An evening leg stretcher on Salisbury Plain gives Dean and friends a classic southern ride of rolling hills and lengthening shadows.
Words Dean Hersey Photography Trail Creatives
I love the buzz you get from the anticipation of a ride almost as much as the pushing pedals with your mates in tow. We spend springtime battling to find an opportunity to make this happen, but clashing diaries, poor weather, injury and the onslaught of restrictions from the pandemic are all more than enough excuses to postpone until a beautiful midsummer evening. The forecast is looking favourable and as the messages bounce around the group, the hype builds. The plan: finish a day’s work and meet for the ride in the Three Daggers pub car park, then back to the pub for some tasty grub.
Clunk click every trip
Nick is the man with the route for this ride as these are his home trails. It’s the kind of ride that makes up part of his usual week. Nick and Glenn usually fit this route around a busy work schedule and hectic family life by riding later into the evenings, usually long after the sun has set. No need for lights this evening though. With a last minute reassuring check of tyre pressures, the click of helmet buckles being fastened and the clunk of shoe cleats engaging in pedals, we roll out together from the car park in single file.
With the car park barely out of sight and no chance of a warm up, the four of us embark on the first climb. Setting off at a calculated pace we spin our way up the stone and gravel bridleway underneath a canopy of trees that shades us from the early evening sun. It’s a kind and gradual gradient to start with, but as we round the bend it begins to kick up. There’s a cacophony of simultaneous clunks from our gears as we creep our way towards the biggest part of the cassette.
The trees part their branches and we emerge into the sunlight just as the trail chatter from the gravel beneath our wheels fades and grass silences our ride. I soon realise it’s only my own panting I can hear, with Nick and Glenn somewhat distanced behind me and Hamish ahead. The trail is carved out of the hill and wraps its way around the side with the grassy green continuing steeply to my left with beautifully even undulations – it’s as if the grass carpet has been ruffled and bunched up. There are small patches of white chalk just about peeking through the long grasses at the verge of the trail. We top out on the ridge at the large gate that is accompanied by a huge tree trunk with wedge seat carved out of it – it’s the perfect place for the more weary rider to rest whilst taking in the impeccable view out to the west. We stop for a moment to regroup, giving me a chance to have a drink before we set off together through the gate. The trail skirts a field of green and gold barley that reaches waist height.
With the worst of the climbing out of the way for now, the terrain offers Nick a chance to catch his breath enough to tell us about how the hills around this part of Salisbury Plain played host to many a mountain bike race back when the sport was really in its infancy. How he, alongside Singletrack’s very own Chipps, could be found duking it out on these very same grassy hills probably before Hamish was even born.
The sea of barley to our left ends as we roll up to a four-way junction. This is the first time we see any evidence that almost half of the 300sq. miles of Salisbury Plain is owned by the Ministry of Defence, which makes it the largest training area in the UK. A large red sign shouts ‘Military firing range KEEP OUT!’, and a red flag flies above the sentry house at the closed gate of the path leading to the uninhabited Imber village. The villagers were forced to give up the land to the war effort during the Second World War. Like many other parts of the Plain, it remains closed to the public for much of the year.
We make a hard right turn at the junction and head west along the Imber Range Path. With few trees on the Plain there are uninterrupted vistas over the green fields and Westbury ahead. After a gentle bimble along a short section of the larger 48km circular route that is the Imber Range Perimeter Path, Nick veers off to the right and dismounts at a gate. Intrigued, we all follow, and take a short walk through a grassy field until we hear the sound of a flapping sheet and hollering. A dozen paragliders are in flight right above us. We stare with bemusement, heads up and mouths open wide, looking into the evening sky. Some are flying in tandem, others are solo, completing loops and acrobatic rolls. We’re suddenly disturbed by a lone paraglider swooping down, literally skimming the long grass with his feet and bum. We duck out of his way and beat a retreat back to the gate while discussing which of us are daredevil enough to be up in the air floating on thermals.
Heading for a wood in the distance, it’s not long before my wheels start to roll faster. The gaps between our bikes are opening up; we let the brakes off and pop off a small drop, kicking up dust for the rider behind to inhale. The long grass either side of the singletrack is buffered flat as each of us blasts past. Just as I’m really getting into my flow the trail abruptly swings left. I struggle to slow the bike down, tyres scrambling for grip. As I lean into the corner I release the brakes and my enthusiasm almost outweighs my talent, my tyres squirm and the rubber drifts across the grass. I only find grip at the very last second and my hand comes precariously close to the barbed wire fence. A very close call. Traversing the hill, back out in the golden sunshine on twisting singletrack, overgrown from a summer of growth, my close call is still foremost on my mind. My concentration dwindles and I clumsily clatter my gloveless fist through a huge bunch of stinging nettles just to make sure I remain focused.
We duck back under a thick green leafy canopy, our vision of the trail is impaired, and it doesn’t take long before one of us has a lie down in the dirt after finding the only slimy rut of the ride. A quick dust down and Glenn is chuckling as he swings his leg back over his bike unscathed. We get cranking on the pedals, a lip allowing for some wind under the wheels. The trail is so wide I cheekily attempt to race past and overtake Glenn as we slalom elbow to elbow between the old trees. The trail swings left and then right, linking the flat turns together. We holler and heckle. I go for the win and cut an inside line in the last corner, my only reward is a stray tree branch to the face as we burst out into the light. That’s the end of my favourite part of this route and despite my pass not coming off, there are smiles all round.
We start the climb back up towards the Imber Range Path, setting off one rider at a time. The competition element continues up the technical section of the climb: which of us can get the furthest up the hill without dabbing a foot? Hamish sets off first and at a lightning pace, setting the bar high and comfortably getting the furthest up the climb. This is an ancient path worn into the chalk, exposing the rock and leaving natural steps in the middle of the trail with a risky high line to the right up on the bank above the trail. The ground is green with moss and as slippery as wet mud. My strategy is faster than the technical main path, but I slip in the steepest section. Panting hard, I stand up on the pedals, shifting my weight forward and causing a wheel spin, a novice mistake. Again my competitive side leaves me wanting. Two opportunities on the ride gone begging, all part of the fun of riding with mates.
With the light levels getting low, the sun drops in the sky behind us casting shadows that stretch out in front of us. We head back along the coarse gravel of the Imber Range Path. Only Hamish musters any sort of youthful enthusiasm as he bunnyhops the holes that would be deep puddles at any other time of the year and with my bottle just as dry, I’m gasping for a drink. We crest a rise on the path that reveals the remaining ride before we head back down to the road below. Turning off the main path the ground changes from dusty white chalk to a contrasting strange black pumice stone. We begin to accelerate downhill, casting small stones out from our tyres up high above our heads. The ground is so dark it is hard to pick out holes and ruts in the failing light. With thirsts to quench and rumbling stomachs we race back down to the tarmac of the road and the refuge of the pub.
There’s the sound of skidding tyres on the gravel of the car park as we all slide to a halt behind our respective vans. Ride done with not a mechanical to speak of, only a branch across my face and one ever so slightly bruised ego from an off. Another successful after work rip around in the warmth of a summer evening sun. A quick change and before you can say ‘steak and chips’ we’re sitting at our table with drinks ordered and the chat flowing as we reminisce about the ride, the nettle stings on bare skin and the exceptional choice of route.
Nestled in the heart of Wiltshire, Salisbury Plain is a huge expanse of mostly untapped British countryside. It may not boast the biggest hills or be stacked full of the steepest root-infested technical trails, but this area and this ride has a charm all of its own. It’s a short ride from the local train station in Westbury, or the local towns of Bath and Salisbury are just 30 minutes away in the car. Bristol and Swindon are under an hour from the start of this ride, and with such proximity you would have thought these trails would be far busier with walkers and horse and bike riders. Despite the military firing on the ranges this is the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle. Apart from the paragliders and tourists at the White Horse (which is a slight detour by foot from the route) we really didn’t see another soul. The lack of villages and towns are part of this route’s appeal. It can feel like you are miles from anywhere, when in fact you are never really far from the road and the real world if the worst happens and you need to limp back down to the car with a mechanical issue.
The chalk ground makes for some well drained trails and bridleways that hold up well all year round, in even the wettest winters. As a friendly note, I’d be wary of puddles on some of the byways on the Plain being deceptively deeper than they seem due to the shared right of way on some of the larger paths in the area. This area is renowned for 4x4s wheel spinning and winching out of the deepest mud-filled holes and ruts.
It really is the perfect route for an escape after work in the long summer evenings, and also in the winter illuminated by bike lights as there is nothing scary waiting to catch you off guard. This route lends itself to all abilities with a bit of everything along its course. Throw a longer weekend ride into the mix and use this route to explore the Imber Range Path and the wider Plain. It is made up of hundreds of bridleways and byways that will keep you occupied for a whole day and the gravel paths allow you to cover some serious distances and link up some of the more ‘interesting’ trails. For those begging for more from their rides you could combine it with a trip to one of the local bike parks – Tidworth is on the east side of Salisbury Plain and Windhill Bike Park is closer still at just ten minutes’ drive down the road.
This part of the country is peppered with history and heritage. With Iron Age forts, strange giant chalk horses and, of course, Stonehenge all attracting visitors, there is more than just riding to do in this area. History is all around you here.
- Distance: 45km
- Elevation: 632m
- Time: 3.5 Hours
- Map: OS Explorer 143 / Landranger 184
A stone’s throw from the start of the ride is Slades Farm camping pods in Edington. Or, if camping is not your thing, then check out the rooms on offer at The Three Daggers pub in Edington. The nearest town of Westbury has a great choice of hotels and B&Bs and is just a short pedal to the start.
Eating and Drinking
We set off from The Three Daggers in Edington. They boast exceptional food with a great dining atmosphere and even have a small brewery onsite (I would recommend the steak and chips for a post-ride meal). Visiting in the summer? Then they have the Wood Shed outside which serves sourdough pizzas. There’s a farm shop onsite stocked with produce from Wiltshire and the surrounding counties, providing a selection of honey, dairy, meat, veggies and bread from local artisan bakers to drool over. They really have it all under one roof. Also on the B3098 road between the villages of Edington and Bratton is the Pickleberry Coffee shop that sells a selection of home-made light lunches and cakes.
Long Hollow Cycles is a workshop situated in the village of Edington. Stu will be able to sort you out if you get in a spot of bother. A little further afield are the well-stocked Cycology stores in Frome and Chippenham. Both have a workshop and a great range of bikes and accessories to suit all budgets.
If you’re arriving by road there is limited parking available at The Three Daggers pub in Edington, perfect if you are going to head in for a bite to eat after the ride as we did. The route has Westbury train station approximately five miles from the start, with a multitude of rail lines heading in from all directions including London Paddington.
Information on the Ministry of Defence campaign ‘Respect the Range’ and guidance on how to safely use this military land can be found at the website below.
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