In the fourth instalment of his series exploring the UK Trans Euro Trail, JULIAN CHALLIS travels the byways and country lanes of Southern England
According to the little known yet often misquoted American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey’. And stood with my mate Pat at Dover Ferry Terminal after completing the southern section of the Trans Euro Trail (TET), Ralph’s words could not be more apt.
Not even the distinctly soulless and prosaic endpoint of our trip can diminish the fun and enjoyment we’ve had on our four-day journey. We’ve travelled over 600 miles through six counties and two countries, from our start point in Bristol to our final destination under the shadow of Dover’s famous white cliffs. And the grins on both our faces tell the story. It’s been a blast. Man, I love the TET.
The journey began four days earlier under a cloudless blue September sky outside Pat’s house, at 8 am sharp. He’s on his KTM EXC 350-F Six Days, kitted out with an impressive set of Nelson-Rigg soft luggage and rocking the regulation Trail Riders Fellowship (TRF) army camo Gore-Tex. With watches synchronised and routes started on the Viewranger and Bike GPX apps, I fire up my Honda CRF450L and we set off for our official start point at Severn View Services.
Having just ridden from Bristol to Land’s End on the Great Western Trail section of the TET, travelling from the cliffs towering above the Bristol Channel to those above the English Channel in Kent seems a fitting follow-up. With the opening photos fired off, we set off across the Severn Bridge, a process made all the trickier by an unexpectedly strong wind barrelling down the estuary. Leaning at almost 45 degrees into the icy blast, we eventually peel off at the Chepstow turn and scurry up the dual carriageway to pick up the TET route as it enters Wales.
Predictably, the border crossing is marked by almost instant rain, forcing a stop for me to reach for my own camo. Suitably waterproofed, we set off again to pick up the rather wonderful A466 that runs alongside the River Wye towards Tintern and Monmouth beyond. The road is strangely deserted even for these odd post-lockdown times. The reason becomes evident as the whole road is closed at Brockweir, but as our route heads across the bridge and towards St Briavels, it’s not a problem.
Pretty soon we pick up the first of the lanes that will takes us slowly north towards the Forest of Dean. The two of us are equally matched on both speed and bikes, and we make swift progress through the combination of roads and lanes, many of which we’ve ridden before on day’s out from Bristol. All is going well until I inadvertently stall the big Honda on a steep rocky climb and Pat clatters into the woodwork trying to avoid me.
A few moments later Pat is on the floor again as he forgets the height of his rucksack while ducking under a fallen tree, the trunk swiping him off his KTM with the efficiency of an assassin. The trail runs out alongside the Ribena factory in Coleford, so at least his fall is scented by the sweet smell of blackcurrants, if not success.
After this point, the TET linesman seems to have lost inspiration, as to save for a few small diversions, the route is pretty much road based as we head east through the Forest of Dean and on towards Gloucestershire. We stop at the stunning viewpoint over the River Severn just outside Littledean before blasting along the course of the river towards Gloucester. We luckily managed to dodge a monsoon downfall while we stop for fuel and a coffee, but then it’s back to miles of roadwork.
Half an hour or so later, normal service is resumed as we head onto a wonderful series of lanes and byways to the south of Cheltenham. There’s a smattering of walkers and dog owners on the route now and our presence is greeted with a range of responses, from smiles to barely masked hatred. No worries, we give everyone a cheery wave as we pass.
As we’re now within striking distance of Bristol, the TET route takes in many of the lanes that we regularly ride around Cirencester at the top of the Fosse Way run. We loop around towards Stroud and tackle some real snotty and rocky lanes that I recall well from near-disasters on the Ténéré last time I rode here. On this occasion I’m on a much lighter bike and descending the worst of the lanes is far easier.
As it’s well past lunchtime, we start looking for a suitable stop and strike gold at the somewhat whimsically named Lavender Bakehouse and Coffee Stop in Chalford. We are treated to delicious savoury crepes with leeks, cheese and bacon, washed down with a bottle of Stroud Breweries’ excellent Tom Long amber ale. Dragging ourselves away, we re-join the trail as it continues to meander south through the edges of the Cotswolds and the five valleys around Stroud.
The lanes around Oakridge are familiar fayre as we head towards the top end of the Fosse Way at Kemble, rapidly covering the 10 or so straight miles of byway before we cut the route slightly just after Easton Grey to refuel at Malmesbury. The route now finally begins to head east for a while before we take a right onto a wonderfully leafy and sweeping byway off the B4040 that drops south towards the M4.
We briefly pass through Royal Wotton Basset before rejoining more cracking and seemingly endless lanes on the open plains of Wiltshire, passing a brace of white horses etched into the chalk hills.
The final section of the day takes us up onto the Ridgeway for a truly joyous blast along the skyline and towards the racehorse training tracks, above the handsome town of Marlborough, our endpoint for the day. The landlord of The Lamb Inn welcomes us with secure parking for the bikes in the pub’s courtyard, and perhaps more importantly, cold beer.
Suitably refreshed and showered, we feast on delicious and vast pizzas at Pino’s Italian restaurant next door and a glass or two of red. Perfect, or it would have been if my sleep hadn’t been interrupted by the chimes of the church clock and the thrum of the pub’s cooling units.
Plain and simple
Bright and early the next day, and with a full English sitting comfortably in our bellies, we roll the bikes out into the sunshine. We head out of Marlborough and within five minutes cut left into the trails that dissect the vast and beautiful Savernake Forest. It’s a life-affirming and wonderfully enjoyable way to start the day, and the TET leads us into more great trails that will take us onto the expanse of Salisbury Plain.
With much of the TET and Great Western Trail in this area mapped out by James Higgs, a stalwart of the Wiltshire TRF, he’s certainly gone to town on Salisbury Plain. Our route snakes back and forth for hour after hour on everything from long and tricky rut lined tracks to flat out blasts on long sweeping military roads.
At times it’s difficult to pick out which of the myriad of routes to follow. Our planned route takes an unscheduled detour off the route as the red flags and closed gates give a pretty clear indication that the army lads are actively firing artillery. If there’s one thing that will crimp a day’s trail ride, it’s an exploding shell.
The meandering route takes us along the byway that skirts within a few hundred metres of Stonehenge, so we stop for photos amid the small collection of ratty vans and tents of ageing hippies. We eventually leave the plain at just after 1 pm in time for a much-needed lunch and drink at the Barleycorn Inn at Collingbourne Kingston. With stomachs refuelled, we set off again and having been going around in circles for the past three hours, it’s good to start heading east again.
The going is a pleasing mix of woodland trails and tracks across open farmland, but the difference in my relatively fresh tyres to Pat’s worn hoops and worryingly soft rear mousse is making my progress noticeably easier and faster than his. We soon catch the long trail that runs parallel to the M4 corridor. The views in the clear afternoon sky stretch up to the distant Cotswolds before we eventually drop down on a rutted track to the side of the A34.
The fast-moving traffic makes it risky to cross through the small gap to reach the southbound carriageway, but Pat suddenly shouts “gap!” and we blast across. The route heads south for some miles, but due to some difficulty in reading the map while travelling at 60mph, we miss our turning and head miles off course before managing to leave the road and refuel at Whitchurch. Remounting, Pat catches his boot on his panniers and ends up on the floor. It’s impossible not tall fall about with laughter.
The afternoon passes in a blur of great trails and deserted back roads for a couple of hours before, somewhat inextricably, heading through what appears to be a tour of the suburbs of Basingstoke. I’m sure it’s a lovely place to live, but the views on the orbital ring road compare poorly with the rest of the day’s scenery. Luckily things pick up soon as we drop south towards our overnight destination in Alton.
The next morning we load up and head to Greggs for breakfast where we are shouted at by an unfeasibly cross local for momentarily forgetting our masks, a touching parting gift from the town. Luckily, things take an almost immediate upturn as we dive into a network of delightful sunken lanes as we head down and across towards Petersfield.
Sweeping left and right, it feels like we’re on a leaf-filled bobsleigh run. It’s pure trail riding pleasure for the entire morning as we move swiftly out of Hampshire and into Sussex, the villages looking ever prettier and richer the further east we go.
We ride into East Dean just before midday, stopping for photos by the bucolic idyll of the village pond with obligatory ducks. The scene is made all the more perfect when we realise that The Star and Garter pub has just opened, and once the enormous fish finger sandwiches arrive, we’re convinced that this day cannot get better.
Reluctantly dragging ourselves away, the afternoon rewards us with more beautiful back roads and lanes as we pass through Lavant and up to Charlton. There are rocky climbs and descents to contend with, but being on lightweight bikes, it’s all pretty easy fayre.
Our progress is stopped by a fallen tree, and although we can just about wiggle under, Pat busts out the pocket saw, and in a sweaty 15 minutes, we’ve cut through the trunk and cleared the trail boy scout style. We press on to enter the South Downs National Park and although the number of trails has reduced since I last rode this section, the ones that are left give a fantastic view of the rolling landscape.
We then drop down to the main road and have to endure a 25-mile section through Amberley and beyond on the A283. On an adventure bike it would be fine, but it’s no picnic on a trail bike, especially for Pat who’s seems to be dropping further and further back in the fast-moving traffic. Mercifully, we eventually peel off to resume the smaller roads and trails, and they hook up onto a series of fast and long dirt roads.
As it’s a Saturday, there are loads of walkers out and few of them look delighted to see us, despite us doing the decent thing and always slowing down to pass. Stopping for the frequent horses gets a friendlier thanks and a smile.
Pat is still lagging well behind and when he eventually catches up it’s evident why. His rear mousse has completely collapsed and his bike is almost unrideable. While we could attempt a trackside repair, we instead Google bike shops nearby and locate TPS Motorcycles a few miles away.
Limping the bike to nearby Polegate on the blacktop, shop owner James supplies a fresh tube but has to dash off almost immediately to sell a pick-up truck. Pat and I use his yard to remove the wheel but struggle with the tyre and mousses. Thankfully, James returns within half an hour and fits the tube and tyre with his machine in seconds.
With the day fading, we elect to ride straight to our evening stop at The Bear Inn and Burwash Motel. Landlady Pauline and landlord Justin allow us to rearrange their garage to store the bikes before plying us with curry and beer until closing time. We return to our rooms happy and tired.
The final day dawns and we’re on the road by 8 am under ominous looking grey skies. We refuel and grab a coffee at a petrol station before dropping south and rejoining the TET just off the A21. The lanes are almost too good to be true. The smooth grippy mud is covered with a carpet of autumnal leaves that gently swirl behind us, occasionally passing alongside the manicured lawns and massive houses of Sussex’s wealthy residents.
By 11 am, the grey skies have given way to an unwelcome drizzle so we stop to Gore-Tex up for the final push. The route takes us ever east towards and into Kent, the terrain varying from tight tree-covered lanes over rolling hills, to a particularly long and exposed section crossing a vast flat flood plain.
We refuel for a final time at the Channel Ports motorway services, momentarily reminiscing about the prospect of continental travel as we tuck into Jamie Oliver’s overpriced pasties. Despite being only 10 or so miles from Dover, the TET linesman has thrown in a series of meandering loops on the way to Folkestone. Our route takes in the Battle of Britain memorial at Capel le Ferne where we stop to pay our respects to those who once protected our skies.
With the finish line almost in sight, the TET gives us one final test to complete our trip in the form of an unexpected and slippery polished chalk incline by the appropriately named Chalksole. We crab and spin our way up trying to avoid a last-minute disaster, slowly reaching the top with all the grace of pair of wardrobes.
With the rain just about easing off, we blast through the last couple of narrow and twisty lanes above Dover, eventually popping onto the road takes us past the town’s imposing castle and down to the aesthetic disaster that is Dover. However, as we kill the engines for a final time in front of the ferry terminal, nothing can dampen our sense of achievement.