Not being able to travel for the last 18 months has meant that I’ve not done either of the 2 big cycling events I had planned. I was going to go back and have another crack at the Dirty Kanza (now known as Unbound Gravel) and The Rift (200km round a couple of volcanoes in Iceland).
So I’ve been looking for something a little closer to home to have a crack at.
Mid 2020 Cycling UK announced a new route that they had been working on for a while called the King Alfred’s Way, a 350km mainly off road route that starts in Winchester, goes west to Salisbury, North to near Swindon, west along the Ridgeway to Reading and then down back to Winchester via the edge of the Surry Hills and the South Downs Way.
I parked my car up at my old IBM Office at about 7:00 and spent the next 30mins getting all the bags setup on the bike, topping up the tyre pressures, generally sorting out filling water bottles and distributing snacks for the day round various pockets.
It was a short (7km) ride to the official start point at the West Gate in Winchester so I could set off close to 8:00.
The route works it’s way through Winchester on mainly quiet residential streets before making a break for the countryside towards Sparsholt where it forks off on to single track trail up through the woods.
It was then a gentle rolling mix of wooded tracks and farm lanes all the way out to Salisbury where the road turns north to roll past Stone Henge.
After Stone Henge the route sets off across the Salisbury Plain Training Area, this is where the you have to keep an eye on the flags and be prepared for loud bangs and tanks crossing the track. It was actually pretty quiet this time.
I had expected to find somewhere to stop for lunch along the way but it’s pretty remote and it wasn’t until I drop off the Plain (just after the end of the 3rd GPX file) and made it to All Canning around 14:50 (and the pub was supposed to close at 15:00)
I had planned to camp at a place called Smeathe’s Ridge which is just past Barbary Castle having seen it mentioned as a good spot by a few people riding/walking the Ridgeway. Unfortunately this appears to also be a race horse training gallops which the owner was in the process of mowing when I got there. I did think about asking for permission, but decided to press in a little to see if I could find somewhere else.
About 5km further along and having dropped into the valley I came across an empty field that was well screen from the track, wasn’t overlooked and didn’t look to have any paths running through it. I set up my little tent , and boiled the water for dinner.
I woke up stupidly early on the morning of day 2 so I had managed to pack up my tent and was ready to roll again by 6:00. It started with a short push to get up on to the top of the ridge again.
I soon past a perfect camping spot that was just off the trail, behind a bench looking out over the valley. Another cyclists had spent the night and was still very much asleep as I rolled past.
It was foggy and even started to rain a little so I was glad I’d packed my proper rain jacket, both to keep the wet out and to help keep warm.
The track winds it way up over another ridge to the north and then drops down again to crosses the M4 and passes the PGL Summer Camp before climbing back up on to the Ridgeway.
I was short on water as having last been able to top up my bottles was at The Kings Arms in All Canning the afternoon before and uses a bunch for dinner the night before. I found a tap with a dirty looking hose at a little take way caravan attached to a pig farm. Unfortunately as it was mid week and still very early so no change of grabbing a bacon sandwich, but the fitting for the hose came undone easily so I could top up my bottles. About 2km further on there was another tap signposted.
The farm lanes were mainly crushed chalk which looked great but could be pretty bumpy and had chunks of flint poking though which was best avoided. As it was dry it was pretty quick rolling, but would be really sticky in the wet.
The Ridgeway took most of the morning, then the route drops down to run along side the Thames at Goring.
The Thames Path took me on to Reading, which was fun as it was the first day of the Reading Festival and the route past one of the site entrances, having to dodge lots Polos and Fiat 500s full of teenagers and then through main shopping centre with the paths full of people carrying disposable tents and crates of cheap cider.
I stopped off at the Mission Burrito in the shopping centre for lunch, before following the River Kennet south out of the city.
The route was mainly cycle paths and trails until it hooks up with the can Basingstoke Canal for a while.
After the canal I detoured a little to find the hotel I’d booked in Aldershot deciding that a real bed and a takeaway pizza would hopefully lead to a longer nights sleep.
Day 3 started with the only encounter with a bad driver, a close pass on the way out of Aldershot, who then had the gawl to argue about it when called out.
The route rolled through some of the smarter housing south of Farnham before crossing the edge of a golf course and entering another military range. This area is very sandy which was hard going at time and required pushing.
Unlike the ranges on Salisbury Plane I did actually catch a glimpse of some of our guys in green suits, a small group that looked to be heading off to practice with some smoke grenades.
The range ends up with the climb up to the Devil’s Punch Bowl which again in places is very steep with sections of “babies heads” sized boulders which makes riding without suspension tricky, but the view from the top is pretty good.
After the Devil’s Punch Bowl the route tracks south from Hindhead again sticking mainly to forest trails and I even spotted some deer on the way into Liss.
I cut the corner a little to get to Petersfield a little sooner and from there up the old road through Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Before the absolutely brutal climb up Buster Hill (it’s bad enough up the other side on Havesting Lane with tarmac). With all the weight on the bike I had push most of it.
From the top it was an easy run along the South Downs Way to the cafe at the Sustainability Centre for some much needed lunch. As I was feeling it by then I choose to make use of the local knowledge and took the direct road route back home. Down Old Winchester Hill and then back up Beacon Hill out of Exton, before cutting across to Owslebury, Fishers Pond and Colden Common before hitting Poles Lane back to Hursley.
Good to know I can still navigate Poles Lane by the pot holes and patches https://t.co/Mx1CrmZWOb— Ben Hardill (@hardillb) August 27, 2021
It was a really great 3 days and I had a lot of fun, but 3 days is really pushing pretty hard considering the amount of climbing and the type of trail the route takes.
I’ll try and do another post about the kit I took, but one thing I will say is that I’m going to need some new gravel/mtb shoes pretty soon. The Giro Rumbles I’ve been using since I started training for the Dirty Kansa have been pretty good, but a week later the feeling has still not 100% returned to the middle 3 toes on both feet (It’s getting better everyday, but it’s time for some stiffer soles).