When you’re weaving through the heart of the North Wessex Downs Area of Natural Beauty (AONB), with its rollercoaster hills and seemingly endless miles of chalky farmland, it’s hard to understand why the expanse of green isn’t more of a cycling destination.
Perhaps the area is overlooked in favour of the nearby Chilterns and Cotswolds, or perhaps it simply gets confused with the North Downs which stretch from Farnham, Surrey, to Dover in Kent.
Either way, the North Wessex Downs sprawl over 1730 kilometres squared – and there’s a lot of scope there for cycling adventures.
North Wessex Downs landscape
The AONB creeps into the counties of Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. Layers of chalk, formed over 150 million years ago, are the instigator for the stunning rolling terrain on offer in the area.
The expanse was crowned an AONB in 1972, but its history goes back much further. Signs of this can be seen throughout, such as in the etching of the Bronze-Age Uffington White Horse, seen leaping across the valley at the northern end within the Ridgeway escarpment.
The terrain varies greatly – though it is almost entirely a chalk landscape. The backbone of the North Wessex Downs is formed by open downland, responsible for the panoramic views over remote and dry valleys. But there’s woodland too, namely the Savernake Forest and West Woods.
Elsewhere, there’s high chalk plains, such as that at the tip of the Salisbury Plain, offering up spacious landscape. The River Kennet runs through the centre of the North Wessex Downs, with a lowland ‘bowl’ curving its way around Newbury.
On the road, you’ll find quiet country lanes sloping through the flat valleys, but stingingly steep climbs, such as Walbury Hill – which leads up to the highest chalk down in England.
For those seeking something more sedate, there’s paths along the likes of the Kennet and Avon Canal and picturesque villages and market towns to explore.
Going off-road in the North Wessex Downs: The Ridgeway
The North Wessex Downs are home to Britain’s oldest road – though we use the term ‘road’ loosely, you’ll find a gravel or cyclocross bike somewhat more appropriate on last stretches of the route.
The complete trail is 87 miles long, with a start in the World Heritage Site of Avebury. The most popular section to ride is the 43m/70km stretch from Overton Hill to Streatley on the River Thames, where most of the route is off-road.
The route accumulates 2421ft/738m of climbing, so it’s no walk in the park.
Whilst within the North Wessex Downs stretch, riders can expect to come across the likes of Iron Age forts, and the figures of white horses carved into the chalk. Passing into the Chilterns, the course ahead becomes more closed in and wooded.
Road cycling in the North Wessex Downs: Ridgeway Rouleur
Clearly, within those 1730km squared, there’s going to be a pretty huge catalogue of recommended roads.
Thankfully, Cycling Weekly’s sister company UK Cycling Events (UKCE) has devised routes of 32, 55 and 80 miles which explore the very best of the area.
The route is all new for 2020, and sees riders exploring the secluded valleys and woodlands of the ancient Ridgeway, as well as skirting out into the Chilterns AONB before hitting the North Wessex Downs for proper.
Entry costs £35 to £40, or £3 to under 16s. This is a an extra special event, with some additional features at HQ – including live music, an event village, recovery zone and activities to keeps kids busy.
As well as the festival vibe additions, you’ll also get all the normal features: well stocked feed stations, mechanical support, parking, full route marking, electronic chip timing, on-line results, finishers medals, pick-up wagons, event photos and more.
For those looking to rank their performance, rider finish times will be awarded a gold, silver or bronze standard.
Interested? Read more and sign up here
Cycling clubs in the North Wessex Downs
There’s plenty of local cycling clubs in the area.
Newbury RC has its base just off the southern edge of the Downs, and the 1925 established club offers rides to suit a range of abilities. On the northern end, there’s Swindon Wheelers, formed in 1923 and offering a similarly wide remit.
Stop for coffee: Honesty
Of course, there are many great cafe stop locations in the area. However, the Honesty Group won our top pick, based on their eight different locations in Berkshire and Hampshire, from Hungerford (the Northern end), to Inkpen (central) and Kingsclere (right at the Southern tip of the AONB).
Basically, if you’re riding in the North Wessex Downs, you’re rarely far away from one.
Not only that, they use rainforest alliance coffee beans in their own blended coffee, and bake a selection of delectable treats without additives, chemical flavour enhancers or preservatives.