Sewing together a real patchwork of different landscapes from chalk downs to rolling crop fields and leafy forest, the King Alfred’s Way showcases some of the finest off-road riding in the South-East. Linking well-established routes including the South Downs Way and the Ridgeway with some lesser-discovered trails in between is a cracking idea, and in fact for me it was some of these hidden gems that proved to be the most captivating.
Introducing the King Alfred’s Way
Today, cycling charity Cycling UK, formerly known as the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), have released their long-awaited new bikepacking route; the King Alfred’s Way. As the name suggests, this 220 mile (350 km) route takes in much of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, home to Alfred the Great, and is rich both in historical sites and nature.
The circular route cleverly links two of the South’s best-know long distance off-road cycle routes, the South Downs Way and the Ridgeway. Both of these feature chalk meadowland habitats, and some incredible chalky single and doubletrack to be enjoyed, best in the dry. It also takes in part of the Thames Path and passes the start of the North Downs Way in Farnham too.
Four years of work have gone into establishing the route, including upgrading sections of footpaths to bridleways to allow bikes, and consultation with the Ministry of Defence and National Park Authorities.
A sneak peak of the circular route
We had the great joy of riding this route in July ahead of the official launch, accompanying Cycling UK’s Off-road Access Campaigner Sophie Gordon and Communications and Media Manager Sam Jones, as well as more familiar characters Stef and Dave from UK-based cycle touring specialist Pannier.cc.
We rode the King Alfred’s Way over four days, starting and finishing in quaint Farnham, Surrey. Of course as a circular route, you can start and end wherever you like, and the route links up with other off-road routes including the North Downs Way (which starts in Farnham), the Thames Path (which you join from Goring to Reading), and of course the Ridgeway and South Downs Way. This is all part of Cycling UK’s longer term ambition to have a national network of off-road long distance cycle trails.
Access is really easy, with many train stations along the route. You can start at Reading if you’re on one of the main train lines, or choose a quieter station along the route. The official route guide suggests you start at the heart of King Alfred’s ancient kingdom in Winchester.
Stage 1: Farnham to East Meon: Leafy Surrey bridleways to the South Downs Way
Leafy dirt bridleways and quaint rural villages set the scene in Surrey for the first stage. The Christmas Pie trail leads you out of Farnham town towards Frensham, wading through the River Wey to reach Frensham Great Pond and Common. This area of heathland, woods and lakes was a real highlight, with sandy bridleways reminiscent of cyclo-cross racing and a section through the trees on a dirt trail that felt like a pump track.
From Frensham Common the route continues south towards the Devil’s Punchbowl, over Thursley Common and gently undulating as you ride between trees hundreds of years old. You’ll notice the great network of cycle routes in Surrey as you join the traffic-free Liss Riverside Railway track into the village.
It’s not long before you hit the South Downs Way a few rural lanes later near South Harting. A few chalky bridleways lead you to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, where you can hit the MTB trails if you still have the energy! From here we faced the last hill of the day, the mighty Butser Hill, a long grassy ascent right next to the main road. From the tops it was plain sailing down to East Meon where we camped the night at Meon Springs.
Top tip: head to the Izaak Walton pub in the pretty village for some great refreshment in this real local’s pub.
Stage 2: East Meon to Tilshead: The South Downs Way to the Salisbury Plain
It may have been a murky start on the South Downs Way for our second stage, but it was no less spectacular. Rolling green fields stretched out beyond the mist, and the narrow strip of gravel – sometimes no more than a rut along a field margin – stretched out before us. It seemed like a long old way to Winchester as there was breakfast concerned, but we found the brilliant Handlebar Cafe on the cycle path into Winchester. Highly recommended!
After reaching the end of the South Downs Way in Winchester and giving the statue of King Alfred a nod, the next leg features a series of bridleways and lanes including part of the Monarchs Way towards Salisbury. Rather than ride through the ‘new’ city, you’ll climb up to Old Sarum, the original site of Salisbury before it was moved to its current location. The remaining old earthworks up here are impressive and offer incredible views over the Wiltshire countryside.
The final leg of the stage takes you from the city to the Plain, skirting around the edge of this important military training area. Take in views of the huge structures of Stonehenge as you ride along the dirt tracks to Amesbury, then past Larkhill camp to Tilshead. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife as you cross the Plain, as the absence of human activity for the most part has made a santurary for many species, including the Great Bustard which has been reintroduced here.
I’d really recommend spending the night at Tilshead, as there’s a brilliant campsite (Brades Acre Camping), and the village pub serves mouth-watering Italian dishes.
Stage 3: Tilshead to Wantage: The Salisbury Plain and the Ridgeway
Stage 3 offers the best of gravel roads, from the wide and easy Salisbury Plain access roads to the chalky Ridgeway. Don’t think you’ve got it all easy though, as there’s some pretty technical riding in there too, including navigating some rutted bridleways to start with along the edge of Salisbury Plain Training Area. This is just one of the places where Cycling UK have been working hard to upgrade some of the rights of way to allow cyclists.
After a pretty fun track descent to Chirton, you’ll take lanes to All Cannings village to cross the Kennet and Avon Canal before the paved climb up Tan Hill, summiting at 258 metres. The descent is off-road, chunky gravel and ruts, which makes for a pretty fun passing through the Vale of Pewsey down to Avebury.
It’s well worth taking a break at Avebury to marvel at the stone circles here. There’s a few cafes, shops and pubs here to stock up from, especially as you’re just about to climb up onto the Ridgeway where you’ll be a bit more remote.
It’s pure chalk as you pass the farm out of Avebury to climb up to meet the Ridgeway. At first it can be pretty rutted, but rest assured that the terrain does get a lot easier pretty quickly. Well signposted and easy to follow, the Ridgeway is a great traffic-free route that’s great for gravel bikes and mountain bikes alike. Be prepared for some slip and slide if it’s wet though on this chalky surface!
There are quite a few scenic spots to explore along the Ridgeway, including the Uffington White Horse and riding right through where Uffington Castle once stood proud. On our trip, thanks to some pretty extreme downpours, we detoured to Wantage to spend the night, although we’re told that the bunkhouse and tearooms at the Court Hill Centre is excellent and really close to the Ridgeway here.
Stage 4: Wantage to Farnham: The Thames Path and Berkshire trails
The final leg of our four-day trip on the King Alfred’s Way took us off the Ridgeway down to Goring on Thames, and along the river to Reading before the final part down to Farnham to complete the circle. The Ridgeway takes you along grassy bridleways and gravelly tracks to reach Goring, where you can enjoy a delightful cuppa at the Pierreponts café, which is really popular with cyclists.
From this gorgeous and evidently pretty affluent village, you pick up the Thames Path, a dirt bridleway running along the river. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’ll be flat though, as there’s some serious gradients here as you pass by pillbox gun emplacements from WWII hidden next to the path. On the plus side, at least there’s steps where it’s steepest!
After passing through the glorious estate on the way to Mapledurham, you’ll be surprised at how pleasant the trail to Reading is. This may be a bustling concrete landscape on the edge of London, but it’s particularly well served by cycle lanes along the Thames and then on the way out to the south. It’ll probably feel a bit strange being surrounded by buildings and people, having spent some days enjoying vast green views and seeing very few other people.
From Reading heading south, you’ll follow a combination of lanes, canal towpaths and bridleways, with the odd dip onto heath or woodland for some singletrack to spice things up. It’s a largely flat day, with the byway in Ewshot proving to be the final kick before a brilliant gravel descent down to the castle in Farnham to complete the loop.
Official Cycling UK Guidebook
Cycling UK have teamed up with archeologist Guy Kesteven to write a guidebook, who you’ll more likely know from his lifetime service as a professional bike tester in the MTB world. The 120 page guide is a cracking combination of practical information, detailed history (which this route boasts a huge amount of), and photography from a number of different trips on the King Alfred’s Way. You’ll also find a series of Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 route maps at the back and suggested itineraries too.
Get the GPX download here for the route, check out Cycling UK’s route guide (RRP £12) and start planning your trip!
Hungry for more? Take a read of Pannier.cc’s excellent journal from the trip.
If you have any questions about the route, drop us a comment below.
Last modified: 1st September 2020