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King Alfred's Way: Conquering Wessex during Britain's wettest ever day

In-depth
19 Dec 2020
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Take on King Alfred's way and ride in the footsteps of a nation-building king, just choose your bike wisely and hope for good weather: not even Alfred the Great would have headed out in that much rain

Words and photography: Jack Elton-Walters

Saturday 3rd October 2020 has been confirmed as the wettest day in the UK since records began in 1891. As Storm Alex brought in persistent rain for three days straight, with the wettest falling in the middle, most people would have seen the forecast and settled in for a day in front of the television.

But after weeks of planning, even longer spent waiting for an opportunity to stay away from home during the coronavirus pandemic and with the spectre of a new lockdown (which has subsequently become reality), there was little chance of us not undertaking King Alfred's Way – as long as it could be done so in a Covid-secure manner.

Covering around 350km of very mixed-surface riding (more on that later), Cycling UK's new route nominally starts and finishes at King Alfred's statue in his capital city of Winchester.

Thanks to it being a loop, which we undertook in a clockwise direction, it's perfectly possible to start and finish King Alfred's Way wherever suits along the way and it was near to Petersfield that we chose to pick up the course.

I was joined on the ride by my dad, Nigel – keen to regularly tell everyone he meets along the way that he's in his sixties and undertaking a six-day touring trip, and my sister Arielle – who bought a new Vitus gravel bike especially for this adventure.

 

Route changes on the fly

Due to a combination of the bad weather and disparities between the abilities and experience of the three of us, it was at times necessary to move away from the tougher sections and instead tick off some of the distance on nearby tarmac roads.

Besides, some sections were simply unrideable. Sections of the South Downs Way, one of the existing routes linked up by Cycling UK into King Alfred's Way, were chalk ravines with streams running down the middle and ice-like slippery surfaces on the sides.

Difficult just to walk up, they were treacherous for riding down. Each section that was undertaken as a hike-a-bike ran down the clock towards sunset and we finished the first day in the dark.

Regularly, particularly on the first two days – between Petersfield and Littleton, then Littleton and Market Lavington – full suspension mountain bikes would have been pushed to their limit, let alone laden gravel bikes.

In fact, Cycling UK's rather optimistic suggestion that a standard touring bike and its road tyres might cope with the route is a long way wide of the mark.

No doubt the yellow and amber rain warnings were the main contributing factors to our route deviations but even in the dry some parts of the route will be tough for many riders; there were sections of loose gravel, sand, dirt tracks that would be beyond the capabilities of a 28mm road tyre.

'The route is meant to be an inspiration for adventure, so I wouldn’t worry too much about the tarmac sections,' says Sam Jones at Cycling UK, when I admitted that we hadn't always stuck to the route.

'If you think about it, all our national trails had seasonal variations to them – it was just some committee who decided that say the South Downs Way should follow this trail precisely 40 odd years ago.

'It’s a way to get to places – not a prescriptive journey… though that being said, I’d definitely recommend giving our recommended way a go when the conditions are dry under wheel.'

It was some comfort to be told the tarmac deviations shouldn't be a cause for concern, especially as a background nagging feeling of incompletion still lingers weeks after the ride. Jones's idea to take on the route again in better conditions is one I am intent on next spring, weather and global pandemic permitting.

Planning the route without knowing how bad the weather would be or how difficult some of the terrain is was an unfortunate oversight, but to belligerently push on without account for the real-time conditions and situations would have been a mistake. The tarmac deviations were for the best at the time.

I've since seen an infomercial of the route on a popular cycling video channel and an article in The Guardian showing just how pleasant the areas the ride travels through can be with a bit of sunshine.

We've all been on a sunny bike ride, though, and this trip will live long in the memory in no small part thanks to the difficulties presented by the weather.

 

Tough conditions, long lasting memories

No one can control the weather and it's with fondness that I look back on the ride. If my introduction sounds negative, its purpose was instead to paint the picture of three hardy riders taking on a challenging ride in even more challenging conditions. Despite those conditions, this was actually a fantastic and very enjoyable trip.

What's more, pedalling around for six days in early autumn sunshine would have been lovely but it wouldn't make half as good a story or live as long in the memory.

The basic yet luxurious santuary of an open barn during a historic downpour would never be experienced when the sun is shining, instead it would have been pedalled past without a second thought.

As it was, that barn proved to be a very welcome location to fix a puncture and also provide a location for Arielle to change into some dry kit (using my spare Rapha jersey and Gore-Tex jacket, kept dry in the Tailfin pannier).

Pushing on in saturated kit after sorting a puncture while exposed to the wind could have ended in hypothermia rather than a short pedal to the nearest pub for lunch, where an open fire near our table served to get everyone back to a comfortable temperature.

That pub, the Red Lion, was in Avebury which is surrounded by its famous neolithic stones. Despite the age and importance of the stones, it didn't stop main road being built through the middle. Nothing stands in the way of the motor vehicle.

 

Coaching inns

Pubs were a theme throughout the trip, or more specifically old coaching inns (or at the very least pubs that I called coaching inns). By far the best – from a generally good selection – was The Green Dragon in Market Lavington, where we stayed on the second night.

Almost right on the route, meaning very little variation was necessary to reach it, this pub was a welcome sight after a long day in the rain that ended with a windswept ride along the main road through Salisbury Plain.

The accommodation was a converted garage across the courtyard from the main pub building, and despite the wet and muddy state of riders and bikes the staff were happy for the bikes to be stored in the rooms overnight.

Further to that, a hose was provided to clean the bikes and there was talk of tools and a covered maintenance area being put in soon for future guests undertaking King Alfed's Way or other rides in the area.

The food and beer selection were very good, too.

 

A soggy six days well spent on King Alfred's Way

After several heatwaves throughout spring and summer, and nicer weather on the weekends either side of the trip, as it was we set off in torrential rain and around it stuck for three days. Even once the sun came out, the conditions under tyre made for a testing second half to the ride.

But despite the record rainfall, most of the ride was undertaken by three smiling riders. Route changes on the hop were no less picturesque than the 'official' route and one key diversion even took us along the Basingstoke Canal which was a standout highlight for all of us.

I'd recommend riding King Alfred's Way to anyone, just choose your bike wisely... and hope for good weather.

 

King Alfred's Way rider's ride: Mason Bokeh

The Mason Bokeh is a highly capable bike and went from companion to firm friend very early during my ride around King Alfred's Way.

Certainly, there were periods of hike-a-bike but that was more down to the combination of the route and October’s Storm Alex coming together to make whole sections of my multi-day adventure on the Mason Bokeh impassable for anything below a full suspension mountain bike, let alone a fully laden gravel bike.

But then I wouldn't want to be on a mountain bike for the tarmac sections – pre-plotted as well as unplanned – nor on the faster gravel sections.

A Mason Bokeh, or similar gravel bike, with 47mm tubeless tyres was probably as close to ideal as I was going to get.

 

It was those 47mm tubeless tyres that were capable of taking on most of what I pointed them at, from steep sandy climbs to root-rutted trails, and the bike can clip along at a fair pace on smooth tarmac too.

As the last of the daylight disappeared on the first day and with more than 10km between us and our overnight accommodation, sealant started to squirt out of the front tyre as it rotated. A large piece of flint had had wedged open a fissure that the sealant couldn't cope with.

Flint removed and the split moved to the underside of the tyre, it sealed and I was soon on my way. A tube change here on the side of a dark country lane would have given memories of the first day a completely different, and far more negative, complexion.

 

Luggage was taken care of by a Tailfin carbon rack with panniers and top rack bag. All very lightweight and for the most part waterproof, as was necessary in such riding conditions.

A newspaper I had in the bottom of the rack bag did come out soggy one evening, but after speaking to the brand it sounds like this was user error (I may not have closed a zip properly) rather than a product fault. With the panniers shrugging off all rain, road splash and mud, I am inclined to believe this was the case.

King Alfred's Way: How we did it

We started and finished our loop of King Alfred's Way near Petersfield in Hampshire, riding for six days and staying for five nights along the way.

Day 1

Start: Petersfield, Hampshire  
Finish: Littleton, near Winchester, Hampshire
Accommodation: The Running Horse

Day 2

Start: Littleton, near Winchester, Hampshire
Finish: Market Lavington, Wiltshire
Accommodation: The Green Dragon

Day 3

Start: Market Lavington, Wiltshire  
Finish: Woolstone, Oxfordshire  
Accommodation: The White Horse

Day 4

Start: Woolstone, Oxfordshire  
Finish: Heckfield, Hampshire
Accommodation: The New Inn

Day 5

Start: Heckfield, Hampshire  
Finish: Hindhead, Surrey  
Accommodation: The Devil's Punchbowl Hotel

Day 6

Start: Hindhead, Surrey  
Finish: Petersfield, Hampshire

For more information about King Alfred's Way and to plan your own adventure, see: cyclinguk.org/king-alfreds-way