• Ethan Scanlon

South West Routes: The Ridgeway Trail

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

In a very similar stroke to George’s North West Routes, I will be taking on my own series, focusing on the southern regions where I cycle. This being North Wiltshire and the surrounding area, I will be sharing some of my favourite cycles around Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset. To keep it fresh within the series there will be a variety of routes ranging from ones more fitted for road bikes, full off-road trails and even some in the middle, more akin to cyclocross. This first route being an almost off-road experience, being the Ridgeway Trail, or at least most of it anyway: Avebury → Barbury → Chiseldon → Ogbourne St. Andrew → Marlborough → Avebury.

Avebury


The Ridgeway trail is an ancient trail that has been in use for over 5,000 years, its long high narrow ground made good use for traders and settlers between the Dorset coast and London, acting as a strong holding position for villages, that have resulted in a multitude of historical sites along the cycle. You’ll start of in Avebury, more specifically Overton Hill, surrounded by Marlborough Stone circles set up by Neolithic humans many centuries ago before heading up the chalk ridge for the first of six segments of the ride. Whilst not the steepest incline or in fact the longest, this part for me is the worst, being the part of the cycle least well maintained the part is often rutted and, if you go on a bad day, almost impassable through the sheer amount of mud the path can produce.

Gorgeous view from the Barbary Castle portion of the ride


Once you get up to the top (the climb only 620 ft), the views are phenomenal of the Wiltshire countryside, first passing the Uffington white horse, one of several in Wiltshire, it will then take you descending into the Marlborough downs, famous as the place where many of the stones for Stone Henge were taken from. At this point much of the path will flatten out leaving ruts behind 15km into the cycle, passing another monument, Barbury Castle, the cycle up and over it is optional, its 12%, I did it once, that’s why I now say its optional to skip this part.

The ridgeway


Following on from this the 5,000 year old path is left behind, ruts in the grass quickly turn into paved surfaces and pebble dashed paths, I thought for the sake of this series I would not do the whole ridgeway- it is 140km of off-road cycling and that’s just too much for anyone, except for Lachlan Morton perhaps! Instead, after passing the bronze age fort that is Barbury Castle you slip off around back roads through airfields where they filmed the first series of The Grand Tour and pass onto Chiseldon, a small village just south of Swindon. Here you pick up the next trail that makes the circular route, an old railway path now maintained by the National Cycle Network. Route 482, the path is long and covered both sides by tall tress so there isn’t really much to see for the next 20km, the nature of this cycle often makes it the most mentally straining, there is little incline but possesses a certain Alice in Wonderland character in the sense that the continuous feeling of not moving, feeling like the long track goes on forever, certainly makes you want to stop. I would tell you more about this section but if you ever go on it yourselves you’ll find it is very easy to zone out and become quite disorientated about it all. But hey ho, you do eventually make good haste and come into the lover area of Wiltshire and the Marlborough downs again, this time more central to Marlborough as you advance to the final stage of the track just as you cross over the wide carriage. In this part the trees open up, the path widens and the views become even more less restricted. Just as you are approaching Marlborough there is a chance to cool off in the River Kennet that runs under and along side the path, followed by a series of spectacular viaducts and bridges that litter the industrial Wiltshire countryside.

The railway track to Marlborough


Once you have passed into the valley of which Marlborough is situated, the cycle path comes out of a very urban housing area so be careful of incoming traffic. As you cycle through Marlborough’s one side street, take some time to see some sights, a Church, another church, a copious amount of charity shops and if you want something to eat there is a Greggs and a Waitrose, what a selection.


After you’ve passed through Marlborough and turned left at the end of the high street you’ll start to see signs for yet another cycle path, this time the 403-45, that sees you safely back to Avebury. This path becomes a mixture of flat gravel paths, whilst a small portion between Marlborough and Red Post house are on B roads, that follow the Kennet Canal. Although in this way round the cycle now takes a more strenuous turn, I have only ever done it the other way around, when first deciding to do this route I thought it would be a good easy one to start off with. I failed to remember I thought it good only because much of it from the way I cycle it is descents, with hardly any incline. Following the old saying, I have seemed to forget that everything that goes up must also come down, being at the bottom of a valley, the hard work is now getting out of it. But at least it is not the Ridgeway, there are no inclines that are on country paths or ruts created by tractors and 4x4s. Instead, the climb up the Marlborough downs is doable but consistent, every time you seem to reach the summit you are greeted by another hill in the not so far distance, great boulders of Marlborough stone protruding through every path, how people moved them from here to Stonehenge I will never know, it wasn’t by bike I can tell you that because I could just about get myself up and over. At one point you do get a reprieve, a long flat path for one or two kilometres, only problem is that it is through fields of cows, which sounds fine, until like me you realise only half way through they are not cows, they are bulls, you didn’t see the horns, god those horns are big, and you’re wearing a bright red cycling jacket and your bike lights are flashing. I believe I still have a personal best on that field from one very frightful day last summer.

Marlborough Downs


However, beyond this you reach the peak at about Overton point, almost exactly where you left off, but the cycle into Avebury is well worth it and one final descent of the Ridgeway, of which I failed to mention you get back on, is always worth the work. You get into Avebury, you see some more stones, who knew there were so many?


The circular nature of this cycle is good as you don’t need to start from a specific position, nearly anywhere along the route is accessible and there are multiple places to park: Avebury, Barbury, Marlborough, Chiseldon. When cycling a route like this I would personally recommend either a mountain bike or if you can hack it a cyclocross/gravel bike, it is doable but lack of suspension means areas between Avebury and Barbury can be quite challenging. The route in total is 44km, not too long, not too short. A great trail that gives you a variety of surfaces, from off road, forest tracks, gravel and the occasional country road. You also get to see sights such as Avebury Henge, The Marlborough Downs, Barbury Castle, whilst there is also scope to slip off at certain parts of the trail to visit nearby countryside towns and villages. A cycle that combines both a challenging and enjoyable ride with the added bonus of taught knowledge through the surrounding historic sites.


You can find the route below:

https://www.strava.com/routes/2787681945823724234

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