in the gooey

Memorial Day on Mount Shasta, May 2019

Mount Shasta jumped to the top of our list of places to explore when we stumbled across Bubba Suess’s blog, “Hike Mt Shasta”. “Hike Mt Shasta” seems to cover anything you could possibly want to know about exploring the Mount Shasta region. We decided to make the trip on the next long weekend, which happened to be Memorial Day.

To break the trip up a little, we stopped in Redding, site of the historic Carr Fire. Redding burned for over a month between July and August 2018, with 100-foot-wide fire tornadoes that generated gases reaching temperatures of 2,700 degrees and winds up to 165 mph. One of the areas to sustain the most damage was Whiskeytown National Recreational Area.

By May 2019, Whiskeytown’s Oak Bottom Campground had reopened with a warning on its website that “The Carr Fire has increased risks to visitors; falling trees, broken and hanging limbs, burned out stump holes, abandoned mine features, and loose rocks remain in much of the burned area. Remember to watch the ground you walk on, as well as above you.”

Despite the warning and 81 F (27 C) heat, the campground was booked full. The sites were small, but folk were courteous and quiet.

Being new to California, bear lockers were new to us

Oliver at the camp site

Shortly after setting up, the sky turned pink. Checking the weather, we learned that a giant storm was gathering, with the possibility of hail and tornadoes, 8 miles (13 km) to the west of us in Redding.

Mallards with a purpose

The hail pinged off the tent in a rather exciting way, but the storm was short-lived, and by morning the rain had dried up.

Whiskeytown Lake is actually a reservoir, created in 1963 to divert water from the Trinity River basin to the Sacramento River, named for the village of Whiskeytown, which, ironically, was inundated as a result of the reservoir.

A tour of the lake was a tour of Carr Fire burn scars — of charred land returning to life.

CA-299 highway is visible on the left in this photo

I was impressed by how well these Canada Geese blended in with the shadow of the overhanging bank. From a distance the camouflaging effect caused them to almost disappear.

Judge Francis Carr Power House

I regret that we didn’t stop to take photos along the I-5. The highway to Mt Shasta is a great, green corridor following an old railway line through sweeping canyons thick with pine trees. And the 170 million year old, 6000-feet tall granite spires known as Castle Crags are a sight to behold, even when viewed from the highway. Castle Crags State Park is definitely on our list of places to explore.

Railway towns dot the route. Dunsmuir is one such. It was originally called Pusher after the pusher locomotives that pushed freight trains over the steep mountains to the north of Dunsmuir. The town was later renamed Dunsmuir after a Canadian coal baron, in exchange for money to build a municipal fountain (San Francisco Chronicle).

We soaked in the scenery over a beer at Dunsmuir Brewery Works, a popular spot with lots of outdoor seating and a good selection of craft brews.

campsite setting

In Mount Shasta we stayed at Reynolds Resort on Lake Siskiyou. There were so few campers that it felt like we had the park to ourselves.

We spent all our time cycling on and around the Lake Siskiyou Trail. Wagon Creek Arm Bridge was out, making it impossible to make the full circuit, despite valiant attempts to portage our bikes through the freezing cold water.

In the distance Mount Shastina towers over Lake Siskiyou Bridge. Mount Shastina is the the highest of Mount Shasta’s four cones.

Some requisite facts about Mount Shasta: The United States Geological Survey rates it as a very high-threat volcano; its last eruption was in 1786; it erupts every 600 years; it is about 593,000 years old; it is made up of four overlapping volcanic cones named Shastina, Misery, Hotlum and Sargents Ridge.

Despite being Memorial Day weekend, there was hardly any traffic on the trail.

It was the perfect ride for taking in the scenery — paved paths and double-track dirt trails with almost no ascent.

The only part of the trail that presented any challenge was the Chalet Trail alternate route (seen above), which was way too narrow for my liking at about a foot (30 cm) wide in some places.

Lake Siskiyou Bridge

Our terminus on the other side of the absent Wagon Creek Arm Bridge.

On our way home we stopped at Shasta Dam, the eighth-tallest dam in the United States, built between 1935 and 1945. The gift shop had an excellent selection of reference books!

Shasta Dam

RESOURCES CONSULTED
The 4 Eruption Cones of Mount Shasta, Hike Mt Shasta by Bubba Souss (12 January 2018) – includes diagrams
Border to Border: Essential road trip stops along I-5, Roadtrippers (13 May 2016)
Castle Crags State Park, California Department of Parks and Recreation
Dunsmuir Brewery Works
Feature Detail Report for: Whiskeytown Lake, USGS
Hike Mt Shasta, Bubba Suess
Judge Francis Carr Powerplant, Bureau of Reclamation Projects and Facilities
Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort
Lake Siskiyou Trail Loop – includes directions and map
Little Town of Dunsmuir is Big on Trains, San Francisco Chronicle (13 July 2016)
Oak Bottom Campground, Recreation.gov
Reynolds Resorts
Soaking up Shasta setting/Railroad towns, vintage hotels and hot springs in northern woods, SFGate (3 September 2016)
Things to do in Redding (Tripadvisor)
Visit Redding
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, National Park Service
Work on the Chalet Trail, Mount Shasta Trail Association

Cycling Monterey Wine Country, Jan 2019

In his indefatigable quest to find flat routes that my battered but trusty three-speed could handle, my husband discovered River Road, a quiet, paved road through Monterey wine country. As it turned out, the new bike was ready before we had a chance to explore River Road, so River Road became the location of my maiden voyage on the Monocog.

Early one brisk January morning, we traveled through Salinas River Valley – the “Silicon Valley” of agriculture – and found a convenient place to park on an expansive patch of dirt at the juncture of a fork in the road.

As we unloaded the bikes – flipped them upside down, attaching front wheels with the flick of a lever and screwing in pedals with a few turns of a wrench – a sudden and steady stream of vehicles in the same condition as my three-speed drove past. “An early shift getting off of work?” I wondered.

Facing Gabilan Mountains

To the left were the Gabilan Mountains (Pinnacles National Park was just visible in the distance), and to the right were the Santa Lucia Mountains, the eastern boundary of Big Sur.

Pinnacles National Park viewed from River Road

We were alone except for the fog, which, having engulfed much of the Santa Lucia, seemed to have paused for a glass of pinot noir.

Salinas River Valley is Monterey County’s primary wine growing region. The following information was taken from the Arroyo Seco Winegrowers website.

Positioned north-to-south, the Salinas River Valley is a direct and unobstructed corridor from the ocean, beginning at Monterey Bay. The geography of the corridor creates a “Thermal Rainbow”: as one moves south away from Monterey Bay the temperature rises dramatically. The effect is heightened by a very deep underwater canyon similar in size and scope to the Grand Canyon. It impacts the saturation and penetration of fog as well as the strength of winds that sweep through the valley. The result of this rare geographic condition is extreme cooling and regional temperature variances, all of which contribute to the uniqueness of Monterey County as a grape growing region.

Gradually vineyards replaced farms.

And the sun rose higher in the sky and burned off all the fog.

Dirt trails skirted the paved road

The ascent was negligible, but made for a fun ride back to the car.

On the way home we drove south on Aroyo Seco Road to Greenfield before turning around and stopping at Fourth Street Tap House in Gonzales where there are 28 beers on tap and everyone loves dogs.

Resources Consulted:
Arroyo Seco Rd, Cycling California
Aroyo Seco AVA, Aroyo Seco Wine Growers
Cycling the Arroyo Seco-Indians Road, Xasáuan Today
On A Mission Recap, Huckleberry Bicycles

Bonjour Canal de Bourgogne, Aug 2017

The Canal de Bourgogne is a hop, skip and a jump away from the small, agricultural town of Soussey-sur-Brionne, where my spouse has family. The Canal was originally conceived of in 1605, but construction didn’t began until 1775, and was completed in 1832. It spans 150 miles (242 km) and connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

Lock near Pouilly en Auxois.

We traveled a very small section of the Canal, limiting our journeys to day-trips around Pouilly-en-Auxois. However, we saw quite a few cyclists, generally in couples, loaded down with enough gear to last several days.

I found the lock-houses (“maisons d’ecluse” in French) fascinating. Although they’re no longer inhabited by lock-keepers (“gardiens d’ecluse”), their location, abutting the trail wherever there is a lock, were vivid reminders of the days when movement through the Canal was hand- and horse-powered. The structure of each lock-house was consistent, but each bore the stamp of their owner in their color schemes and embellishments. All were beautifully maintained.

Lockhouse near Vandenesse.

Some antique agricultural equipment on display outside the Vandenesse lock-house. I used to work at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, former residence of James Deering (1859–1925), heir to Deering Harvester Company (which became International Harvester Company), so seeing this old Deering equipment was quite a thrill. James Deering had a close relationship with the French, and was even awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Motorized vehicles are prohibited on the trail, but that doesn’t stop locals, young and old alike, from using it to zip from one village to the next on motorized scooters.

Chateauneuf-en-Auxois in the background, with the canal and canal boats in the foreground, make this an unmistakably French scene.

An old and weathered Cardinal butterfly (Argynnis Pandora) enjoying his last days.

Oliver says the grass along the Canal de Bourgogne is some of the best in the world!

Resources Consulted:
Bourgogne-Franche-Compte Tourisme: Chateauneuf-en-Auxois
Canal de Bourgogne (Wikipedia)
I Love Walking in France: Walking the Burgundy Canal
Travelling the Canals and Rivers of Europe: Pouilly en Auxois to Pouillenay
Trip Suggest: Discover Creancey in France!

Bonjour Villentrois, Aug 2017

For many generations, my spouse’s family has had a home in Villentrois (population 645) near Valençay, at the northern tip of the Indre departement. In the past, the town was famous for its mushrooms, which blanket the landscape in November. Mushrooms are also grown in deep caves cut out of the Tuffeau limestone hills. My spouse’s family home has such a cave. They keep you lovely and cool in the summer. Tuffeau limestone is also used to patch neighboring Loire Valley castles, the most famous of which is probably Chambord.

We cycled trails, wrought by tractors, that skirted the boundaries of farms and intersected major roadways, and dirt roads cut by lumber companies, patched with ceramic shards, that disappeared in the shadow of Forêt de Brouard. We avoided major roadways as the roads are small and drivers speed and are unused to cyclists. Small restaurants – none more authentic in France – quenched our hunger. Only one word of caution: check the weather forecast before you leave, as there aren’t very many places to take shelter during rainstorms.

Veuil has a cluster of restaurants that are worth risking a drenching for. We arrived late to Le P’Tit Veuil with a ferocious storm close on our heals, but they did not hesitate to welcome us in, and fed us with such alacrity that I have had to reconsider my definition of hospitality!

The dark area is the Forêt de Brouard. We got caught in a rainstorm while in the forest. The best shelter we could find was a young tree that slowed the passage of the rain, but in no way prevented it from reaching us. The storm lasted about thirty minutes! It was a fantastic ride, though.

Sunflowers, or “tournesols” in French.

A house built with blocks of Tuffeau limestone.

This trail in the Forêt de Brouard was on the delimitation between two departments. The concept of “departement” is similar to “county” in English, but the jurisdiction of departements is wider than that of counties (“comte” in French), which are usually part of departements.

The entrance to a nest of European hornets. Wikipedia says they’re docile unless engaged in contest with another wasp, or defending their nest. They were unbothered by us.

Classic Valencay cheese, made with goats’ milk, little flattened pyramids of heaven.

Route Departemental (D33), road from Lucay-le-Male to Villentrois. The glass insulators on the power lines were old in the 1960s. When my spouse was a child, these funny, old insulators imprinted themselves in his memory so that they will forever be associated with Villentrois.

Resources Consulted:
A Gardener in France: Troglodyte flower show in central France
European Hornet (Wikipedia)
Cheese.com, Valencay

Goodbye London, Aug 2017

It’s been a little over a year since we said goodbye to London and the U.K. and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. I was reluctant to leave. The parks, charity shops, high streets, public transit that gets you anywhere anytime, museums and galleries, countryside, pubs, and history at every turn were hard to let go of, but at least we left in style. After a bit of fuss over our lease agreement (beware of renting from KFH) and lots of back and forth with freight forwarders, we mailed three-weeks’ worth of clothing to France, hopped on our bikes, loaded Oliver in his basket, and cycled out of town. Our destination: France, for three weeks of visiting with family and cycling the countryside prior to moving back to the United States.

Departing from Battersea Park, we took one last peek at Windsor Castle, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Thames and Tower Bridge, and caught a train from London Waterloo East to Folkstone Central, a cab to Calais, and a train to Paris, where we cycled between train stations. Finally we took a train to St. Cloud (a suburb between Paris and Versailles), where we spent a few days before driving to Villentrois, in the middle of France. We then headed east to Soussey-sur-Brionne, from whence we cycled the Canal de Bourgogne and the Parc Regional Natural du Morvan. We then returned to St. Cloud and cycled around the Forêt de Fausses-Reposes, which stretches from St. Cloud to Versailles, for a few days before packing up our bikes and heading back to the United States.

Unfortunately we didn’t take any photos of the exodus through London. This was taken en route between London and Folkstone.

We took a Folkstone Taxi through the Eurotunnel, avoiding the Eurostar because it has a no-pets policy. While crossing the Channel, we were interviewed by Channel 4 for a documentary about the lives of regular people using the Channel in the light of Brexit.

A Folkstone taxi cab in the Euroshuttle, transporting us across the Channel while we are interviewed by Channel 4. Two of several cameras are visible, as well as a shy Ollie. Chloe from Blast Films, who organized the interview, was riding in the car behind us.

From Calais Ville we took the SNCF to Gare du Nord, then cycled through Paris to Gare Saint-Lazare, which took us to St. Cloud, our first destination.

The trip lasted about seven hours and involved at least a dozen staircases, but was otherwise painless. And I would lug my bike up twice as many staircases to cycle the French countryside again.

From the Downs to the Sea – Day 1, Apr 2017

Our second cycle tour of the UK took us to the South Downs. We followed South Downs Way, a 100 mile (160km) off-road National Trail that connects Winchester, the Saxon Capital of England, with the white cliffs of Eastbourne. With a total of 3,800 metres, or 12,600 feet of ascent, it normally takes 7–10 days to walk, or 2–4 days to ride. We set out early one Saturday in April to do a one day tour, starting in picturesque Petersfield and ending in Emsworth, via Buriton Chalkpits and Limeworks, West Dean Wood and Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve.

The trail through Buriton Chalkpits and Limeworks was shady and quiet. A couple busy roads intersect it, which seemed a bit dangerous. West Dean Woods was spectacular with hazel coppices and fields of purple violets. It’s also the home of the Andy Goldsworthy chalk balls, located along the aptly titled Chalk Stones Trail. Kingley Vale Trail takes you through an ancient yew tree reserve. Some of the reserve’s yew trees are the oldest living things in Britain!

The grassy, round hills were a treat to ride. The ascents and descents were gentler than those of The Ridgeway, although I will say that we thought we’d hit the final hill five times before we actually climbed it. We saw quite a few mountain bikers and backpackers, but, strangely, no other female cyclists. And we added another word to our British lexicon: “hiya.” Unlike in the US, where the same expression sounds the way it is written, over here it sounds like “howareya”; it means the same thing, though. My dad, an Australian and long-time resident of the US, says hiya like the British do and always gets the response, “Good thanks; how are you?”

Petersfield

Brilliant graphism. These labels very effectively placed us in space, time and history.

This little fellow entertained us as we at our lunch.

This was our view from Harting Down as we ate our lunch.


Andy Goldsworthy chalk stone

Notice the hazelwood fence

Yew tree

Chichester in the distance

Racton Monument, completed in 1775; a folly (i.e., not a real ruin) commissioned by the 2nd Earl of Halifax, possibly as a summerhouse or a lookout so the Earl could watch his merchant ships dock at the nearby port village of Emsworth.

A bridleway overlooking Racton Monument took us through a small paddock full of sheep.

Resources consulted
Chalk Stones Trail
Guide to the South Downs National Park
Kingley Vale Trail
Racton Monument

Cycling The Ridgeway Trail – Day 3, Apr 2017

902 ft maximum height
National Trails The Ridgeway Trip Planner

The time between our brains receiving the message “Ache in bum region” to the time the message changed to “What heavenly surroundings,” was once again very rapid. The ascent up the side of the ridge was steep and wild and the trail rutted and crumbly. Gauthier carries Ollie in the basket except when riding up hills. Here’s how it works: I generally follow behind; when Gauthier stops at the base of hills to remove Ollie, he yells, “Go Emily, go!” at which cry I whiz past and Ollie tears after me.

racehorse gallop

A racehorse gallops!

The section of The Ridgeway between Wantage and Goring is a dream to ride. It has large stretches of grassy hard-pack, hardly any ruts, and few if any steep hills.

GWR tunnel
We stopped to have a snack atop a derelict GWR tunnel. “I remember riding this line with my dad before it was shut down in 1963,” a passing hiker told us.

leaving The Ridgeway
Before we knew it we were saying goodbye to The Ridgeway and turning our bikes towards Goring, a village of 3,200 inhabitants with a Norman church.

Goring village with view of church

Goring was recently in the press for being the home of and place where George Michael passed away. It’s also Wind in the Willows country.

Goring Lock

The homes are old, posh and lush. Goring Lock (above) is situated in Goring Gap.

mossy roof of Catherine Wheel
Catherine Wheel is Goring’s oldest inn, dating back to Elizabethan times. It serves traditional British food (i.e., a variety of roast dishes) and real ale, hosts live jazz, has a predilection for all things French…

French safari-inspired wallpaper at the Catherine Wheel

French safari-inspired wallpaper at the Catherine Wheel

and a sign at the bar informs guests that “Witches are welcome.”

Goring Gap with boats
Our final stop was Reading and to get there we took the Thames Path, which cuts through The Ridgeway just north-west of Reading at the Goring Gap.

Norman church

We followed a quiet, gently descending road, canopied by trees and intermittently littered with horse droppings. The soundscape was fantastic: birdsong, burbling brook and the distant clip clop of horses’ hooves. Hidden behind the dense foliage was a large estate with another lovely Norman church.

donkeys
Ollie loves donkeys. These friendly fellows ambled over to say hello. Ollie gave one of them a little lick on the nose.

Ollie gives the donkey a lick
After taking us through the countryside, the Thames Path took us up a pine-scented hill with a wonderful view of the river.

Thames Path with view of Thames
The trail was narrow.

narrow path

and hilly.

steep descent
Can you picture Mr. Toad careening down this hill in a motor car? “Oh, pooh! I’m not afraid of heights! Silly, boyish fear! Sheer waste of time! Toot, toot!!”

steep ascent
It took a bit out of us to carry our bikes up this slope. Parts of the Path front lavish homes.

grazing cattle

and other parts take you past farms.

Mapledurham
And a very short detour takes you to Mapledurham, a tiny village of 317 inhabitants named after a 12th century family estate with one of the largest Elizabethan houses in Oxfordshire.

water mill

Also on the estate is the only water mill on the Thames to be in commercial production; the same water mill that graces the cover of Black Sabbath’s first album.

Mapledurham
Among the films and television programs filmed here are The Eagle has Landed, Miss Marple and Midsomer Murders.

Thames Path in Reading
Thames Path brings you almost to the doorstep of the Reading train station. With only minutes to spare until the next train left for London, and loath to wait an hour for the next one, we raced through the large station with Ollie at our heals and reached the train just in time. As Gauthier swung his bike aboard, Ollie leaped on after it, hopped up onto an empty seat and curled into a little ball. He was not about to be left behind!

To read more about our experience cycling the Ridgeway Trial, see our posts for Day 1 and Day 2.

Resources Consulted

BBC News: Wind in the Willows used in Goring Weir court plea, 18 November 2016

Cycling The Ridgeway Trail – Day 2, Apr 2017

902 ft maximum height
National Trails The Ridgeway Trip Planner

We were a lot more psychologically prepared on Saturday. Our bums ached a bit when we first set out, but the pain was quickly forgotten. We stopped again at Three Trees for scotch eggs and Belgian buns and then headed back up the side of the ridge. On the way we saw hang gliders!

hang gliders

This section of the Ridgeway is hillier than the section between Swindon and Avebury, but the hills are far gentler. We were treated to endless vistas, cows and sheep.

Uffington Hill Fort was a must-see and, conveniently, on the way. It’s one of several Iron Age hill forts built along the Ridgeway. Today it is believed that, contrary to popular belief, hill forts were not primarily used for defensive purposes, but rather were community centers in which Iron Age tribes or clans gathered for worship, feasting and to trade livestock, crops and other goods. Feast we did, nestled in Uffington’s ditch where we were protected from the wind. Grateful I was for my neck warmer and wind breaker. The wind up there was fierce! There were lots of kites and lots of dogs.

View from White Horse Hill; White Horse is out of view to the right

The Uffington chalk figure, known as the “White Horse,” was originally made by cutting a trench into the hillside beside Uffington Hill Fort and filling it with chalk blocks. For centuries local people have cared for the figure by “scouring” the surface and renewing the chalk infill to keep the horse white. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Lord of the Manor provided food and entertainment for the scourers, which became a great annual celebration called the “Pastime” that attracted thousands of people. The White Horse is such a recognizable landmark that it was covered up during the Second World War to prevent it from being used as a navigation point by enemy aircraft.

Wayland Smithy’s Long Barrow

Chalk figures were popularly created by landowners two centuries ago to add a sense of timelessness to their country estates. More recently they were created to commemorate a regiment or war. However, excavations during the 1990s established that the White Horse dates from between 1,400 and 600 BCE.

The trail also passes by Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow, a five-thousand-year-old, communal burial chamber. It originally contained fourteen people, but by the time the chambers were examined in 1920, they had been ransacked. Legend has it that if you leave your horse here overnight, it will be magically reshod in the morning.

St. Michael and All Angels Church graveyaurd

Shortly before reaching Letcombe Bassett, our via-point to Wantage, we had a wipeout. My bike was fitted with grippy, fat tires built to handle uneven terrain, but Gauthier’s bike was not. The deep ruts, combined with the extra care needed to safely chauffeur the chien in his front-rack basket, resulted in the bike’s tire getting trapped in a rut. Oliver jumped gracefully from his basket before the bike hit the ground, but Gauthier fell with the bike. We learned an important lesson, which is that flint rocks have no problem slicing through human flesh. Go figure.

Letcombe Bassett

Letcombe Bassett was idyllic. St. Michael and All Angels Church, dating from the 12th century and now held by Corpus Christi College, Oxford, is an adorable building and the folk we met there – scrubbing the floor, mowing the lawn and braiding flower wreathes of every color – couldn’t have been kinder. Many times we had to decline the invitation to return home with them to dress Gauthier’s bloody knee. The man scrubbing the floor was also a bell ringer and told me all about full circle ringing.

Letcombe Bassett map

Outside the church, grazing sheep formed a backdrop to leaning grave stones, and horses in jackets like Ollie’s were grazing in paddocks framed by thatched farmhouses and stables. We followed a narrow footpath that followed a brook to the base of the hill where the brook had once been used to farm watercress. A sequence of similar footpaths delivered us to Wantage. On the way we met a retired farmer with a beautiful Shetland sheepdog who reminisced fondly about the intimate relationships that are formed between sheepdogs and their sheep.

Former watercress farm

We arrived in Wantage about 4 pm. Alfred’s Lodge, where we stayed overnight, was clean and tastefully decorated. The owner recommended we wet our lips at Shoulder of Mutton before dinner. The pub dates back to about 1830 and is known for its good selection of real ales. Dinner was at The Lamb, the only restaurant in town that allowed dogs.

Wantage town centre with back view of statue of Alfred the Great built 1877.

Wantage, population 10,000, was originally a Roman settlement and is famous for being the birthplace of King Alfred the Great in 849. Weekly trading rights were first granted to the town by Henry III in 1246. Markets are now held twice weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church dates from the 13th century. Its size indicates the importance of the town as a trading center.

St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church dating from 13th century.

That night, I dreamed a ghost in mortal form fell in love with a young socialite named Willow Ash. He gave her gifts of clothing that had once belonged to his deceased wife, and when an epidemic swept through town, the clothing protected her by concealing from the grim reaper that she was mortal.

Tomb with rounded top and skull sculpture at St. Michael and All Angels Church, dated 1690.

To read more about our experience cycling the Ridgeway Trial, see our posts for Day 1 and Day 3.

Resources Consulted
Photographer’s Resource: Uffington White Horse 
Walking World: Ridgeways
Wantage (Wikipedia)

Cycling The Ridgeway Trail – Day 1, Apr 2017

902 ft maximum height
National Trails The Ridgeway Trip Planner

We spent a lot of time at the public library when we first moved to the UK, and one day we checked out a travel guide about the ancient Ridgeway trail, Britain’s 5,000 year-old road. Captivated by visions of neolithic pilgrims, Roman soldiers, Viking and Saxon invaders, drovers and traders, we promised ourselves we would cycle it as soon as the weather warmed up.

Originally a complex of braided tracks along the 400-mile chalk crest of the North Wessex Downs and The Chilterns, some as much as a mile wide, with subsidiary ways diverging and coming together, today the exact course and width of the tracks is defined by earth banks, thorn hedges and barbed-wire fences. This change occurred over two-hundred years ago during the local Enclosure Acts of 1750, which saw common land transferred into private hands.

In 1972 the 87-mile central section was approved as The Ridgeway National Trail. Most of the remainder has been way-marked, however, and is shown on Ordinance Survey maps under different names. Some local landowners objected to the Trail, so in 1987 the Countryside Commission charged all local highway authorities with ensuring that every footpath be unblocked by the year 2000. Lawsuits were filed and today access to the Trail is unfettered.

Spectacular, bright-yellow fields of rapeseed were in bloom everywhere.

Spectacular, bright-yellow fields of rapeseed were in bloom everywhere.

The streets were eerily quiet on Good Friday morning when we cycled to Paddington Station via Hyde Park to catch the 0927 to Swindon. We were glad we’d made bike reservations as space for bikes is limited on GWR trains and some cyclists were turned away.

We had a thorough ride itinerary that considered routes, weather, accommodations and food for both ourselves and Ollie. Our route avoided car traffic as I can’t enjoy cycling with cars whizzing by. The plan: day one we would cycle Swindon to Avebury and back to Swindon (25 miles), day two we would cycle Swindon to Wantage (25 miles), and day three we would cycle Wantage to Reading (25 miles) where we would take the train back to London.

We used four mapping websites: 1) Sustrans provides a map of the National Cycle Network, or NCN, which is a series of safe, traffic-free paths and quiet on-road cycling and walking routes that connect to every major town and city in the United Kingdom; 2) CycleStreets caters to the needs of both confident and less confident cyclists and provides an exceptional map of bridleways and footpaths, some of which are all but hidden from the naked eye; 3) Walk4Life, originally government funded, provides trail characteristics, such as surface (flat, firm), barriers and hazards; and 4) GoogleEarth street-view helped us visualize the route.

Ollie patrols the perimeter at Three Trees farm shop.

Ollie patrols the perimeter at Three Trees farm shop.

We packed light. We carried 12kg, including Ollie and a thermos full of tea: Ollie – 5kg, Ollie’s bag – 800g, tea thermos and water – 2kg, change of clothes – 1.5kg, bike lock and tools – 1kg, food – 1.5kg. We used front racks rather than panniers as front racks distribute weight more evenly. Packing light was important because my bike has only three speeds.

The M40 pedestrian/cycle overpass.

The M4 pedestrian/cycle overpass.

NCN 45 connects to the Ridgeway and is well-marked and easy to find from Swindon Station. It’s a 30 to 40 minute cycle from the station to the trail. If you plan on taking this route, note that this section of NCN 45 follows both footpaths and minor roads, so pay attention to signposts.

We stopped at Three Trees farm shop, where we snacked on delicious scotch eggs and Belgian buns and picked up some Wiltshire blend tea. From Three Trees we took the NCN 45 northwest to some minor roads that took us through scenery out of a story book until we reached a track that led up the side of the down.

The track was paved for about three miles and then turned into a multiplicity of dirt-based surfaces for the duration of the ride to Avebury, which was to be our destination before heading back to Swindon for the night. We stopped several times to inflate or deflate our tires to adjust to trail conditions. There were few other cyclists, but many hikers. The trail is intersected by roads, so it is easy to ride or hike small sections.

Birdsong followed us throughout the trip as we passed through Marlborough Downs before reaching Avebury.

“In 2012 the Marlborough Downs farmers formed a unique partnership and began to work together to make space for nature on their farms. Originally government funded, the partnership involves over 30 farms covering 25,000 acres of Wiltshire countryside.”

“One of the most important geological sites in Britain. Natural events have created valleys with spectacular quantities of sarsen stones, which now support rare and unusual lichens. The remains of settlements, field systems, burial mounds, ancient tracks and the widespread working of sarsen stones show that people have worked and lived in this downland landscape for over 7,000 years. The reserve is part of the Avebury World Heritage Site.”


What we found most striking about the chalk grasslands of Fyfield Down were the giant, yellow-flowered broom bushes and the large, silicious sandstone boulders (i.e., sarsen stones) that were transported to the area through glacial action during the ice age.

Fairly significant sections of the trail are sadly deeply rutted by motor vehicle traffic, which is very detrimental to walkers and cyclists alike, as well as being ugly and unnatural-looking, although it does provide an outstanding opportunity to practice some technical riding. Riding the rutted parts in sustained rain, with puddles and mud, would be hellish, so it’s important to pay attention to the weather forecast.

It’s also uphill for a good third of the way. The combination of ruts, ascents and an 18 mph wind in our face made the ride challenging, but it was totally worth it.

Ridgeway trail terminates a few miles before Avebury in a gigantic mound complete with standing stones. The sarsen stones were dragged from the surrounding hills in the late Stone Age. We found it interesting that whereas henges with defensive purposes have ditches with external banks, Avebury Henge, like Stonehenge, has an inside ditch. We also found it interesting to note how well protected the Henge was from the wind, situated as it is in a valley.

Standing inside the bank, looking at the massive stones, contemplating the incredible amount of labor needed to create such a monument was awe-inspiring. English Heritage points out that henges such as Avebury’s “bear witness to the existence over many hundreds of years of a great civilisation in this part of Wessex. […] The sheer amount of labour required to excavate the huge ditches, to gather, transport and erect the massive stones, and to raise the strange mound of Silbury Hill, indicates the availability of a substantial population, and the quality of the work, particularly in the latter stages, shows their considerable skills.”

Apparently, by the 1930s many of the stones had fallen over and the site been disfigured by buildings. English Heritage explains that “the appearance of the site today owes much to Alexander Keiller, heir to a fortune made from the famous Keiller marmalade, who bought the site and cleared away buildings and re-erected many stones in the late 1930s.” I found out a little more about Alexander Keiller’s role from some documents stored at The National Archives.

In addition to exploring the Henge, we ate at the Red Lion where we were entertained with stories about thatch rooves and hidden rooms by a retired historic building conservation consultant, and admired St. James Church, the earliest parts of which date from 1,000 CE.

Lichen covered gravestones.

We did not have enough time to do Avebury justice. That would have taken at least four hours. Also, bringing a dog placed limits on what we could do. We would have liked to visit the 16th-century manor house (you can actually touch the furniture and lie on the beds!) and the Alexander Keiller Museum.

With the wind at our backs and a mostly downward journey, the trip back to Swindon was swift and fairly painless. It would be a lie to say we weren’t suffering a bit by the time we arrived at our hotel around 7pm. Among other aches and pains, I had somehow acquired a sunburn on my lips. We stayed at TravelLodge. It was clean, quiet, well-located, had a bar and 24 hour restaurant and, most importantly, accepted dogs and bikes.

Swindon is an interesting city rich in railway heritage. Swindon’s rail workers received health care that became a model for the NHS, and access to personal enrichment programs that included xylophone lessons. It also had the UK’s first lending library. Today it is home to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library book depository, which contains 153 miles of bookshelves. It also has the English Heritage National Monument Record Centre and the headquarters of the The National Trust. And apparently you can see iconic punk-rock bands, such as the U.K. Subs, play live at local dive-bars for £8 (if only we’d known this sooner)!

To read more about our experience cycling the Ridgeway Trial, see our posts for Day 2 and Day 3.

Resources Consulted
Atlas Obscura: Found A Hidden Stone Square Inside the World’s Largest Megalithic Stone Circles
Friends of the Ridgeway: The Ancient Ridgeway
Fylde Ramblers Walking Holidays: The Ridgeway, 4th April to 10th April 2013
History of Avebury Henge and Stone Circles
Introduction to Heritage Assets: Prehistoric Henges and Circles
Swindon (Wikipedia)
Walking World: Ridgeways