January 23, 2021

‘Like cycling through history’: 220-mile King Alfred’s Way launched

Loop starts in Winchester and takes in tree-lined lanes, open plains and plenty of pubs

You pass great cathedrals and prehistoric barrows, castles, medieval farms and the remnants of second world war defences. You cycle across sandy heathland, through sunken tree-lined lanes, along chalky paths and on grassy open plains.

Some sections come with a warning: watch out for the tanks on Salisbury Plain, and you may have to get off your bike and push through muddy patches.

But most of the route is delightful: picture-postcard villages with ancient churches, orchid-dotted downland, hillsides with white horses etched into the turf. And a cafe or pub around just about every corner.

The charity Cycling UK unveiled a treat on Friday, a new 220-mile route called King Alfred’s Way. It officially starts and ends at the statue of the 9th-century king of Wessex in Winchester, and circles through parts of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Surrey.

“We’re very excited about it,” said Sophie Gordon, a campaigns officer for Cycling UK, and one of the very few people to have test-ridden the route. “It’s really varied. My preconception of the route was that it would have been rolling fields through green and pleasant land. There’s plenty of that but it also goes through woodland, heathland, next to rivers. There is a huge amount to take in. You feel like you’re cycling through 10,000 miles of history.”

Gordon and her companions rode the route over four days. Some will linger longer, while endurance types will try to do it in 24 hours. Gordon suggested a reasonable level of fitness would be needed and a decent bicycle advised – a gravel bike would be the ideal in the summer. Some parts feel adventurous. Gordon and her party had to cross a shallow ford because a footbridge was blocked.

As well as places linked to King Alfred, including a string of battle sites, the route takes in locations such as the stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury and the iron age fort at Old Sarum, the site of Salisbury’s original cathedral.

One of the most intriguing sections crosses Salisbury Plain close to military firing ranges. The guide warns: “Salisbury Plain is genuinely a war zone. Yes, it’s a ‘pretend’ war zone but the shells and rockets being fired live or lying forgotten are very real.”

The charity has worked with the Ministry of Defence and Wiltshire council to make it safe and open up a path to cyclists and horse riders around the Imber firing range near Warminster.

Cycling UK has spent the last three years creating the loop. The trail uses sections of the existing Ridgeway and South Downs Way routes. It also connects with the Thames Path and the North Downs Way riders’ route. King Alfred’s Way was developed by upgrading some sections of footpath to allow cycling and using existing bridleways, byways, towpaths and quiet roads.

The charity’s wider goal is to create a network of long-distance off-road routes across the length and breadth of Great Britain. The launch of King Alfred’s Way follows those of the 800-mile Great North Trail (Peak District to Cape Wrath or John o’ Groats) in 2019, and the riders’ route for the North Downs Way in 2018.

Gordon said that more than 70 years ago the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 led to the creation of national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and long-distance trails.

“It’s a godsend for walkers, but for ramblers with bikes not a lot has been done since then in terms of improving access for cycling. With King Alfred’s Way we want to show what is possible if we fill those missing links between our national trails and start making the countryside accessible for everyone – walkers, horse riders and cyclists.”

One of the great things about the trail is its accessibility. Cycling UK says it is within an hour’s journey for 17 million people.

Another of those to have cycled it, Stefan Amato, said he believed that since lockdown people had become keener to explore places they did not know close to home. “This trail is close to places like London, Reading and Winchester. A lot of people will be able to get to it really easily,” he said.

Amato, the founder of Pannier, which organises bicycle tours and expeditions, added: “You feel you’re deep in quintessential England, miles away from anywhere. You can be riding along an old byway and it feels as if nobody has been there since neolithic times. But actually you’re close to the next village pub or cafe. I loved it.”