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Wiltshire Downs Cycling Tour

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Jack Thurston guides us on an historic route in the Wiltshire downs


From stone circles and crop circles to prehistoric mounds and white horses, the chalk downs and vast fields of Wiltshire are a mysterious tableau. This beautiful circular route, taken from Lost Lanes West: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in the West Country, starts and finishes in Pewsey —accessible by train from London and Reading. Along the way it reveals legends and myths, architectural interest, industrial masterpieces and even a castle. There’s a little bit of climbing, but luckily the area’s well-served with country pubs and popular cafés.



DISTANCE: 44 miles/70km


TERRAIN: Mostly lanes, some unsurfaced tracks and canal towpaths

BIKE SHOPS: Pewsey Velo, Pewsey (01672 562264);Bikes and Boards, Devizes (01380 729621)



Stonehenge may pull in the crowds but Avebury is the choice of connoisseurs of sacred landscapes. The antiquarian John Aubrey put it this way: Avebury “does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge as a cathedral doeth a parish church”. What’s more, you can touch the stones, and it’s free to visit.

The ride starts in Pewsey, beneath the statue of Alfred the Great. Two miles out of Pewsey on the road to Woodborough, stands an unremarkable copse of trees known as Swanborough Tump. Beneath the canopy of ash trees is a prehistoric burial mound. It was here in 871 AD that Alfred met his older brother Ethelred, King of the West Saxons, to determine the line of succession should either of them die in the face of Viking attacks. After a series of defeats, Ethelred died and Alfred was crowned. He proved are markable leader, defeating the Vikings and expanding his territory.

At Woodborough the route turns north towards a line of chalk downs. This quiet country lane is very probably one the oldest roads in the British Isles as scholars believe it forms part of the Wessex Ridgeway. It crosses the Kennet & Avon Canal, not so long ago the latest in freight transport technology; after falling derelict it’s now been restored as a tranquil pleasure-boating backwater.

This is a landscape where people have long sought to make their mark. The chalk hillside a mile north of Alton Barnes is home to one of Wiltshire’s eight remaining  white horses, first carved in 1812. More recently the Barge Inn at Honeystreet has become the favoured meeting place for crop circle enthusiasts. Many of the nearby fields have gained global fame, not least the one pictured on Led Zeppelin’s Remasters album cover. For a unique and personal glimpse into the local history of the area, stop off at the quirky little museum curated in their Honeystreet home by local residents Ray and Marie Pope. Archaeologists now believe that whole landscape around Avebury had ritual significance.

On the descent from Pewsey Downs there are good views north to Silbury Hill: the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe. Four-and-a-half thousand years old, it was last of the great monuments in the vicinity to be completed. The effort involved is staggering. Digging and piling up the 500,000 tonnes of chalk took an estimated 18 million man-hours—equivalent to 500 people working solidly for 10 years—though experts believe it took more than a century. It was all done with the primitive tools of the time: deer antler pickaxes, and shovels made from cattle’s shoulder blades. Though the tunnels dug into the hill have revealed much about about its method of construction, its purpose remains a mystery.

The approach to Avebury is on the road beside the West Kennet Avenue, a ritual path lined withstanding stones. Avebury is known as a henge monument: a bank-and-ditch enclosure where the ditch is on the inside of the bank. This suggests a ritual rather than defensive function. A medieval monastery and village grew up around the henge, and many of the sandstone megaliths were broken down for their building material.

Avebury Manor has recently been reopened by the National Trust. This follows a major renovation to create a sequence of ‘period rooms’ reflecting five decorative styles from the manor’s history: Tudor, Queen Anne, Georgian, Victorian and Art Deco. The Stables gallery contains finds from nearby prehistoric sites, mostly unearthed by Alexander Keiller, the Scottish marmalade heir who lived here as an archaeologist in the 1930s and 1940s.

From Avebury the ride follows NCR 403 across the fields to Yatesbury and Cherhill. After crossing the A4, the topography again gets interesting with a climb up the westernmost edge of the chalk down land that stretches all the way across southern England to the White Cliffs of Dover. In 1643 Roundway Down, north of Devizes, was the scene of a bloody battle in the Civil War that saw Royalists rout Parliamentarian forces, killing 600 men and capturing another thousand. The story goes that some were chased over the steep precipice below Oliver’s Castle, a prehistoric hill fort.

After descending through the villages of Roundway and Rowde, the ride takes in one of the civil engineering marvels of the industrial revolution. A flight of locks was John Rennie’s solution to getting the Kennet & Avon Canal over Caen Hill. It takes just a few minutes on a bicycle, but more than five hours for a boat to traverse all 29 locks. The ride follows NCR4, first along the canal on the edge of Devizes, then into the Vale of Pewsey for a gentle run along lanes to Woodborough and back to Pewsey.

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