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Big Ride: Wiltshire

Stu Bowers
12 Aug 2016

Wiltshire provides a ride packed with historic sites, beautiful countryside, punchy climbs and cake. Lots of cake.

As I mop up the last remnants of my scrambled eggs and smoked salmon with the crust of my toast, I can’t help but feel I’m being watched. Staring down at me from a very large canvas on the wall of the breakfast room at the Bath Arms in Horningsham is the sizable figure of Lord Bath. 

Alexander Thynn, the 7th Marquess of Bath (to give him his full title) is a well-publicised eccentric, artist, writer, poet and politician (not necessarily in that order) who according to The Sunday Times Rich List is worth a tidy £157 million.

The portrait makes him look like a flower-powered Hairy Biker, and the staring eyes have the unnerving trait of following me around the room, as though the Marquess himself were behind the canvas, looking through little eye-holes. Like Shaggy from Scooby Doo, I can’t help glancing back as I leave the room, just to see if the eyes are still spying on me. 

Lord Bath may not be hiding behind the wall of our hotel, but he’s probably not too far away at this moment. The Bath Arms is situated on the estate of Longleat House, the Marquess’s ancestral pile, so as I make my way outside to greet my ride companions for the day, David and Kate, he’s probably just a stone’s throw away, settling down to breakfast in his sequinned and monogrammed dressing gown. 

If we were starting our ride in the opposite direction to our planned route, I’d be able to peer through one of the windows of Longleat House to see if I’m right, but as it is we will have to wait almost until the very last pedal strokes of the ride before we pass his mansion, by which point I suspect he may have finished breakfast. 

Historic land

David, an employee of Visit Wiltshire, is a keen cyclist and a regular to these lanes, so he’s a useful man to have along on our ride today as it removes any need for map-reading, plus he can act as tour guide along the way.

Bordered by six other counties in the south of England – Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire – Wiltshire is a bucolic mixture of farmland, pretty villages and areas of historic significance, Stonehenge being its most famous. 

While our route won’t take us directly past the 5,000-year-old landmark, we will see Salisbury Cathedral, plus skirt the edge of Salisbury Plain, where the British Army spends its days teaching recruits how to blow things up.

Wiltshire’s highest point is just 295m above sea level, but while we’re unlikely to suffer altitude sickness that’s not to say it will be easy. The route profile looks like the silhouette of a pine forest, although the first few kilometres from our start in Horningsham come easily enough as we barrel through the villages of Maiden Bradley and Kingston Deverill.

It’s not long before we’re making hasty shifts to the small chainring as we begin the first characteristically short, sharp ramp of the day. Thankfully the summer sun is shining brightly and it’s already getting warm. 

We’re surrounded by pristine fields, neatly bordered and combed to perfection by the farmer’s tractor. Crops sway gently in the light breeze as we ascend and fields laid to grass are dotted prettily with occasional patches of bright red poppies. It’s quintessentially English countryside at its best. 

A brief spell on the busy A350 interrupts the tranquillity so we up the tempo to get it over with as quickly as possible. Thankfully it’s short-lived and we’re soon back on quiet lanes heading towards Hindon and Fonthill Gifford. Wiltshire, it seems, enjoys an esoteric village naming heritage, and part of the fun of the route is gathering up all the peculiar place names.

First feed

We barely have 25km under our belts as we descend into the picturesque village of Tisbury when David, almost apologetically, says there’s a cafe we simply must stop at. It’s only about an hour since I drained a four-person cafetière single-handedly at breakfast, but I still can’t resist the allure of a fresh flat white – or the cakes that allow me to stock up on calories. 

As we remount and pedal off in the direction of Wardour Castle, I can only agree with David that Beatons Tea Room was indeed worth the halt, although as penance I have to carry a pair of heavy legs up the next climb. I just have to hope that David doesn’t want us to sample all his favourite cafes in the region, otherwise it will be dark by the time we get back to base. 

We continue south, heading to Shaftesbury via the Donhead valley. With traffic practically non-existent we become complacent, riding along three-abreast. We’re given a wake-up call when we round a bend at speed to be confronted by a large tractor towing an even bigger trailer, taking up the entire road. There’s a yelp and a squeal of brakes, but we avoid being minced into animal feed and, with a good-natured tip of his flat cap, the farmer steers his tractor into the hedgerow to give us some room.

By now we’re at the southernmost tip of Wiltshire, where it meets Dorset, and we encounter a substantial ridgeway that crosses the county west to east. It’s gently rounded at the top but at times its flanks are steeply pitched – something we come to discover only too well as our route takes us up and down its slopes more than a few times over the next 20km. 

As we reach the outskirts of Shaftesbury, a town famous for Gold Hill, a very steep cobbled street used in the fabled Hovis TV advert, we make a left and onto a road equally well known to cyclists in this area. The aptly named Zig Zag Hill is the region’s answer to Alpe d’Huez, with a succession of hairpin bends and ramps of up to 9.5%. At a maximum height of 277m above sea level, Zig Zag Hill is sadly about 1,600m below the altitude of Alpe d’Huez and the climb is a good 12km shorter as well, but it’s still a favourite testing ground for local riders and Strava baggers. 

Our flurry of climbing excitement is over in no time at all, and once again the road straightens out and opens up to reveal vistas of gnarled trees and vegetation sculpted by the winds that howl across this hilltop. Thankfully today the breeze is light and behind us. There’s not much time to savour the view, as no sooner have we crested the summit than we are thrown into a thrilling descent that shoots us all the way back down to the valley floor. 

The effort of the past climb is eradicated in seconds, but before our brake blocks have had a chance to cool after the breakneck descent we’re scrabbling to find the small chainring again for another sharp climb back up onto the ridge. An interval session of short climbing efforts followed by short recoveries on the descents ensues, until we eventually arrive at the calmer setting of the Rushmore Estate, a private road (but passable by bike) with well-manicured gardens and tall, aged oaks lining the road.

At the village of Sixpenny Handley we make a left turn and tackle the ridgeline once more, although this time the topography has changed to make the climb less steep – but more drawn out. For 5km we rise slowly at a gradient of
less than 4%, so it comes as a surprise when the descent off the other side turns out to be one of the steepest so far, with slopes at 13% requiring us to drag on the brakes. 

Safely down, we meander through the next valley of villages with their stone cottages and thatched roofs. With the breeze on our backs we make a good pace and zip through Bower Chalke, Broad Chalke and Bishopstone following the path of the River Ebble, a chalk stream that babbles contentedly beside the road.

With 85km covered our thoughts turn to lunch. The plan is to stop on the outskirts of Salisbury, which is just over the next hill, so we push on to The Old Mill Hotel, a 15th century building on a designated cycle path overlooking the River Avon in Harnham. We park the bikes against a fence and enjoy cold drinks and baguettes in the afternoon sunshine. 

The hotel sits above a mill, with rushing waters visible beneath its floor. Outside, children leap off the bridge into the river below. Everything feels so perfectly English summertime that it would be easy to laze around here all afternoon, but there’s the small matter of another 50km still to cover before we can call this ride complete. 

Leaving the Old Mill, it seems no one is in any hurry, so for a while at least we soft-pedal and enjoy a different perspective of the medieval cathedral that Salisbury is famous for.

Battlegrounds

Old Sarum is Salisbury’s old town, and contains remnants of a Saxon hill fort and the ruins of its old cathedral site. It’s somewhere to pause and drink in the history, but we’ve no time for a lesson right now so we dash past at a disrespectfully swift pace as we trace a course northwards close to the River Avon. 

The river is flowing swiftly in the opposite direction, which is indicative of the uphill struggle that lies ahead of us, and the first climb comes sooner than we think as Camp Hill hits us with testing gradients of between 9% and 12%. It’s a rude awakening for legs that have had it all too easy since lunch. 

Crossing the A360 we head south west to Wilton before heading north west again. We’re effectively following the valley floor as it gradually gains height for the next 30km, and as we ride we tick off each picture-postcard village. We continue in the direction of Warminster, but just before reaching its outskirts we make a left towards Sutton Veny and cross the A350 to once more enter the Longleat Estate.

It’s cool beneath the canopy of the dense pine forest, but the narrow lanes aren’t finished with us just yet. Some steep and sapping gradients try their best to drain the last dregs of our reserves with the end almost literally in sight. The final 10km is not the easy warm-down I was hoping for and even at this late stage I reach into my pocket for a gel as a final pick-me-up. I can feel my legs beginning to buckle. 

The Longleat Estate is perhaps best known for its safari park, especially its lion enclosure that you can drive through. Bicycles are distinctly less lion-proof than cars, so as we enter the park via the main gates we make sure to follow the signs towards the centrepiece of the grounds, Longleat House, steering well clear of any hungry predators. 

From here on the road surface is glass-smooth and all downhill. As we swoop out of the tree line, we get our first glimpse of the impressive grounds, the lake and Lord Bath’s majestic home lit by the early evening sun. It’s an exhilarating run in as we can see far ahead and carry speed through a succession of wide, open bends before arriving in front of the house. 

We stop to savour the sight of this Elizabethan stately home, with its towers, turrets and intricate architecture. Today the Union Jack atop the flagpole on its roof hangs limp, with barely a breeze to disturb it. With the dipping sun casting ever-longer shadows we decide it’s time to ride the final kilometre to the Bath Arms, where a well-earned beer awaits us.

Before we push off, I can’t help straining to see if I can catch a glimpse of Lord Bath through one of the windows, but I can see nothing. Obviously the enigmatic Marquess has finished his breakfast and is now engaged in doing whatever marquesses do on a summer’s day. Perhaps he’s in the bath.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

Rider’s ride

Moots Vamoots RSL, £3,995 frame & fork, approx £8,000 as tested

Titanium’s reputation for ironing out road buzz is certainly evident in the Vamoots RSL, especially with the inclusion of Moots’ own curved titanium seatpost, which dissipates shocks before they reach your backside. That was appreciated along the often bumpy lanes on this route. At the same time the frame handled with the precision and solidity of a far stiffer bike. It’s a tough balance to strike but Moots has succeeded, although I suspect some of the credit should go to the Campagnolo Bora Ultra wheels. Campagnolo’s Chorus EPS groupset was sharp and although the ergonomics of the lever hoods are not entirely to my liking (I prefer the smaller shapes used by Shimano or Sram) the Vamoots RSL never missed a beat all day.

Do it yourself

Getting There

Rail links to the heart of Wiltshire are excellent. We took the 90-minute train ride from London Waterloo to Salisbury and reached our start point in Horningsham by car, but the nearest train station is Frome, just 10km away, which would take around three hours by train, costing between £35-£60 return from London.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Bath Arms in Horningsham. It’s a truly beautiful country pub on the Longleat Estate with a boutique hotel feel, and the homegrown or locally sourced food served in the restaurant is superb, both for dinner and pre-ride breakfast. It’s bike-friendly too, so ideal as a base from which to explore the area, and it’s the perfect place to relax when your ride is over.

Thanks

Many thanks to Florence Wallace and David Andrews of Visit Wiltshire (visitwiltshire.co.uk), and especially David who also joined Cyclist for the day as our ride guide. Thanks also to David Peel, who drove the car for our photographer.

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