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Riding King Alfred's Way

Ridden by Rich and Liz in July 2022.

Last year several Waldy’s ventured off road with a mix of gravel and mountain bikes (vintage and modern) to tackle England’s famous long distance trail, the South Downs Way. Completed by three groups each on a different summer weekend, it was generally regarded as a pretty tough two day challenge. But also decidedly good fun and many of us vowed to think, or maybe just talk, about doing something similar in 2022. And somewhere between Winchester and Eastbourne, over a beer, someone mentioned a new long distance trail that had been created, the King Alfred Way… and a seed was sown.

The KAW is a different beast though. Nominally 350km and ‘only’ 4500m of climbing (compared to 162km and 3000m for the SDW) its not really doable in a weekend except by a few. Which means multi-day bike-packing or, if you’re lazy like me, paying for a supported ride package where bags are moved for you from stop to stop over three, four or more days. In the end, Liz and I plumped for the five day version, although the first day was a later start and a nominal 55km and 900m, so perhaps four and a half days is more accurate. We went with ‘Rough Ride Guide’ and I’ve put a bit more about the package and some resources at the end of this post for anyone else thinking of doing this, plus links throughout. Max and Sarah did a great job supporting us and I’d thoroughly recommend their services. And Sarah’s cakes.

Our group was three couples, a pair of Gravelleur mates, and one singleton chap doing it for charity.

All but the Gravel guys chose MTBs, a mix of hard tails and full suss, with one e-biker. There is no obligation to ride together though, it was self guided, and in the end being of different paces and fitness we generally only met up at coffee stops, lunch and for a post ride beer or dinner each day.

That said, it was a sociable bunch of Waldy-like folk happy to exchange tales of mishaps, adventures and bike chat at the end of each day.

The start is in Winchester, suitably enough at the feet of King Alfred himself, just like the SDW. But the route heads off in the opposite direction, up into town, out westwards and immediately climbs

up to the grassy plains, bridleways and downs of west Hampshire. It’s stunning countryside in mid-summer, and we were soon off the tarmac and among the greenery, enjoying dry, fast trails.

The Theme, such as there is one – at times it’s a bit tenuous, to the KA Way’s route is early English history. So perhaps unsurprisingly we found ourselves following trails up over ancient hill forts, past tumuli and standing stones. This is old Wessex, the heart of ancient England and some of it quite possibly not much different to King Alfred’s time. The first (full service from RRG) cake and coffee stop was at Horse Bridge in the Test Valley, near Kings Sombourne and the freshly baked, gooey chocolate sponge waiting for us proved to be a good indicator of how well we would be looked after. Clearly Sarah had the upper hand on the great King when it came to baking.

Legend tells how when Alfred fled to Somerset he was given shelter by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch some wheaten cakes she had left cooking on the fire. Preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom, Alfred accidentally let the cakes burn and was roundly scolded by the woman upon her return. © Wikipedia

A meander along the Test valley on quiet lanes and farm tracks brought us to a local swimming spot, so obviously that had to be done. I recommend packing a light towel and trunks in your day sack on this ride, as there’s loads of opportunities to cool down on hot days. The Test is famously clear and fast flowing and even at quite a low level after weeks of dry weather, it was still possible to use a deep section as an endless pool. But not for long, its also flipping cold!

The Monarchs way and some dead straight Roman road (not suitable for slicks) took us to Old Sarum, north of Salisbury – an impressive Iron Age hill fort, adopted, developed and modernised by William the Conquerer and many King Henrys after him. A detour to look around, and ice cream beckoned. Also a smaller front chain ring for my already challenged legs. So we detoured into Salisbury, an easy, well signed cycleway into town, more history, good ice cream and a superb bike shop that sorted me out with a 30 tooth rather than 34. Bliss, and a good investment for the next few days it turned out.

The first day ended with a return to Old Sarum and then a mostly tarmac ride up the Avon valley to Amesbury, where a welcoming B&B and an excellent Thai restaurant waited.

Day two started cloudy, cool and with an unexpected head wind as we tracked north out of Amesbury to Salisbury Plain. A short detour to Stonehenge, easy to get near via public bridleway without paying the fee, and we skirted the edges of the military ranges, passing numerous ancient hillocks and stones.

Tanks rumbled in the distance, booms confirmed what the red flags warned us of, and ominous signs

declared “Impact Area – Keep Out”

And there was no avoiding the abundant wildlife protected by the lack of intensive agriculture – we

sythed through long grasses, wild flowers crowding the trail, and clouds of butterflies rising into the air; and the continuous sound of bird chatter never left us. It was a real shock when we descended to valley level near the Kennet and Avon canal and saw just how little bio-diversity there was away from the wilderness.

For much of the morning we had seen glimpses of chalk white horses in the distance, and after lunch at a well hidden but lovely pub in All Cannings, we started the climb up past one of them.

Over the crest, we joined the Wessex Ridgeway, and soon found ourselves passing Silbury hill and in Avebury. The famous stone ring needed an explore, and the afternoon heat demanded ice cream – helpfully there was plenty of that, it being a tourist hot spot.

With a fair way still to go, we saddled up and climbed again to the main Ridgeway on Marlborough Down, taking a big loop to the north and then back down to the south, via Barbary Hill fort and, after the fantastic grassy descent along Smeathes ridge, we joined the old Swindon to Marlborough railway line, now a fast gravelled cycle way, into Marlborough and to the Bear Hotel.

Day three was my favourite, partly because I’ve ridden this part of the Ridgeway between the M4 and Wantage many times and I love it: the height, the views, the isolation (nothing but fields, woodlands and a few barns) for about fifty kms of fast, well surfaced trail. We had stocked up on sausage rolls before leaving Marlborough (fantastic butchers shop) after brek at Coffi Lab so had no need to stop for long lunches and made swift progress. Hill fort and white horse, followed hill fort after hill fort; each represents a climb, each brings new views from rolling racehorse country to the south, to the far edge of the Cotswolds in the north. And nothing to hear but the wind, the birds and the sound of tyres spinning on chalk and gravel.

Very quickly it seemed to be gone though, and we descended (and skidded) to a dusty stop just outside Streatly-Goring for the afternoon tea and cake halt. But we didn’t wait long, as the Thames beckoned, and a swim at a beautiful spot near Hardwick House provided welcome relief from a long hot and dusty day. Sadly, there is no alternative but to trundle into Reading afterwards, so urban views, traffic and grimy ‘civilisation’ concluded the days ride. Dinner at the Thames Lido and free tunes from Morcheeba playing at a boutique festival in the park, echoing over the Thames next to it, reminded us that civilisation does have upsides!

Saturday, day four… the longest day, started with a wiggle through Reading’s lesser known parts, on

the Kennet and Avon canal, then well-structured and signed cycle routes all the way out of town – impressive, hats off to the council. A mostly flat and quite tarmaccy morning followed; then a long stretch of tow path along the Basingstoke canal took us to lunch where we envied the speedy gravel bikes, but not their incessant non-sealing tubeless punctures.

Post pub, we veered off the canal and towards Farnham. The first climb of the day came late and took us up to the back of Farnham Castle (mandatory detour to inspect one of the palaces of the Bishop of Winchester - free entry, good views, more ancient English history).

A strange section took us through an estate of large houses on rolling driveways before descending across the Wey river, via an artisan cheese dairy and craft beer microbrewery, into Frensham Little Pond car park. Yes, it was swim time again.

But it was already proving to be a long day, the café was closed, so no ice cream and several kms and

the biggest climb still to do, we set off after a quick dip, finally properly off road. The heathland around Frensham is dry and therefore at this time of year, sandy. It was like riding across desert at times, the baking sun from above, the heat coming back up from the ground below. And then the hill from Thursley up to Gibbet Hill at Hindhead and the Devil’s Punch Bowl – a rocky, scrabbly test.

A final test of both legs and patience. It was with quite a lot of relief that we rolled into the Punch Bowl hotel for cold beer in the evening sun, with some ninety Kms done.

The last day was probably the hardest. By now the heat wave was in full swing, and despite the easy downhill start across Bramshott and into Liss, we were hot by the end of the first climb to Hillbrow.

To be fair, Liz and I had detoured to go and play on my local home trails on Longmoor ranges, rather

than follow the strictest of GPX routes, but we were still glad of the cold squash and cake at stop one. Thereafter it was down across the Rother valley to South Harting and then up up and more up to the SDW, this time in reverse direction to last year as we headed towards Winchester. A refreshment at QECP preceded the climb up Butser hill… which we cleaned, unusually, as it’s a

slippery tough one The dryness no doubt helping traction.

Then it was big climb after big climb all the way to Cheesefoot head. Where by some stroke of luck at 4:15 on a Sunday afternoon… a little van was still selling proper dairy ice cream…

A loop over Twyford down and round St Catherines fort took us into Winchester along the river Itchen, turn left at the mill, head over the roundabout and, ‘Hello Alfred, we’re done’.

Total stats according to Strava, with several detours from the circular route, was 410km and 5029m

of climbing.

Some thoughts on practicalities:

What bike? Yes, it can be done on a good gravel bike. There is quite a lot of tarmac, the off road is mostly gravel fireroad or hardpack bridleway. That said, one of the Gravelleurs said he wished he’d

used his MTB and I was glad of mine. Some of the sections are quite rough and the descents are definitely more fun with a suspension fork, fatter tyres and a dropper post. Full suss is overkill

IMHO, we both used carbon hard tails and it was fine (just like SDW). You will need fast XC tyres though, or the tarmac sections could be a slog.

Five days or fewer? This is more about where overnight accom can be secured, ie usefully large towns at a convenient break point, than physical endurance. That said, 80km each day off road on MTBs is not to be sniffed at, so five days was good for us. RRG do a 3 ½ day version, running in

September. Max told us he knew of people who have done it in two days! And bike packers have more choice of where to stop of course.

Supported or not? It was hot, we really appreciated having enough kit for clean bike clothes every day and evening clothes to change into. Plus wash kit, swim kit, waterproofs just in case, spare bits and tools … That means a big bag, so supported worked well. But again, bike packers look at this stuff differently 😊

Cost? RRG charged us £255 each and that included more cake than we could eat, fruit, energy and isotonic drink stuff if you wanted, coffee and tea, squash at all the stops. Plus porterage B&B door to B&B door every day. Back up support, access to a huge tool kit, spares and a broom waggon service if needed (it was for a couple of injured and navigationally challenged riders in our bunch).

Lunch and dinner, plus B&B accom was not included, but the big towns have plenty of choices from Premier Inn to local B&B, we paid on average £80 p/n for two. And you have to get yourself and stuff to Winchester of course, so petrol and £25 parking for the duration. All in it cost about £1200.

Would I do it again? Yes, it was a great. On a second time round I’d want to vary it somehow, maybe go anti-clockwise or try and do it in four days to stop at different places.

Overall, a big mini-adventure, really well organised with plenty of wonderful riding, and all within easy reach of London.


Cycling UK have plenty of info, including a full Route guide in pdf form: King Alfred's Way | Cycling

UK and a nice little teaser video (81) King Alfred's Way - a 350km circular bikepacking route | Cycling

UK - YouTube

There is a Google map with all the overlay planning info you could possibly need here

And another plug for Rough Ride Guide, because they do lots of other fun stuff too. Rough Ride

Guide - UK MTB routes - MTB - Gravel - Off-road - MTB rides - Mountain bike routes UK

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1 Comment

Andy Green
Andy Green
Jul 22, 2022

Great write up - like the idea of bike/swim combo. Thanks for sharing.

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