This is the story of an epic voyage – of a journey along a thread that weaves in and out of millenniums, through a modern civilisation largely oblivious to the adventure on its doorstep. It is the tale of certainly the oldest, probably the most extraordinary, maybe the wildest and definitely the most complete coast-to-coast in Western Europe. And it is a narrative that could only be set in the UK, in the most populated south east corner of England.
It begins in the digital vaults of my city library. I was searching for evidence to substantiate the claim that an ancient routeway once bisected the country and continued eastwards to the Continent, crossing the umbilical that later dropped beneath the sea to leave Britain an island. Early charts revealed nothing. Book references led to cross references which led to nowhere. Everybody mentioned it. Nobody mapped it. Months went by.
As the thrill of the chase was beginning to pale, a sliver of a battered volume emerged from the depths of the basement. The last time the book had seen the light of day was in the 1960s. It was a 1914 edition of “The Green Roads of England” by R Hippisley Cox. In it was a sketch map showing the entire length of a coast-to-coast trail that appeared to link up with another trail leading east from the coast of mainland Europe. It was only a theoretical line but, whoever he was, Mr Cox had hard facts and some impressive evidence to argue his case.
To this day, children in the UK are taught that prehistoric peoples didn’t travel far. At a push, Fred and Betty Neolithic made it two or three communities down the trail before returning home. Yet we know axe heads that could only be mined in the north west of Britain have been excavated in the south east of Norfolk. The clay that Beaker potters worked at Windmill Hill in Wiltshire came from Cornwall in the far south west. It seems probable that some 6,000 years ago Britain was crisscrossed by a lattice of tracks and pathways linking settlements. It was Cox’s guess that, certainly by the Iron Age, our ancestors were making journeys of hundreds of miles.
Way back in the prologue of time, when Britain was one big forest, the easiest way through for migrating herds and their hunters was along the watersheds where fewer trees took root. As the ages rolled by, and nomads evolved into settlers, it was along these ridge routes they established their camps that later became enclosures and then forts. Linking prehistoric hill top forts together, Cox discovered the watershed thoroughfares of middle and southern England honed in on the Wiltshire village of Avebury.
With its double stone circles, avenue of megaliths and 130ft grass cairn, the Avebury triangle has to be the world’s oldest and most enigmatic gyratory. Its ancient magnificence inspired Cox to speculate that the area was the centre of power – the seat of government of a federal Neolithic Britain. At this point his theory becomes a little wacky, but the hill forts still exist, the watersheds are real and the thinking that they were the backbone of feeder routes makes sense.
It took another couple of months and 14 UK Ordnance Survey maps to trace a modern version of the legendary coast-to-coast. Following tracks, bridleways, lanes and minor roads, I picked out a route that mirrored the watershed as closely as UK Rights of Way allowed. Only 30 of its 410 miles were prevented from replicating Cox’s chart by a footpath or road system laid down since the 18th Century that defied topography and now prohibits cyclists. The original track started at Seaton on the Devon coast, but I had to bypass four forts and start at Weymouth.
Striking north from the English Channel, I plotted a historic pack-horse trail that fed into the ridge route at Cerne Abbas, famous for its 200ft pictogram of a Celtic fertility god with a 30ft erect penis cut in the chalk escarpment. At the watershed it turned north east to cross the whalebacks of the downs, acutely arched in Dorset, barely rippling across Salisbury Plain, dramatically plunging through Wiltshire.
At Avebury it merged into the Ridgeway and then the Icknield Way, two well established MTB routes carrying cyclists round the back of Luton, north of London, where the dying waves of Herefordshire wash up on the Cambridgeshire prairies. Then through Newmarket stud country, with its miles of sweeping gallops, across the reclaimed desert that once threatened to engulf Thetford, and on to the gentle roller coaster of Norfolk. At Holme-next-the-Sea, near The Wash, it arrived at the North Sea and the vast sand beaches where the blackened stumps of a prehistoric forest peek through at low tide.
Though encompassing several titled and popular off-road routes, the coast-to-coast had no name. The watershed it shadowed was of chalk, a great thrusting wave of the stuff crashing diagonally across the country. I called it The Chalke Way, adding an ‘e’ because the only place name along its length that referred to the terra firma under wheel was Chalke Valley, a colloquialism for the Ebble Valley it visits south west of Salisbury. Until riding the route, I had no idea geology could have such an impact on the human activity and character of a landscape.
It took me a year to pedal and fully explore the fine details of the Chalke Way. Considering it weaves its way through the most populated corner of our fair isle, it leads you across some of the bleakest wildernesses, quietest valleys, and most exposed hill tops in England. Everywhere the chalk shows through. In places tracks are zinc white and the edges of fields stippled as if dusted with snow. With notable exceptions, there is little cover and even less ground water. Between you and the heavens above, nothing more than skylarks and buzzards and a symphony of clouds. Sections of the Dorset, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire legs are so remote by UK standards, thoughtfully located standpipes provide the only thirst quencher. In high summer, hot eddies whip up clouds of dust and, confused by the blazing heat haze, it is easy to imagine you are riding the foothills of the Spanish sierras.
Only crossing the sandy heaths of Suffolk and Norfolk does the chalk fail to provide a firm surface for knobbly tyres. Where sweeping fields of corn slip away from the ridges and expansive acres of sugar beet stretch either side in the plains, here is a delicate Breckland of Scot’s Pine shelterbeds and scrub nibbled by sheep, rabbits and muntjack deer. It isn’t long, however, before flecks of flint reappear in the historic Peddar’s Way that carves all but straight from Thetford to Holme.
Flint was one of the earliest commodities to be dispatched down the Chalke Way. Mined at Grimes Graves in Thetford Forest (now an underground museum), arrow and axe heads joined salt, clay and firs on the busy thoroughfare down to the West Country. From the south, contraband and ammunition for sling-shots followed the same trade route north from Chesil Beach on the English Channel. Throughout the journey, place names bear witness to commercial activities that sprung up beside the white highway. ‘Warrens’ (for breeding rabbits) and ‘Knapps’ (the method of shaping flint) regularly appear tacked onto a forename.
Heavier feet and hoofs have tramped this way as well, weighed down by the tarnished armour of Imperial Rome. Both north and south the route shadows the pincer action deployed to subjugate this troublesome outpost of the empire. From fort to fort, battle to siege, it mirrors Vespasian’s push east in AD 44. In Norfolk it picks up the Roman road laid specifically to supply legionnaires policing the troublesome Iceni tribe of the Celtic queen, Boudicca.
Battles are still waged across the course of the coast-to-coast. In the wide open wastelands of Salisbury Plain and the Stanford Training Area near Thetford, NATO forces play “Kelly’s Heroes” as you pedal passed legally and safely. Storming Silbury Hill, they repeat Vespasian’s assault on the hill fort 2,000 years before, but this is no crater pitted battlefield. Both training grounds are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, supporting vulnerable plant and insect species unique to UK chalklands. Ironically the Ministry of Defence are conscientious custodians.
And the chalk totally dictates the nature of the vernacular architecture encountered en route. Every village in each county boasts a shambles of flint cottages with bushy reed roofs and de rigeur stone mushrooms flanking the driveway. Ancient cobbed walls made of mud, lime, straw, and anything else lying around, line the lanes. Checker board stone and flint mediaeval churches dominate the skyline. Both are often also thatched, but always bordered by manicured flower beds. This is quintessential England, as seen on glossy postcards.
Certainly it is not all delightful country riding. The middle section across the Chiltern Hills and London commuter belt of Bedfordshire has to negotiate an urban sprawl, gingerly weaving its way through a mishmash of rural chic and executive estates. In Herefordshire the route brushes beside the post-WWII social experiment of ‘new towns’ like Letchworth, and the one city it courses through is Salisbury, if only to visit the most cooed over cathedral in the UK, immortalised by the artist Constable.
Wherever possible I prescribed a line of least resistance, exploiting off-road routes to keep the urban nightmare hidden behind tall hedges and ancient beeches. Here you are more likely to encounter a crusty camp of gypsies skulking from the cops than power shouldered wannabes zapping along in their company cars, one hand on steering wheel, one on mobile phone, brain somewhere else. In fact, in the entire length of this ride, the total distance on main roads is a trifling eight miles.
But more than anything, the Chalke Way is a journey into mystery and the imagination. By dint of its origins, it wings riders passed World Heritage Sites, rampant hill carvings and majestic earthworks that speak of a time when our ancestors worshipped the sun and fought hopeless struggles against fanciful dragons. Maiden Castle, Hambledon Hill, Old Sarum, Stonehenge, Avebury’s stone circles…on average, every ten miles the route is punctuated by an ancient wonder of world renown.
After a few days stumbling across these evocative relics of tribal Britain, I had to ask myself about the 20th Century. With all out digital gizmos, hi-tech networks and obsession for IT we are no closer to understanding what inspired the thousands it took to build the stone henges, the defence dykes or mountainous cairns. We are further than ever from discovering how these primitives managed to recruit, feed and organise the masses without leaving archeologists so much as an internal memo to discover.
And the mysteries deepen, for the Chalke Way traverses those strange pockets of England where crop circles suddenly appear. Not only in Wiltshire, but near Cambridge I have ridden through unblemished fields and returned the next day to find symbolic patterns of circles and lines etched in the wheat. It doesn’t take an expert to see these are no hoax. More disturbing is that many reproduce impressions found on Celtic stone and metal ware thought to be icons of the earth goddess Gaia. Maybe the truth really is out there…
There is something very rewarding about riding a humble bicycle through a historic landscape rich in myth and legend. Surrender to the gentle pace of the Chalke Way, take time to explore its heritage, and the feeling you are following in the foot prints and wheel ruts of a simpler, more satisfying way of life is overwhelming. It is a sensation enhanced by camping wild along the way, though the route is well served by official sites and B&Bs.
This is no sanitised cycle path. It is a challenge, both in distance and terrain, but nothing your average pootlist couldn’t conquer in a couple of weeks one summer. It is easily accessible by train from all UK airports in the south east, but it is a route British bike holiday companies have been slow to exploit. On the other hand it is not a route that lends itself to peletons of cyclists, for this is a journey about head space as much as open space.
The physical challenge is heavily tempered by the intellectual challenge. From one end of the coast-to-coast to the other the themes and links keep coming at you. Even the accents of locals living hundreds of miles apart along the diagonal are closer than of those reared barely 50 miles north or south of the line. In fact, there are so many strange and exciting things about this passage through time and space it could fill a book. So I wrote one.