Riding with the King
While working full-time at the University of Leicester I had the pleasure of being able to cycle to work, which meant I rode most days. This got me back into cycling on a regular basis, although I have been cycling all my adult life, and first enjoyed going on rural cycle rides as a boy, exploring further afield than I would get comfortably on foot: this expanded the ‘map’ of my world considerably. I always remember reaching the edge of a village, and looking out from its hill-top site over the vast unknown landscape beyond, and feeling a certain frisson of ‘here be dragons’. To a lad who hadn’t travelled far at that point, this was terra incognita.
I have loved getting to know a landscape under my own steam ever since. By walking, running, or cycling a landscape you get to ‘know’ it in a visceral, embodied way. You have a physical sense of the lay of the land, not just a mental map. And this makes where you live (and its environs) so much more tangible. You have come to know it through your feet, or effort.
Having recently purchased a shiny new bike through work (a Specialized Diverge E5) I thought I would try out the King Alfred’s Way – a 350km circular off-road cycle route created by Cycling UK, and launched in 2020. As this passes close to where I live (near Avebury, Wiltshire), and where I used to work (Winchester) it seemed like a tempting one to do. I have done some cycle rides in my area on my old mountain bike, and despite a tumble earlier in the year which left me with serious gravel burn, I was determined to get back in the saddle and to hit the road.
Bikepacking is very much in vogue. Back in the day it used to be called cycle-camping, and to my mind there isn’t much difference, except the popularity of pricey kit for mountain bikes (e.g tail-packs and other funny shaped bits of micro-luggage designed to fit onto the frame). Well, having invested in a pair of really decent Ortlieb panniers I thought they would be more than adequate. Some advise against low-slung panniers, but I didn’t have any issues – it was more likely that the pedals would clip the top of a rut if anything. I took the bare minimum I needed for 4 days of wild-camping: food, shelter, and warmth (water, snacks, and meal pouches, stuff to make an essential cuppa and my morning porridge, a sleeping hammock and tarp, and thermals and fleece for the evening). Nothing more than I would carry on my back if backpacking – which I did earlier in the summer, walking the Wessex Ridgeway. Letting the bike take most of the weight makes a huge difference, although of course one still has to exert energy to make progress, especially up those hills! Unlike walking though, one has the joy of coasting – the reward for all those ascents; and of whizzing along an empty country lane. On a bike one can cover greater distances (my average was 55 miles a day; on foot it’s 15); see more; and get through long, boring sections quickly (e.g. traversing a long section of road, or escaping a city).
The guide book from Cycling UK (recommended for planning and info about the features along the way, if not the mapping – which at 1:50,000 is not useful at the nitty gritty level) suggests between 2-5 days (or stopovers). I opted for 4 nights, as I didn’t want it to be a complete slog. Unlike some people I don’t like turning the countryside into a backdrop for some macho endurance competition – hats off to those who do, but it’s not my bag. I just love the great outdoors, and during the ongoing global pandemic crisis, a local bikepacking adventure seemed like a sensible choice, and one also good for the environment.
With my bike fully-loaded, I caught the train to Winchester – South West Trains has free bike spaces on their local services. You can’t book ahead for these, but I was in luck. Deciding to set off on Thursday early evening I managed to avoid the bank holiday weekend rush. This meant I could make a start on the trail, and hopefully avoid the crowds I had been told to expect (as it turned out, I saw maybe half a dozen cyclists doing the King Alfred’s Way). Getting out of Winchester, and finding somewhere to pitch up in the rapidly fading light were the first challenges. I tried to use Komoot with the downloaded GPS map of the route, but found it very unreliable and frustrating: trying to use that, plus the guidebook map and compass, created a cognitive dissonance: 2 different mapping systems and mindsets clashing. Having intended a digital detox as well, I found the constant focus on the GPS distracting and jarring (that sat-nav voice shattering the bucolic idyll!). And so in the end I opted to just go analogue. I found it easier to navigate the old school way, although map-reading on a bike is hard! One is going faster, and there is less thinking time. One can keep pulling over, but that becomes tedious and time-consuming. The problem with the King Alfred’s Way is it is not signposted like a national trail (with the good old acorns in England, or thistles in Scotland), so one has to orienteering continually – except for the mercifully well-signposted sections of the Ridgeway and South Downs Way. This really reduces the enjoyment: it is just tiring, especially at times when you are not entirely sure if you’re going in the right direction. Even the best maintained trails can have obscure sections. Trail signs can fall over, or be damaged or obscured. I’ve navigated several long-distance trails successfully over the years by myself, so I know I can use a map and compass. But when you are tired – after several hours of walking or riding – you inevitably make mistakes. I would not recommend undertaking the King Alfred’s Way without a decent GPS device like a Garmin (as opposed to just some app on your phone). Also, I found the trails a bit too hard-core at times for bikepacking. Okay for the seasoned mountain-bikers with minimal kit (luxuriously staying in B&Bs and dining out every evening – which makes for a pricey holiday). I don’t mind pushing my bike up a steep track, but coming down some was pretty hairy on a top-heavy bike. I must admit to preferring smooth country lanes to rubbly tracks, which were bone-juddering to ride along. There were some lovely sections following peaceful B-roads through pretty villages, but the route-planners had obsessively avoided roads – sometimes resulting in ridiculous and very obscure diversions when the common sense thing was to simply go straight ahead. I like the concept of off-road trails, but not when it’s the choice between a pleasant green lane, and a miserable rutted track. There was something rather anorak-ish at times about including certain off-road sections, e.g. the Pilgrims Trail into Winchester, when it would have been far nicer just to have continued coasting into the city, rather than have to detour up another undulating, rocky track. Also, it baffled me why they planners made the route go through the sprawling city of Reading – which was mercifully quiet on a Sunday morning, but still an urban maze – when it would have been far nicer to have come off at Wantage (a key Alfred site), and avoided most of the densely populated conurbation along the Thames Valley into Hampshire altogether. A route westwards across the Somerset Levels to Athelney would have been far more meaningful, but it didn’t feel like King Alfred’s story was made much of on the trail – it seemed like an arbitrary way to created a route, and not one hard-wired into his narrative. There were also key sites on the Ridgeway that could have been mentioned. And Westbury – site of Alfred’s famous battle – could have been included at the expense of a tedious trek across the middle of the militarized zone of Salisbury Plain.
So, I would have created a different route! Nevertheless, the King Alfred’s Way is a great initiative to encourage folk to get on their bikes and explore the amazing ancient landscape and more recent history of the south of England, and despite my grumbles it had its highlights: certainly the Ridgeway (my favourite section), riding across the Stonehenge landscape, and the South Downs Way (especially Butser Hill, the views from which made the effort all worthwhile). Aching from top to toe, I was still filled with joy to finally reach the end, at the King Alfred statue in Winchester: a satisfying glow of achievement, which was hard-won and all the more appreciated for it.
I would certainly consider more cycle-camping trips – although I am not entirely convinced by this ‘bikepacking’ lark. Maybe with a super-light kit set up it would be a different experience. I wouldn’t be amiss to do overnight mini-adventures. Quality, not quantity I think is the key! It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to do something, but how much you enjoyed it along the way. My favourite moments were when I stopped to have a brew-break and watch the world go by.
It is interesting to reflect that the majority of highlights on the ride were when I made a decision to come off the route: for me, this is about tapping into one’s inner sovereignty*, so completely in tune with the spirit of the way. Such trails should be seen as only guides – a suggested route and one that you should be able to customize according to one’s needs and preferences (after all, you are one doing it; only you will complete it; and it is meant to be a recreational thing, not some kind of official race). Strict adherence to every nook and cranny of the route is for completists only. It is an interesting moment – to be in the middle of nowhere, with a guidebook, trying to follow someone’s artificial route (a particular frame or narrative mapped onto a landscape, but only that), rather than listening to your body or to common sense. When we turn off the script (or the device), and listen to our own motherwit and become empowered – then we start to step into our sovereignty.
Kevan Manwaring, 31st August, 2021
*Which is the main concept behind the pilgrimage route I created last year, the King Arthur Way – a 153 mile walking route from Tintagel in Cornwall to Glastonbury in Somerset.