LAST month saw the launch of King Alfred’s Way, the latest in the UK’s series of long-distance cycle routes. And unlike the other long-distance routes, this one is pretty much on our doorstep.

The 350km route begins in Winchester and loops round in a large circle, travelling through the Test Valley to Salisbury, then up to Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain, across from Avebury to Reading, then on to Farnham, Hindhead, South Harting and back to Winchester again.

As some of these stops suggest, this is a journey rich with history, complete with stone circles, iron age hill forts, castles and cathedrals.

There’s also a military theme to some of the locations, both in terms of World War II defences and modern day military training on both Salisbury Plain and near Aldershot (Of the former, the guide warns riders to look out for ‘very large, fast, heavy, almost blind green things appearing from anywhere at any time.’ I think they mean tanks).

King Alfred himself didn’t actually cycle the route – if I remember my history lessons right, he was too busy burning cakes – but he was king of Wessex, was born in Wantage, (which the route passes through) and was buried at Winchester, where the trail starts and ends. So it makes sense to name the route after him.

I caught up with Sophie Gordon from UK Cycling, and she explained how this is the third UK trail launched in the last three years, following the North Downs Way riders’ route in 2018 and the Great North Trail in 2019.

The planning for King Alfred’s Way, however, was a job complicated by Coronavirus. Sophie explained how conversations about the route began a decade ago, with the last three years spent in more detailed planning. That work is a mixture of pouring over maps, recceing roads in real life and negotiating access: the route around the edge of Salisbury Plain’s danger areas, for example.

Once the pandemic hit, the planners were unable to ride the trail themselves, and relied on local members to cycle each section and report back.

Last weekend I downloaded the online guide and GPX files and (off)road tested the route from Salisbury to Stonehenge.

This takes riders to Old Sarum, up the Woodford Valley, a wiggle through Amesbury, underneath the A303 and then along byways to the stone circle.

The Sunday morning roads were quiet, the sun was out and Stonehenge was as spectacular as ever. It was an invigorating, refreshing morning’s ride. The route itself isn’t suitable for road bikes, and the lack of signage meant maps or GPX files a must. But if the stretch I did is anything to go by, it’s well worth exploring.