The Wight Road: Cycling in the Isle of Wight
With its breathtaking scenery and numerous corners to explore, the Isle of Wight is a cyclist’s dream. Guy Dimond takes to two wheels and finds pit stops worth savouring and a van in shining armour for when it rains.
The joy of cycle touring is discovering the unexpected, punctuated by stops at teashops and caffs. You need to slow down and allow yourself time for deviation from the itinerary, for idle enquiry.
As cars whizzed past me down the narrow road through the village of Whitwell, a small handwritten sign for afternoon teas caught my eye. The Church of St Mary and St Radegund was having a children’s floral art show on the theme of ‘transport’.
This 12th-century church was filled with displays that could pick up a few Turner Prizes. Bicycle wheels were decorated with dramatic sprays, skateboards and even ski boots were given new uses. In one exhibit, Jesus had built his own hot rod (you had to be there).
The lady in charge – a chatty retiree from Derbyshire – plied me with tea and biscuits, and filled me in on the local gossip. “Whitwell church was founded on an ancient pilgrimage route. But the two local gentries didn’t get on, so they split the tiny church down the middle, dividing it by a wooden partition, so that they could hold separate services. After a few centuries, the partition was taken down and the two sides were reunited,” she says.
I was glad a truce had been reached as I was on a pilgrimage of my own, and was grateful for the sustenance and comfort after a long day in the saddle. I’ve cycled on the Isle of Wight a few times, but I’ve never done a complete circuit before, as there’s a lot to take in.
One trip just isn’t enough time. There’s dramatic coastline, picturesque countryside, steep ascents and bracing descents. The island is dotted with adorable cafés and affordable pit stops that deserved to be lingered in.
If the sun is out – as it often is during the summer – the beach cafés are stunning, and busy, so book ahead. And if the weather’s terrible, then that’s why you’re cycling the island anti-clockwise – the van from Move my Bags will come to your rescue.
Let’s start with the basics. Get the free ViewRanger phone app, which is a GPS app that allows you to access some hugely useful Isle of Wight cycling maps. Then decide if you’re going on the big coastal circuit with its smooth tarmac roads (all 66 miles of them), or if you’re going to brave the shorter inland trails, which are a mix of paved and dirt trail. I’ve cycled the length of most of them, and they’re all good, but in the rain some of the dirt roads become quagmires. Choose your route and off you go.
Besides the app – essential for when you take a wrong turn or get lost – most of the routes are clearly waymarked with road signs, even the rough trails. Some follow former railway routes, built during the ‘railway madness’ of the Victorian era.
There were once 55 miles of railway on the Isle of Wight, paid for by investors lured with the promise of huge returns, who instead found court battles and bankruptcy; only two short vestiges remain – a short tourist steam engine section from Wootton to Smallbrook, and an electric train connecting Shanklin to Ryde. But the railways’ loss has been the cyclists’ gain.
There are a few cycling hazards. Fog can descend on the Island, so take bike lights. The roads around The Needles can be very fast, which can be a white-knuckle ride if you’re not used to riding a bike in excess of 40mph (braking is optional). And in some country lanes, there are signs warning of red squirrels – so keep those nuts hidden.
You can circumnavigate the island in one day if you want to, using the 66-mile route. But who would want to? Let Move My Bags carry your stuff, and take your time to enjoy the trip.
This allows more time for savouring a crab pasty in Steephill Cove, some breakfast or lunch at Off The Rails, or a cream tea in one of the Island’ many tea shops, essential for the round the Island cyclist (for a bigger listing of great Island teas, see the article on page X).
Plus it allows you some valuable time for stretching out those toes on the beach, or marvelling at The Needles, or clinking a glass with a local in The Red Lion before turning in for a good night’s sleep.
HOW TO GET TO THE ISLE OF WIGHT WITH A BIKE
Red Funnel ferries run from Southampton to East Cowes every hour (90 minutes in the winter) and take just under one hour. If you’re a foot passenger there’s no extra charge for taking your bike, which you leave at the front of the car deck.
Getting to the Red Funnel ferry terminal from Southampton Central train station involves half an hour of navigating contraflow systems and busy traffic, though there are wide pavements and cycle paths in places. Most off-peak train services accept bikes.
THE BEST APP
If you have a smartphone, search for the free ‘ViewRanger’ app in the app store, and download it while you’re still on wifi. Unlike Google Maps, this GPS system uses satellites, so doesn’t require a phone signal to locate you – crucial on the island, as phone coverage is patchy. Within this app, search for the ‘Taste Round the Island Cycle Route’ route; or the ‘Red Squirrel Trail’ (Cowes-Newport-Shanklin-Sandown loop). There’s also the ‘Chalk Ridge Extreme’ trail for serious off-roaders.
THE BEST TIP
The island’s hilly, so carrying panniers can become a drag, and the weather can be unpredictable. These problems are all solved if you cycle counter-clockwise, as Move My Bag are a company with a van that circles the island counter-clockwise daily, and will move your panniers from one stop to the next for a few quid. And if the weather’s foul, they’ll even move you and your bike as well. I used them once during bad weather. This brilliant backup is reason in itself to cycle the island counter-clockwise. Move My Bag, 01983 281662, www.movemybag-isleofwight.co.uk/
CYCLE REPAIR AND HIRE
For emergency repairs there are ten bike shops on the island, eight cycle hire shops, and one mobile mechanic (see below). Pick up the ‘Round the Island Cycle Route’ from any bike shop for the full details, but here are the most useful ones:
Island Bikeworks A mobile bike repair service that can come to you in an emergency, 07926 523453/01983 528289;
Wight Cycle Hire Usefully situated on the trail, with tandems and electric bikes. Station Road, Yarmouth, PO41 0QT. 01983 761800,
Red Squirrel Electric Bikes Based in Newport, this hire company makes those hills disappear. From £20 for a half day, The Guildhall, Newport, PO30 1TY, 01983 521555,
Every May Bank Holiday (next one is on 6th May 2018) the Wayfarer Cycle Touring Club organise a free Randonnee (cycle tour) of the island. There are 55km (34 mile) or 100km (62 mile) routes. Register online well in advance.
EXCELLENT PLACES TO EAT
Cyclists measure routes not by miles, but by tea and cake stops, and by breakfasts and light lunches. Here’s my pick of the many places I’ve tried.
The Little Gloster
This is one of the best places to eat on the island, but as well as smart dinners it also usefully serves breakfast from 9-11am and lunch noon-3pm. Book ahead.
31 Marsh Road, Gurnard, PO31 8QJ. 01983 298776;
The Coast Bar & Dining Room
If you’re staying in West Cowes and looking for somewhere nice for dinner, make it Coast – good service, appealing modern Mediterranean menu, great vibe. Book ahead.
15 Shooters Hill, Cowes, PO31 7BG. 01983 298574,
Off The Rails
This excellent caff is inside a former train station right on the cycle route in Yarmouth. The breakfasts are top-quality, the lunches show flair, the cakes are homemade. In the evenings it poshes up a bit, with some great cooking.
Station Road, Yarmouth, PO41 0QT. 02983 761600;
The Red Lion
This Freshwater gastro-pub with a huge garden is popular, so book well ahead. Eat pan-fried fish, to venison burgers, washed down with a line-up of real ales.
Church Place, Freshwater, PO40 9BP. 01983 754925;
This upmarket beachside restaurant in Colwell Bay has the perfect location on a sunny evening. Smart fish dishes, crab linguini and a decent burger. Book ahead.
Colwell Chine Road, Colwell Bay, near Freshwater, PO40 9NP. 01983 898637;
Chale Green Stores
Inland between Freshwater and Ventnor, the spacious garden out the back of this café is popular with cyclists. They do a decent cream tea and quiche and salad.
Chale Green, PO38 2JN. 01983 551201,
The Garlic Farm
Not exactly on the designated cycle routes but worth a detour for a tourist attraction that’s tastefully done. It has a nice brasserie, called Allium, and a garden.
Mersely Lane, Newchurch, near Sandown PO36 0NR. 01983 865378; www.thegarlicfarm.co.uk
GODSHILL, NEAR SHANKLIN
Inland, but near the Red Squirrel Trail, this pub serves great lunches in a pretty, if chocolate-box village. You can eat outside next to your bike on the pub benches.
High Street, Godshill PO38 3HZ. 01983 840707; www.thetavernersgodshill.co.uk
Lifeboat View Café
A spectacular view of the Solent opens out as you reach the shore in Bembridge, and this hidden seafood joint. The crab and lobster dishes are just as they should be: fresh, simple, and inexpensive.
Lane End Road, Bembridge PO35 5SZ. 01983 87556; trip advisor.
The Crab Shed
Lock your bikes at the top of hill and descend the steep cliff path near the Ventnor Botanic Gardens to find this thrilling seafood café. Order the crab pasty, or the lobster salad.
Steephill Cove, off Love Lane, Ventnor PO38 1UG. 01983 852177; steephillcove-isleofwight.co.uk/crab_shed.html
A popular bakery and restaurant in Ventnor High Street run by a talented German chef. It’s also one of top Island chef Robert Thompson’s favourite place to eat. Enough said.
20 High Street, PO38 1R2, 01983 855988, cantinaventnor.co.uk
The Royal Hotel
A handsome relic from Queen Victoria’s era with a pretty wrought iron veranda overlooking the English Channel from where you can take tea. Cream teas, £75.0 or the full monty, The Royal Afternoon Tea, at £23.
Belgrave Road, PO38 1JJ, 01983 852186, royalhoteliow.co.uk
Quarr Abbey Tea Rooms
A great tearoom with lovely gardens that’s part of a working monastery.
Quarr Road, Ryde PO33 4ER. 01983 882420, www.quarrabbey.org
Baywatch on the Beach
Pricey beach caff, but it has a great location and views.
Duver Road, St Helens, PO33 1YB, 01983 873259. Facebook
>RECOMMENDED CYCLE-FRIENDLY ACCOMMODATION
The Little Gloster
A few simple but stylish rooms above one of the best restaurants on the island. Views of the Solent in some. Handily right on the round-island bike route too. Rooms from around £120,
31 Marsh Rd, Gurnard PO31 8QJ. 01983 200299, northhousecowes.co.uk