The last line of defence
The last line of defence
This off-road route which begins in Surrey and finishes up in Berkshire via Hampshire, is currently being developed by Cycling UK's off-road policy advisor, Kieran Foster. It follows the line created by the General Headquarters' defensive 'stop line' of pillboxes still visible today using existing byways and bridleways.
The route begins next to Farnham Castle, which during the war, along with the nearby park, were used as a Development and Training Centre for camouflage. It's a climb from here on bridleways through the old deer park and towards the top of the hill. You'll meet a short stretch of busy road, need to turn right at the roundabout, and ride along a bit to rejoin another bridleway. Negotiations are ongoing with the Ministry of Defence, but plans are afoot that should formalise a traffic-free link across their land.
Dropping down through Eweshot village, you will see a variety of pillboxes dotted through the keys and hedges surrounding this key, defended village. From there, head towards the nearby Basingstoke canal, where the usual caveats about sharing the space on a narrow towpaths apply. Cycling westwards along the canal for several miles, you'll spot a number of pillboxes and anti-tank defences visible along the way. As you approach Broad Oak Bridge, you will pass a wooded area called Odiham Common. Current legislation means you can't cross through the common yet, but need to carry on for a short distance along the canal to the edge of Odiham, where you can then take the quiet road northwards that goes under the M3 motorway, passing more pillboxes hidden in the hedgerows and field edges on both sides.
When finalised, the route will cross the RSPB reserve at Hazeley Heath via a permissive bridleway route that is currently under development. The military found this, as with other local commons, an excellent place to prepare for war, and The War Office commandeered it as a place for tank recovery training. The site was full of damp sand pits and boggy swamps where scenarios could be created to embed these vast machines in order for REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) troops to pull them out. This was essential training for front-line action. Now the remaining heather and scrub is a protected site, home to Nightjar, Dartford Warbler and a vide variety of reptile and invertebrate species.
Our route continues on quiet lanes for a short distance, with numerous pillboxes camouflaged within the hedgerows, through to the edge of Bramshill plantation and Wellington Country park. Crossing over into Berkshire, follow discreet bridleways and byways running parallel to the A33 dual carriageway - a real opportunity to see just how much the motorist misses as you hear them whizzing along, not quite drowning out the noise of the hedgerow birds that you’ll see along this final run in towards the edge of Reading. With the large wind turbine marking your general direction of travel, keep an eye out for a couple more pillboxes overlooking the motorway junction in the distance, before passing over the motorway on a minor bridge, where you can join the Kennet and Avon canal westwards on the NCN route or choose from a number of cycle routes into and around Reading.
The route transits along the broad corridor of a large number of extant pillboxes, including several concentrations of fortifications, which in their full context were surrounded by barbed wire, anti tank ditches and fire trenches, . Extensive research has already been done on a number of the defensive concentrations and several published papers are available online revealing the complexity of the defences.
This route is currently not waymarked in its own right. It is hoped in the future that this will be possible but the delay is a stark reminder of the difficulty of negotiation of rights of way and access issues on a route that covers four different local authority areas. Stretches of the published route may be subject to alteration as agreements are finalised, so please be aware of the sensitivities of sticking to rights of way in the meantime.
The GHQ Line (General Headquarters Line) was an extensive series of static defence installations built in the summer of 1940 to contain an expected German invasion, The concept was to compartmentalise the country to restrict and delay enemy forces long enough for British mobile forces to counter any German attack. Pillboxes are the main visible reminder, but during the war these would have been supported by a variety of trenches, anti tank structures and ditches.
Best Bit: Pillboxes
Worst bit: Muddy sections of bridleway