The Vale of the White Horse
Cycling UK Trustee and Director of Bicycle Beano Cycling Holidays Andy Key shares one of his favourite rides in an overlooked corner of Oxfordshire.
The Vale of the White Horse is a little-known area, tucked away between Swindon and Oxford. Flat and pretty, it’s flanked by the Marlborough Downs to the south and the Thames Valley and the foot of the Cotswolds to the north, giving endless opportunities for cycling. I used to live nearby and I love the Vale so much that I’ve been running cycle tours here for over a decade, introducing more people to its delights. It’s arguably at its best in August around harvest time, but this is a beautiful ride at any time of year.
In this ride you travel from flowing chalk downland and flint-studded cottages to Cotswold-stone villages. There’s plenty to see on the way:
- Baulking Church (on your left a mile out of Uffington), with its 14th century wall paintings which lay hidden under coats of plater for centuries until being rediscovered in the 1980s;
- the Blowing Stone at the foot of Blowingstone Hill, a great sarsen stone riddled with holes that you can blow into to make a trumpet-like sound (local legend says King Alfred the Great used it to summon his men to defeat the Viking invaders);
- the remains of the ill-fated Wilts & Berks Canal (at West Wellow, also various other points if you keep your eyes peeled);
- the giant Uffington White Horse, carved into the chalk of the downs in prehistoric times, with breathtaking views from White Horse Hill;
- the picture-postcard village and estate of Coleshill;
- the 13th century Great Barn at Great Coxwell (National Trust, small admission charge in honesty box);
- the tiny volunteer-run Tom Brown’s School Museum in Uffington (free; open weekends Easter-October, www.museum.uffington.net).
40 miles, mostly on quiet country lanes. Mostly easy-going but with a challenging climb up to White Horse Hill and a few lesser climbs around Coleshill. Several short cuts possible. Suitable for regular cyclists, mostly on-road, suitable for any bike but road, hybrid or touring bike best. Expect to take all day if you stop for the sights along the way – which you should. The Vale is not a place to rush through.
A 1-mile offroad detour west from White Horse Hill along the Ridgeway ancient track will take you to the myth-shrouded Neolithic long barrow at Wayland’s Smithy. This section of the Ridgeway has a fairly good surface, just about doable on a road bike if you’re careful.
Short cuts: Easy opportunities to cut back to Uffington from White Horse Hill (halves the distance to 20 miles total) or Shrivenham (about 30 miles total). You can cut across from Goosey to Denchworth to save 4 miles.
- The turning off the A417 for West Wellow is on a blind bend – take care.
- There’s a steep descent from White Horse Hill – watch out for cars coming out of the National Trust car park halfway down and beware of the crossroads at the bottom.
- After Great Coxwell you go down a short tarmac path to reach the A420: a fast, busy road. Go straight across the A420 into the layby/bus stop opposite, then turn right and stay in the layby until you reach its end, where you turn left through a gate onto a dead-end lane.
- There’s a short section of tarmac-surfaced bridleway into Childrey: it’s OK for road bikes but quite broken-up and bumpy.
- If driving, park considerately in or near the car park by Uffington Memorial Hall.
- By rail, nearest railway station is Swindon: ride out through Lower Wanborough to join this route at Bishopstone – or for a longer but more scenic ride, follow NCN Route 45 out of Swindon through Coate Water Park to Chiseldon, then lanes through Liddington and Foxhill to Bishopstone.
Pubs at Uffington, Sparsholt, Ashbury, Bishopstone, Shrivenham, Coleshill and Little Coxwell. Village shop in Uffington. Teapot Tearooms at Britchcombe Farm near White Horse Hill (summer weekends only, recommended). Shop (weekdays only) in Ashbury. Cafes & shops in Shrivenham. Shop/tearoom (open Mon-Sat) in Coleshill.