King Alfred’s Way: British touring in COVID times (02/04/21-05/04/21 & 31/05/21-01/06/21)

Well, it’s only taken me half a year to get this up. By the time I wrote most of this, I was doing my third 10 day isolation in 10 months. Don’t feel too sorry for me – two of those were post-travelling abroad having gone to see family in Denmark, still… that’s more than enough time to be stuck at home.

Despite not having updated this website for most of 2021, I have actually been off on a couple of small adventures. My blog storage became full, and I’ve been trying to put off spending money to increase it or finding a more clever permanent solution.

Anyway – the first of these little trips happened over the East Bank Holiday: on the King Alfred’s Way. 

King Alfred’s Way route

Last year, Cycling UK released the King Alfred’s Way. For a bike touring route, they did quite an impressive job of marketing it – I even saw it announced in corners of the mainstream news. Not bad considering that much of it is along well established routes such as the Ridgeway and the South Downs Way. The appeal of KAW is that it connects both of these long distance trails via pleasant, mostly off-road routes, creating a 350km circle that is incredibly accessible. 

Within this, they’ve tried to weave in some history and the name is inspired by Alfred the Great, who ruled the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The route starts and ends at King Alfred’s statue in Winchester, where he is buried. I’d love to start with a photo of the statue, but I can’t say I bothered to find it at either end.  

Heading west from Winchester

The route wasn’t of major interest to me, having ridden both the Ridgeway and South Downs way I figured that the connecting sections couldn’t be that exciting. But over the Easter Bank Holiday I was desperate for a little adventure – and this route seemed like an obvious choice. It was the first weekend after the government’s latest ‘stay at home’ advice had been relaxed but we still didn’t want to venture too far from home. My sister (Lea, who rode with me across a chunk of the US during my RTW), was up for it too – so we made the KAW our focus, and aimed to finish in 5 days. 

This time of year can easily go one of two ways in England. Last year, when the COVID-19 outbreak first started, we had a roasting spring. The weather turned glorious just as we entered lockdown and I vaguely recall the Easter bank holiday being a scorcher. This year it was the opposite, and winter took an eternity to end. After a very wet March, the trails had finally started to dry, but sadly we were still in for a nippy few days. 

We began at Winchester, where the route quickly turned onto rutted bridleways. I’d offered Lea my hardtail MTB, but she opted to ride her touring bike – the same hybrid Dawes that served her well when we rode together in America. I didn’t think the skinny tyres would be great on KAW, but at least the weather forecast was dry. 

It was nice to be spending a long weekend outdoors, after being cooped up inside for so long. We’d be very outside – only essential shops were open, meaning no cafes, restaurants or hotels were open yet.

We had a break in Salisbury, where we visited the cathedral and Lea’s friend came to see us. Although the cathedral is an iconic landmark, when I think of Salisbury these days the first thing that comes to my mind is Russian spies and Novichok. I suspect I’m not the only one, after the 2018 poisoning. 

We rode onwards, past Amesbury (through which I cycled on my first ever 300km audax) and then past Stonehenge. You could only just make out the rocks in the distance. When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in Devon and shouting ‘I can see Stonehenge’ from the A303 was a staple occasion on the long drive down from London.

That evening we continued riding onto the Salisbury Plain, a chalk plateau that covers a large chunk of the route. Roughly half of the plain is a military training area, which gives it an odd aesthetic. Long gravel roads cut through it, and last time I rode through here I saw tanks doing whatever it is that people in tanks do. Driving lessons, perhaps?

We found a cluster of trees that made great cover, but they were still bear this time of year, so we waited until the last light before setting up. Just as we were doing so, Lea said to me: “I think there’s someone camping over there’, pointing through the trees. I walked over, trying not to give the other person a fright, and introduced myself. They were also making a sneaky pitch for the night – albeit with a lower profile green bivvy – after a long day riding on the KAW. What were the chances!

It had been a cold night and it remained a cold day. We felt hard done by as we headed away from the plains. It was a strange area, with military presence everywhere. We had to deviate from one section because there were red ‘training’ flags flying, and some of the villages – like Larkhill – but were unmistakingly ‘army’. 

A nasty headwind kept us company up on the Ridgeway, making the ride rather unpleasant. Last time I rode the Ridgeway – a couple of years ago – I hadn’t realised that there were basically no supply options on the route, so I was starving by the time I finished. This time, with the benefit of familiarity, I managed to do exactly the same and by late afternoon we were starting to wonder what our options would be for dinner. We deviated from the ridge and headed down into a village, but the shops were already closed and the pubs were out of action thanks to COVID.

We were ravenous, and Lea was bonking. Our only options were to deviate even further and head into Wantage where the supermarkets would still be open, or to ride back to where we’d seen an Indian takeaway a little earlier. The latter sounded more appealing, so we pedalled back to fill our bags with curry. After scoffing some naan a little energy found its way into our legs, and we rode back onto the Ridgeway in search of a suitable campsite. Before long, we found an idyllic spot hidden away in the trees with views across the fields and ate our takeaway dinner as the sun set. 

We polished off our leftovers for breakfast, and finished off the Ridgeway section in the morning, dropping down to Goring on the river Thames. We traced the river towards Reading, along a beautiful section of the Thames Path before McDonalds lunch and an emergency duct-tape repair on Lea’s trainers. 

The section south from Reading was less inspiring. Typical British mixed-terrain riding, with country lanes and muddy, disjointed bridleways connecting tiny villages. We settled in for another cold night, with temperatures dropping down to freezing. It felt harsh that we were having to put up with these temperatures in April.

The next day was flat. It was overcast and cold, and we took a long break in Farnham to escape a passing hailstorm. We could pop into cafes to get a warm drink, but no one was allowed to stay inside. We desperately wanted to warm up, but that wouldn’t be possible anywhere other than in the supermarkets. Lea was starting to feel unwell, so we picked up a hot water bottle to get us through the final night of camping. Weather forecast was for -3C, yikes!

But the day went from bad to worse. Somewhere around Frensham Common I noticed that my back wheel’s rotor was rubbing against the brake pads. When I removed the rear wheel to inspect things, I saw that the axle end cap had snapped clean off. I’ve never seen that happen on a bike before. I tried half-heartedly to secure the wheel into position in vain. It was ironic really – I’ve spent so much time and money getting my bike done-up the last year, and yet it was mine that broke. Not Lea’s £100 eBay pick up that only gets ridden occasionally. 

It was a bank holiday so all the bike shops would probably be closed, but in truth I was happy to have a reason to bail. The cold nights weren’t fun, and Lea was far more ill than she’d let on. She’s even more stubborn than me. We weren’t too far from Farnham, and now we had an excuse to get the fast train back into London and invite ourselves round to our dad’s for a warm shower and dinner.

And that was the end of our first KAW excursion. We returned to our normal routines as the UK continued to ‘unlock’. We knew we’d like to return and finish what was left of the route, even if it was a mere 90km. At the end of May, two months after our initial attempt, we both had a weekend free to return and finish things off. We could have knocked it out in a day, but instead we rode it as a leisurely overnighter. It happened to be my birthday, and I liked the idea of a peaceful night out of London for it. 

Beginning from where we left things…

The weather was far nicer to us this time around. The sun was out, and everything was far greener than it had been in spring. I offered Lea my MTB for the second time, thinking that she’d surely accept it after the bone shaking ride previously, but she again opted for her trusty Dawes.  Instead, I took the Marin hardtail and we rode on completely opposite rigs: myself with plus size tyres and front suspension, Lea rattling along on a rigid frame with skinny tyres. 

We pitched that night in a campsite near Petersfield that I’d booked in advance. Sometimes it’s nice knowing where you’re going to end up, and as much as I love not paying for stuff – most campsites are hardly bank-breaking. 

Somehow, I’d got food plans wrong again. The pub we’d planned to eat at had stopped serving dinner by the time we arrived, as had the others in the area. It was a long-shot, but we loaded up a takeaway app to see if we were close enough to town for anyone to deliver to us. To our delight, we were – just! We ordered a couple of pizzas and half an hour later dinner had arrived at our peaceful field in the South Downs. I’d even requested a cold beer and a Peroni arrived ice cold. There weren’t many others camping in the same place, but I’m sure those that were were looking up thinking ‘that’s how you camp in style’.

The final morning we rode up onto the South Downs Way and headed back towards Winchester. I’ve cycled this section of the SDW before, but not for a couple of years – and it was nice to cycle it in the reverse direction. We deviated from the KAW at the very end in search of a wild swimming spot, and then rolled into town, wrapping up the loop. 

The KAW is a well thought out route. If you are in this part of the country, I’d say that the SDW and Ridgeway are more impressive rides, but if you’re interested in something slightly longer, or that starts and ends in the same place – then this is a great option. The fact that it is so accessible means that it is very easy to connect and extend into other routes. Consider the above mentioned routes, the North Downs Way or even my own loop that brings you back into London.

It was amazing to see other bikepackers out on the route – I’ve never seen so many people travelling by bike in one place, even when the weather was still poor. Cycling UK have done an amazing job of inspiring people to get out and explore by bike. Don’t underestimate the challenge of the route: touring off-road is never easy, especially in a hilly country like this. My gravel-converted Dawes with 47mm tyres was great for the job, but Lea’s hybrid was a little out of its depth.

That said, if Lea could do it without whinging, you probably could too – on anything other than a road bike.

If I had the time to travel further afield I’d always like to go a little further from home in search of more impressive landscapes – but for an easy getaway in the South of England, I’d definitely recommend King Alfred’s Way.

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