Isle Of Wight ‘Return To Freshwater, Please’ Route – pdf
Six miles there and back of fl at, easy causeway alongside the River Yar, from Yarmouth to Freshwater. A proliferation of ice cream at either end and plenty of lounging spots – good for a very lazy ride.
Distance: 12km return
Time: As long as you want it to last
Total ascent: 10m
Isle Of Wight ‘Middling Downs’ Route – pdf
18 mile return loop from Freshwater to Shorwell and back. Big views and very nice pub in Shorwell, therefore could
quite feasibly take all day. Joins up with Easy route if you’re traveling from Lymington.
Time: 3 hours
Total ascent: 756m
‘Big Ryde’ Route – pdf
Up and down all the hills on this less-traveled side of the island. 40 miles of lovely singletrack and lots of up’n’down easily takes up the whole day.
Time: 5 hours
Total ascent: 1179m
Riding somewhere entirely unfamiliar can sometimes be a bit of a lottery. You can make a good effort at seeking advice from locals and friends who’ve ridden there previously and spend hours poring over the shiny new OS map marking all the accessible trails neatly with highlighter pens and musing over the contours; but until you actually get there, start riding and see how the land lies, it’s hard to be sure whether or not you’re actually going to have a good time. And so it is that we find ourselves standing on Portsmouth harbour at silly’o’clock on a Tuesday morning, waiting for the hovercraft to take us over the water to the Isle of Wight.
Our head-to-toe big-summer-day-out riding kit (oversize and airy baggies, chopped off jerseys, very large Camelbaks) is drawing curious stares from the other passengers, most of whom are dressed in suits and obviously off to work. We’d feel smug that we’re off riding instead but truth be told the early hour is a bit of a shock to freelance body clocks, so we settle for mild bemusement at the way in which the ferry crew don’t bat an eyelid as they wheel the bikes away for stashing in the tiny ‘cargo hold’ and shoo us aboard.
It’s only a 15-minute bounce across the Solent, but disembarking at the other side there’s already an instant holiday feel to the day – crossing the water makes it feel like we’re leaving the island, albeit for another, smaller one. The Isle of Wight is a petite 23 by 13 miles, and though there’s a bit of a drought of rights of way at the top of the island thanks to the proliferation of private grounds, the lower two-thirds are absolutely riddled with bridleways and byways, many of which are based on the ancient shepherd’s lane system. There are also several disused railway paths for getting from A to B at relative speed. Trailbreak’s White Diamond weekender and the island’s own late summer cycle festival both point to there being plenty of good ‘proper’ riding available. Both events are popular among the mountain bike fraternity: the White Diamond offers routes that range from very competitive mountain bike orienteering to laidback
cafe hopping, with evening entertainment laid on. The island’s own festival is more of a family-led affair, with guided rides and training sessions for abilities but which culminates in the 3/7/14 Hills Killer ride, more than enough to tire out the most energetic of legs.
Tyme to Ryde
Pedaling through Ryde we realise that though we’ve spent a couple of hours hammering down the M27 to catch an early ferry, most of the island is still asleep, or at least lightly dozing as they walk the kids to school. We’ve even beaten the bakers to the morning – they’re not quite open for business yet despite the temptingly fresh doughnuts in the window, though they do point us in the right direction for a bacon sandwich and cup of tea. Suitably fortified, we head into the sticks. The shops and houses stop abruptly, the edge of civilisation neatly guillotined by the railway line, and any sign of modern life quickly vanishes behind us as lush hedges and rolling farmland take their place. Ticking quietly along hedgerows, bright blue dragonflies zipping alongside, conversation falters and it’s easy to slip gently back into the remainder of the sleep we left back at home. The landscape here probably hasn’t changed much over the past century, and the wellestablished field boundaries are dotted with properly old twisted English oaks to prove the point.
Rounding a corner we see a hare loping away to the left; he’s on the track we want to follow but the day’s sense of urgency is fast dissipating, so we wait and watch him ambling down the hill until only the tips of his spoonshaped chocolate ears are visible between the rows of wheat. The island is weaving its magic already; like Alice and the drink-me, eat-me spells we’re entering a world that seems both surreal and familiar, where time slows down just enough to keep you with it and even the clouds relax a bit as they drift lazily overhead. Crossing the railway, we notice a small wagon sitting a few metres down the single-line track. There’s a workman sitting in it with his back to us, with a Thermos in his hand and a paper on his lap, soaking up the early morning sun – it’s like riding straight onto the set of a quieter, genteel version of a David Lynch film. A farmer exchanges cheery good mornings before we can even brace ourselves for the usual grumpy scowl, and his working dogs sniff briefly at our tyres with no hint of a growl before bounding off across the yard.
Even the signposts can’t do enough to help us out. Used to poor and mostly absent mainland signage, I initially have the map out at every opportunity to ensure we don’t miss a turning, but soon realise that not only is every (and I mean every) bridleway, footpath and RUPP neatly signposted, but they also have the direction, destination and actual number of the right of way printed clearly on them. Our time consuming map-faff is reduced to a minimum as I memorise just the vague direction of travel and maybe the village we’re heading for, and let the signs take care of the rest.
The frequency and usefulness of the fingerposts here would put the signage on most purpose-built mountain bike trails to shame. We’ve never ridden anywhere that has a better marked and cared-for rights of way network, a sentiment that’s reinforced later in the day when we round a corner after following several miles of wondrous freshly cleared and denettled singletrack to find two council workmen strimming away happily under the sun. Now, we wouldn’t advise you to ride anywhere unknown without at least the relevant OS map in your pocket as a navigational aid, but it’s nice to be able to relax a bit and just enjoy the ride without worrying about getting lost for a change.
The island itself ought to be pretty easy to navigate, as technically it only has two main ridges, north and south. However, in the eastern corner that we’re heading for, the rock strata have got carelessly crumpled over the years and so as we finally make it to the top of the first ridge after what seems like an interminably long climb, we’re treated to a stunner of a view down over the very un-flat plain’ of wooded coombes and fielded slopes that lead to the far end of the lower ridge. A quick left-right on the road and we nip through an unassuming gap in the hedge to find ourselves standing at the top of a precipitous drop that just happens to be topped off with perfect singletrack. Reigning in enthusiasm at finding such a gem so early in the day, we get the cameras out for a few minutes before gathering ourselves to ride. It really is one of those ‘take a deep breath’ trails – and though it’s not technical as such, the sheer speed of acceleration as we plunge down the hillside means we’re taking the neatly bermed corners right on the edge of traction, with no idea what’s around those corners. This adds a little extra spice to the whole affair when the trail disintegrates into rock-fi lled gully without any warning and then segues equally seamlessly into deep, drifty sand. There’s a good deal of squeaking and giggling coming from behind, and when we pause halfway down to rest pumped arms and gibber incoherently about just how good this really is, we swap places so that I too can have the really rather lovely experience of riding through the clouds of tiny blue and brown butterfl ies stirred up by the wheels in front. Lovely, that is, until they get between the teeth…
From here on we’re into the riding proper, and the nice surprises just keep coming. I’ve mapped a route that takes us from top to bottom of the island and back again, taking in as much niceness as is possible to guess from a ‘blank’ map with no experience to back it up. What looks on paper to be a fiddly, if reasonably direct, way of getting down the island turns out to contain two absolutely perfect stretches of fast, dusty singletrack through stunning patches of ancient woodland. No regimented forestry conifers or visitor centres here, we’re talking gnarly old oaks reaching up into the sky from a sea of thick, head-high bracken rattling with insects and birds. The effect is completely prehistoric. If one of Blackgang Chine’s fibreglass dinosaurs were to come lumbering to life around the corner, I don’t think either of us would have batted an eyelid.
Wishing for tea
More climbing and a rest at the top indicates that the island has worked its magic on us both. I can’t remember the last time we got to the top of a hill and sat down for half an hour, not because we were knackered, or hungry, or because somebody’s bike had broken, but just because we could. Little to be said, just a view to drink in and sunshine to soak up. If only there was a teashop up here…
Having spent a few minutes looking at the map while resting and lining up topography with tarmac, I’m well aware just how many contours we’ll now cross in a very short space of time, so the sheer wall of a climb that rears up in front of us is no surprise to me. Eyes popping, the legs of the party decides to make a go of it but even he’s forced to concede defeat – sorry, ‘pause to admire the view’ – halfway up the hill. Looking back towards Ventnor the coast is fast disappearing under a murk of sea fret and thundercloud, yet when we pop out onto the top of Appledurcombe Down a few minutes later we’re greeted by a vast, sweeping vista that takes in the whole southerly tip of the island basking in sunshine under a huge, epic, Battle of Britain sky. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful views in my time but this one is something really quite special – every now and again light, air and land combine in just such a way to make a perfect moment but I get the feeling that it happens pretty often up here. It’s all terribly, terribly English but it’s also so stunningly beautiful that if ever you’re wondering why it is that you choose to reside in this stricken excuse for a country, then this particular spot would be a pretty good reminder.
As would the descent that follows: a proper eye-watering swoop across the open hillside before plunging through a gate into a very old, very dark gully lined with hawthorn and ivy that are simultaneously demolishing and holding up the remains of a thick drystone wall. Sunburnt eyes struggle to adjust to the lack of light and blessings of our recent tubeless conversions are clearly audible as we rattle over thorns and flints galore. It’s hot, dusty and everything summer riding should be: sun, sand and singletrack, all hidden away in the quietest corner of this lazy little island. All that’s missing is the timely tea stop – and luckily enough that’s next on the agenda.
Godshill is Twee City: tearooms, ice creams and knick-knacks galore. The avenue of thatched cottages and garish hanging baskets that leads to the beautiful Norman church is peppered with a steady stream of perambulating day trippers peering through windows and over fences in their quest for the perfect cream tea. Coaches rumble past continuously, blocking out the sun, and the tea garden is a sea of beige interspersed with the occasional flesh-pink support stocking. It’s all gone terribly, terribly English again, and once we’ve hoovered up sausage-and-beans-on-toast, bakewell slices, Victoria sponge, toasted tea cakes and a small bucket of tea we’re back on the bikes sharpish to escape the suffocating scent of begonias and Parma Violets.
Wrong turns and fat cats
A quick snippet of singletrack and Alice is back again as we’re deposited abruptly in what is clearly somebody’s really rather posh back garden. There’s a momentary pause – did we take a wrong turn? – before we resume along the trail which quite obviously passes across the manicured lawn, round a tidy duck pond (complete with several very fat rare-breed ducks) and between a couple of rose bushes in full, fragrant bloom before swinging back up onto the scruffy, gorse-covered hillside. Most bizarre. After a wrong turn (the sign points the right way, unfortunately I do not) that takes us up a needlessly painful climb, only to have to backtrack to the right, needlessly even-more-painful one, an executive decision is taken to cut the day short as the heat is starting to get to us and the lure of ice cream is strong. More gentle farmland and a very friendly, if rather unauthentically plump, farm cat precede another wonderful descent down Hollow Lane. It’s odd to think of the ways this path must have been used in the past, and the people who’ve been this way before us: smugglers, shepherds and farm hands, secret romancers and marauding Normans – our wheels are just another part of it, and it’s reassuring to think of the path still here in another century’s time just doing its thing while the world goes on around it.
Legs thoroughly stretched by now, the drop out of the valley and onto the railway path is a pleasant relief. This is part of the National Cycle Network’s route 23, and runs from Sandown to Cowes following the bed of one of the island’s several disused lines. It takes a while to adjust to the change of pace – the rest of the route has been relentlessly up-and-down, but once we’ve settled into the easy rhythm of a flat, wide-open trail, it’s actually quite nice to have enough breath spare to chat and pedal. Maybe it’s middle age creeping up, but I really can see the attraction of these paths for people who have more interest in ice-creams than spending the day ripping each other’s legs off, or who just want an easy, sociable day out for the whole family. Next stop, panniers, map holders and an unhealthy obsession with moths…
Luckily the entirety of the obligatory ‘one last hill’ is clearly visible in front of us to shake things up a bit as we turn off the railway path and return to the real mountain bike world. Tidy singletrack that meanders from side to side between two rule-straight hedges, climbing relentlessly for a mile before rearing up and driving straight into the side of the ridge. Bloody Romans. Puffing and panting our way to the top up a trail that jinks left and up into the clear blue sky, there’s time to look back for one final dose of the absorbing view before scooting back down the road into Ryde. It’s been a thoroughly successful adventure of a day out: we’ve seen a big chunk of the island and discovered that size isn’t everything. What the island lacks in geographical size, it certainly makes up for in variety, and we’ve ridden trails that would put lots of Britain’s best to shame. We haven’t seen any other riders at all, all day: a handful of friendly walkers and their dogs, and the pair of cheerful large-scale gardeners is about as busy as it’s got. Sitting on the harbour wall, wellearned ice-creams in hand, we amuse ourselves admiring pair after pair of fine, strolling English legs before reluctantly heading back to the ferry – and the real world…
Over the water…
You can only get to the island by ferry. You have three choices of port – Portsmouth serves Fishbourne and Ryde in the north, while Lymington serves Yarmouth, handy for the western end. All three services happily take bikes, though the hovercraft doesn’t run if it’s rough. Parking is readily available in Portsmouth and Lymington, and car tickets for the ferries are on the pricey side, so it’s worth taking advantage of the foot passenger fares if you’re only going for a day trip. Details from www.wightlink.co.uk
Trains: The mainland terminal at Portsmouth Harbour is a fi ve-minute spin from the ferry ports, and Lymington has a sparse branch line service. On the island, the Island Line runs from Ryde to Shanklin and takes bikes at the guard’s discretion.
Fuel: The majority of the major villages have at least one tea shop/Post Offi ce. Godshill is central and though quite terrifyingly twee, provides lots of choice. Be aware that there’s little in the way of food or water away from the villages, though. The Crown Inn, Shorwell is a proper old pub which is accessible from most routes around the south-west of the island, while the Wight Mouse, Chale provides a stop on the big route on dry days.
Nap time:Huge range on offer, from posh hotel to budget camping – contact the IoW tourist information offices at Ryde (01983 813818).
Whoops, I brought the kids… Again, more things to do on the island without a bike than we could even start to list here. It’s tourist heaven – perennial favourites like Blackgang Chine and the steam railway are just the start. Contact TiC (above) for help.