December 7, 2021

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Herefordshire cycling tour follows mystical ley lines ‘discovered’ by local hero a century ago

It was only once I’d finished climbing Dorstone Hill that I realised what I’d just tackled. Blowing steam out of my ears, I paused at the top of what had been an unusually steep hill, in a county filled with unusually steep hills, when I turned and saw a road sign indicating the hill’s gradient: 25 per cent.

This means that, on parts of the climb, for every four metres I went forward, I went one metre up. This is not a boast (the ride in fact exposed my lack of fitness), but to set the scene. Herefordshire, if you’re not aware, is hilly.

But it is many other things, too. Achingly beautiful, rural and packed with history, the county is sometimes left behind by more known tourist destinations in the west and south west of England.

In part to try to right that wrong, the tourist office has recently devised the Watkins Way, a celebration of the centenary of Alfred Watkins’ “discovery” – or invention – of ley lines in the local area. Watkins, who was born at Hereford’s Imperial Inn, is forever linked to the mystical concept, which was even referenced in the 2016 remake of Ghostbusters. They may be of questionable value for the modern-day traveller, but the sightseeing tour they’ve prompted is not.

The Watkins Way is a 106-mile route that takes in many of the county’s most notable sights. It’s history heavy: the route is packed with astonishingly old and well-preserved churches, as well as castles, an Iron Age fort and a Neolithic burial ground.

Watkins Way Herefordshire Image via fiona@traveltonic.co.uk
Longtown Castle, a shambling 12th-century motte-and-bailey fort

I cycled it, but it is also designed to be a driving route. 106 miles over three days is leisurely, distance-wise, but with a relentlessly undulating landscape, including some hefty climbs, it required a good level of fitness and cycling confidence for some fast descents. Much of the way is on ultra-quiet single-lane country roads – and so is largely car-free.

Navigation was simple: I used my phone, on to which I loaded a route helpfully and precisely mapped out by the tourist board using the cycling app Strava. With that seen to, I was free to enjoy some sublime rural riding. I suffered a small shock when I set off, having overestimated how much I needed to pack for three days and underestimated just how hilly Herefordshire is.

Even for those not into old buildings, Dore abbey is special. With its roots dating back to 1147, it simply feels ancient. It was completely silent, still, and slightly chilly, even on a warm day. There was an intimidating sense of gravitas, and in that place, it felt suddenly obvious how the Church wielded so much power over medieval parishioners.

Watkins Way Herefordshire Image via fiona@traveltonic.co.uk
Dore Abbey is a highlight of the trip

Not far from Dore abbey is St Andrew’s church in Bredwardine, the burial place of Francis Kilvert, a clergyman who lived and worked nearby in the 1870s. Kilvert is famous for his diaries, which were discovered after his death and published by William Plomer.

Kilvert’s Diary is now considered a minor classic, thanks to its warm and intimate depiction of parochial Victorian life, and even has an appreciation society. A local churchgoer told me that his burial place attracts tourists, with some retracing his favourite walks as outlined in the book – it’s clear from reading his diaries that Kilvert found the rural beauty as beguiling as I did.

Dore abbey, St Andrew’s, Longtown castle, Clodock church: these are all impressively old attractions, with centuries of fascinating history. But on the Watkins Way, the oldest of them all is Arthur’s stone, a Neolithic burial chamber atop a very steep, very remote hill.

Watkins Way Herefordshire Image via fiona@traveltonic.co.uk
Watkins was born at Hereford’s Imperial Inn

More than 5,000 years old, the stone has been linked to King Arthur since the 13th century; according to legend, it was at this spot that Arthur slew a giant who landed on the stones as he fell. It has inspired a more recent legend, too: C S Lewis reportedly based the stone on which Aslan is sacrificed in the Narnia stories, on Arthur’s stone.

Surrounded by countryside, historic churches and Neolithic burial grounds, it was easy to get lost in the past. But present-day Herefordshire is worth relishing, too. I enjoyed excellent hospitality and food at the Bridge Inn in Michaelchurch Escley – home to enterprising B&B owners Glynn and Gisela, who spent lockdown crafting the aptly named Hillbilly Gin, and at The Oak in Wigmore, where a sophisticated menu combined with a warm welcome.

I may have left a few pints of sweat out on the roads of Herefordshire, but I returned home replenished, and with a new appreciation for a part of the country that perhaps does not always get the credit it deserves.

Getting there
Trains run from Paddington to Hereford, direct and via Newport. For ticket prices, paperless reservations and digital railcards, see thetrainline.com

Staying there
The Green Dragon in Hereford has doubles from £70, greendragonhotel.com
The Bridge Inn in Michaelchurch Escley has doubles from £95, thebridgeinnmichaelchurch.co.uk
The Oak at Wigmore has doubles from £117, theoakwigmore.com

More information
visitherefordshire.co.uk/see-do/scenic-trails/ley-lines-landscape/watkins-way