Valentine’s Day. There was no card, flowers or chocolates. Not even breakfast in bed. Instead, I found myself shovelling porridge down my gob at record speed. Both bikes were packed and ready to roll. For the first time ever, I was panicking to get out the door on a freezing cold Saturday. We were on the clock – our ship would leave Southampton docks at 9am for our Bikepacking Isle of Wight tour.
It’s an easy ride from the house, 6 miles along a flat coastal cycle path with only one hill – the Itchen Bridge, 800m long and 28m at its highest point. Dan’s legs were going round as fast as the washing machine on the spin cycle. He was setup with the single speed wheel and I was going all guns blazing. Boiling, I was. Flipping roasting, but there wasn’t time to ventilate. All I could think about was the clock ticking and how long it normally takes me to ride into Southampton – without bikepacking gear.
We made it in record time and pushed our bikes through the Red Funnel terminal. Our ship, the Red Falcon was already in port. Now, let me explain, this is a ro-ro ferry, not a luxury liner. She sails 12 miles to the Isle of Wight several times a day, an island shaped like a diamond.
Previously, we’d sailed to the island and anchored overnight at Newtown River, but this was our first time together on the ferry. The hour long crossing gave us enough time to enjoy second breakfast, a chocolate muffin and an excellent frothy coffee.
Cyclists are the first to disembark at East Cowes, which is rather satisfying and gave us the chance to escape before the onslaught of cars arriving for the mid-term break.
We pedalled off towards the floating bridge, a chain ferry that crosses the River Medina to West Cowes, which is simply known as Cowes. Passengers and cyclists travel free, but this might change soon. The floating bridge is 38 years old and houses an art gallery of sorts in the foot passenger area.
Update 18/08/2015: Return crossing on the chain ferry is now 40p for foot passengers and cyclists.
It didn’t take long until we joined the cycle path to Newport, four miles of flat riverside riding, perfect to get the muscles warmed up. The path is shared with pedestrians and the morning walkers were cheerful smiley characters that seemed to understand the word share. Already, I liked the island.
We cruised along the grey path, studded with cat’s eyes, glancing left towards the moored yachts in the steely water. The sky was grey, the path too, even the water had a metallic look to it. A movie was opening in cinemas across the country, the main character, Christian Grey. In essence, it was a typically grey day.
In the centre of Newport, a café, Nosh, was recommended by a local man as the place to go for a great bacon butty. Though it took a while for the food to arrive, it was worth waiting for. The man who’d directed us there arrived slightly after us and I chuckled, thinking he was the owner. It turned out he was a regular and happy customer.
With heavy bellies, we faced a steep climb to Carisbrooke, where the off road section and The Tennyson Trail begins. As soon as I was out of sight of the road, I got off the bike. My face purple, and dripping in sweat, it felt as if someone had turned off earth’s oxygen supply. I’d gone up that hill, like I was on a quest for ‘Queen of the Mountain’ title, spurred on by the fact I was visible. No motorists or pedestrian was going to see me push; I’d way too much pride for that.
I slithered up the chalk, mud and rock path.
‘You rode over a mouse,’ I yelled. ‘The poor thing’s only half dead. What am I going to do?’
‘Sorry.’ he said, with the look of a scolded child and rode on.
It must have been half dead before Dan got to him, otherwise the mouse would surely have scurried away in time. Neither of us was going at any great speed. I left the mouse as I found him, twitching and struggling for life. I felt like a complete shit. I couldn’t do what I’d been taught – put the creature out of its misery quickly.
The path turned gravelly then wet, with deep puddles and stretches of mud. Marathon Mondial tyres are not good in the sloppy stuff, a bit more like slalom skiing than cycling.
While Dan rubbed mud from his eyes, I wondered how anything could grow in flint fields. Further along, we stopped to admire the view.
The first downhill section was rough and rutted. We came to a junction with the Worsley Trail where the south side of the island opened out. Shafts of silvery sunlight streaked through leaden clouds changing the sky and seascape into a masterpiece deserving the title – Fifty Shades of Grey.
On reaching the ridge at Mottistone Down, we sat on the grass to eat cheese sandwiches.
‘This is quite romantic,’ I said, between chews. ‘A Valentine’s Day picnic.’ Down in the village below, in the 12th century St Peter and St Paul’s church, Sophie Hunter was agreeing to become Mrs Benedict Cumberbatch.
Highdown cliffs faded behind the mist and the watery sunshine slipped behind a shutter of clouds.
We prepared for a downpour and set off towards Freshwater Bay. Sprinkles fell as we entered the Freshwater Golf Course. Rain was the least of my worries as an awkward looking golfer struck a wayward ball. He looked angry, as if he was shanking his way to the hole and seemed oblivious to us, the innocent cyclists. There were no shouts of ‘fore’ but thankfully we made it through safely. If I’m honest, I’d loved to have played a few holes, even though it’s been years since I’ve had a round. Even a string of double bogeys would be a pleasure as the scenery is breath taking.
Next came the most technical part of the route for me, down a narrow track on chalk as slippery as ice. Exhilarating stuff, which made me want to say things like, ‘Yeah man, I’m totally stoked,’ or ‘Awesome!’ or ‘That was epic, dude!’ Instead, I said, ‘Wow! That was bloody brilliant.’ High on the buzz, we rolled off along the road to the Dandelion cafe, overlooking the cliffs for a cup of coffee and shelter from a shower. A rainbow arched the bay.
Warmed up and ready to ride, we turned north towards Yarmouth, then East to find somewhere to camp. At this stage, we deviated from the planned route and ended up on the road in late afternoon with traffic whizzing by. Eventually, we found a track that would take us back to the Tennyson Trail, but first we needed water. We rocked up to a stable yard in the grounds of a period mansion and politely asked a girl in breeches to help. She obliged.
As darkness closed in, birdsong, long shadows and dripping leaves combined with the smell of damp moss and rotting leaves, made the forest feel spooky. Twigs cracked, something rustled overhead and a huge tree blocked the path. ‘I’m not camping here,’ I said, fearfully.
It was a relief to exit the forest; there was light and a chance to survey where we might stay. ‘I saw a good spot on the ridge earlier,’ said Dan. ‘We could go there if you think you can manage it.’
Dan’s memory wasn’t so clear it turned out and we soon discovered that much of the ground was covered in brambles. Our tent would have been shredded. So off we went again, scrambling over ancient burial mounds and places that appeared to be out of sight, finally deciding on a spot overlooking the sea.
Fog rolled in as we pitched camp, drenching the grass and chilling the air. I crawled inside and waited for dinner. A sliver of crescent moon appeared as the fog dissipated. Stars shone in a charcoal sky as Dan poured boiling water into bags of dried pasta. Eight minutes, we tucked into dinner.
‘Happy Valentine’s Day,’ I proudly announced. ‘Here’s your surprise.’ I handed him a box.
‘Thank you darling… best girlfriend in the world.’
He loves Chococo chocolates as much as I do. Then I produced a hip flask of our homemade sloe gin and we snuggled down for the night. The time was half past eight.
An Ethereal Dawn
We woke before dawn. Tea first, then porridge followed by a second cup of tea was the motivation I needed to get going. It was a still morning, the air heavy with moisture and hazy from mist, an ethereal dawn.
We packed slowly, yet purposefully, soaking up the serenity that early morning holds before riding down to the bottom of the first hill climb of the day.
I felt alive, truly alive as I rode back the way we’d come. Maybe it was the mist, maybe it was the light, or maybe it was the silence.
Half way down a hill, Dan stopped abruptly.
‘I heard a hiss.’
All the air had gone from his rear tyre. Replacing the inner tube was a filthy job; the bike was covered in mud. We found out later that flint had slashed the sidewall. Luckily, the inner tube lasted the ride home. I was happy when it was fixed and we were on our way again to Newport for brunch at Olivo’s. With only four miles left to reach the ferry at Cowes, we sipped coffee alfresco until it was time to leave and catch the 1pm crossing.
First aboard, we had our pick of seats and almost fell asleep in the heat. I leaned in close. Eyes wide and lashes aflutter.
‘Now tell me, what’s my Valentine’s Day surprise?’
Bikepacking Isle of Wight – The Route
An interactive map of the route can be viewed here