Plain cycling to the Berkshire highlands

For my first post, I thought it would be a good to share a little of the countryside accessible during a 60 mile day-ride from home – home being Durrington in Wiltshire, a village on the south-east edge of Salisbury Plain about 9 miles north of Salisbury. Normally, day-rides in February require all sorts of clothing, but it was beautifully mild last weekend, so I ventured forth in a short-sleeved top, shorts and sunglasses, admittedly also wearing arm- and leg-warmers, and with a windproof tucked in my jersey pocket.

The first five miles of my route followed the River Avon upstream past the villages of Milston and Figheldean before skirting Netheravon Army Camp. It is claimed that the airfield here is the longest continuously used airfield in the world and it was here that the Army Flying Corps started (which became the RAF in 1918). As I passed, Apache and Chinook helicopters were much in evidence as Netheravon is standing-in as ‘Camp Bastion’ as troops conduct final exercises on Salisbury Plain prior to deployment. These exercises explain why several Afghan-style compounds (that have been constructed from shipping containers) can be seen over the next few miles cycling west towards Everleigh. A military convoy waited for me to pass at one of the many Tank Crossings – it always seems to happen when I’m slowly slogging uphill, never when I’m pushing a big gear at 30mph+!

A wiggle across the A342 Andover-Devizes road and then into the village of Collingbourne Ducis and seemingly at a stroke, a complete change of scenery. Gone is the rolling chalk downland of Salisbury Plain replaced by the more arable, wooded countryside of the North Wessex Downs. It also seems ‘lumpier’ for cycling. Just beyond Collingbourne is the entrance to Herridge Stud Farm, home base of Richard Hannon, the Champion Flat Trainer for 2011. All you can really see are the white rails defining the gallops alongside the road, but this reinforces the change in scenery – I now feel closer to Lambourn than Salisbury.

A brisk climb takes me to the top of ‘The Fair Mile’, a plateau at approximately 850 feet above sea level that goes on for perhaps three miles! It has fantastic views west into the Pewsey Vale and north and east towards Hungerford and Newbury. I like the thought that water in streams to my left will eventually flow into the English Channel at Christchurch, whereas any rain just to the north will fall into the Thames basin. The water theme is continued by the only building on The Fair Mile – a Grade II listed round brick pumphouse built in 1899 for the adjacent covered reservoir – I loved the domed brick roof…

Then a 40mph descent to join the pot-holed A338 towards Hungerford. The windmill at Wilton and the Crofton Beam Engine on the Kennet and Avon Canal were a couple of miles to my west, but they will wait for another day. After a couple of miles of A-road cycling, I turned off right into the thatched cottage village of Shalbourne. The village shop contained a welcome surprise – a proper espresso machine to deliver a welcome caffeine boost. Then pleasant minor road cycling through the villages of Ham and Inkpen under the ‘brooding gaze’ of Walbury Hill. Turning south, I met the challenge of the ‘ascent’ of Walbury Hill face-on. It is approximately 550 feet in a little over two miles – as I suggested in the title, this is literally the ‘Berkshire Highlands!’. Walbury Hill is apparently the highest point in the South East of England, and the views from the top took my breath away (or it might have been the climbing…).

Then onwards to the pretty estate village of Faccombe (pronounced virtually as an expletive ‘fac-em’!) before a sinuous descent amongst woodland to Hurstbourne Tarrant and a left-turn by the pub. The three miles to St Mary Bourne left me feeling like a cycling god (!) – ok so I may have been cycling slightly downhill (alongside the River Swift as it turned out) and the road surface was super-smooth, but I reeled in and passed the two cyclists in front as though they were a tired breakaway and I was the pelaton in the final throes of a stage in the TdF. Turning off right towards Andover, the sharp rise out of the valley shattered my delusions of cycling adequacy, bringing me back to earth with a short, sharp period of granny-gear grovelling.

The road into Andover was virtually straight, following the course of the Portway Roman Road – this ancient history a big contrast to Andover itself, which grew massively as a result of being a London ‘overspill’ town in the 1960s and 70s. A further 2,500 houses are currently being built and I had to pick my way across several mini-roundabouts with exits to nowhere on my way into town. Andover town centre proved busy with a Saturday market in full swing on the High Street. I snuck through town courtesy of cycle paths, Wickes car park and a bit of wheeling the bike along a pavement to navigate a one-way street the ‘wrong way’.

Then back to the lanes, through the delightfully named villages of Anna Valley, Little Ann and Abbotts Ann (Ann was obviously a popular girl!) before passing alongside chalk stream-fed watercress beds and under the impressive five-arch Monxton viaduct, which carries the London-Salisbury railway line. Pleasant cycling through arable farmland took me to the final climb of the day up a single track road from Newton Toney towards Amesbury. As a climb it is nothing spectacular, but it is sufficently continuous to get my legs burning and it does seem to indicate the transition back onto Salisbury Plain. This feeling is helped as you crest the rise to find yourself looking straight along the 3,101 metre runway of Boscombe Down, the tri-service home of military aircraft test and evaluation.

A nervy third of a mile hop down the A303 dual carriageway brings me to Solstice Park and an encounter with ‘The Ancestor’ – a superb, 20 foot high, 6 tonne sculpture of ancient man, collapsed on his knees, arms open wide, head thrown back to welcome the sunrise. He was positioned at Stonehenge (three miles away) for the 2010 Summer Solstice and made an awesome sight. Nowadays he sits, slightly incongruously in front of a Holiday Inn hotel (I managed to leave that out of the photo!), perhaps as our ‘Angel of the South’?

And then very familiar roads home through Amesbury, past Woodhenge (Stonehenge’s less robust cousin….did Strawhenge get huffed and puffed down?!) back home to Durrington. Bike put away into the garage as the church clock struck 4pm and I rush inside to the England v Wales rugby match on the TV, still clad in sweaty cycling gear…….perhaps I should have just gone and got a shower…….