(This began life as a blog post in June 2020, after investment in a cycle computer with a gradient measuring function in celebration of coronavirus lockdown).
My base camp at the foot of the Lambourn Downs (north side) is well placed for bike rides up to the Ridgeway – short bursts of exertion that raise the pulse rate in beautiful surroundings. There are more than a dozen of these climbs between Wantage and Wanborough and they have much in common. Nearly all start on the valley floor at an altitude of 80 – 100m, and finish at or near the Ridgeway at 200 – 220m; and most of them involve crossing the Wantage to Swindon road – B4507, less prosaically the ancient Icknield Way – which runs along the flank of the hill more or less following the 135m contour, through villages and hamlets that sprang up on the spring-line. Similar climbs to the east of Wantage are out of my catchment, most famously Streatley Hill (claimed maximum gradient 18%) which is often used for hill-climb competitions.
Although it’s a rough ride in places and unsuitable for thoroughbred road bikes, the Ridgeway path itself is open to cyclists, so on the right kind of machine it’s easy to make circuits, going up one hill and down another; or link climbs for a tougher ride of multiple ups and downs.
The Wantage/Swindon road looks tempting on the map and is much used by cyclists, but to me it seems highly unsuitable. A combination of impatient van drivers, truckers, horse boxes, shoppers, school runners, commuters, blind corners, twisty roller-coaster ups and downs and more than a few potholes makes for a dangerous and unpleasant ride. I’d prefer to ride along the Ridgeway any day.
My estimates of gradient and distance come from a recently acquired cycling computer. I assume it relies on changes of air pressure for its altitude and gradient calculations, and it seems impressively sensitive. However, its readings on the hills I ride most often do vary by 1% here and there. No doubt the wind that swirls around the hills affects the readings. I don’t trust road signs for gradient, partly because they often show a different number at top and bottom. To take one of many misleading examples, the sign at the top of Blowing Stone Hill (illustrated) is an insult to the conquering cyclist. The altitudes cited are taken from the OS map and should be accurate to within 5 metres.
By vm, I mean a metre of altitude (vertical metre).
The B4494 is a beautiful road over the hills to Newbury and my preferred route to the M4 (when heading east by car, obviously). The 4km climb to the Ridgeway @220m starts from Wantage not far from the A338 crossroads @90m, and is a game of three halves: uphill stretches separated by two flat intervals (with some descent) for easy breathing and freewheeling landscape appreciation. Unlike its neighbour the A338 (see below), this ride starts to climb immediately: straight out of town for 0.6km up Chain Hill itself (10%) to 135m. The second and third uphill sections both touch 11% at their steepest, and the Ridgeway crossing is not quite the end of it: for the satisfaction of summiting, keep going for another 0.7km to the entrance to Lockinge Kiln @235m. If you add the bits of lost altitude back in to the calculations, this is not only the longest of the ascents listed here but also the biggest in vertical. This road is a terrific downhill experience, finishing with the fun of breaking the 30mph speed limit on Chain Hill.
A 338 (Manor Road)
The main road from Wantage to Hungerford and the M4 (J14) would not be my first choice for a peaceful bike ride, but the hill is there to be climbed. It’s 3.3km from the staggered crossroads beside what used to be the famous girls’ school St Mary’s Wantage, @90m, to the Ridgeway @225m. After a gentle start, the last 1.5km from Spike Lodge Farm on the left is quite tough going (10%), with the added irritant of diesel-belching trucks. When you reach the turning on the right for Letcombe Regis (Court Hill) you still have some climbing to do, for the sake of completeness.
From the Letcombes
Letcombe Bassett and Letcombe Regis sit in a secluded hollow between the Wantage/Swindon road and the Ridgeway, so there is no road to cross.
Both climbs from Letcombe Regis are separated from the village by a long gentle approach.
2km from the road junction in the village @100m to the junction with the A338 above Wantage @ 210m (shy of the Ridgeway crossing @225m). The upper part is quite steep (12%). This is a narrow lane with passing places, often used as a short cut: go carefully if descending.
Follow signs through the village to the Ridgeway and Segsbury Castle; a tough climb of about 1km from Warborough Farm @125m to the middle of Segsbury/Letcombe Castle (don’t get too excited) @ 215m; 12 – 14% much of the way, before levelling out towards the top, where the surface turns from poor to unmade. Challenging.
From a No Through Road sign beside a pretty black and white thatched house @125m to the Ridgeway @c230m, this climb offers two variants in a Y arrangement.
After 0.42km the road splits at Gramp’s Hill Stud (165m). To the left, Smith’s Hill (0.58km for 61vm) is the more direct, with a 15% pitch as it passes Smith’s Hill Farm and its panoramic riding school. Not the best surface, but it is tarmac until the last few yards.
The right-hand fork is Gramp’s Hill (0.71km for 65vm) which starts steeply (15%), but soon gets easier as it slants across the hillside with good views through gaps in the hedge. From the top of Gramp’s to the top of Childrey and Sparsholt Hills (3km) is the finest stretch of this section of the Ridgeway, overlooking the so-called Devil’s Punchbowl. A beautiful ride.
Childrey (100m) paints a pretty picture, with its duck pond and Miss Marple cottages; the village shop and artisanal café may be of service. But on a sunny day I don’t enjoy cycling up the short stretch to the crossroads, conscious of poor visibility beneath the trees and wishing I had a flashing light on my back. Above that, it’s a busy thoroughfare (Lambourn/Wantage traffic always seems to be in a hurry), more enjoyable for a rapid descent than a laborious climb; about 10% at its steepest, just below the car park @233m.
I much prefer this one – a little-used road that meets the Lambourn/Wantage road (B4001) and the Ridgeway at the top of Childrey Hill. The steady climb from Sparsholt @100m to the crossroads @140m (max 8%) is a nice warm-up; then, after a flat bit between the fields and an isolated mini-terrace of houses, change down for the steepening ascent (max 12%) to the three-way hilltop junction @233m. Great views and a small sense of achievement at the top.
Westcot Hill (my name)
Despite having driven past it thousands of times I was unaware of this track until google maps recommended it for a ride I was planning. It starts from the Wantage – Swindon road between the two turnings to the hamlet of Westcot @115m. The surface is rough stony going for 1.5km, the gradient steepest (11%) as it passes a corrugated barn half way to a dip in the Ridgeway @202m. Turning left, the climb continues more steeply on the Ridgeway: a muddy and rutted track that opens out on the grassy high ground above Sparsholt @240m, with Hill Barn offering hilltop B&B (horses welcome, and bicycles too, I hope). Care required if descending.
Blowing Stone Hill
This is a two-parter in an inverted Y formation, with two approaches to the village of Kingston Lisle which sits on a plateau below the crossroads.
Part 1a Kingston Lisle from Fawler: a short sharp climb of 0.33km from the new metal gate opposite Grove Cottage @94m to Hilltop House @123m, with a claimed gradient of 12% (slight exaggeration, by my reckoning). The surface through the S-bend is poor so go carefully if descending. From Hilltop House to the crossroads (0.77km) is more or less flat.
Part 1b Kingston Lisle from Baulking: 0.68km from Kingston Common Farm @85m to the Kingston Lisle road sign @125m (max 9%); 1.18km through Kingston Lisle to the crossroads @123m. I prefer this approach, for the views and the excellent road surface.
Part 2 Blowing Stone Hill itself is a sustained stiff climb of 0.77km to the road sign at the top @ 200m, with a max gradient of 15%. After a gentle start, passing the Blowing Stone itself, the first half is the toughest. I’m always glad to pass the white post of a collapsed gate on the left about two thirds of the way up. The slope eases off a bit after that. Turning right at the top, it’s a nice ride along the Ridgeway to White Horse Hill; in the other direction, turning left for Sparsholt is rough going.
White Horse Hill
The most popular of all these routes, and not only with cyclists, because of the pulling power of the deservedly famous beauty spot, which is energetically mismanaged by The National Trust. On a fine day there’s always plenty going on: dog-walkers on the prowl, orchids in bloom (June), hang-gliders, microlights, military helicopters, remote controlled model aircraft, drones, kites, skylarks and chalk-hill butterflies competing for airspace. On a not so fine day, the rampart walk around Uffington Castle on top of the hill is a great place for watching the weather move across the land.
After a moderate climb of 0.5km from below Sower Hill Farm @100m to the crossroads @135m (max 7%), the round hill looms steep and imposing ahead. Fortunately, Dragonhill Road – 1km from the crossroads to the disabled car park @235m – takes it at an oblique angle after a steep pitch (14%) where the road cuts through the arm of a flat-topped spur known as Dragon’s Mound. The remaining 500m is easier and the final 250m almost flat – an opportunity to enjoy the wonderful view, as the road sweeps around The Manger, a classic glacial cirque (or combe, in the vernacular). On a blustery day, be prepared for the wind direction to reverse as you cross the face of this steep bowl.
Unlike the other climbs listed here, the road does not reach the Ridgeway itself, but runs along the hilltop parallel to it for a few hundred yards, with cattle grids, to make a horseshoe connection with Woolstone Hill. If you want to connect with the Ridgeway, take the rough track directly opposite the disabled car park. After skirting the hilltop ‘castle’ it brings you to a gate on to the Ridgeway at the highest point of the entire trail (I think) – a giddy 255m. The spot is usually marked by a pile of black plastic bags containing dog excrement. Alternatively, stay on the road rattling over two cattle grids before turning left on to the rough continuation of Woolstone Hill. This soon brings you to the Ridgeway crossing.
Oddly, White Horse Hill is not the best ride for a view of Uffington’s beautiful white horse itself, although if you dismount at the disabled car park you can walk across the hill to inspect it. To admire it from the saddle, the road from Longcot to Knighton is your best bet (see below, Knighton Hill).
From White Horse Inn in Woolstone @100m, the climb to the crossroads is mostly concentrated in one abrupt pitch (the road sign claims 16%). Above the crossroads it’s a steady climb of 10 – 12% to the main White Horse Hill car park – quite a slog, steepening just before the car park entrance at 205m. The surfaced road continues easily, turning left over a cattle grid to the blue badge car park at the top of Dragonhill road (see above); straight ahead, a rough road leads to the Ridgeway crossing: here, go left for White Horse Hill (a 10% climb), right for Wayland’s Smithy and Knighton Hill, straight on for a bumpy track through the downs to the gallops and livery yards of Upper Lambourn – 6km, of which the last 2km is surfaced road.
This is another inverted Y with two approaches, from Compton Beauchamp and Knighton, meeting at a junction below the main crossroads. Either way, it’s one of the tougher climbs on this list: in total, 1.07km for 110vm from Compton Beauchamp (a bit more from the Knighton side) with no significant let-up. The Compton Beauchamp route takes you past the beautiful buildings of Compton Marsh Farm and a glimpse of Compton Beauchamp House – private, but the pretty little church is worth dismounting for – before a steep start (14%) to the climb proper. On the other hand, the open farm road from the railway bridge near Longcot to Knighton gives the best view of the Uffington White Horse; and offers a surprisingly located pub-garden picnic table.
A fine row of beeches overshadows the ascent to the crossroads, from where it’s a consistently tough climb to the top (field gate on right) @215m; at its steepest (14%) between the crossroads and the bend to the right. The slope is less severe once you get past the trees, but there’s plenty of pushing still to do. The surface deteriorates at the top*, with many potholes before reaching the Ridgeway crossing. Turn right for Wayland’s Smithy, a long barrow (burial chamber) from the 4th millennium BC.
1.43km from the sharp bend/road junction below Ashbury @110m to the top of the hill just before the trees and Ridgeway car park @205m. A steady climb on a busy road, quite flat through the village below the crossroads, max 12% above that. Good for a rapid descent.
Nothing special, this one – just a poorly surfaced road from nowhere in particular (Idstone is just a couple of farms) @135m to an unremarkable point on the Ridgeway @200m. Max gradient 9%. However, the continuation, a rough track over the hills for 3km to Ashdown Farm and the B4000 between Lambourn and Ashbury, is worth exploring; a good surface most of the way. Where the track makes a 90-degree right turn towards a copse, keep going straight on (grassy track through field, with Ashdown House visible on the left). If approaching from the other direction, there’s no ‘restricted byway’ sign at the turning for Ashdown Farm, merely a notice implying it’s private. It isn’t.
Nell Hill, Bishopstone
Bishopstone is an interesting village with an excellent pub, an old mill (under restoration), a big mill-pond backed by an absurdly picturesque tangle of thatched cottages and colourful spring-fed water gardens in a footpath-zone named The City, and an intriguing layout of ancient embankments and cuttings – the Strip Lynchets, should the local rock band be at a loss for a name – cut in the hillside behind that, beneath the Ridgeway. The road that leads up to the Ridgeway (130 – 187m, max. 8%) misses out on all this and is not a particularly rewarding ride. But if you’re looking for the easiest way up to the Ridgeway, this is it.
* PS (July 3): such is the power of the press that the potholes at the top of Knighton Hill have already been resurfaced. You wouldn’t think it a high priority, but still …..