Day 3: Through the Surrey Hills
Lucky me, waking to another gloriously sunny dawn on the King Alfred’s Way! The first priority was to make the most of the generous pub breakfast that was on offer, enjoyed in the company of my guidebook as I browsed what lay in store for the day ahead.
Outside and ready to start, I decided first to ride the short distance over the common to the edge of the Devil’s Punchbowl, and make the most of the view in daylight. A relief model, located conveniently on the edge of the escarpment, illustrated well the geological form of the ‘bowl’. Tracing the climb that I had initially struggled up in yesterday’s fading light as it curved around the wooded hills laid out in front of me, I felt the growing excitement of discovering more of this beautiful and surprising corner of southern England.
From the high point of Hindhead at 257 metres, the route descended beside the busy A3 dual carriage-way, then soon climbed up to and across the quiet heathland of Bramshott Common. Following on yesterday’s theme of Second World War remains, I was then riding through current MOD training areas, with graphic warnings not to touch objects that could explode.
A new landscape
By way of contrast to these reminders of conflict and the machinery of death, pretty lanes and charming villages linked by some impressive and sometimes rocky hollow ways, gave the cycling some added excitement.
After splashing through a ford at Conford, the trail led around more MOD ‘Danger Areas’ at Woolmer Forest and then Longmoor. The cycling here – now the ‘Shipwright’s Way’ – was great, with mainly firm tracks winding through the wooded heathland to Liss Forest, then down an old military railway to the village of Liss where I took a break for coffee and cake and called in at Tesco Express for supplies.
Hilly tracks, some quite steep, that linked the small communities hereabouts soon brought me to Durford Wood and the Sussex Border Path. And quite suddenly, as I crested a knoll, the whole character of the landscape changed. Spread below me from this glorious spot were gently rolling fields of arable crops, stretching away to the line of the South Downs now only 5 kilometres away.
The South Downs Way
Once across the A272, I was back on tarmac through the hamlet of Quebec (named in honour of Canadian soldiers stationed there during WW2) to the foot of Hemner Hill, the climb on to the South Downs Way. These are quiet lanes and the countryside very pretty, so being back on roads was pleasant enough.
The Hemner climb, described as ‘seriously stiff’ in the guidebook, was nowhere near as tough as I was expecting from this scary description, and I was soon back on the South Downs Way. I say ‘back’, as I have ridden this wonderful trail along the chalk backbone of south-east England a couple of times now, although on both occasions in the opposite direction from that which I would now be cycling towards Winchester.
Undulating gravel tracks with occasional sections of tarmac lane head west to the top of the Queen Elizabeth Forest, a fine area for mountain biking in its own right. I was too pressed for time to explore, and headed down through the forest for refreshments at the café by way of preparation for the Beast of Butser (not an official description!).
Ahead, just across the madly busy A3, lay the seriously tough climb onto Butser Hill. I managed to ride first third, then walked, although the guide book implies that the determined (and younger?) cyclist might get to the top. As I pushed the bike up towards the grassy summit, admiring the paragliders circling and swooping against the azure sky, my thoughts turned to getting older and the encroaching limits on what one can do with the passage of time. There is always the e-bike option I suppose; one day, perhaps, but for now I was happy enough to take it at my pace.
An excitingly steep and rocky descent from Wether Down, complete with drop-offs over gnarled roots, reminded me of how varied the terrain of South Downs Way is. I soon reached the pretty site of Meon Springs, where a pair of swans graced pools that were glowing in the warm mid-afternoon sun. On one of my previous South Downs Way rides, the fishing club was open and passers-by could make themselves a cup of tea for a small charge, but today the hut was closed.
I stayed by the pools for 15 minutes or so to top up the battery of my not yet two year-old Garmin 735 XT. With almost daily use (and re-charging) for one activity or another, the watch had recently started running low on power after only 8-10 hours with the GPS in use. I was a bit disappointed by that, but fortunately had a small battery pack with me. At least you can re-charge this watch without having to terminate the activity; just pressing the stop button allows recharging with all data preserved.
Old Winchester Hill
The next highlight on this section of the trail, just after another steep climb beyond the pools, was Old Winchester Hill. This was my second truly magical moment of the day, the first being the point where I emerged from Durford Wood with views south to the Downs framed through the trees, the landscape suddenly quite different, and my mood transformed.
Old Winchester Hill is an iron-age fort, the earth banks and ditches well-preserved on a commanding position at the edge of the Downs. By now it was early evening, and the hills were bathed in a soft, warm light, with wispy cloud spreading across the fields in the valley below the ramparts. The fort is a Site of Special Scientific Interest too, home to rare butterflies and also skylarks which despite their exuberant flying displays, nest on the ground in vegetation 20-50 cm high, and are easily disturbed.
Another reason for not rooting around in the undergrowth here is that the hill was used to test mortars during WW2, although the guidebook does say that the remnants of unexploded ordnance are in a fenced-off area, so you would only have yourself to blame …
Meanwhile, I was running out of time and daylight, although I thought – mistakenly as I was soon to discover – that my pub B&B was in the village of Exton just a few kilometres of mostly downhill riding further on. Despite the advancing hour, I felt I could not drag myself away from this magical place too soon, and sat on the grassy bank looking out across the misty fields and quiet villages, a landscape that had been familiar to me as a child growing up in Sussex.
Help! Where is my pub?
A long and very exhilarating descent brought me to the old railway line in the Meon Valley, which I followed south to Exton. There I found that the pub I was looking forward to staying in was called ‘The Shoe’, and not the ‘George and Falcon’ that I had booked into. Panic! Now, I had not been a complete idiot, as my navigation was based on the postcode in Google maps, but as is sometimes the case in sparsely populated areas, these can be misleading. It was nearly dark by now, and I had no network signal so could not search for the pub. I headed back to the main A32 road opposite the village and asked a dog walker … “Oh yes, it’s only two miles north of here, at Warnford”. It was a busy road, but I had my lights and could manage that easily enough; I had been starting to worry it might be miles away.
En route, someone from the George and Falcon phoned me (the mobile signal had returned), concerned that it was dark and I had not appeared. Within a few minutes I had arrived to another very warm welcome, a safe place for the bike, and was shortly afterwards ordering my dinner in the comfortable but almost deserted bar. I had fixed this ride during a lull in the Covid pandemic, and things were very quiet. As with my other overnight stays, I hoped that this comfortable pub with its friendly staff would survive until better times returned.
Day 4: Up into a misty world
My legs were a little stiff the next morning – I blame Butser Hill. More significant was that it was overcast with drizzly rain, although with only a light breeze, it was not cold. Once back in the village of Exton, I found the lane that climbs up towards Beacon Hill; this ascent is not wickedly steep, but it is quite hard work and quite a long haul, so it is wise to settle into a rhythm. I stopped a while at the top to adjust clothing, and in the misty light noticed a type of bracket fungus I had not seen before – the Lion’s Mane mushroom. I was alone up here, and it all made for a mysterious atmosphere.
The drizzle soon eased, though I would remain in my misty world for most of the rest of the King Alfred’s Way trail to Winchester. Passing through this quiet, enclosed landscape, I thought about the reasons for writing about adventures like this. Along with the photos (and video), making notes can help to preserve memories. If not recorded, these experiences can fade or become confused with other moments and journeys. In the past, travellers and explorers kept sketchbooks, such as the wonderful ‘Explorers Sketchbooks’. I wished I had had the time to stop and sketch. Still, while not quite as personal as drawings and paintings, a camera is perhaps the next best thing.
On a snack break, I had a quick look for Facebook groups that combined longer-distance and multi-day adventure cycling with experiences of older riders. Most of the groups for older cyclists seems to focus on just that, rather than primarily on the adventures but from the perspective of the older rider. I have since joined one of the more general adventure cycling groups ( Long Distance Cyclists ), and plan to post some of my experiences from this ride. It will be interesting to see whether this connects with a community of older riders doing multi-day and long distance routes.
Two species of cyclist
Turning left to climb gently beside the evocatively named Temple Valley, I reached one of my all-time favourite sections of the South Downs Trail, a beech-lined path leading up to Cheesefoot Head. This natural amphitheatre served for an address by President Eisenhower to troops preparing for the D-Day landings in 1944, and has since been used as an outdoor concert venue.
While admiring and photographing my surroundings here, two groups of cyclists passed me, one riding eastwards, the other in the opposite direction. Maybe they did not have much time, or were on Strava missions. But, in any case, both groups of riders hammered past, barely glancing at the beech cathedral that so captured my imagination, nor at the great bowl in the Downs that had witnessed such a significant moment in WW2 history, and no doubt some great musical performances.
I fell to thinking that there are two sorts of cyclists: those who connect with their surroundings, slow down or stop, look around, take photos, comment to each other or to their inner, mental blogs, etc., and those who don’t. I suppose it is not quite as binary as that, more a spectrum no doubt, but you either stop, or you don’t. This is meant as an observation, not a criticism, for there is much fun to be had taking on a trail like this as a sporting exercise.
But my point is that, if you do belong to the former species of cyclist, and want to take it all in, be wary of people, guide books and articles that imply King Alfred’s Way can be completed in 3 or 4 days.
A few kilometres further along, crossing the M3 motorway as it ran through a deep cutting just to the east of Winchester, brought me rudely back to our busy world. A short but sweet section of single-track followed, rounding the impressive St Catherine’s Hill with its iron age fort above and plague pits below, and thence to join the Itchen Trail that would take me into the city. En route, I discovered the brilliant Handlebar café on the old railway line, right beside the trail. You can’t miss it, and shouldn’t!
The friendly staff of the excellent Handlebar café, a convenient refreshment stop located on a disused railway line beside the King Alfred’s Way, as the trail runs into Winchester from the South
After a pleasant lunch stop at the café, it was still early afternoon, so I had achieved my goal of leaving a few, relaxed hours to see something of the what Winchester had to offer. My first stop would be Wolvesey Castle, an English Heritage property that is free to enter.
This ruin, standing among pleasant grounds in the shadow of the great cathedral, was more palace than castle. The remains of extensive buildings were once the sumptuous residence of the Bishops of Winchester, constructed to reflect the great power and wealth derived from estates that extended from London to Somerset. Most of what can be seen today was built way back in the 12th Century by one Bishop Henry of Blois. His brother Stephen, Duke of Normandy, was King of England from 1135 to his death in 1154, conferring more power and influence upon his clerical sibling.
Henry and Stephen fell out somewhat during the so-called ‘civil war’ of Stephen’s reign, when both he and Empress Matilda (daughter of King Henry I, and wife of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V), claimed the throne. Bishop Henry de Blois took Matilda’s side, and initially welcomed her retinue in Winchester until he changed his mind about her suitability.
Meanwhile, Henry besieged the city, defeated Matilda and regained the throne. The brothers made up, but Henry later fortified his residence with two large towers, giving it a more military appearance and the palace’s ‘castle’ epithet. In 1786, the mediaeval building was more or less demolished, and by the mid-18th Century, the bishops were mainly using Farnham Castle – one of notable sights from Day 2 of my ride (see Part 1)
I then headed around to the cathedral, locked my bike and purchased an entry ticket, pleased to see this allowed return visits for a 12-month period. There is so much of great beauty and interest to see in this amazing church, built between the 11th and 16th Centuries, and at 170 metres the longest mediaeval cathedral in the world. The visitor will find their own highlights, but recorded here with pictures and a little history are those I managed to see and learn about in the nearly two hours I spent inside.
On entering, I was immediately struck by a very unusual sight at the far, east end of the cathedral, which looked for all the world like scattered autumn leaves. Which is exactly what they were, only in steel, which each of 5,000 sycamore-shaped leaves having the word ‘Hope’. I was lucky to see this, as ‘The Leaves of the Trees’ is a touring artwork (by Peter Walker) on display in Winchester for only four weeks from 5th October to 2nd November that year (2021). Steel was chosen for the leaves, as the process of rusting as the artwork toured the country would represent the changing colours of autumn. The installation website states:
“The leaves symbolise the past but also hope for the future, as the shape of the sycamore maple leaf has been chosen because it symbolises strength, protection, eternity and clarity.”
Next, I hung on to the back of a guided tour to learn about the fabulous mediaeval wall paintings in the Holy Sepulchre Chapel. These date from the 12th Century and feature images of Christ being taken down from the Cross. Perhaps most remarkable is that these beautifully preserved frescoes, described as finest wall paintings from the period in the country, were only discovered in the 1960s. No extra charge is made to see the paintings.
I was really taken with the beauty of the early 14th Century choir stalls, with their elaborate wooden carving and portrayal of the heavens with yellow stars set against an ultramarine sky. Any resemblance to the EU flag is entirely coincidental … One can spend quite a while searching out the human figures, carved animals, luxuriant foliage, and other motifs. The cathedral website indicates that this masterpiece is thought to be the work of a Norfolk master carpenter, William of Lyngwode’
Sooner or later, when visiting a cathedral, one looks up and around to the windows. Sadly, in the period shortly after the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) during which Oliver Cromwell was ‘Lord Protector’ (December 1653 – September 1658) saw much of the cathedral’s stained glass destroyed. The Great West Window was one such casualty at the hands of the Roundheads. Very unusually, it was not restored or replaced, but reassembled in a random mosaic pattern using the original glass fragments. It really is quite a sight.
The last substantive part of my visit was to the museum section inside the cathedral, where there were some interesting displays about the life of the church and monks, on the story of local hero William Walker, a diver whose courageous efforts preserving the waterlogged foundations more or less saved the cathedral.
But the real highlight of the museum was a section on the Winchester Bible, a beautifully ‘illuminated’ (illustrated) version of the Holy Book, commissioned by Bishop Henry of Blois. Created on dried calf skin, and now rebound into four parts, it is the largest surviving 12th Century English Bible in existence. The Latin manuscript was written by one scribe, a task that took him four years to complete. The fabulous illustrations, in contrast, are the work of multiple artists, and some remain unfinished. I was told they are incomplete due the funds running out; production of something on this scale was extremely expensive, not least as it drew on the skills of craftsmen from across Europe.
A number of the illustrated pages were removed from the original document. Only one of these has been recovered, and is now held by the Morgan Library in New York, where it is known as the ‘Morgan Leaf’ .
While wandering from the nave to the south aisle, I had spotted some intriguing, painted chests, placed quite high up on the wall, and in the museum their mystery was revealed. These are ‘mortuary chests’, beautifully painted, thanks to modern dating techniques are now known to contain the mortal remains of important figures from before the Norman Conquest. Here is what the church has had to say on the discoveries:
“The ability to identify the sex, age and physical characteristics of these individuals has resulted in some exciting discoveries, including the remains of a mature female dispersed within several chests. It is not yet certain, but these bodily remains could be those of Queen Emma, daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, the wife of two successive Kings of England, Ethelred and Cnut, and the mother of King Edward the Confessor and King Hardacnut. She was a powerful political figure in late Saxon England, and her family ties provided William the Conqueror with a measure of justification for his claim to the English throne.”
It was time to leave, but the great cathedral had not quite finished with me. Following the map on my pamphlet, I found the tomb of Jane Austen, having had no idea at all that she was buried here, nor why.
She had come to Winchester seeking treatment for a debilitating disease – Addison’s Disease, bovine tuberculosis, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and typhus have all been suspected – from which she had been suffering for more than a year. She died in the city on 18th July 1817.
Back on the bike, and somewhat dazed by the richness of what I had seen during the afternoon, I rode towards the High Street to find the statue of the King Alfred, who made this city his capital in 871 AD. I had taken half a day out of my possible riding schedule, but it was worth every minute and I could have done with longer. After paying my respects to ‘The Great’ for the second time (the first was beside his statue in Wantage at the start), I cycled 5 kilometres out to the village of Littleton, to find my pub. And yes, another very friendly welcome, somewhere safe for the bike (my room, in fact), and great food.
Day 3: The George and Falcon, Warnford & Day 4: The Running Horse, Littleton
… Next – Part 3: Winchester to Wantage, via Bottlesford in the Vale of Pewsey …
My ‘Magic Rides’
This is Part 2 of the third in my series ‘Magic Rides’, adventures by road or mountain bike that have that special something beyond just the cycling, and which left me with a feeling of wonder and magic.
It may be the landscape, beautiful light, a rich variety of wildlife, interesting architecture or fascinating history that cast the spell. In most cases, it will be something of all of these.
Comments and shared experiences of King Alfred’s Way – trails and cycling, wildlife, history and other aspects of this wonderful multi-day ride are most welcome!