Annual Midsummer Ride to Avebury

Posted on September 21st, 2006
Dawn over the Berkshire Downs

Dawn over the Berkshire Downs, nr Lambourn (1996)

One of my favourite rides of the year.

The Avebury Ride, organised by Wantage CTC, usually takes place on the 4th Sunday in June, the closest to Midsummer’s Day. We start in the early hours (4 am) just before dawn. The rewards are deserted roads and the sight of early morning wildlife (deer, foxes, hares have all been seen). I volunteered to lead the first ride in 1995 to ensure that I got up in time and have continued each year since. Fortunately, I haven’t overslept yet!

There have been some variations in the route from year to year but we have always started with the climb out of Wantage on the Ashbury Road, the descent to Childrey crossroads and then the mile long climb of Hackpen Hill towards Lambourn. We reach the top just in time for the sunrise in the north-east. For the first 5 years the horizon was cloudy and we didn’t see the dawn (although in 96 and 97 we did see the sun rise through the cloud later as we ascended from Lambourn). However, in 2000 and 2001 we struck lucky.

Sunrise

Sunrise from the top of Hackpen Hill (2000)

The descent into Lambourn can be chilling. In 2001 there was an eerie ground mist half-way down the hill. But by the time we reach Lambourn the day is usually warming up fast. Most years’ we have continued to Baydon before the wonderful long descent into Aldbourne for our essential pre-breakfast breakfast stop, Sitting on the village green at 6 am on a clear summer’s morning is just delightful. In the event of rain, the village also has an admirably large bus shelter, which can comfortably accommodate a dozen cyclists, as we demonstrated in 2002.

Aldbourne

Aldbourne at 6:10 am (2000)

From Aldbourne comes my favourite part of the ride, which Barry Chapman from Swindon introduced me to in 1996. We ascend steadily to Snap with widening views to our left and right before plunging down the hill into Ogbourne St. George. At 7 a.m. there is just the occassional car on the A345, but we usually stick to the cycle path on the left-hand side for most of the way to Ogbourne Maizey. There then follows a steepish climb through a holloway on a single track road to Maisey farm and then beautiful views on the descent to Old Eagle. We backtrack southwards for half-a-mile or so to join the bridleway beside the gallops on Barton Down. The track has a pretty good surface until the final climb up to Clatford Down, where it is a bit loose and sandy. The top of Clatford Down can be an idyllic spot at 7:30 in the morning. From here the bridleway continues across Fyfield Down, with its ancient field systems and sarsen stones, directly to Avebury. However, we turn south to descend to Manton, first on track and then on road, scene of the infamous car disinfectant shower episode after the foot and mouth crisis of 2001. (Leading, I set it off and those behind got showered!)

BY Manton thoughts are usually turning towards breakfast just forty minutes away. We continue through the villages south of the A4 steadily climbing from Lockeridge before turning North over Lurkeley hill towards East Kennett. From the top we get our first view of Avebury and Silbury Hill to the north-west.

Cycling along Stone Avenue

Approaching Avebury along Stone Avenue (1996)

Down to the A4 at West Kennett, we turn up Stone Avenue, the minor road along the mile-long Avenue of standing stones leading into Avebury. Our Goal. Avebury, built around its prehistoric stone circle. We’ve made it. The reward for our endeavours is breakfast in the Red Lion.

Sadly, there’s rarely time for a proper look around after breakfast although we did manage it in 1995. In 1998 the solstice fell on the Sunday and the pub refused to take our booking, so we had an earlier breakfast at Membury services en route and spent an hour wandering around (and wondering!). Avebury on midsummer’s morning was an amazing sight. Hundreds of people (hippies, new agers, pagans, bikers, punks) had spent the night there, some camping in the surrounding fields but many sleeping rough in the village among the stones. Walking around the embankments of the old earthworks one had to be careful not to tread on prostrate lifeforms or trip over piles of discarded beer cans. Sounds of various horns, drums, bells and whistles filled the air. (The next Sunday solstice is in 2004.)

Riders outside the Red Lion

Outside the Red Lion (2000)

The return journey usually involves retracing our steps via East Kennet and Lockeridge to Marlborough where we pick up the cycle trail northwards on the line of the old Marlborough-Chiseldon railway. This is a delightful route away from the busy A345, providing a very gentle gradient to cross the Downs. Barry Chapman introduced me to this trail as well and we have used at least part of it every year since 1996. In the first few years there were several gates and anti-motorcycle stiles to negotiate on the southern half of the trail (south of Ogbourne St. George) and for several years the northern section was blocked by one of the landowners, requiring a detour by road. However, the gates were removed 3 or 4 years ago and the route is now open along its full length.

From the north end of the trail at Chiseldon, it is just a mile to Barry’s local, The Baker’s Arms in Bradbury, where we’ve always received a very warm welcome, however late we’ve arrived for our coffee break!

The last stretch home takes us along the foot of the Berkshire Downs through Liddington, Wanborough, Hinton Parva, Bishopstone and Ashbury with extensive views across the Vale. It is a delightful roller-coaster ride with a succession of short, but often sharp, ups and downs. The final challenge for weary riders. All too soon we pass the White Horse and descend into Kingston Lisle – nearly home.

We are usually back in Wantage by 2 pm after 70 miles, some good hills and about 7 hours in the saddle. Lunch and a pint in the Bear Hotel round things off nicely… followed by an afternoon snooze with the Sunday paper!

~~~~~~~~~~~

Post script: I decided in 2002 that the 2004 ride would be the last that I would lead, making it a round 10. 2004 turned out to be one of the best – a superb sunrise, good weather and a hearty breakfast at the Red Lion, it was a great way to finish the series. It is possible that the Avebury ride will return in future years “under new management”, although sadly no-one has come forward since 2004 to take it on. You never know, one day I may be tempted out of retirement! If you fancy having a go at leading the ride or just riding the route, please get in touch. Very happy to pass on route details, etc. And do keep an eye on the Wantage CTC website for future developments…. Steve

Last Updated: 21.09.06

© Copyright Steve Swanton 2004

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