A cycle ride around the Isle of Wight

When I offered my teen son a weekend away of his choice I didn’t expect him to request a cycling holiday. I’d had visions of us seeing the sights in a European city. But I couldn’t go back on my promise so after much deliberation we settled on a cycle ride around the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight promotes itself as a cycling island; no doubt helped by Lonely Planet announcing it as one of the ten best cycling destinations in the world. It has over 200 miles of cycle tracks and bridleways, it never rains (at least when I visit) and has smooth pothole free roads (Oxfordshire County Council take note).

Round the island cycle route map, Isle of Wight
Round the island cycle route map, Isle of Wight

I decided we’d tackle the round island cycle route, although we did detour from this a couple of times. Whilst road cyclists can easily complete the 65 mile route in a day we split it in two, with a halfway stop at Whitwell. Although I’m reasonably fit I’m not a regular cyclist and I didn’t fancy cycling from dawn to dusk just to get round the island in a day!

Day one: arrival in Cowes

It’s expensive to take your car to the Isle of Wight in peak season. And it makes no sense to drive over and then find somewhere to park for the weekend. Hence my first task was to research other options, from bringing our own bikes on the train, to parking in Southampton to alternative ferry routes.

Cannons at West Cowes
Cannons at West Cowes

The best combination for us, in terms of price and convenience, was to take the train from our home town to West Cowes. Actually the train only goes as far as Southampton Central but our ticket included the short bus ride to Southampton Quay and the Red Jet over to Cowes.

We then hired bikes from Wight Cycle Hire, based in Yarmouth. These were delivered to our Airbnb in West Cowes the night before our ride started. They weren’t fancy road bikes but they did the job and, a revelation, my saddle was much comfier than that on my own bike. The cycle hire shop also offered an island back up service which was reassuring as I didn’t have a puncture repair kit or tools.

Isle of Wight round island cycle signposts
Isle of Wight round island cycle signposts

Day two: Cowes to Whitwell

Our first day of cycling dawned. The Airbnb had a posh Nespresso machine but despite watching a YouTube tutorial I couldn’t work out how to use it. Fortunately Costa was only ten minutes down the hill. Half an hour later, and full of caffeine, porridge and bacon we were set to conquer the island.

Round the island cycle trail, IOW
Round the island cycle trail, IOW

I’d decided to cycle in an anti clockwise direction, to make use of the forecast westerlies. Although there wasn’t much of a breeze in Cowes I wanted the wind to be a help, not a hindrance, particularly along the south coast. It also meant we’d finish our cycle ride with a trip on the floating bridge from East to West Cowes.

Newtown saltmarsh, Isle of Wight
Newtown saltmarsh, Isle of Wight

It took us a while to get used to the bikes after leaving Cowes. Faced with the first short hilly section I changed gear and my chain immediately came off. Whilst it was easy enough to put back on it did dent my confidence a little. It also gave me an excuse to walk up the first hill of the day!

After our early drama, our route took us inland along quiet lanes away from the coast. At Newtown we took a breather, stopping at the salt marshes for a few minutes to take photos, drink water and put on suncream.

Yarmouth cycle hire and cafe
Yarmouth cycle hire and cafe

On again, along flat and quiet country roads. We didn’t see much traffic but there were a few other cyclists out and about, all cheerfully saying hi to us. We felt a little out of place as we were the only cyclists in non cycling gear carrying day packs on hire bikes. Everyone else looked the part, with road bikes and cycling jerseys.

Yarmouth old railway line, Isle of Wight
Yarmouth old railway line, Isle of Wight

We hadn’t yet paid for our bikes so stopped at the cycle hire shop in Yarmouth to do this and check route options. We also made room for elevenses at the cafe next door, Off the Rails. It would have been rude not to!

From Yarmouth we took the off road cycle route along the old railway line towards Freshwater. Although lovely to be away from road traffic the track was very busy with other bike hirers, walkers, dogs on extending leads and free range children. I almost wish we’d taken the road.

View towards West Wight from IOW round island cycle trail
View towards West Wight from IOW round island cycle trail

At Freshwater we turned east, hitting our first big hill of the day. I needed to stop for some photos (ahem, a rest) halfway up. My excuse was justified, as we had the best views of the weekend!

A little later, at Compton Farm I made a bad decision. Faced with another hill and lots of fast traffic I decided a better option would be to go cross country. I didn’t have a detailed map but there was a byway sign pointing in the direction we wanted to go so we followed it.

Road out of Freshwater Bay
Road out of Freshwater Bay

The first section, to Brook Farm campsite, was flat and paved. Great. But upon leaving the farm the route took us up a very steep rutted track, not at all suitable for our bikes. We got off and pushed to the top to be greeted with spectacular coastal views and a field full of cows and calves.

Cows near Compton Farm
Cows near Compton Farm

We sat on a bench just in front of the field gate, hoping they’d move away but they were intent on watching us back. Eventually I gave in, shooed them away and pushed my bike through the field. They ignored me. My son had already decided he was going to avoid them, by lifting his bike over a barbed wire fence and walking through the adjacent field.

Crop fields near Brighstone, Isle of Wight
Crop fields near Brighstone, Isle of Wight

After the field of cows came a field of blue butterflies, literally three or four on every thistle head. I tried to photograph them but whenever I got near they’d fly away. It was an incredible sight.

A while later we reached a road and were finally able to get back on our bikes and head to our lunch destination, Chessell Pottery Cafe.

Our afternoon cycle from Hulverstone to Brighstone and on to Chale was almost perfect. Quiet country roads, a restored water wheel and pretty villages. We could hear, and sometimes see, the vehicles whizzing along the main coast road; it was a relief not to be on it.

Blackgang Chine viewpoint
Blackgang Chine viewpoint

However the day ended back on the main road with a huge climb up to Blackgang Chine viewpoint. I’m not ashamed to say I walked most of it. Up top we sat on the benches, enjoyed the view and listened to the screams emanating from the theme park below us. Thankfully it wasn’t too far to our B&B for the evening as I was more than ready for a shower and rest.

Overnight in Whitwell

On into Whitwell, for a perfectly located overnight stopover at Kingsmede B&B. They’re used to cyclists and have a handy bike storage shed at the front of their house.

It was bliss to have a shower, make a coffee (with a kettle!) and relax in our room. Later we walked to the village pub, The White Horse Inn, for our evening meal. Good food, relatively cheap and large portions. Indeed so large that I couldn’t face dessert!

Day three: Whitwell to Cowes

After a good night’s sleep and a filling breakfast we set out again the next morning.

Ventnor greeted us with a big hill (another photo stop required halfway up) and tantalising views of the coast. My only regret of this trip was not having the time to stop and explore the places we passed.

Isle of Wight cycling, near Wroxall
Isle of Wight cycling, near Wroxall

Between Ventnor and Wroxall we followed a lovely, but of course undulating, back road. At Wroxall we left the round the island cycle route to join the Red Squirrel trail.

Back in 2016 when I created my UK bucket list I included cycling the 32 mile Red Squirrel Trail on the Isle of Wight. My plans had moved on since writing that list but I still wanted to include a section of the trail on this ride.

Red squirrel trail, IOW
Red squirrel trail, IOW

For much of the route it follows an old railway track, but not the section we joined at Wroxall. We cycled along grassy tracks and through sandy fields. We’d been used to following the large blue and white signs and this part of the trail threw up a few route finding challenges. That was, until we discovered the route was still signposted but with much smaller signs. Despite this we missed a turning at Merstone and ended up cycling towards Newport rather than Sandown. Whoops.

Pedallers, cafe on the Red Squirrel Trail
Pedallers, cafe on the Red Squirrel Trail

Back on track, and finally on the old railway track, we stopped for morning coffee at Pedallers’ Cafe another cyclists haunt. It offers a cycle repair station which was fortunate for the chap who somehow punctured his tyre right outside the entrance!

We had another short stop at Alverstone. I have a mission to see red squirrels on the Isle of Wight. Although I’ve seen them in other places around the UK they’ve eluded me on the island. Alverstone Nature Reserve has a hide, frequented by red squirrels, so we parked the bikes whilst I took a walk through the woods. As expected they were once again hiding. My quest continues.

Adgestone quiet lane
Adgestone quiet lane

From Alverstone to Adgestone we cycled along a quiet road. This supposedly has a recommended speed of 15 mph but I’m not sure the two motorists we met along the lane knew this.

At least there were only two cars. It was a different matter in Brading. A constant stream of cars overtook us, some passing a little too close for comfort. I’d already decided that we wouldn’t take the island cycle route along the busy main road to Bembridge. Instead we detoured off through Brading Marshes, an RSPB reserve, to reach St Helen’s where we briefly encountered traffic madness again.

Seaview, IOW
Seaview, IOW

The round island cycle route splits at Nettlestone. We chose the seafront route rather than staying inland. It was an exciting moment to reach the north coast. Unlike the south coast there’s lots going on in the Solent; it’s easy to get distracted!

We cycled west along the seafront, looking for a lunch stop. As it was a warm sunny day the beaches and parks were incredibly busy. We stopped at one cafe but decided it would take some time to get served so carried on into central Ryde.

On the seafront at Ryde
On the seafront at Ryde

After lunch at the aptly named Cafe on the Hill we continued, slightly inland, to Fishbourne. The track was off road but with lots of downs and ups. It was almost depressing having a long downhill section as you knew you’d be paying for it as soon as you reached the bottom!

Quarr medieval abbey, Isle of Wight
Quarr medieval abbey, Isle of Wight

We passed Quarr Abbey, busy with afternoon sightseers. Not sweaty cyclists. At Wootton we crossed the creek and I decided the end was almost in sight. A slightly premature thought as there were yet more ups and downs to negotiate.

Chain ferry between East and West Cowes, IOW
Chain ferry between East and West Cowes, IOW

Yet, as we finally arrived into East Cowes I didn’t want the ride to end. We took the chain ferry across to West Cowes, parked our bikes in the Cycle Hub and went in search of an ice cream. We’d finished. We hadn’t fallen off our bikes, we were still speaking to each other and we hadn’t got too lost. I call that a success!

More info

  • We loosely followed the Round the Island Cycle Route, with added Red Squirrel Trail. We cycled around 70 miles, height gain (and loss) was around 4700 feet.
  • I used the printed Isle of Wight cycle map for planning which was good value (£4.99) albeit slightly dated. It does not include contours!
  • This cycle ride around the Isle of Wight is achievable by most of average fitness. Take your time (2+ days) if you can as there’s plenty to see along the way. If you’re unsure about the hills you might like to consider hiring an electric bike.

Uptonogood mountain bike event 2014

Last year my son and I had a very wet ride at Uptonogood, our local mountain bike event. This year the event followed on from one of the hottest days of the year. The organisers bravely sent an email stating the weather gods were smiling on us.

You can guess what happened. Overnight we had the most spectacular thunderstorm I’ve seen in years accompanied by the type of torrential rain you only ever see in films. The previously dry ground turned into puddle fest.

uptonogood20147The rain had stopped by early morning but I did wonder whether the day had been jinxed as our son’s bike had sprung a puncture overnight. A quick tyre swap and we were ready to battle the puddles.

Our arrival at Uptonogood coincided with the departure of the 25 mile route riders. I’d loved to have taken a before and after photo because the next time we saw them they were all caked in mud.

The 25 milers set off
The 25 milers set off

We’d signed up for the 12 mile family ride. After registering we stopped to listen to some rousing tunes from the local brass band before lining up for the mass start at 10.30am. It’s not a timed race so we lingered at the back to avoid getting caught up in the scrum of handlebars and wheels.

Off to a rousing start with Blewbury Brass Band
Blewbury Brass Band

I was glad to see a lead vehicle holding up all the traffic on the main road for us to cross; it was rather enjoyable to ride down the middle of a usually busy road. Thereafter the family route was almost all off road, apart from a few short stretches on quiet lanes.

Just starting out
Just starting out

The first part of the course is an uphill stony track. There was a bit of a bottleneck with riders stopping for a breather and a few people wobbling into others. However, I was impressed by some of the youngest kids who pedalled all the way up.

A bit of a puddle
A bit of a puddle

Despite my worries the course wasn’t too wet. Some stretches were muddy, and there were large puddles to negotiate but I had expected worse. My son gained great pleasure from riding through the middle of them so he did end up with a wet and muddy back.

Time for a break
Time for a break

It took us a mile or two to thin out from everyone else. The course initially follows bridleways and a Sustrans route that we often ride along. After a while though it headed into new family cycling territory. This involved an uphill stretch at which point most family riders got off and walked. The fit 25 milers briefly joined us here and they all whizzed up the hill without a breather.

Downhill, the easy bit
Downhill, the easy bit

It wasn’t happy families the whole way round. Eldest daughter has an old heavy bike which meant she hard to work harder to keep up. This resulted in a bit of a strop, which was compounded when she somehow managed to fall off it too. I had to suppress an incredulous ‘how did you manage to fall off there’ comment, even though it was going through my head at the time!

Uphill, lots of walking
Uphill, lots of walking

My favourite part of the course was the stretch along the Ridgeway. It’s made from fast draining chalk so the ground was pretty dry and easy to cycle along. We passed several groups of teenagers who looked like they were undertaking their Duke of Edinburgh award, it always amazes me how heavy their rucksacks are. The views here were predominately rural apart from the landmarks of Didcot Power Station and the Diamond Light Source. We could see for miles!

Heading off the Ridgeway the rest of our route was fast and downhill. The clouds were becoming ever more ominous and a few heavy drops fell but we were only a mile from the finish at this point so it wasn’t too bad.

There was plenty of cheering from the onlookers as we cycled back into the village recreation ground. The kids got a certificate, badge and lollipop at the finish tent. Hats off to the organisers, from our perspective everything ran smoothly and I’m hoping all participants had a good ride.

So what was the best bit? I’m sorry but it wasn’t the ride. It was the cake afterwards! I sent the kids into the hall with £1 each and wondered why they took so long. Turns out they couldn’t make a decision between the sheer variety of baked goodies on offer. Fruit cake, brownies, flapjacks, cupcakes, lemon drizzle, how to choose from so many options?

Too many cakes to choose from.
Too many cakes to choose from.

We stayed a little longer as there was live music and a BBQ. I resisted the lure of a (third) visit to the cake stand but even now as I write this I’m wondering what cake I’d have gone for……

More info:

  • Uptonogood is a mountain bike event that takes place in Upton, Oxfordshire each June. It’s a family friendly day out with 5 and 12 mile rides for the kids and 25 or 45 mile rides for the more serious adult cyclists. Keep an eye on their website for details of next years event.

Cycling the Kennet and Avon cycle route, Berkshire

Looking for a flat family friendly cycle route in Berkshire? Then why not cycle from Newbury to Reading along the Kennet and Avon cycle route. This is part of Sustrans route 4, and for most of the way follows the canal towpath.  It’s a 19 mile stretch but easily shortened if you prefer a shorter ride.

Cycling out of Newbury on the Kennet and Avon canal cycle path
Cycling out of Newbury on the Kennet and Avon canal cycle path

Our journey started with a couple of train rides to reach Newbury. It was a little stressful getting four bikes on the trains, as despite it being a Sunday, they were packed with shoppers and there was no dedicated bike storage.  On the second train we were blessed with a helpful conductor who helped us organise a place for our bikes and find seating.

Once in Newbury we followed the signs to the Wharf to pick up the cycle trail.  We’d managed to coincide our ride with a waterways festival, so the first mile out of Newbury had plenty of walkers and families out for the afternoon.

Cycling past the Kennet and Avon canal locks
Cycling past the Kennet and Avon canal locks

After a couple of miles the Sustrans route leaves the canal towpath and takes you through Thatcham. Whilst you are still on a dedicated cycle path it is initially next to a very busy road, past houses and industrial units. Not the scenic and relaxing ride that I had in mind! An alternative is to stay on the towpath and walk (as it turns into a footpath only), or perhaps start the route from Thatcham railway station where it picks up the canal path again.

After rejoining the towpath you once again feel like you’re back in the countryside.  We stopped for a belated picnic, and hastily ate our sandwiches as it was already approaching mid-afternoon.

Picnic time
Picnic time

Back onto our bikes again, and a quiet stretch of the canal. It was a windy day so I was glad of the decision to ride west to east as it wouldn’t have been much fun cycling into the wind.  We saw quite a few birds, including grebes, coots and Canada geese but I didn’t spot the hoped for blue streak of a kingfisher at any point.

kennet4
Negotiating the gates

Some parts of the towpath lead directly onto roads, albeit quiet country ones.  It was easy to tell when road access was getting near as the number of people we’d see would increase.  A particularly busy spot was near a pub garden that backed onto the canal. I would have liked to stop there for  a refreshment break but we were already pushed for time so it was not to be. Fortunately we had our water bottles with us.

kennet5

Near Reading the track temporarily diverts away from the canal, past some fishing lakes, and then alongside the M4. You return once again to the towpath, with plenty of permanently moored houseboats lining the canal.

Away from the canal path
Away from the canal path

Arriving into the busy city of Reading is a shock, but the towpath held one last surprise.  Along the opposite side of the bank are houses with gardens leading directly onto the canal.  Every other house has a kayak or small boat ready for canal exploration.  It’s great to think that a row of suburban houses has a secret canal hidden behind them.

We felt a little out of place walking back through Reading centre, amongst all of the weekend shoppers. Nethertheless I was happy to have spent my afternoon cycling rather than stuck in shops!

If you fancy a walk instead you might be interested in a Cold War Greenham Common walk, a windmill walk at Bedwyn or viewing the Caen Hill locks. All of them include various stretches of the Kennet and Avon canal.

More info:

  • Sustrans map of the route: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map/route/kennet-and-avon-cycle-route
  • The route is flat so suitable for family cycling.   The obvious danger is the canal itself, as in places it would be very easy to cycle off the towpath and into the canal!
  • We cycle regularly so the route length wasn’t an issue. If you’re not used to cycling you could easily shorten the route by doing an out and back cycle ride.

Uptonogood 2013

For our review of the 2014 event read here. Otherwise read on to find out what we thought of the 2013 one.

I’m not a fan of heavy rain. After running Reading Half Marathon in atrocious conditions earlier this year I’m firmly of the opinion that my enjoyment of outdoor activities is weather dependent.

When the other half decided to enter a local mountain biking event, Uptonogood, I held off making a decision until the day beforehand so I could check the weather forecast first. Despite very windy conditions there was no rain predicted so I signed up too.

The event was family friendly, with 5 and 12 mile off-road rides alongside 25 and 45 mile routes for adults.  Eldest daughter and other half entered the 12 mile ride with a mid-morning start time. My son had other activities early on so we opted for the 5 mile ride starting at 1.30pm

Fast forward to the morning of the event and the Met Office had sneakily updated their forecast to one showing an 80% chance of heavy rain, hail and thunder at 1pm. Aargh!

On the way to Uptonogood
On the way to Uptonogood

My son and I left at noon to cycle to Upton, where the event was being held. Despite setting off in sunshine there were some ominous clouds in the direction we were heading, and I was glad we’d brought waterproofs.  We arrived in time for a BBQ lunch and homemade cakes, and met up with the other half of the family who’d just finished the 12 miler.

Burger before the start
BBQ lunch

The rain started a few minutes before we set off. It was pretty light to begin with, but soon progressed to a torrential downpour.

Ready for the start
Start of the 5 mile family ride at Uptonogood

The first part of the ride took us out of the village towards the Ridgeway.  After a short road stretch, we soon headed upwards onto the Downs.  I know the area well, and it’s a lovely cycle ride, but the downpour did spoil things a little!  We tried hiding under trees for a few minutes, in the hope that it would pass over, but we’d have been waiting quite a while.

The route was well signposted, and on good tracks.  A short section through a field was incredibly slippy, resulting in a few of the kids parting from their bicycles.  The rain was unrelenting, and all of the riders were soaked through with mud streaks up our backs; we looked like proper mountain bikers!

Still smiling, despite the rain
Still smiling, despite the rain

The last part of the ride was on tarmac, albeit most of this had disappeared under streams.  We cycled through deep puddles as we were already so wet it didn’t seem like it would make a difference.

As we rode down the track back into Upton the rain started to ease and by the time we finished blue sky and sun had reappeared. Still, getting off our bikes was a very uncomfortable experience as we were soaked to the skin and had squelchy shoes. Despite the weather, we had a fun time.  I’d certainly enter again, hopefully on a longer dry ride next year!

More info: http://www.uptonogood.org.uk