A relaxing ride over the hills to Stonehenge and back along the Durnfords and Wylye Valley in Wiltshire.
Parking on the old main road into Codford; I took my new bike out of my old car and chose just the right amount of clothing for a English summers day. That is just a pair of padded bike shorts and a wicking vest with UV protection! I placed two one litre bottles of orange squash and put the front wheel back in its fork. I smeared on sunscreen and cleaned my sunglasses. The English countryside and weather was ready and waiting!
So off I went into the countryside, into the landscape, into a painting! Leaving the road on which my car was parked; I made my way through the back lanes of Codford to a bridleway that would take me up onto the hills on the northern side of the Wylye Valley. I was riding towards the end of the warm summer of 2019; which had given the farmers a good crop yield this year. As the breeze caught the tops of the wheat and barley fields; they seem to ripple like wind across a green inland ocean.
After passing earthworks of an ancient hilltop settlement; I crossed an open field towards a modern settlement. In some buildings behind a group of trees; a ‘biodigester’ was capturing methane from both human and animal sewage. The smell as I passed this place was anything but relaxing; yet it encouraged me to ride faster, forever onward.
After a long straight farm access road, I turned off and dropped down over a rough harvested field. Here I picked up an ancient way that took me past a military airstrip covered that was ironically covered in a sea of Buttercups and Daisies; peace it seems will always flower in nature if not in humans!
It was easy cycling with the big 29” inch wheels across the short grass of the airstrip. In record time, I cycled the length of the runway and onward towards the A303 highway; that links London with the south west of England. As I stopped to wait for a safe gap to my right I could see another earthworks from the ancient Yarnbury Castle. It is thought an Iron age settlement was here 300BC! Due to its location and views over the surrounding Wiltshire Downs; it has been used as a defensive settlement ever since, with Roman pottery being found within the area. If you want to find out more; then here is a useful link to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yarnbury_Castle
After crossing the A303; I enjoyed a long fast gravel track back down into the Wylye valley at Stapleford. Here there is a service station if you need snacks but I pressed on back into the bridleways and northward towards Stonehenge.
Here I encountered a posse of scramblers who kindly slowed down so as not to cover me in so much chalky dust from their knobbly tyres. Unlike some I have no problem with scramblers or any other outdoor enthusiast; I always think: each to his own.
After passing yet another farm and crossing the arrow straight roman road from Old Sarum; I headed towards Stonehenge. A world famous site that needs little introduction.
Maybe because I live nearby or cannot see the stones from the ruins; Stonehenge has no appeal to me. Not to mention the fact it was open to all in my fathers younger years; whereas now it will set you back almost £18 Great British Pounds! If you read of its recent history; you will also find that many of the stones were reset to make the classic arch shape, whilst other stones were kept in place with concrete! Stopping to look across at the hordes walking around the stones; I felt even more relaxed that I was free and able to make my own history that day. Visiting ruins of a temple from a bygone age seemed to me incredible when you could be making your own pilgrimage to the beat of your own drum in the here and now.
Turning my back on Stonehenge; I used a green byway south towards a valley known locally as ‘the Durnfords’ because of the villages within. Using this ancient way; I could picture people of long ago walking towards Stonehenge. Some happy; other maybe apprehensive?
When I found the metalled road from Amesbury I followed it south to the village of Middle Woodford. It was midsummer; so as I passed through these Durnford villages, kids played in gardens, adults played in pub gardens, cricket was being played and everyone seemed so much more relaxed from the addling power of the sunlight. When I reached Middle Woodford; I turned right and back toward the Wylye valley. I climbed a small hill and crested the ridge where the same roman road I had crossed earlier runs north. After waiting for a safe gap between the modern chariots of hardened steel and carved internal woodwork; I dropped back down into the Wylye.
At the bottom of the hill; I had to again take care whilst crossing the A36, another main road linking Bath to Salisbury and the south coast. I normally dismount when crossing a fast or busy road. This is because it is quicker to sprint than cycle a short distance. In addition if the chain comes off halfway across the road; you might be in serious danger from oncoming traffic.
The Wylye Valley
After leaving the dangers of the main road behind me; I crossed the gentle River Wylye. At this point it is shallow enough to stand up in and on a summers day; a great place for wild swimming.
Grovely wood After this I cycled through the picturesque village of Great Wishford; and past its pub: The Royal Oak. Going under a railway bridge; I cycled up a wide valley, with telegraph poles giving a tremendous sense of perspective. This road is a dead end; yet take care as many lazy or tired dog walkers drive as far as they can before walking their prise pets up into Grovely wood. Another natural gem hidden deep in the Wiltshire countryside. Evidence has been found of Iron Age hill forts as well as the more recent Romans. I will go into greater detail about this area in another blog and ride; yet worthy of note is the Great Broad Drive that runs through the centre of the wood from Wilton. An awe inspiring avenue lined with mature Beech trees; that has to be seen to be believed! Here below is a photo from its western end.
Whilst pausing to catch my breath and a photo in both phone and memory; I noticed I was rapidly running out of juice! I felt great and fully hydrated so did not worry too much as I knew I was on the final leg of this route to relax. Turning westward and away from the avenue; I followed the chalk ridge back up the Wylye valley. After a while I left the cover of Grovely wood and cycled across open chalk downlands on a concrete farm road. As this came to an end I followed a grassy track down into the next valley named after its tributary; the River Nadder.
A royal escape to France; sacre bleu!
At this point I was also following another historical route: ‘The Monarchs Way’. Named after the escape route taken by King Charles II after he was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651! A 615 mile circuitous route across England to escape Cromwell’s soldiers and certain execution. After failed attempts to escape via Wales and Bristol; King Charles finally managed to get to France via Shoreham in Sussex. To find out more about this interesting English episode; here is the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_of_Charles_II
After a mile or so; I came to a crossroads and turned right to regain the same ridge line but further west. Here I climbed up and crossed over the A303 highway; again walking over the road to reduce my risks. To the passing motorists, I must have seemed like a scared animal; quickly coming out of one hedge, running across the road and disappearing into the hedge on the other side of the road. At this point I entered into the Great Ridge Wood. Once joined with Grovely wood this too has many old and gnarled oak trees. As well as areas of commercial pine trees; managed by the Wilton estate. Using another stretch of forest track; made arrow straight by a previous Roman road, I had come to my final descent of the day.
Pausing in the shade of an old Oak tree; I looked out and over the Wylye valley. Yes I have as many personal problems as most people; yet out there in the wilds of Wiltshire, I was able to relax into the moment. I could breathe easily the fresh country air. My body felt tired but my muscles felt strong. My mind was clear as I thought no further than that moment in time. I am poor but for that moment I was the richest man in the world; for I was content and relaxed as I ever will be.
For parking in the Wylye Valley; one of my preferred spots is here on the old main road into Codford. It is now a dead end after the bypass was built so it only serves a few cottages. It is free, quiet and safe because it is overlooked by some cottages Here is a map of the exact location:
As always bring sufficient supplies and wear suitable clothing. Check the weather and the sunset time.
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