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The King Alfred’s Way: 220miles on a gravel bike with Jo Meek

by Cheryl Fox on September 19, 2021

King Alfred’s Way is a 350km circular off road cycle route. The route was developed by The CTC to help create a network of long cycling distance paths. It connects four of England’s National Trails: North Downs Way, South Downs Way, Ridgeway and Thames Path on its journey.

Setting off on a wet blustery morning from Amesbury was daunting. Bike packing was meant to be a fair weather activity surely!! Ha ha!

We had selected to do this on gravel bikes but everyone else we met were on mountain bikes and doing it over 5days. It meant we were under pressure to keep pushing on as we only had 2.5days. I found it technically pretty challenging in places and we never really made up time on the tarmac bits. We didn’t even average 10mph throughout the whole trip. The mountain bike v gravel bike debate continues; however, we thoroughly enjoyed using the gravel bikes and the freedom they gave us to push the pace on road (thanks Clare for letting me use your bike).

5miles into the route I got a puncture. Followed immediately by another one! Then the mud on Salisbury was so sticky and full of clay it stuck between the front forks it was almost impossible to push the tyres forward (tip: tape around the top of the forks as the mud can rub the inside of them. In fact tape the frame especially where the bike packing bags sit!).

The route is named after the Anglo-Saxon ruler of the ancient kingdom of Wessex and passes through some iconic locations including World Heritage Sites at Stonehenge and Avebury and Iron Age hill forts at Old Sarum and Barbury Castle.

We pushed on through the rain, found a bike shop (Urchfont) on route to replenish our inner tubes and patches and then pushed on up to Avebury. I wanted us to cross under the M4 and then get onto the Ridgeway so we could find somewhere to camp.

It was getting dark and this Indian restaurant appeared out of nowhere like a mirage. We were so happy to see this place. We had been tackling slippy slidy single track and my efforts to stay upright meant I had been concentrating 100%.

Finding a place to camp was pretty easy and we were so pleased to find the sun shining in the morning.

The next day we set ourselves the target of doing 100miles. We set off with naive smiles prepared for a long day in the saddle and enjoying the adventure. In hindsight, we didn’t get going until too late, we didn’t fully appreciate our average speed, we got held up by more punctures but we still did 90miles before the dark descended.

We left Swindon behind us and arrived in Streatley for a fabulous lunch. Our afternoon lull coincided with a detour around Reading after the official route was temporally closed which was frustrating. However we worked it out and were soon off out of the city.

After all the chalky clay our squeaky chains were in desperate need of some lube (tip: take chain oil) so we made a pit stop at friends on route which broke up the afternoon and gave my bottom some quiet relief from the saddle.

The day took in so much variety as we rode along byways, bridleways, tow paths, through tunnels and country lanes. We passed a woman talking to chickens, a woman high, and a random lone flump on the floor!

Being off road so much meant access to shops for food was actually quite limited. We took lots of Supernatural Fuel pouches and they were brilliant for accessible natural energy on the go (tip: take lots of snacks).

After cycling a little bit of the North Downs trail to Farnham and through the Devils Punch Bowl we were ready for our fish and chips though- strapped on the back and ready to head off to find somewhere to pitch the tent.

Each day we never knew where we would end up but it always worked out.

An early morning dog walker (0430!) passed by the tent and I thought it was someone stealing the bikes so leapt out like a mad woman growling at them. I must have terrified the poor chap and his hairy hound (both wearing head torches Ha ha!).

The early start meant we headed off much earlier than the previous day and got to witness a beautiful sunrise. Cold hands and feet not helped much by putting on dirty wet socks from the previous two days! The day was a beautiful one and by the afternoon we were back to feeling the heat.

Maxing out on blackberries and taking advantage of the #KAW pop up stalls on route we cycled on the South Downs way, up Butser hill (mainly walked!) into Winchester and the burial place of King Alfred.

The route should start and finish in Winchester but it was easier for us to leave the car in Amesbury so we had to journey on along a variety of old Roman Roads and parts of the Clarendon Way. It was really beautiful albeit undulating and rounded off the whole trip with our dirty bikes, tired legs and smiling faces.