Dean Hersey goes island hopping with this early season leg stretcher over some of the Isle of Wight’s green, rolling hills.
Words Dean Hersey Photography Adam Frame
It’s late winter and the monotony of washing bikes and kit is wearing thin; the promise of spring not quite in full effect. Winter means fitting both riding and the chore of trail maintenance into a few short hours of daylight. The one thing keeping the majority of our band of riders together is the talk of summer trips and planning of adventures further afield.
With most of the country fulfilling the picture-perfect winter postcard setting, I got the shout from Chipps to host a ride down south. And you don’t get much more ‘south’ than the Isle of Wight. While we don’t boast great towering peaks, what we lack in technical trails we can more than make up for with stunning scenic rides that travel through quiet and charming villages along some of the most beautiful coastline in the country. After all, how many other rides start and end with a boat ride?
With Martyn, Jon and Adam endlessly busy expanding Rockets and Rascals, the local bicycle emporium in my corner of the world, our weekend rides and evening blasts together have been put on the back burner for the past couple of months.
Anyone for a boat ride?
After a week of dry weather, I knew they wouldn’t refuse the promise of a boat ride over to the Isle of Wight and a reason to reminisce over last summer’s escapades there over a pint. Mountain bikes are dug out from the backs of garages, loaded into the van, and we head for Lymington.
With no time to waste and the ferry already in its berth, we hurry along to the ticket office. Reaching the ramp just in time for it to go up, we hear the crackle of the captain’s voice booming safety info over the tannoy, lean the bikes up and head to the lounge. Our crossing is calm with a beautiful blue-sky day, so we know our luck is in for today’s adventure.
With just enough time to wet the whistle with a brew on board, we arrive in Yarmouth. After being given the instruction to walk our bikes off the ferry ramp we do so until our feet and tyres touch terra firma and then energetically swing our legs over our saddles and head south towards the ridgeline in the distance.
The first leg of the ride takes us out from Yarmouth on the cycleway over the Rofford Marsh and across the Thorley Brook, our tyres barely crunching over the gravel trail. We arrive at the quaint old Yarmouth railway station that is now a café named Off The Rails. Squashing whimpers from Martyn about stopping already for some trailside snacks, we push on and leave Yarmouth behind.
The cycleway is a great way to warm up the legs. It steers us clear from the road and traffic and is almost entirely flat, which is perfect as we head square into the prevailing south-westerly wind. But our worry (or relief in some cases) about the flat nature of the first couple of miles soon ends as we arrive at the small Victorian spa town of Freshwater Bay and find ourselves steadily climbing up the steep road that marks the start of the ridgeline.
The climb takes us up to the Tennyson Trail, named after the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson who had resided in the area. The trail starts in the golf course as a ribbon of chalk doubletrack; it extends for miles over the whaleback ridge that runs from west to east across the south of the island.
With spring not quite sprung, the ground is solely green, missing is the colour from flora and with this part being permanently devoid of trees there is no shelter from any wind. We are not fazed by the lack of a windbreak as it gifts us spectacular views of the sea below to our right and Yarmouth away in the distance to our left. The bright white chalk cliffs serve as a great backdrop and a contrast to the blue sky, green of the sea and the carpet of lush grass that covers the downs.
Despite the rapid rise in elevation, the mood in the group is good and jovial banter bounces between us as we ‘leave’ Jon to disappear into the distance. The view lends itself for a photo as Martyn and I compare our location with our other local hills on the Isle of Purbeck, over the Solent and to the west behind us. As the climb tops out it serves us well as a perfect place to strip off a layer and regroup before we all set off downhill together. Weaving around across the bright white chalk trail, we all do well to avoid the threatening rut of doom and the loose stones flicking up off our tyres. We lose all the height a hundred times faster than we had gained it.
Heading east and the sun continues to keep us toasty warm as we progress up through a deep green, vehicle-wide grass gully. Up through the first of many farm fields and on towards the treeline that borders the ridge of Mottistone Down. Here you notice how the trees have all grown in strange shapes as they are relentlessly battered by the wind off the sea below. This hill seems to play with us as a way to rip energy from our pale, wintered legs. No sooner as you are up to the summit than you’re heading speedily down the other side. The impression of this route, that my companions played no part in planning, comes to the fore, sparking ‘are we at the pub yet?’ conversations.
Always climbing, never coasting.
What the Isle of Wight lacks in technical trails, it certainly makes up in energy-sapping climbs. Sharing familiar attributes with many a route in the south, this is where you never really find yourself riding on the flat. It is up or down; rarely with climbs of any real length, but the type that nevertheless lets you know you’ve been out riding that weekend.
With lunchtime fast approaching and the clouds beginning to accumulate overhead there is a distinct change in the feel of the ride. The chalk ribbon crosses Limerstone Down and the sound of gunfire begins to pierce our blissful peace and quiet. The Worsley Trail passes right by a busy shooting ground and while the pops of gunshots fill our ears, out of the corner of my eye I notice clays spinning across the sky. This area is also the site of the Isle of Wight Mountain Bike Centre, but unfortunately the bike park is closed for winter and isn’t due to open for a few weeks yet.
With the trails closed, instead we charge on towards the promise of food and beer.
The Worsley Trail ends and we are greeted by a road, all gratefully saving our legs as we coast and speed-tuck our way down to the sleepy village of Shorwell. We turn almost 180 degrees back on ourselves and sneak between some charming stone cottages up a short sharp climb. The stiff breeze plays its part again and cloaks us in smoke from a chimney on the cottages just below us. The trail now tapers to a narrow strip of singletrack that I can barely distinguish in the grass, and skirts around the first of the vacant fields on our way towards Newport.
It’s here we bump into a handful of riders all aboard e-bikes, trading head nods and the customary greeting of ‘alright?’ before they disappear again. That turns out to be our only sighting of any other riders making the most of the conditions with us today. Instead we spot birds of prey soaring overhead, trying their best to avoid the crows that are in pursuit.
No really, are we at the pub yet?
Along this stretch, the first sign of civilisation we’re greeted with is a towering television mast and eventually various agricultural buildings. That changes as we near the town and are presented with a clear vista of the majestic 800-year-old Carisbrooke Castle. Chatter and mumbles about our impending food stop increase in intensity and volume…
These calls will be answered shortly, but only after we pick up the Tennyson Trail from its far eastern reach and begin to grind hungrily back up. Then we contour the hill before dropping down to the Calbourne Road and arrive at The Blacksmiths, our choice of watering hole. Now while the food (especially the Newchurch pie) comes highly recommended and the ale quenches the thirst, you are advised to refrain from ‘just one more for the road’, as leaving the pub you will need to drag your full belly to the top of Bowcombe Down and the gradient starts right across the road from the pub car park. After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Forestry work in Brighstone Forest has churned up the trail, making hard work of what is normally a steady climb. The relentless combination of the treacly ground, deep-treaded tyre tracks and the abundance of debris from the tree felling means that it’s a hellish haul back to the top of the ridge. Brighstone Forest is littered with unsanctioned rooty trails among the trees if you know where to look, but we were on a deadline to beat the setting sun back to the ferry with only the most sensible of us packing lights (ahem). So we surge onwards, saving these for the next escapade in the summer months.
As tiredness begins to set in, I attempt to lighten the mood with Adam, reminding him this was the second to last climb of the day just as the next challenge emerges into our eyeline. We retrace our path from earlier, select a comfortable gear, set our own rhythm, and winch up the white chalk climb of Compton Down, inhaling deeply of the clean sea air. The theme of the day continues with the familiar view of Jon’s back slowly slipping away from us as he skips up the hill with ease and comfort. The gap goes from one bike length to five in a flash and before I realise it, he reaches the top and is over the crest out of sight.
Just as we top out, we’re greeted by the sight of Jon waiting on the convenient bench that marks our split from the Tennyson Trail and we begin our descent back down to sea level. Coming down from the ridge heading north, as the terrain begins to level out we are greeted with a flooded, muddy bridleway. A succession of deep puddles sit lurking, ready to catch out anyone napping and they also mean we won’t be returning home with clean bikes.
We cruise back into Yarmouth in the last hour of light to witness the ferry steaming out and away from the terminal, but this means that we have time for another pint while we wait for the next one. Smiles all round mark a successful day in the saddle with mates. With no need to console ourselves, we head round the corner to The Bugle Coaching Inn and exchange tales from the day over a half-eaten bag of jelly sweets and a pint while we sit out the wait for the next boat back to ‘the north island’ and onwards to home.
Island life is at a slightly different pace to the mainland, more relaxed. It feels like you are further afield than just a hop across the Solent. Cycling of all sorts is popular on the island. For mountain bikers almost every part of the island has bike-friendly and well-marked bridleways and trails.
This is a route that will suit riders of all abilities and all types of bikes. Perfect steed would be a light trail or cross-country bike – we even discussed a drop bar gravel bike on this route. You won’t need to shoulder your ride and hikeabike up rock-strewn paths or worry about whether you are on the right piece of equipment with enough travel.
This sort of ride is more about the outdoors, breathing in deeply the fresh air, taking in the countryside and its sights and sounds rather than smashing out segments or hunting for the next adrenaline-fuelled gnar fest.
The trails hold up well and remain firm under tyre, particularly on the ridge, at any time of the year. This means you can cover some good distances in a day if your legs will let you. You could extend the ride or mix it up with some time on the singletrack trails of the Isle of Wight Mountain Bike Centre.
If you feel you could do a longer day in the saddle, why not check out the Chalk Ridge Extreme route that takes in more of the island to the east and will have you covering over 50 miles.
Part of the charm of the Isle of Wight is that going from most towns in the centre of the south coast, it is closer and considerably quieter than the trail centres of Swinley, Haldon Forest or Surrey Hills. Coming for a longer stay, why not combine it with a route on the Purbecks, The New Forest or the South Downs National Parks. They provide a very similar feel and would be perfect to plan into multi-day riding holidays in the south.
Why not take your time, stop and have a beer, chat with mates and enjoy island life on a somewhat ‘old skool’ kind of ride? It almost feels novel. One thing that you can be sure of is that you will not leave the island without a healthy dose of fresh sea air and some spectacularly beautiful coastal views.
- Distance: 49km
- Elevation: 842m, highest point 211m
- Map: OS Explorer OL29 (1:25 000)
Map & GPX data
Wightlink operates ferry services between Lymington and Yarmouth, Portsmouth and Fishbourne, and Portsmouth and Ryde (foot passengers only service). Lymington is between Bournemouth and Southampton at the southern edge of the New Forest National Park. Other options include Red Funnel services from Southampton to Cowes.
You can travel by train to Lymington Pier and alight handily at the ferry terminal.
We parked at the Lymington Ferry terminal, but if you go to the island with a car there is parking at Yarmouth just across the roundabout from the ferry terminal, right at the start of the route.
Isle of Wight Mountain Bike Centre – see the website for information.
If putting up a tent is too much, take a look at Glamping the Wight Way:
Food and Drink
The Blacksmiths pub and restaurant is not factored into the route by accident and is perfectly placed approximately halfway around.
There are a fair few drinking establishments in Yarmouth. We stopped at the 16th century Bugle Coaching Inn that serves well for a refreshing drink while you wait for the boat back.
There are plenty of bike shops on the Isle of Wight and the surrounding area. Here are just a few:
Wight Cycle Works Ltd in Yarmouth situated at Off The Rails café offering hire bikes, guiding and repairs and advice. Open Mon – Sat 9am to 5pm, Sun 10am – 4pm
Swing in and say hi to Martyn, Jon and Adam at Rockets and Rascals in Poole. Shop, workshop and café.
B&Bs and hotels are plentiful on the Isle of Wight. Look at the stunning converted stone barn Medlars:
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