Given that cross border travel has been off limits since March 2020 and I didn’t get a single overnight trip in during 2020, I like many other cycle tourists have been chomping at the bit for a trip. So when I read about the King Alfred’s Way route (https://www.cyclinguk.org/king-alfreds-way) in late Feb 2021 and given my fascination with the history of the UK I thought that looks interesting and would be a great way to get an early short trip in. I originally planned to do the route during April as the weather had been very dry, but I decided not to as the nights were around freezing and I didn’t fancy it. Then May came along, and with it weeks of rain that put a blocker on the trip. Finally at the end of May the weather suddenly changed and it was low 20c and plenty of sunshine! The other benefit of this route is that it passes within 25 miles of my hometown of Blandford, so there were no complicated logistics involved.
According to the author of the route and the boys at GCN this is a gravel bike ride, but I’ll beg to differ on that one and I personally believe a hard tail 29er with fast rolling tyres (Maxxis Ikon) is a much better bet. I saw plenty of expensive gravel bikes be careful pushed down some of the rutted and rocky descents, where as on the 29er you could just let the brakes off and rip down the descents.
I also decided to go with rear panniers over the seat pack I usually use. This was because I have always struggled to find space for the camp stove as well as the food you need to purchase for camp. Having plenty of storage means you can ditch the dreaded back pack. I have too many memories of wearing one of those in the US and NZ and vowed never again!
Day 1 – Blandford -> Avebury (77 miles, 5000ft elev)
Aside from a few < 5 hour rides during the late winter I hadn’t spent much time in the saddle and was a little apprehensive as to how many miles I’d do per day without drilling myself into the ground. All I can say, is that I had no idea how much benefit you get from structured training on the turbo and those 2 hour tempo / threshold sessions. So once again I’d like to thank Greg Parker https://www.gpcycle-coaching.co.uk/ for creating the plans for the winter as I felt stronger than ever during this trip and didn’t suffer with poor next day recovery or heavy legs!
So the route to Old Sarum where I would start the actual ride was to follow an old Roman Road that goes from Badbury Rings to Old Sarum. This worked out well for the majority, but then for some bizarre reason the Roman Road bridleway turned into a Roman Road footpath (Ackling Dyke) at this point it became a pushing session for nearly a mile as I had to carry my loaded bike over stiles and push it across terrain that felt like it hadn’t been walked on since the Romans!
Having to walk and then navigate the swamp of a byway meant that it was slow going and I didn’t arrive at Old Sarum until 1400hrs. At that point I had no idea where I’d end up by the end of the day.
It was then a quick ride through Salisbury City centre before reaching the actual route at Old Sarum. From here onwards, the rest of the day was spent riding fast fire type trails across Salisbury Plain and on towards Avebury.
I arrived at Avebury at around 730pm and after cycling all day in the sun a couple of ice cold lager tops went down a treat. I also met a South African chap from London who was doing the route in 2 days. So we decided that we would cycle up onto the ridgeway and find a suitable spot to camp for the night.
Day 2 – Avebury -> Frensham (95 miles, 4600ft elev)
Nature called mid way through the night and I stepped outside the tent to witness a wonderful night sky. It is truly amazing just how many more stars are visible when there is little light pollution. However, when I stepped outside the tent in the morning it was dense mist and I was glad that I had brought my thin goretex jacket with me. It was a shame as the wonderful views from the Ridgeway were obscured by the mist.
The riding along the Ridgeway was great fun and none of the hills were too demanding. The area is known for it’s horse racing trainers and that was evident by the numbers of gallops that you see whilst riding along the ridgeway.
Once the Ridgeway came to an end it was a descent down into Goring. For me personally, the rest of the days riding was very dull as you seemed to be riding through town after town. The one particular point that made me chuckle was cycling up a residential street that just seemed to be mansion after mansion. I wasn’t sure if the route creator was trying to show me “here’s what you could have won”.
The issue I faced as the day turned into early evening was where the hell I was going to stay for the night as it was very urbanised and there were no suitable places to camp. I pulled into a Travelodge in Reading at ~ 2000hrs to see if they had a room, but they were full. So my only option was to push on in the hope that I could find somewhere to pitch the tent, the light was fading and I was beginning to get a little concerned as I hadn’t brought any lights with me (rookie error).
Eventually, I cycled through Frensham Park and as much as I didn’t want to I had no choice but to pitch my tent near the entrance and just a few feet off the track. It was dark by now and nearly 2230hrs and I wasn’t going to risk my life cycling out on the road with no lights. I boiled some water and had some food before getting my head down ready for an early start. The one highlight was listening to the Nightjars and the Cuckoos.
I awoke at 545am, packed up and made sure I left everything neat and tidy. I always make sure I never leave a trace when wild camping. I usually have food and coffee before I set off, but today I wanted to get off before being spotted. But sadly, I was accosted by an angry woman who had her 6 dogs running all over the heath and around my tent, who took issue with me camping. The irony is that her dogs running wild were far more of a risk than I was to the ground nesting birds and I suspect she lets them run wild every morning when she takes them out.
So my advice to anyone contemplating riding the route and camping would be to camp further along the ridgeway towards Goring so that you are way past this whole section before nightfall.
Day 3 – Frensham -> Kings Somborne (71 miles, 5300ft)
I am not the earliest riser when camping as I struggle to drop off to sleep after cycling all day, but today was an exception and it was actually refreshing to reach a cafe at 0900hrs having already cycled 24 miles. Scambled egg on toast with mushrooms was a welcome change to the usual granola cereal at camp.
I cannot really remember much of the days riding, but I really enjoyed cycling up the Devil’s Punchbowl and then onwards and over the South Downs Way.
My favourite climb of this trip was the climb up from Queen Elizabeth Country Park. It was hard going on a loaded bike, but great satisfaction reaching the top without resorting to pushing.
Having cycled along the SDW it was a ride through Winchester before heading towards Kings Somborne where I found a nice country pub for some food and a couple of beers. Once again I had no idea where I would camp, but the locals were very helpful and directed me towards the local green. I actually camped in the Scout Hut garden as no one was there and it was nice and secluded.
Day 4 – Kings Somborne -> Blandford (50 miles)
After 3 nights sleep depravation from sleeping in my tent I was ready for a proper bed and I was kind of glad that today was my last day. Given I was only about 20 miles from Salisbury, I decided that I would just set off and get some food in Salisbury before the last stretch from Salisbury to Blandford.
I thoroughly enjoyed this trip and would recommend it. Yes, the section from Goring down through Reading is a bore, but the rest of it makes up for it. Unless you are a very good bike handler and travelling very light, I personally would say a 29er hardtail with fast rolling tyres like the Maxxis Ikon is a much better bike for this trip. Yes, it will be slower on the road sections and climbs, but some of the descents are quite rutted and rocky and even I would have found them a little too precarious on my gravel bike.
Apologies, it’s a brief write up, but it’s 3 months since I cycled the route and I have sadly forgotten a lot of the detail. It is however, a nice simple route that would be ideal for your first foray into bikepacking.