Distance 44 miles (70km)
Climbing 738m (2421ft)
Descent 854m (2801ft)
Duration 5-8 hours
Maps OS Landranger 173 Swindon & Devizes, 174 Newbury & Wantage
Download the route www.bikely.com/maps/bike-path/aveburytothames
Nobody would divert the A303 straight through Stonehenge, but that’s more or less what happened at Avebury. The Wiltshire village has Neolithic stone circles larger than those at its more famous neighbour, but an A road runs right through the middle. One moment you’re immersed in the atmosphere of this ancient monument, the next a truck rumbles past on its way to Swindon.
It’s an odd but fascinating place, and the starting point for an off-road epic exploring the western half of Britain’s oldest road, The Ridgeway. While Neolithic stonemasons were constructing Avebury, the Ridgeway had probably already been in use for a few hundred years as a trade route. It’s now a National Trail, stretching from Overton Hill just outside of Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns. The western half is open to cyclists all the way to the river Thames, and that’s the route we’re here to ride.
We did it byway
The official start of the Ridgeway is in a nondescript car park next to the A4, a mile or so from Avebury. But instead of riding around by road, we take the byway from the village which heads up the hill to join the Ridgeway around half a mile in.
I’m riding with Guy Pearson from Surrey bike shop Pearson Cycles, who is as handy on a cyclo-cross bike as I am ham-fisted, and he takes the lead as the track gets slippery. The trail is increasingly rutted, and autumn rain has made gloopy pools almost deep enough to swallow a front wheel whole. This isn’t just any old mud either. It’s Neolithic mud, a special kind of gunk which manages to offer no grip at all to a bicycle tyre but clings to your frame and drivetrain like quick-setting cement.
At the top of the climb the surface improves dramatically, and we pick up speed. The firmer, more even track still has puddles, but instead of getting stuck, we’re able to slalom between them at 20mph-plus, and we make better time all the way to Barbury Castle on top of the Marlborough Downs.
This Iron Age hill fort is one of many along the western half of the Ridgeway. On a clear day the views are spectacular, but today the fog is too thick to see far.
Here the National Trail and the old, original Ridgeway part company for a while. We take a wrong turn and follow the old track, a smooth and open descent to the foot of the downs, which we ride as fast and hard as the fog allows. My Garmin beeps its disapproval at our high-speed detour, and we hang a right to get back on course. Knobbly tyres slip and squirm their way straight up a steep road climb to rejoin the trail on the other side of Barbury Castle.
Every now and again the fog clears enough to give a sense of the stunning views to be enjoyed in good weather, and we can hear larks singing somewhere in the gloom. As we head down the side of the ridge, visibility gets better but the going gets softer, and we slip, slide and spin our way to the foot of the hill. A brief stint on the road throws the worst of the mud from our tyres as we roll into the tiny village of Southend. After staying upright through the sloppiest parts of the trail, Guy almost goes straight on at one tarmac corner before we reach the busy A346. It’s the first time in nearly an hour that we’ve seen a car.
Chalk and wheeze
The track continues on the other side of the road, passing a disused railway before beginning a tough, chalky grind towards Round Hill Downs.
There’s a short, sharp road section before the climbing begins again. The track is rough in places and I pick up the first and only puncture of the day. A team of horses wander towards us from the field next to the path; one of them has different coloured eyes, and watches us curiously as we set to work on the flat tyre. Bike fixed, we cross a lethal-looking rickety stile, and continue to climb. Whenever the mists lift we can see just how high we have ridden.
high and (not) dry
A few hundred yards further on is another of the Ridgeway’s hill forts, Liddington Castle. Unlike Avebury or Barbury Castle, there’s no car park for visitors. If you want to get up close to one of Britain’s earliest forts, perched high above the Wiltshire countryside, you have to make the effort. It’s worth it, though – the chances are when you have walked or cycled to the top of the hill, you’ll have this historic site to yourself.
From way up high the track drops straight down the side of the hill, and the surface is firm enough to really let rip, just so long as you grab a big enough fistful of brake to stop before the gate at the bottom.
We turn left onto the road then almost immediately right for a big-ring blast over the M4 and back onto the trail at the foot of Fox Hill. Guy and I stop for a breather and empty our pockets of food before continuing up the track. Stiff legs and a stiffer climb aren’t a great combination. Looking at our watches it’s clear we need to make good time to reach the Thames before dark.
The next few miles alternate fast and slow sections. One moment the track is firm and smooth and we’re working together like a two-man breakaway taking an off-road shortcut; the next, the mud and ruts are back and we’re concentrating hard in order to stay upright. At times it feels like we’re riding Paris-Roubaix, only with no cobbles, just mud.
After one particularly tricky section we spot a sign for Wayland’s Smithy and take a short detour to investigate. Just a few yards from the main track, hidden in a wooden copse, is an enormous Neolithic long barrow – a burial chamber around 1000 years older than the Avebury stone circles.
A palpable atmosphere surrounds this dank mound of earth and stone, especially on a misty afternoon, with autumn leaves falling from the trees. There’s no gift shop, no tour guide – this is undiluted history well off the usual tourist trail. Wayland’s Smithy really brings home just how ancient the Ridgeway is.
Glad to have been going slowly enough to spot the sign, we strike back to the main trail, then notice some singletrack heading into the wood on the other side. Guy can’t resist it, and disappears through a tiny gap in the trees. On the other side we find another trail, much better surfaced, and eerily quiet under the canopy of trees. We ride through the wood for a while before rejoining the proper track and pressing on to the next history lesson at Uffington Castle.
Get a grip
Getting there means taking on the day’s trickiest climb, with a surface of wet chalk and loose stones, criss-crossed by rain gullies. Stand up and the back wheel just spins, so we have no choice but to sit down and look for traction where we can.
At the top there’s yet another prehistoric site, Uffington Castle. We’re not yet blasé enough to ride on past, but it’s a shame we don’t have more time to explore because the Uffington White Horse – a stylised chalk horse carved into the hillside – is just over the brow of the hill. It’s thought to be around 3000 years old.
From here the trail drops away steeply and we push on eastwards. A few miles on we pass the monument to Baron Wantage, a local landowner who served in the Crimean War. The stone memorial may be more than 100 years old, but compared with Wayland’s Smithy it was built yesterday.
Continuing on our way, we catch sight of some muntjac deer running across a field and a rare lesser spotted woodpecker crosses the path ahead of us. A little later, as the trail leaves the high ground and plunges down towards the village of Streatley and the Thames, we spot three red kites circling languidly overhead.
The trail turns to tarmac for the final dash to the Thames. We stop on a bridge over the river to watch the waters flow, and reflect on a challenging day’s riding through beautiful scenery and thousands of years of history. And to wonder if any of the local pubs will serve two muddy cyclists in need of a pint…
Pewsey station is seven miles from Avebury; Goring and Streatley station is by the finish.
Food and drink
There are relatively few places to buy food and drink. Easy places to divert to just off the route include Ogbourne St George and Ashbury, but it pays to take plenty of sustenance with you.
Where to stay
Try www.visitwiltshire.co.uk or www.goring-gap.co.uk. Alternatively, get hold of a copy of The Ridgeway National Trail Companion which lists accommodation nearby, and is published by the National Trails Office (see www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ridgeway).
You’re really out in the sticks on this ride, so it pays to be self- sufficient.
Find out more about the Ridgeway National Trail here
Images: Geoff Waugh
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