James Oxley discovers the hidden treasures of the Cotswolds on the first TomTom Amazing Britain route
I’m pleased to welcome you to the first ABR and TomTom Amazing Britain route. Throughout 2020, we’ll be teaming up with TomTom to produce a series of six rides across the UK and Ireland that are linked together by fascinating, quirky, awe-inspiring and sometimes downright ridiculous places just waiting be discovered. And, as always, we’ll be seeking out fantastic roads that link them together to create a selection of superb rides you’ll be talking about down the pub for years to come.
We’ll be creating routes in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and splitting England in half with a northern and southern ride.
We’ll also be asking you guys to create your own route, the best of which will be ridden by the ABR team and featured in a future issue of the magazine (you can find out more about how to enter below).
Our first route covers southern England, and it’s a 190-mile- long ride through the Cotswolds that’ll take you to a number of fascinating locations. Starting in Stratford-upon-Avon, the route winds its way south, through the Cotswolds and the North Wessex Downs before coming to an end in the beautiful city of Bath. Rideable in a day, it’s the perfect antidote for a glum weekend. So, let’s get to it!
1. Visit Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon
We begin our TomTom Amazing Britain route at the birthplace of one of the greatest Britons ever to have lived, the playwright William Shakespeare. The half-timbered house stands on a pedestrianised street in Stratford’s old town so you’ll need to park the bike before taking a stroll to the birthplace of the Bard. You can walk in Shakespeare’s footsteps by visiting the house through the visitor centre next door or if you’re itching to get riding, grab a coffee from the café opposite, sit outside and soak up your surroundings before hitting the road. Stratford-upon-Avon itself is a picturesque Shakespeare-themed town, and it’s well worth sparing the time to take a stroll through its quaint streets to the River Avon.
2. See a Vulcan Bomber at the Touchdown Café on Wellesbourne Airfield
You’ll need a decent breakfast to fuel yourself for the day ahead, so take a ride through Stratford and along some gloriously twisting country roads to Wellesbourne Airfield. Nestled on the edge of the airfield is the Touch- down Café which serves up a cracking full-English and is a popular spot with local bikers. While the breakfast is pretty spectacular, the amazing sight at this stop is the Vulcan Bomber parked up at the airfield. The incredible delta-wing aircraft was part of Britain’s nuclear deterrent during the Cold War and is one of only a handful that survive today. The aircraft no longer flies, but if you’re lucky you’ll arrive on a day when it is being taxied up and down the runway at speed by enthusiasts. The deafening roar of this magnificent machine in action is truly an amazing sight and sound.
3. Imagine dinosaurs roaming from the lookout at Burton Dassett
A short ride from Wellesbourne Airfield is Burton Dassett Country Park. Wind your way up the narrow entrance road, turn left at the top, before parking in the car park underneath the medieval lookout beacon. Take a stroll up to the beacon and survey the spectacular view of the countryside you’ve ridden through. The hills you stand on were formed during the Jurassic period some 200 to 400 million years ago when the area was a sub-tropical sea. To the southeast, experts have found evidence of an island where dinosaurs would have roamed. After you’ve let your imagination run wild, saddle up and head south for a date with more recent history.
4. Stand on the site of the first battle of the English Civil War
In 1642, King Charles I’s Royalist army met Parliamentarian forces head-on in the first major battle of the English Civil War. The battle was, in essence, a draw, with neither force scoring a resounding victory, but it did leave the Royalist forces in command of the all-important road to London, upon which they later marched. Our route stops at Radway Tower, now home to the Castle Inn pub and restaurant. The distinctive tower was built 100 years after the battle over-looking the field of conflict, with some saying it marks the spot where King Charles raised the Royal Standard before the two armies clashed. The site is a fascinating slice of Brit- ish history and it is certainly worth spending a few minutes reflecting on the events that led to Englishman facing Englishman on a bloody field of battle.
5. Experience British eccentricity at its best at Broadway Tower
If there’s one thing us Brits have a knack of doing well it’s eccentricity, and in Broadway Tower, we have a fine example of the British penchant for doing things marvellously differently. This folly was built by 18th-century designer Capability Brown and features a mishmash of turrets, gargoyles, battlements and balconies perched high upon a site that gives you a view of 16 counties on a clear day.
The tower has become a landmark in the Cotswolds and attracts visitors year-round. You can park up and take a walk inside or simply marvel at the rather unexpected site of an 18th Century folly proudly overlooking the English countryside. Just to add to the sense of the unexpected, there is also a Cold War-era nuclear bunker to explore on the site.
6. Pay your respects at the grave of Sir Winston Churchill
We began this TomTom Amazing Britain route at the birthplace of one of the UK’s greatest Britons and, at this stop, we take a few moments to pay our respects to another. After making our way along some wonderfully twisting lanes and past the grounds of Blenheim Palace, we arrive at the village of Bladon.
Take a sharp left off the main road up to St Martin’s Church, park up your bike, and stroll through the churchyard to the grave of Sir Winston Churchill. The former prime minister, who led Britain to victory in World War II, was given a state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in London before a private burial was held at St Martin’s Church, the resting place of his parents, children and wider family. It’s an understated location for a world leader of his stature, but also rather apt that, after a life influencing tumultuous world affairs, Sir Winston chose the quiet English village close to home as his final resting place.
7. Visit the Venice of the Cotswolds at Bourton-on-the-Water
Leaving Broadway Tower behind, we delve deep into the Cotswolds, riding along meandering B-roads and through chocolate box villages looking like they’re straight from a Hollywood film set. For me, this part of the country typifies the poet William Blake’s famous phrase ‘In England’s green and pleasant land’ better than any other. Upon arrival in Bourton-on-the-Water, you’d be forgiven for thinking you are in just another charming Cotswolds village. However, once you spy a river threading its way through the village under a series of low arched stone bridges dating back as early as 1654, you’ll soon realise why it’s called the Venice of the Cotswolds.
It’s a rather beautiful and slightly surreal experience walking through this picturesque village. I could have easily spent the afternoon exploring its nooks and crannies, but with plenty of miles still to cover, I wolfed down a battered sausage and chips from De la Hayes (highly recommended) and headed deeper into the Cotswolds for a date with the Romans.
8. Explore one of Britain’s grandest Roman villas
We jump back on the Fosse Way, a seemingly ar- row-straight Roman road that, for a time, marked the frontier of Roman rule in Britain. A few miles further on we turn off, directed by the signs for Chedworth Roman Villa before following a fantastic single-track road with views of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, the Roman villa was closed when we arrived and won’t reopen until 8 February, but it was worth the visit to ride the road there and back. If you do arrive when the National Trust property is open, you’ll get to explore the remains of one of the grandest Roman villas in Britain. It was first discovered by the Victorians some 150 years ago with a wide variety of historical treasures unearthed since then, providing a fascinating insight into Roman life.
9. View of Uffington White Horse and where St George slayed the dragon
After Chedworth Roman Villa, we turn south and leave the Cotswolds behind, cruising along country lanes without hedges so you can see the road and landscape unfurl ahead. This stretch is a gloriously relaxing ride until we pick up speed on the A361. Just past the village of Woolston, we ride up to the sight of Uffington White Horse. This chalk figure cut into the hillside is thought to be more than 3,000 years old. It’s located next to Uffington Castle, an Iron Age hillfort, and close by is Dragon Hill with its distinctive flattened top. This is where legend says St George, the patron saint of England, was supposed to have slain the dragon.
To get a view of Uffington White Horse, park in the National Trust car park and take a stroll along the path. Alternatively, you can ride right under the white horse along Dragon Hill Road which, as you may expect, gives you a great view of Dragon Hill. To do so, ride past the car park until you come to a sign for the Ridgeway, which is Britain’s oldest road. Sections of the Ridgeway can be ridden by motorcycle, but a sign forbade us from exploring this section when we were there. Turn left at the junction, go past the blue badge holder car park and you’ll find yourself on Dragon Hill Road.
10. Stand within one of the greatest marvels of prehistoric Britain at Avebury
Our route now turns west along more sublime twisting B roads through the North Wessex Downs until we reach Avebury, the site of the world’s largest prehistoric stone circle. Handily, there is a pub called the Red Lion sat slap-bang in the centre of it, so park up, get yourself a lemonade and a packet of crisps and explore this ancient site. Alternatively, see some of the stones from the roadside, or follow the signs to the National Trust car park and stretch your legs amongst the stones. Avebury henge and its stone circle have been described as one of the greatest marvels of prehistoric Britain. They are thought to have been created around 2,850 BC as a ceremonial site that is believed to have been used for rituals, as a sacred meeting place, and for pagan worship.
11. Explore the most beautiful city in Britain
OK, so there are a few cities that could lay claim to being Britain’s most beautiful, but it’d be hard to argue that Bath doesn’t deserve a spot close to, if not at the top of, the list. This stunning example of Georgian architecture nestled within the Somerset Hills is a sight to behold, with the whole city being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its crowning glory is the magnificent Bath Abbey located next to the grandeur of the Roman Baths.
You could spend days exploring the warren of streets lined with buildings made from distinctive Bath stone, including the impressive Royal Crescent. For us, the city marks the end of this TomTom Amazing Britain route. I’d recommend staying overnight and enjoying a couple of drinks to celebrate a great day’s ride. And remember, Somerset is cider country, so there are plenty of local varieties on offer. I enjoy the cider tasting board at The Stable in Kingsmead Square, which has 50 ciders to choose from and also serves up cracking pizzas. I can’t think of too many better ways to end a great day in the saddle.
Create your own TomTom Amazing Britain route
As part of the TomTom Amazing Britain series, we’re asking ABR readers to create their own route and send it into us. We’ll select the best submission, ride it, and then feature it in the magazine. As is the case with all the TomTom Amazing Britain routes, yours will need to be in the UK or Ireland, be rideable in a weekend, and must feature a series of fascinating, quirky, awe-inspiring, or downright ridiculous places to stop at and explore. So, if you’ve got a favourite ride you think others will love, plot it on the TomTom Road Trips portal at www.tomtom.com/roadtrips, publish the route to the community, and send the link of your marvellous ride to: [email protected].