From Marlborough to Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast this 3000 year old route is a huge off-road cycling challenge. Navigation, terrain and distance make this the longest and toughest segment on the Lowestoft to Lands End coast-to-coast route (#LowLE an adventure bike ride off-road through some of England’s finest places). You need perseverance for the Wessex Ridgeway and your bike needs to be able to handle a muddy British bridleway. We did the route described here on gravel, hybrid and mountain bikes in three days. There is so much to see you could take longer.
Marlborough to Warminster, 39 miles 3200ft ascent
Leave Marlborough on NCR403 through the water meadows past the famous school. Climbing up the downs first on a minor road then on farm tracks past Overton Down and onto Avebury. Shortly past Avebury the Wessex Ridgeway turns South on a byway then tracks. Join the A4361 then busy A4 west briefly then take the the hard to find turn onto the path or continue a little further to a byway & head over Cherhill Down, passing another ancient hill fort. The Wessex Ridgeway continues on a mix of byways & bridleways to the outskirts of Devizes.
Leave Devizes on NCR4 heading east briefly, then onto the Wessex Ridgeway again past Stert, through Urchfont and up Urchfont Hill. The Route then skirts around the north of the Imber firing ranges with great views of Westbury. From Upton Cow Down the Wessex Ridgeway routeheads south east but a bridleway continues south west to join the busy A350 heading south into Warminster. Turn off this at the first opportunity to take the minor Westbury Road into Warminster, rejoining the Wessex Ridgeway.
Warminster to Blandford Forum, 39 miles, 3500ft ascent
Join NCR24 as it leaves Warminster continuing through Tytherington. Turn right off the road outside Corton after a climb and just before a sharp left turn. The track continues to climb to a ridge which then enters woodland on the Great Ridge. Keep on the Wessex Ridgeway route marked on open-street-map although it gets very boggy in places. Exiting the woodland brings you down a track to one of the more dangerous parts of the whole LowLE route, crossing the A303, click for a StreetView of the spot. We crossed running with our bikes as we felt that would give us a more reliable burst of acceleration. An alternative would be to carry on further west in the Great Ridge wood and descend into Chicklade. You could then turn left (east) onto the A303 and then right across the west bound carriageway.
The bridleway up hill from the A303 into Hindon was stunning in high summer passing through a meadow of wild flowers. Hindon itself is also picture-postcard beautiful. We stopped in the village stores near the church and picked up what tasted like the best flapjack in the world. Leaving Hindon we were cheered by a family we’d chatted to in the stores as we past them as they played on the swings. Great memories, which is what a trek like LowLE is about.
South of Hindon near Newtown the cycle route diverges from the walking route. Cycle on minor roads until Donhead St Andrew. Climbing to Win Green then Tollard Royal. The Wessex Ridgeway then zig-zags southwest on bridleways, and short distances on minor roads before coming to the A350. Turn south towards Blandford Forum before picking up NCR25 to get you off the main road as you continue into the centre.
Blandford Forum to Cerne Abbas, 19 miles,
Re-trace your route along NCR25, then continue past the A350 to Shillingstone. Pass the primary school and enter the woods on a bridleway & climb 500ft (160m) to the ridge. Join the road along the ridge for a little then begin to descend, but take the bridleway signed “Dorset Gap” just after a fork in the road. This takes you down the hill, up and down again several times – hard going. Eventually is arrives at Minterne Parva. From there it is a short hop to see the Giant at Cerne Abbas. A view which when as a young child Jon found equally shocking and fascinating. Immy just found it gross! Honourable mention goes to the Hunters Moon at Middlemarsh, a great place where we were well looked after.
Cerne Abbas to Beaminster, 20 miles
Away from Cerne Abbas through Up Cerne, the bridleway takes a zig-zag route through fields. We cut a corner along a track and bridleway. In high summer it was overgrown with oilseed rape which was a nightmare to get through. Too late we realised we should have carried on along the track to another at the ridge and headed south.
Continue on this track until the route turns down hill (west). It gets quite steep through dairy-cow fields. Beware of mothers and their calves. Young cattle will be curious. This wasn’t something that caused problems for us. The Wessex Ridgeway crosses the picturesque green of Sydling St Nicholas and then climbs Break Heart Hill to the fast A37. Crossing this takes you past a farm. The track continues but only as a footpath, the bridleway swings to the south, before re-joining the same track! This is shown as Drift Road on maps and passes under a rail bridge then past the station of Maiden Newton. The Wessex Ridgeway then follows minor roads to the A356. Near Hooke the marked bridleway turned out to be hard work due to mud a steep rough climb, a locked gate and another overgrown path!
Beaminster to Lyme Regis, 20 miles
The Wessex Ridgeway around the north of Beaminster takes tracks and minor roads on high ground. If you decide to break the journey in Beaminster the descent into the town is exhilarating but the climb out on the B3163 is steep! If you wish to avoid another stretch with uncertain rights of way at Stoke Knap Farm, continue into Broadwindsor and join the B3164. The path goes through Pilsdon, Dickpool and Fishpond Bottom before ending at Wooton Hill. From there head south through Spence Farm and join NCR2 west. Turn off the NCR at Raymond’s Hill and head through Red Cross (crossing the busy A35). Continue on the minor road south through Rocombe Bottom to the east of Knoll Hill and down the steep rocky/ broken concrete bridleway into Uplyme. Join the B3165 and arrive in Lyme Regis.
Confessions & Cautions
Unlike the Ridgeway from Streatley to Marlborough the Wessex Ridgeway is not promoted for cyclists. I chose it as it provides a largely off-road link from Wiltshire to Devon and Cornwall. The other options I looked at all had their own challenges. If you’ve got a better route, please do let me know in the comments below.
The way-marking on the Wessex Ridgeway is woeful so you will absolutely have to rely on your satnav & navigation skills. Most of the route is bridleway, byway or RUPP which can all be used by cyclists. However the condition of some of these rights-of-way is very poor so we had to walk where it was unridable. Because of problems fighting through overgrown or confusing route sections, we found our average speed was much lower than expected. As a result we cut some of the off-road sections and used the road to make up time ensuring we reached our destination. So we haven’t ridden all the routes described, yet. This wasn’t all bad as we found some unexpected delights on the way.
Caution: Right of what
AS mentioned bikes are allowed on this route but some sections on the map are shown as just a public right of way (red dots on the Landranger maps). On the ground you’d be hard pressed to tell what type of right-of-way you are on. Some bridleways were overgrown and barely passable whereas some ‘footpaths’ were clearly tracks used by 4 wheeled vehicles. If these demarcations are meaningful to you, you will want to study the map carefully and plan as you see fit. Some of those responsible seemed careless at maintaining bridleways. Others seemed diligent in removing finger posts or concealing the right-of-way, chaining gates on bridleways shut etc. What ever type of path you are on, always ride responsibly. Give lots of space, moderating your pace and warning when approaching walkers and dogs, especially from behind. We had no issues with others on the route.
Some parts of the route are shown neither as bridleway, Byway or RUPP but “Other route with public access” – what ever that means! We used Google maps’ cycle-routes for our detours. This worked well apart from when we were taken down a path with a kissing-gate. Seems big tech cannot make sense of English rights of way either!
Wessex Ridgeway Conclusion
With gripes about way-marking & man-made obstacles out of the way there is much to like about this route. In character it is very similar to the Ridgeway as it follows the same type of high ridge terrain. It is remote and unspoilt for large parts. It passes through a few towns and villages some of which are achingly beautiful. The Wessex Ridgeway becomes less well defined as it approaches the south coast. It is quite incredible that this one ancient route takes you from the Avebury stone circle to the even more ancient Jurassic coast. If you can manage the challenges its nearly 140 miles off-road, a Mega Challenge with a terrific sense of achievement arriving at the coast.