Cycling the Ridgeway National Trail (following a stay at the Greyhound Inn)
PUBLISHED: 16:09 19 August 2019
Scot Whitlock takes to the varying countryside of the Ridgway National Trail following a relaxing stay at the Greyhound Inn in Letcombe Regis
Our tale begins in the atmospheric surroundings of the Greyhound Inn, Letcombe Regis, once a jockey's meeting place and renowned locally as the hub of the community. It has been sensitively and beautifully refurbished throughout by village locals, Martyn Reed and Catriona Galbraith who bought this tired village pub in 2014. The rooms are a modern interpretation of a traditional cottage. A mix of lavish spaces accessorised to the highest standard. The décor is clean, fresh and comforting and every detail is exquisite with an array of colourful nick-nacks and splashes of colour lifting each room. There is an abundance of 'Mod Cons',TV's, Wifi (good speed), radio and some decadent boutique style smellies.
In the kitchen, head chef, Phil Currie, originally from New Zealand, has developed his own inventive take on modern British cooking. Phil works closely with some top local producers and suppliers using their ingredients to prepare imaginative and beautifully presented dishes that combine his classical training with modern techniques, along with a small, rotating selection of comforting pub classics. Phil also makes a now legendary twice-baked cheddar soufflé which my wife devoured rather too eagerly and (boringly) I opted for the fish and chips which was/is recommended for Phil's sublime batter.
Peaceful, best describes my sleep, and after a delicious local breakfast we departed refreshed and reading to hit the trail. Letcombe Regis is beautiful addition to the Vale of White Horse and is six miles from the National Trust's White Horse Hill, a bronze age hill figure set high on the chalk downs, however more importantly close to Britain's oldest road, The Ridgeway.
The Ridgeway National Trail is 87 miles (139km) through ancient landscapes, over rolling, open downland to the west of the River Thames, and through secluded valleys and woods in The Chilterns to the east, following the same route used since prehistoric times. The trail, west of the River Thames, largely has Byway, Restricted Byway or Bridleway status - all of which are legal to ride on an MTB - and the best bit is that Swindon is pretty much in the middle! Please note that east of the River Thames much of The Ridgeway is a footpath which you must not use without land-owners permission. The riding is only really suitable for mountain bikes, taking place on an off road track from start to finish. C'mon, of course I brought the bike!!!
The type of surface you will encounter varies greatly from mud to chalk to compacted gravel, tarmac through tar spray and gravel chippings to limestone dust and is generally ridable by all abilities. I can imagine the chalk can be lethal in the winter and it is very exposed so make sure you wrap up warm, even in the summer. Parts can be quite heavily rutted by farm vehicles so it is easy to catch your pedals on the sides of these deep ruts so be aware. Good starting points are White Horse Hill or Barbury Castle car parks which although very popular with all Ridgeway users, after just a few minutes riding you will be encounter complete isolation.
Over time various sections have taken on different purposes, nowadays predominately leisure and farming, so the trail varies enormously along its length. Near the main points of interest and larger car parks (e.g. the hill forts) you'll find lots of families and walkers, but away from these it can be very quiet. Some sections are still used for farm access and the use of recreational vehicles is still permitted in places. As the name Ridgeway suggests, you're in for quite a hilly ride, with several ups and downs: about 3200ft of ascent and 3400ft of descent. I would best describe as "undulating"
My ride found me heading westwards towards Uffington White Horse in the Berkshire Downs, the surface was manageable, the views breathtaking, the horizon dominated by the vibrant patchwork greenery of the downs. Situated overlooking a distinctive dry valley (called 'the Manger') north of Uffington Castle, the iconic Uffington White Horse is visible from afar from the plains below, though is not so easily seen close up. Recent scientific dating of soil from the foundation of the figure indicates an age of around 3000 years. In the valley below is the flat-topped Dragon Hill mound, said to be where St George slayed the dragon. The eerie tranquillity was hypnotic.
Close by is Wayland's Smithy a Neolithic chambered long barrow located in a clump of trees accessed by a short path off the Ridgeway. Its name, used in Saxon documents, refers to the Saxon smith-god Wayland, but the monument is much older than Saxon times. Excavations carried out in the 1960s discovered 14 skeletons in the original inner structure, and recent radiocarbon dating indicates an age of c3500BC. The original structure was subsequently (c 3400BC) covered by a trapezoidal mound with large Sarsen stones at the entrance.
If you require supplies, then Wantage is less than two miles away, and is an attractive market town and the birthplace of King Alfred. It offers a good range of independent shops, cafes and the Vale and Downland Museum, with information on local history and the wider area such as the background to the Vale of White Horse and the Ridgeway.
If you choose to stay at the Greyhound then here is some useful information:
The Greyhound is run by a team of exceptional staff, with eight stylish and comfortable bedrooms, all en-suite, from £90 a night on a B&B basis, including two family suites and three dog-friendly rooms.
*Recent awards include; 'Best Destination Pub 2018' in the Muddy Stilettos Awards for Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire' in May and was one of six finalists in the 'BoHo Guest Experience Awards', also announced in May 2018.
Nearest train station; Didcot, with direct mainline GWR trains from London Paddington. Journey time 45 minutes. A taxi from Didcot station to Letcombe Regis takes 20 minutes. From London, it's about an hour and 20mins drive. From Heathrow, it's just over an hour. Oxford is 30mins away.
Nearby towns; Wantage, Abingdon, Didcot, Wallingford, Swindon, Newbury. Oxford with its museums, theatres and the world-famous university is 18 miles or 35 minutes journey by car.
Some great retail therapy can be had at:
Parkway Shopping, Newbury (16 miles)
Westgate Oxford, Oxford (17 miles)
Swindon Designer Outlet, Swindon (19 miles)
Bicester Village, Bicester (27 miles)