The King Alfred’s Way
When Cycling UK announced their new route, the King Alfred’s Way, there was much excitement amongst the cycling community. Even amongst our own friends, we heard of more and more people taking on the circular bikepacking route.
Not one to miss out on a challenge, Mum and I had decided to give it a go and see what all the fuss was about. The route is close to home, has plenty of amenities (cake stops) on the way and we’d be able to do it in five days or less, not needing a huge amount of time off work. The King Alfred’s Way sounded perfect.
The only thing we didn’t have, however, was a mountain bike. The King Alfred’s Way has been branded a ‘bikepacking’ route we wondered how we’d fair on classic touring bike and pannier set up, as opposed to MTB bar bags. We trailed the forums looking for reassurance and sure enough, there were some folk out there who had done it on much thinner tires.
The South Downs
We left one hour behind schedule, which wasn’t surprising as we can sure faff about. Just outside Hambledon, about 12 miles in, one of my back spokes broke – great. Luckily we were minutes from our favourite local tea room, The Old Forge, so we popped in for lunch and a slice of cake and removed the spoke, thanks to the assistance of an overly attentive male cyclist.
A few miles on we reached the South Downs Way where we would officially join the King Alfred’s Way. We celebrated with an espresso from Alan’s Coffee van on top of Old Winchester Hill. Here we got chatting to a hiker who had done the Camino de Santiago, like us.
Cycling westwards on the South Downs Way towards Winchester was beautiful. It was June so the wildflowers and wildlife were out in force. I even saw a weasel crossing the road! We met the first of many cyclists doing the King Alfred’s Way, something I really liked about the route.
We were nearing Winchester when two more spokes broke on my bike. Now we were in trouble. The nearest bike shop was closing up for the week in 20 minutes and we phoned to ask them to stay open. However, we weren’t able to get there within the hour and the staff agreeing to stay open on a Saturday night just wasn’t going to happen. They were very helpful though. After calling all the bike mechanics in Winchester we had no option than to call it a day and head to Halford’s the following morning who assured me they had the correct wheel in stock.
We enjoyed a slap-up meal from the Dispensary Kitchen and then cycled 5km out of town to find a suitable camping spot for the evening. We pitched up on the path next to a golf course and near the M3. It wasn’t the most tranquil location, but we had our very own alarm clock – the golf course groundsmen!
After waiting until 10:30am for Halfords to open, we were surprised to find they had no wheel, a miss-communication with their call centre. To cut a long story short, Carlos (my partner) had to drive to a not-so-near bike shop, buy us a wheel and then drive for over an hour to deliver it to us. We were now a full day behind schedule but hey, at least we were moving again!
Day 2 – Test Valley
It was quite hard to navigate out of Winchester so my OS Trail 2 GPS came in handy. The path to Houghton was both rocky and rather hilly but nothing we couldn’t handle.
We decided on this trip that we’d wild camp and eat at places on the way. Occasionally we found it hard to get food. There either wasn’t a vegan option for mum or the kitchen had closed at 2pm and didn’t open until 6pm. Luckily we’d packed some wraps and peanut butter so we were never famished.
That afternoon was horrible. The path was incredibly overgrown and narrow with deep ruts, which required some concentration and lots of stinging nettles. One downhill section we whizzed down but were getting stung all the way, it was quite funny though, we were shouting out “ouch, ooh, aah…” all the way. We met lots of other cyclists, all doing the route on mountain bikes or gravel bikes and loving it. We arrived at a nearby pub and found it shut. Luckily the kind landlady told us their sister pub, The Winterbourne Arms, up the road was open and phoned ahead for us to ask them to keep the kitchen open so we could eat – and they had vegan options for mum!
We only planned to cycle 10km more that evening but it ended up being 20km. Funny how that always happens when you’re looking for the perfect camping spot. After cycling on the road for a good 30 minutes, I spotted a stile leading into a field and suggested we check it out. We spent ages getting our luggage off of our bikes and lifting it over the stile and putting it back on the bike before realising we were in a field of cows and their calves. Not ideal.
It was dark by now so we had to repeat the process of getting over the stile and continue our journey. It was nearly 11pm when we finally pitched up. Another day of type 2 fun!
Day 3 – Salisbury Plain
We woke at 4:30am to the most incredible dawn chorus, it was wonderful! That morning it was pleasant riding and we made good time through the army camps near Salisbury Plain, despite much of the route being on a busy road. Where’s Stonehenge I thought, surely we should have passed it by now? It turns out we had off-shot it by quite a few miles! There is an alternative route that goes right past it that we were unaware of. I wasn’t missing out on Stonehenge so we retraced our tracks and cycled up close, all before it opened to the public.
Word of warning, do not eat at the Stonehenge visitor centre, the cake was tougher than the stones themselves! The route over Salisbury Plain was beautiful with skylarks flying over us and plenty of cyclists to stop and chat to.
The famous Ridgeway provided incredible scenery but it was tough going as the path was so narrow and bumpy, we really did struggle. The second half of the day was much smoother and we were able to enjoy the views. We whizzed down to The Inn with the Well, a friendly pub with great vegan options.
After dinner and a couple of bitter shandies (my new favourite cycling drink) we cycled on for 10km or so until we found a camp spot. Unfortunately, the first spot was taken so we continued on and ended up just setting up on the path due to darkness.
Day 4 – The Ridgeway
We woke at 5:30am when a dog walker passed, not disturbing us on purpose. We continued along the Ridgeway with good bits and bad, mainly the terrain being the deciding factor. There were plenty of walkers out, all very friendly and we shared the path well. It was a bit tricky to find food as, like the South Downs Way, you’re on the hilltops and villages with amenities tend to be much lower in altitude. This meant a detour downwards and back up again which was worth it, as I had a puncture to fix.
We’d completed the Ridgeway and now it was time to reward ourselves with a fancy lunch from the Coppa Club – a little disappointing I must admit. It was a beautiful setting though and I’m surprised they let us in, not having washed for a few days! We cycled through beautiful Goring, an award-winning town, and on to the Thames Path which I was convinced was flat. I was wrong! Here, we were greeted with the steepest hill, so steep it took two of us to push one bike up.
High above us were a large gathering on red kites. I’ve been told they re-introduced red kites to this area ten years ago and now they are thriving. It was lovely to see. We continued along the Thames Path into Reading which was nice easy riding along the river there. It was actually quite hard to find (decent) food so we ended up in Pret. It took us a while to navigate out of Reading (thank god for OS maps!) and it was enjoyable riding from there.
We faffed around for far too long looking for somewhere to eat on Google Maps so in the end we just went to the closest pub which was very run-down pub and the food as expected. I always enjoy cycling after dinner, the air is fresh, the sun is setting and it’s my favourite time of day. Plus it’s nice to digest a little before bedtime. We continued on about 10km until we saw some woodland. We thought we’d found the perfect camp spot until a fox started barking just as we were drifting off. It didn’t stop for a long time and returned in the early hours too!
Day 5 – Devil’s Punchbowl, Sussex, South Downs
I woke up hating foxes but eager to push on to Farnham which was only 30km away on flat country lanes (at last!). Gail’s Bakery was on my mind and I enjoyed not one, but two huge pastries for breakfast. The riding was good until we reached Frensham and Rushmoor Commons where it suddenly became very dry, hot and incredibly sandy – almost impossible to cycle over. I lost mum for 30 minutes (don’t ask) and her mudguard came off, it was a tough morning to say the least with lots of pushing uphill.
We were now in familiar territory having reached the Devil’s Punchbowl, a place where we often enjoy walks/runs. From here, we practically knew our way, although that didn’t make it any easier – we still had the South Downs to tackle. Most of the afternoon was spent on mountain bike tracks which required a decent level of confidence and concentration. It was particularly hard for mum who was carrying a much heavier load.
The South Downs Way was probably the toughest part of the route and within minutes my mudguard had snapped. Much of it was impossible to ride, Butser Hill especially, and it wasn’t suitable for a touring bike at all. We’d set off at 5:30am and I didn’t finish cycling until 8:30pm at night. I was spent. Everything hurt.
King Alfred’s Way: things you should know
The King Alred’s Way is an enjoyable cycle route, passing varied landscapes, landmarks and historic sites. A mountain/gravel bike with minimal setup (no camping gear or just a bivvy) would be ideal. I found that, although doable, it was incredibly tough going on a touring bike with panniers.
There are plenty of options for food, drink and accommodation. I would recommend taking some food with you as pubs close their kitchens during the afternoon and cafes close early. There was definitely more type 2 fun than type 1, but that was probably due to our choice of bike – so self-inflicted really. As time goes by, we’ll look back at the time we cycled the King Alfred’s Way and laugh at the adventures (albeit difficult) we had.