In search of Wight; escape to the Island

These last few months I’ve been getting itchy feet. A combination of trying out new things like cyclocross and hill climbs as well as more of a life outside cycling (yes, it does exist) meant that I had been missing out on exploring new places and was developing an appetite for another epic, an escape.

It was a last minute reschedule at work that suddenly left me with two days off. Instantly I knew this was my opportunity, and I had just over twenty four hours to plan up to three days away before getting back for the BSCC hill climb on Burrington Combe on Sunday.

After brainstorming a few ideas, the challenge was born, three routes plotted, two night’s accommodation booked and the ferry times noted; all good to go.

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It got me thinking after hearing the inspirational Sarah Outen speak at the Women’s Adventure Expo a few weeks ago about her four year man-powered (or rather, woman powered) trip around the globe. I had felt hugely inadequate in comparison, despite being hugely proud of the things that I had achieved on my own trips. When I quizzed Sarah about how she started out and whether she’d felt the same about other people’s epic adventures, she explained that it’s all just exactly the same thing, only her four years was a longer version of it.

So regardless of whether you have years to spare or simply a few days, there’s a grand adventure to be had – just go on and get out there.

The route

Riding around the Isle of Wight is on the bucket list for many cyclists and with a dedicated cycle route it’s an accessible choice for both pootlers and pros alike. For me, there’s something about having to get on a boat to get to away somewhere that really makes it feel like an escape. Here’s how I did it.

One: Bristol to Portsmouth – escape to the Island

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I was eased in slowly along a familiar route, the Bristol to Bath cycle path. All traffic-free, this popular route is flat and easy to follow, and leaving a little later meant that I avoided the rushing commuters, insead greeted cheerily by those out on morning rides. Marcel and Jorge, two Bristolian bikers originally from Venezuela and Portugal, were also out enjoying the early October morning sunshine on a ride to Bath, so we shared some laughs for a few miles.

The road South out of Bath climbed steadily, rising up out of the valley into the beautiful Cotswolds.  Moving further out into the  country lanes, the temperature dropped a little; time to don the legwarmers and winter jacket.

The first stop of the day was in the pretty stone town of Warminster, where a friendly local pointed me in the direction of the Reeve bakery. In the absence of local delicacies to try, I opted for the lardy cake and boy, was I in for a treat. The next leg followed down through the Wylye Valley, a much less hilly lane following close to the river on the edge of the Wiltshire Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – and that it was.

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Salisbury was a delight and a good choice for a lunch stop with plenty of choice for eateries and bakeries to fill jersey pockets with for the onwards journey. An appeased appetite and takeaway cup of tea in hand, I navigated my way out of the pretty city to continue South East.

 

The remaining route through the villages of Hampshire was as quaint as expected and I was soon onto the main roads down into the suburbs and to Portsmouth in the fading light. With enough time to stuff a fish and chips into my jacket pocket for the crossing, I merrily wheeled onto the ferry in the now darkness. Harbour lights played on the rippling water – I had made it and tomorrow I’d be waking up to explore the island in the light.

 

Two: Round the Island, detour galore

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I woke with the light and a fresh sense of excitement. Today was set to be the highlight of the trip – circumnavigating the island via the clockwise cycle route. Over an indulgent breakfast of scrambled egg and smoked salmon in The Fishbourne I jotted down my route card for my jersey pocket and noted all the suggestions that friends had made, detours off the 62 mile route that couldn’t be missed.

This second day of three had a different feel – a circular route rather than getting from A to B and with only two thirds of the mileage planned compared to the other two days. Today was all about exploring; getting off my bike as much as I wanted, taking the time to discover the island and meet it’s people.

It wasn’t long before I realised how hilly the day would be; if you weren’t steadily climbing, you were on the drops zooming down the next descent and back up again. I adore this kind of profile, climbs short enough to punch up or not too long to be a drag, and plenty of exhilarating downhills for my inner adrenaline junkie.

The first detour was to Seaview, a little town on the East coast near Ryde. It was my first daylight view of the sea, but not only that, the smell and sound of it too. I stopped a while to take it in, and thought it might be a good chance to tell my mum that I wasn’t actually at work today…

It wasn’t long after in St Helens that I met Lorreine and David, two cyclists from Watford who’d come over from Portsmouth to enjoy a half day ride on the island. Although admitting that she was already ‘bitchin’ about the hills‘, new self-confessed cycling addict Lorreine had an infectious sense of optimism and a wicked sense of humour, with David being the more experienced rider and knew the route having ridden the Isle of Wight Randonee earlier in the year.I was more than happy to drop my pace for a few miles to have a good chat to these two; when you’re touring solo, you take every chance for good conversation and cling on when you stumble across such lovely people.

I peeled off, waving goodbye when I reached the sign for Culver Down, a sharp turn off the main road that immediately ramped up into a pothole-ridden narrow lane up onto the headland. This second detour was recommended by Daniel, a local baker and cyclist on the island. Views from the top were fantastic both along the East and South coastlines, with the WWII anti-aircraft batteries sunken into the lumpy landscape atop the chalk cliffs.

Daniel had also recommended a stop in the Pedallers Cafe, a cyclist magnet off the cycle path from Alverstone. Ready for a cuppa, I concluded it would be rude not to, especially taking in a mile or so of the leafy off-road cycle route. Pedalling back onto smaller country lanes again, the inland route headed for Ventnor on the South coast. Here I sought out the zig-zagging road down through the town to the sea that I had been told about, only to find it is actually called Zig Zag Road – brilliant. Controversially on this one, I think it was enjoyed more coming back up than going down!

 

Now back on the main coastline road nearing midday, I rounded over the top of the cliffs at Blackgang to reveal the spectacular South coast of the island, looking along to the white chalk cliffs of Freshwater Bay, gleaming in the sunshine that was starting to warm the isle. I had been promised that Military Road would be amazing, but I hadn’t imagined anything quite this breathtaking.

After the first descent, I followed the official route onto the back lanes slightly further inland, running parallel to the main coastal road. The gradient eased rolling through this agricultural landscape, and I realised just how hungry I was. Finding the shops in Brightstone, I grabbed a (rather disappointing) chicken sandwhich, which was followed by the world’s biggest iced chelsea bun. Seriously, this thing was as big as my face. Mmm.

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Fuelled up, I headed back out onto the marvellous Military Road, past the thirty or so surfers out at Compton Beach, and up and over the cliff into Freshwater Bay. The climb was brilliant on the fresh, smooth black tarmac, sun powering my legs just as much as the iced bun. Warming up, I unzipped my Gabba near the top, with sides billowing on the ace descent. I heard the jingle as the change from my pocket hit the deck whilst speeding down at 30mph. Worth every penny.

Detour number five was to the Needles – you simply cannot travel to the Isle of Wight and not see them, right?! I arrived at the visitor centre and could only glimpse a view of the coastal formation through the wire mesh, so I sought an alternative way to get to a better viewpoint. What ensued was (bike mechanics look away now) riding my touring-laden race bike down a leafy covered, steep gravel track bridleway to the viewpoint. Certainly not a good idea but too much fun to resist. It’s all good CX training anyway right?!

From the Needles, I rejoined the route heading North in Freshwater, up to Yarmouth on the main road. This just isn’t a problem on the island, as I found all the drivers to be very courteous, allowing you plenty of space and taking time to wait for a safe passing opportunity. Thank you lovely drivers of the IOW.

Wanting to get more miles under my belt now, I pedalled past the sailboats at Yarmouth and back onto the more gently rolling lanes on the North West coast into Gurnard and along the esplanade to Cowes. After a failed search for ice cream, I hopped on the chain ferry over to East Cowes.

Standing at 75 miles, having added a few on my detours and with eight miles to Fishbourne and back to finish the circuit and get back to Erica’s for the night’s stay, I decided that there was more of the island to explore to notch me up to the golden 100 miles. Plus, it all helps notch on another on the Yearly Century Challenge (post on this soon).

After picking up some peanut biscuits for the final push and nibbling away on the side of the road, I spotted a keen-looking road cyclist on his commute home. It was Rowdie, a young PE teacher from Lincoln, having recently moved back to the UK after years as an expat in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore where he used to race semi professionally. Rowdie was fascinating to chat to as I attempted to keep up with him on his ride home to Ryde, from where he set me off on my last fifteen miles inland to some country lanes.

The final leg took me inland to Newport via a long climb out of Ashey which revealed a magnificent view of the island in the fading light. After a cappuccino in Newport in order to get sufficient battery on my phone to find out how to get to Erica’s, I finished up the last miles back into East Cowes.

What an amazing day. Feeling fantastic fuelled by glorious scenery of this gorgeous island, its friendly people, beautiful autumnal sunshine and some brilliant hills.

Cycle touring doesn’t get much better than this.

Three: Southampton to Bristol – homeward bound

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I’d had such a wonderful stay with Erica and her family that I didn’t want to leave, but after only managing two hours sleep I was also keen to crack on and get home to rest. After an early breakfast I boarded the 7.15am ferry to Southampton, watching the sun rise as we chugged out of Cowes, waving the island goodbye until next time.

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After navigating the well signed bike paths out of Southampton I was soon into the New Forest. I’ve wanted to ride here since I started cycling two years ago and was very excited about seeing the wild ponies and cattle roaming the gorgeous open landscape and forests. It was very, very chilly today, calling for full legwarmers, jacket and new Sealskin Halo overshoes. I was glad of the extra lights in the heels of these as the mist was relentless out on the open moorland and dressed head to toe in black I needed that extra visibility.

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New Forest; beauty in the bleakness

It wasn’t long before I found my first ponies, cattle, donkeys and sheep. Stopping to admire and photograph each one seemed to sap a lot of time, but I was having a whale of a time. Fate had brought me to the New Forest at the time of year when it was best dressed in all shades of Autumn, from the changing leaves on the trees to the golden ferns to the emerging mushrooms littering the roadside and bright fungi on the rotting woodpiles.

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Pausing briefly, I munched through the scrumptious chocolate cookies that Erica’s daughter had baked for me, stowed safely in my jacket pocket. My New Forest experience was short lived as I emerged out of the other side at Fordingbridge.  Mental note to return soon to explore properly, armed with my CX bike, a thermos of hot chocolate and an adventurous companion.

I soon picked up another pal for a while, local Gary who was out on a 20 mile morning ride. He briefed me on the highlights of the next few miles as I dug out my routecard to explain where I was going. Worryingly, the route seemed to promise a lot more up that down today.

After stopping for five minutes to check on two other local guys with a puncture, I headed on to the Cranbourne Chase, promised to me to be some spectacular riding. To be quite honest, I wasn’t impressed. Perhaps the roads that Lucy had ridden were much more scenic but these were predominantly main roads on a very expansive agricultural landscape – not flat but not too hilly either, just slopes that seemed to go on for a long time. I suppose the Isle of Wight was a pretty tough act to follow.

Mentally I was growing weary now, the lack of sleep was not helping, nor the 230 odd miles already in my legs. Hoping to get to halfway at Shaftesbury before stopping for lunch, I picked up a banana to keep me going and good job I did, as there was a mammoth climb before dropping down the zig zag road into the town. Not mammoth steep, but on tired legs it just seemed to go on and on out of Tollard Royal up to the airfield.

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Very nearly at the top before the drop – Tollard Royal climb

I was so glad to easily find a cafe in Shaftesbury at the top of the famous Gold Hill (think Hovis). Six cups of tea (they were small cups, okay?) and a lovely homemade burger and chips later, I was glad to have rested a short while and got some proper food in. Only trouble was the cold, sat outside with the bike in only nine degrees but with the wind chill numbing my extremities. After an emergency shop for giant windproof gloves and loading up with lardy cake and a gingerbread from the bakery opposite I was ready for the onward journey.

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My hands, although swamped in fleece now, were completely numbed and yet painful, as were my toes, my legs tired and heavy and my mind really struggling too. 50 miles still left to go to home and with the Mendips to conquer at about mile 80, I was already exhausted at the thought. After all, it’s not all roses, there will always be difficult moments, or even days, but it’s how you learn to cope with them that counts.

Singing. The louder the better, there’s no one to hear you in the country lanes anyway. And if you can improvise to tell your story, all the better.

“Shaftesbury, up on the hill; pretty little stone town, shame about the wind chill. Shaftesbury, six cups of tea, and now I’ll head on Westerly”

Don’t ask me for a rendition, just know that it really was the only thing that kept me going pedalling out of the town in those lanes. There was one point where something flew straight into the corner of my eye at high speed whilst descending; I secretly wished that it was a wasp, that I’d swell up and have an excuse to cut the route short to take myself off to the doctors for emergency treatment or something. You can tell I really did feel desperate.

But I persevered. I’d come this far, shared my story, and wasn’t going to be beaten. There was lovely things at home to look forward to, one lovely thing in particular that kept my mind focused and helped spur me on; with every pedal stroke I was a little closer to it.

Leaving Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire behind, I headed on slowly into Somerset. It all seemed so slow, yet I knew I hadn’t hit the Mendips yet, the final climbing challenge before rolling down to Bristol from about mile 82. However, when I eventually looked at the elevation graph on my Garmin 810, it transpired that I had already done the majority of the climbing to get up to Mendip-level, hurrah! I celebrated, worn out at the side of the Old Frome Road with lardy cake and smashing my phone screen on the road.

I was spurred on knowing that the lovely Lucy was heading out my way to come and welcome me back to Bristol, and soon met her not far from West Harptree. Seeing that familiar face and having someone to ride with again was exceptionally mood-lifting, so after my quick rant about my saddlesoreness and the pain in my feet (ultimate wearing in of new shoes) we had a great time sailing back down off the Mendips. I sat on Lucy’s back wheel making the most of the tow back down to Barrow Gurney and into Long Ashton, soon buzzing with excitement that I’d made it all that way. We were back home, in the city I was getting to know and love so much. One final push up the long Gloucester Road back to my house and I let myself in, totally worn out, but with a huge grin plastered across my face.

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Following Lucy’s lead back into Bristol at sunset

Learning lessons

It’s taken a good few days to get over the trip, both physically and mentally, and I’m not quite there yet. Reflecting on how you went about it and talking your experiences through with others really helps – it’s all one big learning curve after all, and there’s always room to improve and refine to make the journey easier and more enjoyable next time.

The number one lesson from this mini adventure has been about resting. I covered one hundred miles each day, however the third day felt considerably slower on tired legs and struggling mentally. Rather than stop properly just once for lunch, perhaps I would have been faster and enjoyed it more if I’d taken more frequent breaks like the previous day on the island, when although I’d stopped much more, I’d covered the same miles in the same total time – a theory to test on the next trip.

And finally, spontaneity is best. Suddenly get the next couple of days free? Go do something awesome and make every day count.

 

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Find out more here;

Isle of Wight Cycling

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