Intro - In Search of Alfred - CycleBlaze


When I was a school kid growing up in 1970s Britain, various nuggets of historical wisdom were presented to us. The one thing we all knew about King Alfred the Great was that, travelling incognito, he was tasked by a peasant woman with watching some cakes baking. Letting his attention wander, the cakes burned and, unaware he was her king, the peasant woman gave him a thorough tongue lashing.

And that was it. There was no context; no sense of time or place, of why this mattered. As with Robert the Bruce in his cave with a spider, the implication was that Alfred learned some profound kingly lesson from this experience, and went on to apply it during his subsequent glorious reign. What that lesson was, was never made clear to us. Alfred is the only English King to have been given the tag 'Great' - so he must have done something pretty special, right?

The statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester.
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Living overseas for 10 years, I was an early adopter of the Amazon Kindle reading device. Every now and again you get offered a free book as a sweetener and, on one such occasion in 2017, I selected Bernard Cornwell's 'The Last Kingdom' from an otherwise lacklustre list. It turned out to be a historical novel set in the Ninth Century, following key events in the life of Alfred the Great from the point of view of a fictional warrior, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. It was reminiscent of the Henry Treece Viking novels I read as a kid, and I quickly bought the second book in the series (which I guess was exactly what Amazon wanted me to do).

What struck me, reading 'The Last Kingdom'and its follow-up, was that the events it portrayed were absolutely pivotal in the formation of what was to become the country now known as 'England.' If things had played out differently, history would have been radically altered - and it all took place in the area where I was living, Somerset in SW England! I started reading round the subject, trying to find out how much of the Cornwell novels was based on fact and how much was just conjecture. I also started looking at maps - and realised that there was a good bike ride here waiting to happen, linking up key sites in the story of Alfred the Great...

First, a brief bit of historical background. In the Ninth Century, the British Isles were divided into a number of Anglo-Saxon countries (the original Celtic inhabitants of Britain had been driven to the Western margins when the Anglo-Saxons invaded from continental Europe).

Map of Anglo-Saxon Britain, Ninth Century AD.
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By the latter part of the century, all these Anglo-Saxon territories except for Wessex had been conquered by the Danes (popularly but incorrectly known as Vikings). Wessex, ruled by King Alfred, was the only Christian Saxon country not ruled by the pagan foreign invaders, or by one of their puppet regimes - but it was a beleaguered state under constant harassment by Danish armies, forced to pay large amounts of tribute to prevent total conquest and domination.

And still it wasn't enough. In the New Year of 878 AD, the Danish King Guthrum launched a devastating surprise attack on Alfred's court in Chippenham, scattering his men and forcing the English King to flee across country to the Somerset Levels - which is where this journal begins...

NOTE: this is the second of two tour journals I'm porting over from a now defunct Crazyguyonabike account. I won't be putting up any of the others concerning trips round Eastern Europe, China and the Far East.

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Jon AylingCheers Pete, I'm really enjoying these. I hope you reconsider re-posting the international trips - they sounds interesting!
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7 months ago
Mike AylingTo Jon AylingPete
Enjoyed your previous journal Industrial Relics very much.

Not really related to Jon!
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7 months ago