What if I fail? It’s a question many people ask themselves. A question that often stops us from getting outside our comfort zone. Dan and I planned to bivvy on the Isle of Wight. We failed. For me, failure is simply an opportunity to learn. This is the story of our bikepacking trip.
The Isle of Wight Bivvy Fail
We found ourselves at Wooton Creek, sheltering under a tree. Torrential downpours had been forecast, with a promise of clear skies to follow.
‘It’s a bit heavier than drizzle,’ I said. ‘But it’s not exactly what I’d call raining…’
‘It’s not real rain, not what we’d call rain in Ireland,’ Dan said, finishing my sentence.
I miss Ireland at times, except for the rain. I don’t miss the rain. In Ireland, we talk a lot about the weather, particularly about rain. Maybe I do miss the rain, or maybe I just miss talking about it, but this story is set in England, so enough about that.
Half an hour earlier, we’d sailed past the world’s largest Union Jack and pushed our bikes off the Red Funnel Ferry to East Cowes on the Isle of Wight. The boat was packed with festival goers. Fellas dressed in jeans and t-shirts, pulling sack trucks loaded with beer cans. Women of all ages wore denim cut-off shorts, wellies and floral tops. Some had pretty straw hats, others carried foldy-upy chairs and cheap tents that still had the price tag attached. Almost all held a bottle of booze. We sipped lattes from paper cups and sat outside on the floor of the aft deck. The sun appeared and disappeared as clouds drifted across its face.
‘Thank you for using Red Funnel Ferries. Enjoy the festival. We hope that Lee, who is here for his stag weekend, joins us for the return crossing with his clothes and eyebrows intact,’ announced the Captain.
I smiled to myself, as the memory of that announcement returned while we were crouched beneath the leaf canopy, considering whether or not to don rain jackets. Dan said he’d sailed here as a child. ‘From where?’ I asked. He told me his dad had driven down from Coventry to Stokes Bay on the mainland with the little dinghy on the roof of the car. He’d arrived in the creek and the private landing of Lisle Court, where he’d hauled his Optimist onto the lawn to begin a week long sailing course with Bryan Willis. Dan, was only ten at the time and was already having adventures like the children from Swallows and Amazons. Although we’ve been together almost five years and I’d never heard this tale – that’s what I love about our adventures, we find out so much about ourselves and each other. Mostly Dan finds out about me, because I do most of the talking.
The drizzle eased and turned to mizzle. We rode on, without jackets.
We came across an Ice house near Five Acre Copse on the Briddlesford Estate. One of fifteen known Ice Houses on the island.
‘When we build our perfect home, I’d like one of those,’ I said.
Sometimes I wonder how I make any progress on these rides as I see so many interesting things, like a Victorian Chair-o-plane tucked away in a barn.
‘Come back Dan. Look what I found. Remember when I told you about the fairground ride we had in our front garden. This is what I meant.’
‘Right,’ said Dan, on seeing it. He sounded surprised as if he hadn’t exactly realised what I’d been talking about or thought I was exaggerating. I rolled my eyes.
‘It was operated by hand,’ I said. ‘I used to put the twins and my sister Tori in the seats, clip the chain in place and set them spinning. I stood in the centre and wound the handle.’
‘Right,’ he said, again. Not quite as enthusiastic about amusement rides as me I realised, so on we rode.
The Isle of Wight is the dinosaur capital of the UK and features in the top 6 ‘best locations’ in the world for dinosaur remains but I didn’t expect to see one hiding behind some trees.
‘Did you see the Tyrannosaurus back there?’ I said, when I caught up. He wiped his hand across his brow and squinted towards where I was pointing. I knew he didn’t believe me. His smirk said it all. Soon we were riding down grassy lanes edged with delicate lacy white flowers of Cow Parsley.
The skies darkened as we approached Shanklin where we tried to get food at a café. They were closed so we pedalled on towards Morrison’s supermarket for a pot of tea and two plates of chips. I thought about taking a couple of mini tubes of milk with me for our tea later on but thought better of it when I considered the stink that would live forever in my frame bag if I did.
I felt cool and put on an extra layer. The sky was threatening something miserable but held off until we got going towards Wroxall. The clouds began to spit as I cycled past Appuldurcombe House and onto the Worsley Trail. Sheep with teddy bear faces began to sidle towards the hedges.
Freemantle Gate and a bit of shelter lay ahead but I struggled for grip on the slippery wet grass and walked as fast as I could. The rain pelted down, then it lashed as I made it to the gate. We put on our jackets and sheltered. Bivvying didn’t seem like such a great idea. I prayed it would clear.
As soon as the rain turned soft, we made a break and moved off in the direction of our final stop, which was to be somewhere near Niton where we planned to wild camp in our bivvy bags. The going was tough. At one stage, the climb was so steep and narrow that I had to use my knee as an anchor in a nettle covered banking to gain leverage to heave myself forwards. I was literally inching forwards. I was smeared in mud, covered in stings and as hot as hell. Then it started pissing from the heavens. Water ran down my neck and between my boobs. I had a puddle in my cleavage. My shorts clung like a wet suit and I was even thinking of peeing without getting off the bike but I didn’t. I stopped beside a gate and saw a sign that read:
Please do not get into the animal pens.
I thought about doing exactly what it said I shouldn’t, instead, we went on to Whitwell and sought sanctuary at The White Horse Inn.
Dan ordered food and I clung to the hand dryer in the ladies to try and dry out. It was futile. I took off my shorts and wrung them out and squeezed as much water as I could from my hair and gloves.
‘I have an idea,’ I said, as we waited for our meal. ‘After we eat, we’ll take the main road and cycle to Cowes for the last ferry home. I’m not up for a bivvy any more. I can keep cycling as long as I know I can get dry at the end.’ Dan reminded me how dark it was and that I had no lights. ‘I know what to do. Let’s phone Alex,’ I said. ‘Maybe he could give us a lift.’ Well, Alex was called and as he’d had a few drinks, couldn’t drive but invited us to spend the night in their spare single bed in Ventnor. We pulled out the map and checked out the route. It was hilly, but at least I would finally get out of the wet clothes.
Meanwhile, our plight had not gone unnoticed and the bar man came to our aid. ‘Leave your bikes here and I’ll drive you to Ventnor,’ he said. ‘You can pick them up in the morning.’ Before Dan could say no thanks, I was in there with a million thank yous. We arrived at Alex and Jo’s like two drowned rats where and were warmly welcomed. A hot shower and dry PJs were offered and gratefully accepted and there was even a glass of wine. Alex and Jo were exhausted from working at their boat building business, Island Ribs and are my oldest friends since moving to England.
I first met Alex the day I met Dan and Jo is a friend who used to live in Hamble. Even though they were tired, they sat up chatting with us and we shared our news. Eventually, Dan and I were relaxed and warm enough to sleep. I don’t know how we managed to sleep in a single bed, but we did and we slept soundly.
The morning after the Isle of Wight bivvy fail
Next morning, we got a ride to the pub with Jo. We ate our second breakfast before continuing our trip past the empty Poetry Box and up to the Hoy Monument on St Catherine’s Down.
Michael Hoy, a successful Russian merchant, had the monument erected to commemorate the visit to Britain, in 1814, of ‘His Imperial Majesty Alexander the 1st, Emperor of all the Russias’. It looked like a good bivvy spot for a better night.
The day wasn’t quite blue skies and sunshine but it was dry with a brisk breeze and although we couldn’t see faraway in the distance, we could see a lot more than the previous day. We arrived at a farm where piglets snuffled in the dirt. Dan stopped to twiddle with his seat post and we ate filled bread rolls left over from the day before when we reached Dungewood Lane.
Beyond Shorewell, we opened a gate on which hung the warning sign I dread most –
Warning: Bull, cows and calves in this field.
I looked around the field and there in the midst of a Charolais herd , I saw what I was dreading; 2000lbs of rippling, testosterone loaded bull, with a rocket shaped boner the length of my arm, swaying below his belly. While the beast was choosing his mate, we moved swiftly to the other end of the field, shutting the gate firmly behind us. I went for a wee before climbing onto an exposed ridge. My heart rate slowly returned to normal and I was able to enjoy the views. I saw butterflies that I’d never seen before flitting from one wildflower to another. A fierce wind swept onto the ridge, making progress slow. We were in no rush and there was time to watch the grasses bend and dance in the cool light.
As we turned onto the Tennyson Trail, I searched for the white cliffs I’d seen before on our Valentine’s bikepacking trip, but the mist and low cloud obscured the view. Then we road towards Newport for coffee and cake. From there, it’s a flat easy cycle path to East Cowes and we had enough time to go and visit Alex and Jo’s workshop.
On reaching the river Medina, we heard music. I’d forgotten about the festival. Suddenly, my heart filled with pity for the thousands of bedraggled festival goers who’d spent the night in what could only be described as a mud pit. I wondered if there was a naked eyebrowless man lying beneath a hedge somewhere. As we neared Cowes, I looked up at the blue sky and said: ‘Isn’t it a lovely day, not a sign of rain at all.’
What I learnt from the Isle of Wight Bivvy Fail
Always bring lights, even in the height of summer.
Stop being a lazy gobshite and change over to tyres suitable for the terrain.
If there’s a possibility of getting totally drenched, bring the tent.
The full route for this north south loop can be viewed and downloaded here.