I had been wanting to do this for exactly six years. I know that because it was in 2014 that I bought my Specialized AWOL touring bike with the specific purpose of taking up a different style of riding. Since then, my interest in road cycling took off and I found myself glued to a carbon rather than a steel frame. All that changed when my friend Graham took the plunge and bought a titanium road bike that was good enough to carry some weight and our first bike-packing trip was planned.
We chose the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England, because it was accessible within two hours and it had a great reputation for it’s cycling. I had driven around it earlier this year with my mother and we had enjoyed ourselves, but I was hoping things would be different close up from the bike.
We left Lymington on the 11.00am ferry and couldn’t believe how nice the weather was. It was like a June summer’s day. Our destination was Yarmouth which would immediately lead us around the coast to The Needles, via the tourist attraction known as Alum Bay. Seeing as we were now tourists, it made sense for us to take all of these points of interest in and judging by the map, it wasn’t going to be that hard to find anything.
Alum Bay is high on the list of every school to take its pupils and it’s hard to find someone in England who didn’t visit it on a coach as a result. The Jurassic coast brings cliffs of multicoloured sand and many a souvenir of glass full of the different colours is bought for some poor bugger, I suspect a grand parent somewhere. It’s also home of the chair lifts, which, despite their rather short journey, always manage to bring a smile – even if on this occasion we had to hide behind our masks.
Along the trail lies the Needles, now a National Trust museum to celebrate the importance of the point in the defence of the country. We also learned it was home to where Marconi first transmitted a wireless signal; something that the rest of the world would be grateful for. We certainly were as our photos winged immediately to the cloud to be shared with family and friends on WhatsApp. I do wonder what Marconi would think of that.
Beyond the Needles was the bay of Freshwater which is a favourite amongst visitors to the island. Its village like small town has quality cafes, bakers and other inviting independent stores and its bay is the perfect place for locals that want to enjoy water sports after school. Although not necessarily picture postcard, the road that takes you along the coast to Chale certainly is and it’s known to be one of the best in the island. Military Road requires little explanation of its history and today it’s a perfectly smooth tarmac road that would be great on a road bike. But a heavy touring bike with panniers might well tell a different story.
Next stop was Ventnor which was going to be our first test of riding due to the length of the stretch of road. As complete novices we had of course over packed and the battle to be the heaviest bike was won by me. Despite the slow speeds, the weight was bearable and it was merely a case of choosing the right gear for each climb. Fortunately, my AWOL had plenty to choose from and I never ran out once.
Ventnor was a sweet sandy beach that outside of school holiday season was quiet apart from a small number of families with young children. It was also home to our first Marshfield Ice Cream parlour and as this was from our local village it was a must that we supported them; even if that did mean having two scoops and a flake. A quick look at the map showed that the campsite was nothing more than 3-4 miles away and we were therefore on track to be there for 6.00pm; our preferred arrival time.
And then the mother of all hills presented itself. It started with a 20% climb out of the beach and finished about a mile away (or twenty minutes!). At one point I even started to worry we were going the wrong way and that we would have to turn around, but as Graham was so far ahead of me there was no way for me to tell him. Fortunately, it all turned out OK in the end and after a couple of miles of flat riding through the top of Shanklin Old Village we found ourselves at our campsite.
For our first attempt we really didn’t do a bad job with the campsite. It had everything we needed including toilet paper and hot showers! They were two main requirements and hopefully a nice flat plot of grass would be order of the day too. All we had to do was erect our tents, get our clothes sorted and we would be ready for the pub!
After an evening spent at The Crab, one of those pubs that is a nice building on the outside with lovely staff, but no substance to the menu. The funniest part (although not at the time) was when the waitress placed a chalk board menu on the table with beautifully hand-written choices listed such as Beef & Ale Pie, Chicken Tikka and so on. After we had stared at it for a minute she said “This is a list of everything we don’t have. I’ll go and get you the menus”. No curry for me then.
By the time we left the pub the sun had long since gone down and we were shivering! Graham had his coat on and I was reliant on my fleece and I was suddenly feeling a little under dressed and nervous for my night in the tent. On the way back to the site we stopped at the Co-Op supermarket and the best thing about it was that it gave me a chance to get out of the wind and warm up. We stocked up on bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes and eggs as despite being stuffed from burgers and chips, we knew we would be needing another full plate in the morning. Only this time we would be cooking it.
Graham was in his element with breakfast. With our starting point being a soggy patch of grass, it quickly turned into a proper camp with a borrowed paving stone slab from the middle of the field acting as a great base for our stoves. With the priority being boiling water for the coffee bags, we were like two scouts cooking their very first sausage over the bonfire – regardless of what the food tasted like, we were going to enjoy it and tell everyone it was great! To be fair it was.
Admittedly I was nervous that my non non-stick frying pan would be on its last mission as the six eggs, mushrooms, chopped bacon and tomatoes slowly baked themselves into the metal. However, to my surprise most of it came out as I hacked into it with the end of my spoon and a little bit of improvising (hand soap and kitchen roll) managed to get everything back to nearly new.
With full bellies and now flat tents, we were ready to roll and first stop was Shanklin beach – home of the large crazy dinosaur golf I remembered playing with my son many years ago.
Shanklin was linked to Sandown by this long and beautiful parade that was as quiet as a December on this early September morning. Everything about it worked from the low breeze, enticing distant views and the relaxed head that only riding a bike brings. We knew it was only a matter of time before we arrived somewhere that would provide us with a strong coffee and once again we weren’t disappointed.
From Sandown we turned more inland and headed down some beautiful country lanes. Before too long we were back on the coastal route as it brought us to the Life Guard station just south of Saint Helens. It wasn’t quite what we had hoped, but it did mean we bumped into some locals who gave us some fantastic directions to Seaview, a route that would avoid the main roads and keep us on the tourist tracks usually savoured by locals and walkers. This was our first opportunity to do some ‘gravel riding’ as the bi-ways led us between houses, trees and other tracks until eventually we arrived at Bembridge, a small location full of house boats and very appealing sea food cafes. All of which were too full to take us unfortunately, but it did give us a chance to stop and take in the views again.
From Bembridge we found ourselves sneaking with our bikes past a no cycling sign before arriving at a strange but inviting looking causeway. Narrow enough only for two people or one person on a bike, we patiently waited for the walkers to pass and then made our way across the middle in what can only be described as the most bizarre of situations. All good though and it was good content for the GoPro.
Safely across the other side we took a rough route through some patchy grassland and eventually rolled back onto some smooth tarmac that would take us to our next port of call – Seaview. To be fair, Seaview is more of a village by the sea than it is a seaside town and its best bits are probably in the village itself, which is ironic.
Home to many a beautiful Victorian property, you can see why so many of them are likely to be owned by holiday makers as second homes. It’s certainly somewhere I could visit on a regular basis – good food, good restaurants and plenty of fresh sea air. Our best attempt on this occasion was a ham baguette on a park bench with some chips. Not the most glamorous meal but I wouldn’t have swapped it for much and we spent the time looking out to sea like two retired old gits who had too much time on their hands. I guess we were at that moment!
Next stop was Ryde and I was well aware that things weren’t going to be as pretty from that point onwards as it was the candy-floss and fairground part of the island I least enjoyed before. To be fair, I couldn’t have been more wrong! It just highlights that visiting somewhere on a bike you really do get away from the normal trodden path as the beach, bike paths and overall experience of Ryde was great. By this time the skies were grey and rain was starting to land on our sunglasses, but it didn’t really spoil to occasion as if anything it brought a whole new experience to the cycling.
From Ryde there is a cycle path that takes you all the way to Newport, our next destination. Neither of us had any idea what to expect so we just rode from one blue sign to the other and took it all in our stride. I’m glad we did, as once again we were off the main roads and onto traffic free bi-ways, walkways and cycle paths that brought all sorts of hidden gems, including this historic and huge building known as Quarr Abbey. I wish we had more time to explore, but after getting a photo it just felt right to keep moving as we now had a bit of a race against the weather.
Newport passed as quickly as we needed it to and it wasn’t a place we felt we would ever want to look at properly. We left via the Cowes cycle path which followed the water all the way back to the islands main port. This prompted Graham to share his built up frustrations that nobody on the island that rode a bike seemed to be friendly! It was true, literally every bugger we rode past was greeted with our normal ‘morning’ and/or a smile but neither of us could remember a single rider that reciprocated! There must be something in the water.
Cowes was wet, cold and needed to provide us with a cafe as quickly as possible. Fortunately, after a few more climbs around the small town we found one and enjoyed sitting under a canopy people watching with yet another cake and caffeine portion. The views were much better here, despite it being a paved High Street – but I’ll save the reason why for another time!
With one eye on the time and the other on the weather, we knew we still had about 15 miles to get to the campsite and although this wouldn’t normally phase us, when you are weighed down with a heavy load, unfamiliar with the roads and aware it could be pretty hilly, you feel in need to press on. Just in time, the heavens opened and coincided with a steep hill away from the coastal path back up onto some B roads. It was a case of get your head down and spin your legs as fast as you can and hope the clothing and bags held up against the water. They did!
Despite getting lost for a couple of miles, we arrived at the campsite just as the rain stopped and trust me that was a huge relief. Putting your tent up in wet clothes was the least of our concerns, keeping our inner tents dry was our biggest. Again, luck went our way. The toilet block at the Orchards site was literally spotless and perfect. The shower cubicles were huge, the water was hot and our clothes were drying by the second. Probably aided by how much time we spent in the shower! Once we returned to the tent we were dry enough to ride to the local Horse & Groom pub and what awaited us was a full menu of great choices and enough calories to feed an army. Tonight, we were going to be that army and we wasted no time in getting stuck in.
Sleeping in a tent on a really windy night, on a slightly slopped field on a thin airbed might not be everyone’s cup of tea and I can honestly say, after eating way too much food, it wasn’t mine either! Waking up every hour was probably more a reflection of the wind noise (outside not inside) and the fact I simply wasn’t used to it. To my surprise though, whatever was going on outside of the tent made no difference to the inside and I was warm, comfortable and even cosy all of the night. Sure I could have done with a better air bed, but it was much better than I expected and we both commented the same.
With the need to be in Yarmouth for 10.00am we wasted no time getting the tents down and were soon back on tarmac. Bearing in mind it looked grey and miserable, the temperature was mild and the roads were quiet so it put us in the perfect mood to turn in some speed. Probably no more than 4-5 miles, we didn’t seem to waste much time on the country lanes and before long we were rolling downhill towards the sea – for the last time.
As if by magic we were greeted by what looked like Yarmouth’s only open cafe – a pub. The format was pretty simple, they did one breakfast and you told the host how much of each food type you wanted. That was pretty easy for both of us as we wanted everything and lots of it. Including coffee refills. Another 700 calorie plus meal for sure and at this rate we were going to be leaving the island a lot heavier than we arrived.
As a first bike packing trip it couldn’t have gone any weather. I fully recognise that this wasn’t much of a test due to the quality of the camp sites, the weather and the minimal amount of miles we did across both days – about 75 in total. However, it was a holiday not a ride and the means of transport chosen was bike and the accommodation type camping. When you reflect upon it with that context it was something I would definitely do again and I am already looking into alternative destinations. If I had one regret, it was not doing it earlier in the summer so that I could have done more, but rest assured I will make up for it in 2021.
If you really want to find out more, why not take a look at the short video I recorded after the event? You can find it on my YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/u3CvumpMaR0
Where We Stayed
|The Orchards||Main Road|
|The Old Barn Touring Park||Cheverton Farm|
What I Packed
- Head torch
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping mat
- USB charger
- Phone cable
- Pillow (inflatable)
- 20p coins for shower
- Polythene sheet for ground
- Cycling shorts
- Water bottles
- Rain jacket
- Sun glasses
- Cycling jersey SS
- Cycling socks
- Cycling shoes (SPD)
- Bike lock
- Bike lights
- Garmin and charge cable
- GoPro & charger cable
- Keys for lock and bag
Normal Clothes Evening/Bed
- Flip flops / light trainers
- Dry socks
- T shirt
- Saucepan set
- Porridge pot
- Pasta sauce
- Coffee bags
- Mini toothbrush
- Mini toothpaste
- Mini deodorant
- Travel towel
- Toilet roll/wipes
- Shower gel
What It Cost
|Ferry return from Lymington to Yarmouth (Whitelink)||£25.00|
|Camping at Orchards||£9.50|
|Camping at Old Barn||£9.00|
|Food, drinks, coffee stops etc.||£90.00|