A few days cycling around the Isle of Wight
The barriers lifted and we bumped our bikes over the rumble strips and up the ramp. Behind us, motorbikes revved up and children scampered back into their campervans. It was 5pm on a warm, muggy Friday evening in August and it was clear that the weekend couldn’t start soon enough for the waiting passengers.
Ushered to the front of the boat, we lent the bikes against the raised exit ramp, asking twice to make sure that there was no risk of the ramp deploying mid-voyage sending our bikes for a dip in the Solent. Across the water, beyond the white sails of yachts making use of the evening breeze, the Isle of Wight stretched out hazily on the horizon.
I can only recall making the short ferry journey a couple of times. Six years ago, the Rolling Stones and Muse headlined in the early summer sunshine to help make my first festival my all-time favourite. A couple of years later, Laura and I spent the weekend at a golf and country club on the island’s east coast attending the wedding of good friends of ours.
However, on both occasions I had the feeling that there was plenty more to see. After our French mini-tour earlier this year, we were keen to get another one booked before the summer faded away. Scanning opencyclemap.org for inspiration of cycle routes within a couple of hours train journey from London, the small land mass off the south coast caught my eye.
On closer inspection, a thin red line traced its way around the coastline weaving in and out following quieter roads. Also, being a popular holiday destination, plenty of caravan and camping parks were dotted around the island which meant we could dust down our South American tent and give it an outing.
Mooring in Fishbourne, we waited in a layby for the vehicles to pass before moving off. Stocking up on several ready-made G&Ts and pasta salads, we pedalled for 10 minutes reach to Stoat’s Hill campsite where we then spent the same amount of time or more procrastinating on where we should pitch our tent. Having a choice of where to camp was a luxury that occurred infrequently in South America.
With the dusty Hilleberg raised in a flash, we lazed on the grass scanning the sky for the Red Arrows that occasionally whizzed above our heads on their way to perform at the end of Cowes Week.
We each had a paperback to read and had agreed not to bring any distractions so left our phones and tablets at home. Despite not having the justification of having done any real cycling that day, leaning on therma-rests and reading by head torch in the tent was a recipe for an early night.
The early morning entertainment was provided courtesy of red squirrels in the braches above our tent – the Isle of Wight being one
of a few places in the UK where their numbers are flourishing. Packed up, we turned right to head east out of the campsite, starting clockwise on the clearly signposted loop round the island. The green canopy and tall hedgerows provided the shade as our legs pumped our “granny” gears up short sharp hills. Cars went patient in overtaking and horse riders cheerfully acknowledged our wide berth giving with a smile and “Good Morning”. It was stark change from our ride across London to Clapham Junction the day before.
Pausing to adjust saddle positions, we spotted a large American-style fridge at the entrance to a dairy farm. The honesty box enabled people to help themselves to milk and ice cream seemingly as fresh as it comes. The scenery improved further, with postcard-perfect Bembridge Harbour providing the backdrop for an early morning coffee stop, whilst we stared out at ingenious static house boats resting on the tidal mud.
The 62 mile route is predominantly on quiet country lanes but for a few miles here and there, the main road provides the only option and meant that for a short time, caravans weren’t the most frustrating vehicles on the winding roads. Back on single country lanes our route turned southwest towards the tip at St Catherine’s Point, past a vineyard and past a field hosting the “Garlic festival” with headliners Katrina and the Waves due to play later that evening.
There were many cyclists out for rides on bikes far lighter and carrying nothing heavier than a bicycle pump, including lycra-clad members of Reading Cycle Club who slowed up and joined us on a slight incline. They were doing the route in one day and, after exchanging pleasantries, seemed genuinely torn about whether to press on or stay with us at a leisurely pace listening into the ramblings of Test Match Special on the digital radio strapped to Laura’s bike rack.
At lunchtime, the oldest pub on the island; the White Horse at Whitwell, provided the largest and most filling jacket potatoes. As cruel coincidence, it also marked the start of the ascent to the highest point on the island.
By this stage we’d learned to take the elevation profile on our otherwise excellent maps with a pinch of salt. Rather than highlighting the short sharp peaks and troughs, it tended to smooth out the profile depicting a misleading flat terrain.
Pausing to catch our breath at the entrance to Blackgang Theme Park, the views across to the dark blue English Channel and the vast white cliffs in the distance to the west caused a sense of deja-vu only to realise that it was a memory of the cycling along the Pacific in Chile.
We wound our way along the boundaries of flat, open fields westwards and past farms which we smelt well before we saw the bags of manure for sale. A field full of alpacas woke us from our mid-afternoon cycling daydreams – animals that we hadn’t expected to see outside of Boliva and Peru.
Making good progress, the well thought out route delivered once again with a tea room providing another opportunity to devour calorific scones. The bells across the road were in full flow as the bride and groom exited to a plume of confetti from their happy friends and family. The guests were clearly being made to work for the wedding breakfast as we passed them a mile down the road on their way to the reception.
The break in the western cliff coastline at Freshwater Bay was heaving with families enjoying ice creams on the promenade and with the odd few braving the sea. A stag group, clearly suffering from the previous night, bemoaned that they should have done paintball as they were cast off nervously on sea kayaks into choppy water.
Catching a glimpse of people enjoying the pub garden across the road, meant our decision of where to put the tent at the picturesque Stoat’s Farm campsite was much slicker than the previous evening. Refreshed after surviving the temperamental showers, we wandered across to Highdown Inn to while and wine away the evening.
The next morning, we woke to the therapeutic sound of light rain on the canvas above our heads, so squeezed on our waterproofs again wondering how Hilleberg can get away with describing the Nallo 3GT as three berth. A couple of stale croissants later and with the wet tent packed, we coasted back down the hill to re-join the route heading north towards Yarmouth.
Getting slightly lost round Freshwater town centre, we found the riverside path just as the heavens opened uniting us with joggers and others cyclists with stares and crooked smiles of disbelief.
After drying off with a greasy spoon bacon (and surprisingly watercress) sandwich at a café on the Yarmouth Pier, we rode eastwards trying to dodge large puddles and past a shed full of alpacas taking cover. The grey weather moved away quickly courtesy of the wind that was now giving us a good push on our backs as we rode eastwards.
Before too we were on the outskirts of Cowes rolling slowly along the waterfront and looking out at the congested Solent full of yachts including some very large beasts. Stopping to join the onlookers, we learnt that it was the start of the FastNet Race. Keen to find somewhere to eat for early lunch before the crowds of spectators did, we walked the bikes through the pedestrian precinct.
After a short chain ferry ride across to east Cowes, we set off on the last few miles of the circuit past Queen Victoria’s residence at Osborne House and back towards the ferry terminal at Fishbourne.
In total, the weekend’s cycling had been a little over 75 miles which would have been an achievable daily distance a year ago. However, as we waited for the ferry to take us back to the mainland, we agreed we had enjoyed the leisurely pace and the time to enjoy this beautiful and sometimes overlooked corner of England for a mini bicycle tour.