Travellers’ tales: a family cycling tour from Winchester to Swindon

Two people are cycling through a muddy forest: a young girl on a blue mountain bike is in front and she's followed by a man on a flat-bar touring bike with packed pannier and bar bag.
Riding through the forest. Photo: Richard Scrase
Richard Scrase took his family – including an eight-year-old – on a 97-mile bikepacking tour taking in King Alfred’s Way, Wiltshire Cycleway, NCN 482 and more. Starting in Winchester, they took the time to check out the cathedral first …

The most stressful part of our holiday was getting on the train to get from our home in Oxford to the start in Winchester. Somebody told me CrossCountry only have room for three bikes – we had four!

Four days later and we’d completed our maiden family cycle camping tour. I wanted to do a dry run for our planned summer holiday with friends when we will cycle the Traws Eryri.

We started with a guided tour of Winchester Cathedral, which must be one of the loveliest spaces in the country. Curiosities include boxes containing the bones of Saxon kings going back to the 7th century and a crypt that is always part filled with water.

A recent addition, a statue by Antony Gormley, looks down despondently at the water around its knees. Over the centuries the water has rotted the piles of oak and beech originally forming the raft foundation at the east end of the cathedral and that whole end of the church was on the verge of collapse.

A young girl is sitting at a picnic table that's got food on it. A man is standing up in the foreground. They are both wearing rain capes. There's a green tent in the background. Three bikes are leaning against the table.
Camping in the rain. Photo: Richard Scrase

Then a diver called William Walker was employed to carry out repairs. He had to descend into the murky water of 235 pits, each about 20ft deep, to dig out rotten foundations and then to lay bags of concrete.

According to the BBC: “Mr Walker worked from 1906 until 1911, spending nearly six hours a day underwater, in darkness, working with his bare hands and entirely by touch. Eventually he propped the cathedral up with 900,000 bricks, 114,900 concrete blocks and 25,800 bags of cement.”

Setting out

We made our way uphill out of Winchester and were soon on the first countryside part of the Wessex Way. The recent rain had made the route slippery and muddy and meant we didn’t travel very fast. The lush late May landscape made up for it. Verdant shades of green that still had their spring freshness.

We detoured off the route north at King’s Somborne to take the minor road up to Stockbridge where we were camping Monday night. We pushed up through four contours of climb with the views opening up behind us and then enjoyed a downhill stretch pretty much all the way to Stockbridge.

Just before Stockbridge you pass alongside Stockbridge Common Marsh, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It was lovely, giving a taste of wilderness that is only too rare in England. Bullrushes, reeds, half-fallen trees, dragonflies.

Three people on bikes on a narrow paved road. At the front is a boy in a yellow waterproof, standing up to look over a hedge. Behind him are a young girl and an older man.
The views made the climbs worthwhile. Photo: Richard Scrase

If you use Stockbridge View campsite, a mile out of Stockbridge (a perfectly nice simple campsite), make sure you use the footpath that starts just past the school at the end of Stockbridge and leads up to the site. The alternative A30 is horribly busy and I wouldn’t want to cycle it myself – never mind with an eight-year-old.

The next day we cycled back south on the other side of the river and picked up King Alfred’s Way again in Houghton. I’d been very optimistic about our rate of progress, but we were several hours behind what I’d hoped for.

We saved 30 minutes by taking the minor road short cut from the A30 crossing down to Ford as we approached Old Sarum, just north of Salisbury. The guide says caution, road crossing, and crossing the A30 was very unpleasant. There is poor visibility of cars coming up the road and they travel very fast.

Dry and downhill

We detoured again off route to stay at a youth hostel near Cholderton for Tuesday night. Tuesday had been pretty wet, so it was wonderful to wake to a dry day and even better to spend the first few miles trundling downhill through fields and woods on a lovely byway, the Amesbury Way, which started a few yards north of the hostel.

This took us to Boscombe airport, which we skirted on an old railway track followed by a footpath that brought us into Amesbury. We used the subway that passes under the A303 and cycled on the pavement all the way to the turning to Woodhenge.

Like many before us, we made up stories about what Woodhenge might have been for. Skylarks would have hung in the sky in just the same way back when it was made 4,500 years ago.

A statue is standing in water in a church
The Antony Gormley statue at Winchester Cathedral. Photo: Richard Scrase

We now left the King Alfred’s Way and switched to the Wiltshire Cycle Path that circumnavigates the county. From now on it was to be mainly minor roads until lunch.

I missed the turning east before Upavon so we ended up taking a tank track (permissive byway if the red flags aren’t flying) up over the downs. This was another stretch with no traffic – my daughter was disappointed we didn’t meet a tank – and far-reaching views over Salisbury Plain.

More byways eventually led us down into the Pewsey Vale at Milton Lilbourne. We admired rose-covered cottages with thatched roofs, some thatched by a friend of mine, and arrived at a friends’ place just north of Pewsey for an evening of luxury, food and beds!

Final day

Our last day was on the Wiltshire Cycleway. After a few quiet road miles, we passed through the Savernake Forest. The route bisects the forest on the Grand Avenue and must be the only place in England where you cycle under mature beech and oak trees for several miles. It was lovely, almost too nice to be cycled, as I found cycling meant the forest passed too quickly.

Then we were at the edge of Marlborough, taking to the bumpy pavement next to the A4 to get us down the hill from forest to railway route. After a pub lunch, we headed north on NCN 482.

A timber stone circle in a field with people walking around it
The mysteries of Woodhenge. Photo: Richard Scrase

This last stretch on an old railway was level and pleasant and we kept up the pace by my towing my youngest with a Towee. Eventually we arrived at Swindon and picked up a train home just after 6pm, this time with less stress as it didn’t really matter if we had to split up the family, there was no particular hurry. As it happened, we all got onto the same train.

What did we learn? We need to take plastic bags to cover the saddles at night to keep them dry. We need to organise our food as we won’t be able rely on pubs for food in the same way. My daughter is capable of, in this case, 97 miles over four days, so the prospect of 200km over seven days seems reasonable.

We had one puncture and one broken chain because a front gear changer worked loose so we need to check over the bikes each day. I had brought basic tools including a chain splitter so was able to shorten the chain to get us home.

Mud caught between tyre and mudguard seized up our touring bikes, so I will probably remove the mudguards for the next trip. I also found myself getting tired – comes of approaching 70 I suppose – so I might see about renting some electric mountain bikes.

Now to book train tickets for Machynlleth…

A boy in bright yellow rain jacket is leaning against his loaded touring bike while looking out over the countryside
Admiring the view. Photo: Richard Scrase