Distance 74 miles (119km)
Climbing 1237m (4061ft)
Maps OS Landranger 174 Newbury and Wantage and 185 Winchester and Basingstoke
- Download the route here
This quiet, misty, wooded lane, with birdsong and early morning light filtering through the canopy, is quintessential rural English riding. But my legs feel like lead, and every few hundred metres my all-too-recent quintessentially English breakfast reintroduces itself to my senses.
It seemed a great idea on paper: what better way to celebrate Britain’s 12 cycling medals from the 2012 London Olympics than to tackle a bike ride along some of southern England’s finest country lanes, taking in three Olympic challenges of our own – the all-day Olympic Breakfast of Britain’s best known roadside eatery, Little Chef, for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
Okay, even on paper it seems a little foolish, especially when we realise that our intended starting point, Popham Little Chef, can only be accessed via the suicidally fast and busy A303 dual-carriageway. But it was the first of the chain’s diners to be tackled by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, as documented in Channel 4’s Big Chef meets Little Chef back in 2010, which showed the chef trying to turn around the chain’s lacklustre menu and image, and we feel it deserves inclusion, somehow.
Unfortunately Popham Little Chef is the natural starting point for our ride for every reason except riding, so we do the sensible thing – eat our first Olympic Breakfast there and then decamp by car to the cafe at Popham Airfield on the northern side of the dual-carriageway.
The airfield is home to the Spitfire Flying Club, and one open hangar is overflowing with replica German WWI planes. It’s like we and our carbon fibre bikes have rolled back through a wrinkle in time to a century ago. From here, though, we’re well placed to head north on quiet roads, leaving the noise and stress of the A303 behind us.
As we spin north from the airfield, we pass Formula 1 legend-turned-organic farmer Jody Scheckter’s Laverstoke Farm, where the annual British BBQ championships were once hosted, but the thought of buffalo burgers gives me outdoor-reared pork sausage répété.
My indigestion has cleared up by the time we get to the thatched, whitewashed cottages of Overton. The town’s biggest claim to fame is its De La Rue paper factory – the company that, quite literally, has the licence to print money – not just the pound, but the euro and over 150 other currencies worldwide.
Paper mills need water, so it’s no surprise that after crossing the river to the north of Overton our route starts to climb. The idea of ‘borrowing’ the best of a successful sportive’s route means that again we find ourselves on another quiet and sheltered single-track strip of tarmac through rolling, rural countryside. High hedges are becoming a motif of this ride, but all we have to do is sit up to enjoy the sweeping Hampshire scenery.
More lanes, more mostly gentle climbing past almost artistically ploughed fields, and we arrive in the village of Hannington, about 10 miles in. Just through the village is the high point of the first half of the ride about 120 metres above Overton. We top out with the hum of huge power lines overhead and a straight strip of tarmac stretching out gently downhill in front of us for miles, as far as the eye can see.
Picking up pace, our rolling downhill ends in a steep slope down to a busy T-junction, and we have to haul on the anchors to avoid shooting across the B3051. Turning right onto it we head north, following signs for Kingsclere. There’s a white line down the middle of this bigger road but traffic is still sparse. Passing back under the power lines we were following only minutes ago, we start the climb of White Hill, which rises to the crest ahead.
OVA THE TOP
As the road levels out over the hill, and we catch our breath – or free-range eggs in my case – before tipping down the other side, the landscape drops spectacularly away to our left. It’s racing tucks all round as we drop like stones from the ridge line towards the valley below.
The rest of the road into Kingsclere is fast and flat, although we duck off just short of town along the quiet back lanes of Bear Hill and Fox Lane on a sly detour to avoid the town centre.
Hitting one of the few big roundabouts of the day, we go straight across the A339 and almost immediately dive back into cosy cottage-lined lanes that soon lead to open hedge-lined country single track again, and soon we’re ducking and diving along a winding road across the valley floor towards our next landmark: Ashford Hill. Ashford Hill village comes and goes, with a nice little descent in the village after turning left towards Brimpton. It’s only then that the Hill of the name materialises, as we climb steeply up to Brimpton Common.
Immediately after topping out, we plummet back down and lose every metre gained, before digging back into a slightly less steep but equally high climb up to Crookham Common and a dead straight road through colourful woodland.
Just before Thornford Park, we turn left through Compton Wood to contour down the valley. Ahead, the canopy closes in, blocking out most of the sky, while the ground drops away on our left to the river we know is there somewhere. The road is certainly fast and flowing, and takes us to a rare roundabout with the busy A339, which we head south on for a few hundred metres before turning down the promisingly tranquil Hyde Lane.
We’ve been steadily climbing since Bishop’s Green on the A339, and now there’s a small payback before we have to invest in gaining altitude again for another five miles or so. Almost every mile is on intimate and winding woodland lanes, until we arrive in Burghclere.
As we cruise past immaculately kept gardens and cottages, the rumbling up ahead, as well as in our stomachs, signals that the busy A34 and lunch at Little Chef number two must be close.
Thankfully, Little Chef Newbury is a whole lot easier – and safer – to access on bikes than Popham, and we ride over rather than along the A34 to get our second all-day Olympic Breakfast.
Waddling out of the diner an hour later, we all agree this is going to be tough. We’re not quite halfway round our 70-mile triple Olympic challenge and already we’ve had our fill – of food. What’s more, the hardest three climbs of the day, the 20 per cent Walbury Hill, 10 per cent Linkenholt Hill and 14 per cent Conholt Hill, are all in the next 20 miles. Probably well before we’ve had a chance to digest our second Ramsay of Carluke black pudding of the day…
Thankfully the first five miles, though rolling, are generally downhill as we pass across the top of the Highclere Castle Estate, now better known as ITV’s Downton Abbey. But it’s not long before a small stream-crossing marks our ride’s halfway point, and the road starts rising gently again as we cross Inkpen Common. Suddenly the hedges disappear and on our right appears the imminent challenge of Walbury Hill, a thin ribbon of road carving up it to the ridge 150 metres above. This is by far the toughest climb of the day and about halfway up, my stomach reminds me exactly what outdoor-reared bacon tastes like. The effort is worth it, though, and we’re rewarded by fantastic views to the north as we skirt round the earthworks of the ancient fort site on Berkshire’s highest hill, before plummeting down its western side.
The next few miles take us along the shallow bottom of a quiet valley until we reach the smaller challenge of Linkenholt Hill, rising up the wooded ridgeline ahead of us. What starts as an almost claustrophobic cutting opens up to reveal more far-reaching views of rolling fields, before we finally hit the top.
Back in the solitude of hedge-lined lanes, four miles of gradual descent take us past redbrick farmsteads and thatched cottages to a little village called Upton.
As the road gradually rises again and we pass Vernham Dean village, all our minds are on the final big climb ahead of Conholt Hill, which should start somewhere near here soon. At last we find it and we follow the signs, accompanied by the unmistakable sounds of energy product consumption – surely we must have enough calories on board already!
Fifteen minutes later we’re all over the top and, happily, everyone has managed to hold on to their lunch (well, breakfast). Joining the arrow-straight Hungerford Lane, we can now revel in the fact that all the big climbs are behind us, and the next six or seven miles are generally downhill.
Skirting round the west of Andover, we soon ride under the hustling A303 – a sign that we’re closing our loop and on the final section of our ride. Following Red Post Lane south, we’re on the river Test floodplain now, with the chalky downs behind us. Cutting south-east on the straight, hedgeless Fullerton Road, there’s a dimple of a climb by Fullerton Manor before we cross the river Anton – a tributary of the river Test – and then the Test itself.
In Barton Stacey, we keep east on Bullington Lane, meeting up with the Test again before rolling under the A34 then south for a couple of miles on the A30 – the least evil of the available options.
After going through Sutton Scotney and back over the A34, we turn right down the lane that leads, inevitably, to Little Chef Olympic Breakfast number three – at four o’clock in the afternoon. [We’re afraid you’ll have to settle for a non-Little Chef all day breakfast as this restaurant is now under different ownership]
It’s our last challenge of the day before we roll back to Popham Airfield a few miles down the road. I have to confess, though, I’m not man enough for it, and I opt instead for coffee and a toasted teacake. I really don’t know how I’m going to live with the shame.
Andover Road, Micheldever www.nationalrail.co.uk
Food and drink
Little Chef Popham, Little Chef Newbury, Little Chef Sutton Scotney, www.littlechef.co.uk. Alternatively: practically every village in this area has a gourmet pub; Popham Airfield Cafeteria, www.popham-airfield.co.uk; Laverstoke Park Farm Shop www.laverstokepark.co.uk
Where to stay
See www.visit-hampshire.co.uk. If you want to stay near Highclere Castle – aka Downton Abbey – see www.highclerecastle.co.uk
Newbury has Halfords, Banjo Cycles, and BikeLux ; Andover has Just Bikes 01264 355982
Images: Russell Burton