a few miles after Amesbury the route took a track alongside a military estate before joining a gravel road. Half a mile on and an information board caused us all to stop and rush to read the contents. We were so intent on the board that, glancing up, I was surprised to spot on the near horizon, the ancient monument site of Stonehenge! Eagerly we rode towards the refreshingly tourist-free standing stones. Just days earlier the site had been packed by thousands to mark the summer solstice but now just a handful of walkers meant we could peek over the fence and take pictures with barely another soul around. A real highlight.
Cycling away from the stones brought us back down to earth quickly with a mile and a half of phenomenally busy road. It brought home too just how traffic free the route had been so far. Fortunately, after turning off through a military base, we quickly re-joined gravel roads which led us up onto Salisbury Plain. The route here joins the Imber Perimeter Path for a good few miles, (a circular route we’d ridden previously) over the plain and past military encampments and abandoned buildings used by the army for target practice and training. It’s an eerie place.
As the day wound on and, although a little weary, I didn’t feel anywhere near as tired as expected. The gravel paths leading from the plain helped to up the pace and for the final few miles we were flying along both these and country lanes until, after 61 miles we reached our campsite just shy of the village of All Cannings.
5.30pm, 10 hours since we started and my longest ever ride on a mountain bike, let alone one carrying panniers. I was happy with that! A mellow, warm evening greeted us as we pitched the tents, cleaned ourselves of mud and persuaded tired limbs to cycle the further 3 mile round trip to the pub for delicious, and much needed homemade pizza.
The tents were certainly a welcome site in the twilight, so much so that Barry, in his hurry to reach his, managed to cycle into Keith’s guy rope and go flying. I’d like to say we were sympathetic but I’d be lying.
Dozing off in the tent shortly afterwards the final sounds to reach my ears were of another hapless camper who’d wondered too close to those same guy ropes, also sending them sprawling. Keith’s tent it seemed had claimed another victim!
Day Two: All Stretton to Reading Centre,
61 miles, 3667 feet of elevation
In an attempt to save weight we had just one stove between us (Keith’s) for coffee, with the intention of buying all our provisions as we went. We were quickly learning though that there were a distinct absence of shops on route.
We’d found out last night that the closest local shop didn’t open until 9.30 the next day and, being ready far earlier, we decided to push on and head to Avebury for breakfast. This was also the last town before the Ridgeway; 40ish miles of trails with no habitation, shops, food or water. Food was going to be important today so stocking up was vital as so far we’d missed the boat.
Downing a chocolate bar and croissant (food of athletes) from my pannier we rolled out of the campsite for day two. An hour later brought us into the pretty village of Avebury, famous for the Neolithic standing stones, which unlike Stonehenge are free and accessible to the public.
Feeling smug at our early start we very quickly realised our mistake. Avebury was a tiny one-street town, yes there was a shop, café and pub the earliest of which opened at least an hour later. Nothing to do but sit and wait. Fortunately the delightful National Trust visitor centre had picnic tables liberally dotted in the sunshine and the most pristine toilets a cyclist could ever wish for. The ladies even had fresh flowers in it! A home brewed coffee and some bike tinkering in the sun made for a pleasant wait but all the time there was that nagging feeling of inactivity, aware it was going to be a long, hard day in the saddle.
It was nearly 2 hours after arriving that we finally pulled away again. A very delicious breakfast roll from the National Trust café and snacks from the village shop had sorted the food issue but time was ticking on. Unfortunately the miles weren’t; some days it can just feel like riding through treacle and this was one of those days.
The Wessex Ridgeway is part of a pre-historic trade route crossing Britain linking the Norfolk and Devon coasts and crossing the ancient Downlands of Wiltshire and Dorset. Heading uphill, past dozens of keen walkers, we pick up the Ridgeway, a wide grassy track with deep muddy ruts which was to be our view for the next 5+ hours.
There began a long-running game of pick-a-rut. Similar to traffic lanes and supermarket queues, the one that you’re not in is always better. It took a lot of concentration to stay within the narrow confines of a foot wide trench which would suddenly end or narrow for no reason, the track too wound constantly up and downhill making for some skilful negotiation.
Occasionally the trail would drop down and rise up suddenly to accommodate the intrusion of a major highway but generally you were very much away from it all. The views were stunning but always with half an eye on the ruts ahead it took real focus. One of the high points was emerging from a tree line on top of a wide expanse of rolling hills, dropping away as far as you could see. A lone sign, with the word Ridgeway in silhouette pointed the way into the far distance. It felt intrepid and vast and you could imagine travellers in ancient times treading the same paths.
Modern day travellers too were quite abundant. We’d already come across quite a few other bike-packers but so far none who were camping. Can’t imagine why?
As the day wore on we were all having food fantasies and wishing for a nice café, yet knowing there was nothing for miles on the remote tracks. Or was there…… rounding a bend we spot a horse and rider in a field. Not so unusual except they are standing by a large, mobile catering truck having a cup of tea and a bacon roll. We look at each other sidelong to check out if we’re all seeing the same thing. We are it seems, or at least having a group hallucination.
Pulling into a field we’re greeted by the bizarre sight of half a dozen tables, garden chairs and a van selling everything from roast beef sandwiches to vegetarian sausage rolls. Card payment only! We sit and refuel carefully, just in case the mirage disintegrates. Thankfully it holds up and we’re on our way.
More miles of ruts wind up and down hill. At one point 2 mountain bikers overtake us and for some reason it seems a good idea to chase them down. Mike and I take off and catch them on a hill. Red faced the bikers accelerate past and so it’s game on, chasing them down we catch them on a steep climb and push to our limits to fly past. Breathless, triumphant and pretty knackered we pull in to wait for the Keith and Barry. Stupid, but satisfying.
The Ridgeway has definitely lost it charm for us all now and we’re relieved to finally drop into the pretty town of Goring. Originally we’d planned to stop here for a nice coffee break however we’re much later than planned and the shops are now closed. Keith leads a brief and unexpected detour past George Michael’s house before our last 15 miles. I’d anticipated the gentle flow of the canal/river path into Reading at this point but the route planners had other thoughts. Some tough, undulating miles through a forest, sweltering with trapped heat and angry insects greeted us before we finally were allowed to reach Reading city centre.
The noise, traffic and dirt of the city were a shock to the senses after such long, quiet days but we were all of a single mind, head down and get to the hotel, a very welcome site after 61 tough miles all pretty much off road. The delightful Travelodge Manager didn’t bat an eyelid as he welcomed 4 sweaty, muddy cyclists and handed over room keys. Grateful beyond belief for clean sheets and a shower I think everyone was glad we’d ticked today off the map.
Day Three: Reading to Liss,
60.5 miles, 3357 feet of elevation
There was a slight dread about what today would bring as we dragged tired bodies out of bed and hunted out breakfast. McDonald’s being the only place open early Sunday morning, it did its job with coffee and eggs.
Back on the road at a reasonable hour after a pit stop shop for the day’s food we rolled out of a damp and misty city centre along the very delightful canal path I’d been hoping to encounter yesterday. It was a peaceful relaxed start which continued for miles, flat, woodland trails and bike paths making it a very difference experience from both other days and very welcome. We marvelled again at how different each day was in terms of terrain. If yesterday felt like treacle, today we were flying along. Forest paths and quiet country roads, wooded tracks and even a skirt around a very imposing stately home which turned out to be one of the main police headquarters.
We were pushing slightly today, aware that there was a storm closing in on us that afternoon. We’d be so lucky so far, with 2 days of pretty unexpected sunshine but torrential rain and thunder were forecast and, with 60 miles to cover, we wanted to move as quickly as possible in the dry.
A quick lunch stop in a children’s playground offered a comfy picnic table and the chance for a go on the swings, even if we had to share them with the odd 4 year old. With the skies darkening we ate quickly and continued to race the oncoming storm. More forested trails, and undulating terrain still made for good going, despite a few stiffer climbs until early in the afternoon our luck ran out as the darkness became rain and we reached the aptly named Devil’s Punchbowl.
The next few hours saw the constant donning and shedding of waterproof coats against varying degrees of precipitation and sweat from climbing hills. The misty wetness gave the Devil’s punchbowl a surreal and otherworldly feel as we slogged up and down steep, sandy trails and swooped through woodland tracks until a final climb saw us soaring over the controversial Hindhead road tunnel (the longest non-estuary tunnel in Britain) before dropping into the town of the same name. A shivering snack shop at the local co-op followed before the final miles to our campsite for that evening. The rain was really starting to come down with purpose as we negotiated the delightful Shipwright’s Way, old railway trail into the town of Liss, our destination for the night.
There’d been a glitch with the original campsite for night 3. The glitch being when I phoned to confirm our booking the owner told me he’d stopped offering camping since falling out with the local council! This lead to a panicked search for a replacement and a realisation there wasn’t a lot of choice (any) unless you wanted to cycle miles off course. The place we’d found was actually a caravan site at which the vague sounding receptionist assured us we could pitch our tents.
On arrival we found the camping offered, as an afterthought, was actually another kid’s playground although this one was not so well sited being both on a main road and already waterlogged. With the prospect of camping in a pond, and the weather set to worsen, we took the decision to try the only other thing on offer in terms of accommodation – The ‘Pods’.
In fairness the staff weren’t expecting us to use them but the ‘Pods’ – wooden huts with beds – also came complete with a full complement of dust, dirt and suspicious looking brown pellets on the dodgy looking mattress. Tired, cold and wet however we were at least grateful to bring our bikes and kit into the dry. Less so on learning electricity and a shower would be an extra £10, making this night more expensive than our previous hotel. Trying not to look too closely we spread ground sheets, mats and sleeping bags on the beds and then splashed off through the torrential rain to the local pub.
Bolstered by good food and beer we finally climbed into bed that night trying to ignore the crackling of the groundsheet and trying not to touch the mattress. A quick text to Keith and Barry, in the adjoining pod, to plan an alarm call was returned with the bizarre reply from Keith “There’s a wolf in my room”.
Hah, right. One pint too many we thought…….
Day Four: Liss to Winchester
39 miles, 3700 feet of elevation
As it turns out he wasn’t kidding. Well technically I think it was a Husky, but it seems that when Barry wondered outside to the showers the resident ‘wolf’ took the opportunity to visit Keith and was none too keen to leave. He was finally bribed out by a trail of energy bars with the last crumbs flung into the darkness with the command of ‘fetch’ before the door was firmly slammed shut.
A fat lot of good we were as rescuers! As we packed our kit for the final day the rain was coming down at a steady pace. It’s never inviting to set off in the rain but at least the forecast promised some respite so, waterproofs on we set out for our shortest day, if only in terms of miles, not elevation.
The climb up to West Harting gives us a taste of what’s to come today. Fortunately the grey skies now provide some much needed coolness as rain jackets are shed to avoid that nice boil in the bag effect. Here the trail also joins the South Downs way, another long-distance walking/cycling route famous for its steep gradients and it didn’t disappoint. A lung-busting, swear-fest of a slog on slippery gravel led us neatly to the next stop, just 12 miles into the day but already welcome, at Queen Elizabeth Country Park where the Visitor Centre happily stocks everything a cyclist could want including water, food, toilets and a tool stand for ongoing repairs. Sipping our coffees however we couldn’t avoid looking out at the looming bulk of our next challenge, Butser Hill.
The hill, is a large chalk rise that towers over the park, part conservation site and part scheduled monument due to early Iron Age and Roman settlements. At 271 metres (889 feet) it’s also one of the highest points in Hampshire and very steep when facing it down (or up) by bike.
Over the next 30 minutes or so we all tried and failed to keep pedalling up its face, all bowing out at approximately the same slippery stretch of muddy chalk where the gradient ramped up unforgivingly. Pushing a touring bike is never fun. Even the now bright sunshine wasn’t helping as the humidity rose alongside the cursing. Grit teeth and push.
We made it up though and the reward was a fantastically clear view of the South Downs followed by some lovely, flowing woodland descents. The going under-wheel was noticeably more slippery today too as a combination of all the rain we’d had and the chalk surface made the going sketchy in places. The terrain also produced some of the most technical riding we’d seen so far sliding down rocky chalk gullies and up dense, muddy slopes. I was definitely glad of the wider, grippier tyres at this point.
After Butser, the hills kept on coming. Beacon Hill was over a mile and a quarter of relentlessly steep tarmac which followed Winchester Hill, another mile of slogging, but this time through thick mud and cow sh*t. The focus became to reach the top before the drive train became too clogged to move.
On arriving at the peak a small gate led to a layby at the roadside and another of those ‘mirage moments’. Tucked in the layby was a tiny van, with an espresso machine in the back and garden chairs outside. A handwritten board modestly proclaimed that this was ‘Alan’s Coffee’ – an oasis of fresh, delicious caffeine accompanied by homemade cakes and even a discount for cyclists and runners!
Happy days. It would have been rude not to stop, so we did, enjoying the reward after all that climbing, gazing back down the hill, across at the views and trying to scrape the worst of the mud from clogged up gears.
Some fantastic and steep downhill sections followed as we flew along, accompanied by the smell of overheated brake pads. The weather was closing in again too and it was going to be a race to the finish to avoid a soaking. Sadly we lost. About an hour out from Winchester the skies opened, no more gentle drizzle, this was a full on monsoon. As we splashed out way through the downpour, hanging on grimly through muddy streams it reminded me of the finish to our previous Trans-Cambrian tour. To add to the fun Keith also picked up the group’s only puncture of the entire trip. Luckily it was a slow flat that could be nursed along with the occasional top up of air. As we hurtled down St Catherine’s hill back into town the weather gods must have decided we’d endured enough and a watery sun greeted the final mile or so of river path which took us right into the town centre and to the King himself.
It was a soggy but incredibly happy bunch of cyclists who posed for photos in front of King Alfred’s statue to the bemusement of passers-by.
Four days, 225 miles, nearly 14,500 foot of climbing, a few unplanned dismounts and one cheeky puncture. But we’d done it, tired, filthy but elated. What a great trip.
Thank you to Mike, Keith and Barry for the fantastic company, laughter, photos and liquorice allsorts.
A highly recommended route which would make a great first bike-packing/multi-day trip.
It’s a varied ride with changing terrain. Not too technical, but noticeably more so when wet, especially the South Downs chalky surfaces. We certainly appreciated the hardtail mountain bikes and gravel bikers report struggling in wet conditions.
Using a GPS was invaluable, especially on the fast downhill sections although we had 3 devices between us and still sometimes disagreed about the route! We did however see people using paper-based maps, again not ideal in wet conditions. The GPS files are available to download for free from the Cycling UK website.
There weren’t as many shops/places to stop for food as we thought, the Ridgeway being the longest stretch without easy access to food or water. The pop up food van isn’t always there so be prepared! There is a water point 2/3 of the way along the Ridgeway and approx. 10 miles from Goring (right hand side of the trail when going clockwise).
The choice of campsites, outside of summer months (July/August), were few and far between. If I went again I’d chose not to start from Winchester (many people we met on route started from varying locations) this may make finding campsites easier. You can of course do it over fewer or more days too. Be aware however the route is getting popular so accommodation choices may be more limited.
Go with friends. It’s a trip worth appreciating with others and having people to talk to certainly makes the miles go faster.
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