Bluebottle cycles 66 miles and catches six ferries on three wheels in one day.
'Let's go cycling now
Everybody's learning how
Come on the Solent Coast Cycle Challenge with me
Come on a Cycle Challenge with BB.'
On Saturday 30th June I took part in the
Solent Coast Cycle Challenge - a sponsored bike ride1 around the Solent. The Solent is the stretch of water that separates the mainland, especially Hampshire, from the Isle of Wight. The Solent Coast Cycle Challenge is a bike ride that roughly follows anti-clockwise both the north (Hampshire) and south (Isle of Wight) coastline of the Solent. The challenge's premiere start point was the port town of Lymington, Hampshire, but other starting points were available in Yarmouth, Freshwater, Newport, Cowes, East Cowes and Fishbourne on the Island and Portsmouth, Gosport, Warsash, Hamble and Southampton in Hampshire.
I had planned to attempt this challenge with a friend or two, although unfortunately my friend The Fish pulled out and although Tufty had expressed an interest in taking place, he too was understandably forced to withdraw at the last minute.
As a city easy to get to and the northern most point of the route, I started at the Southampton checkpoint - the Town Quay ferry terminal, where I planned to catch the first ferry of the day from Southampton across Southampton Water to the town of Hythe.
Finding the way
Although a booklet of directions was provided, yellow signs were put up along the route to help guide cyclists, leading to confusion on the Isle of Wight section, which was also hosting the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust Cycle Challenge2, a 55-mile round-the-Island route laid out with yellow signs. At least one yellow sign in Hampshire had been smashed and vandalised.
Hythe to Lymington (16.59 miles)
I arrived at Southampton's Town Quay ferry terminal for the first boat of the day – the ferry over Southampton Water to Hythe. I arrived in Town Quay at 7am, the second cyclist to arrive there. Alas this meant that I was the third cyclist to board their bike on the 7:30am Hythe ferry, and so 70-100 other bicycles ended up being piled on top of mine, and consequently I was the third to last cyclist to disembark from the boat to the pier. Hythe Pier was built in 1881 and is the seventh longest pier in Britain3. As I got off the ferry, I saw a sign! It said 'No Cycling'. On the pier as the planks are laid parallel to the pier, cycling is forbidden as the gaps between the planks could potentially trap narrow bicycle wheels. I was at the back of a large crowd of cyclists walking along the long pier and it was 8am before I got to the end of the pier and was able to mount my bike and get going.
Although I had been at the back of a large group of walking cyclists, when I reached the dry end of the pier only half a dozen remained, loitering for no apparent reason. The organisers of the event had provided a thorough booklet giving directions to follow along the way, the cyclists almost instantly started taking different routes out of the small village, and soon they had almost all disappeared. As my plan at that stage was to follow people who knew where they were going, not having done the race before, I found that a little disconcerting.
I soon caught up with a couple of stragglers who knew where they were going, but they were cycling very slowly, so I left and caught up with a very friendly group of four cyclists who had never been on a long distance bike ride before. Although very welcoming, jovial and friendly, they cycled very slowly and stopped for a rest every few hundred yards. I cycled with them through the New Forest, a National Park, crossing several cattle grids4. At one point the two cyclists I'd left earlier caught up with us, as had two who had gone a different route through Hythe, while we cycled along a narrow country lane that also contained a small herd of cattle and almost a dozen New Forest ponies. As a cyclist, slowly weaving in and out of animals that are bigger than you is quite an experience5.
Outside Beaulieu, the site of a dissolved Cistercian Abbey founded in 1204, Beaulieu Palace House and the National Motor Museum, as well as one of only 6 Monorails in Britain6 I wished my companions well and set off at my own pace. I caught up with the two stragglers who had overtaken the group I'd been with at one of the frequent rests, and they informed me that they planned to catch the 10am ferry. Again I overtook them and made it to Lymington in time to check in with the Cycle Challenge Checkpoint and catch the 9:30am ferry. This time I was the third to last cyclist to make the boat.
Yarmouth to Cowes (22.37 miles)
Ferry 2 was the 9:30am Wightlink7 car ferry from Lymington over to the Island, and as it was the day of the Round the Island Yacht Race, the voyage was surrounded by over 1,800 yachts covering the sea as far as the eye could see.
As I was the third to last cyclist onboard, this time I was the third cyclist off, but I had home advantage. As the vast majority of cyclists were following the Road Route, I knew that my hybrid bicycle would easily be able to follow the suggested off-road route from Yarmouth to Freshwater; along the flat former railway track which is part of the Round the Island Cycle Path. This route followed the bank of the river Yar in the Isle of Wight's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This saved almost a quarter of a mile, and meant that on arriving in Freshwater I was in front!
This lead was not to last as I noticed a strange, squeaking scraping noise coming from my back wheel as I left Freshwater Gate, heading uphill up to Afton Down8, Compton Down and then up, up, up close to the summit of Brighstone Down9. At the top of the Down was a checkpoint, where Cycle Challenge volunteers were distributing water and Marathons10. From here it was up and down across the spine of the Island to Newport, the Isle of Wight's capital located in its centre.
From Newport the journey was a blissful and flat route north along National Cycle Route 23 (former Newport-Cowes railway) to Cowes, a town famed for being the home of world yachting. There I caught the third ferry of the day, the floating bridge or chain ferry to East Cowes. I arrived at Cowes about 12:20pm.
East Cowes to Fishbourne (6.34 miles)
From East Cowes the route again headed uphill, passing Osborne House, soon reaching the village Whippingham and heading into the country. This section of the route was very familiar, following the path of the Isle of Wight Coastal Path. From Whippingham it led through Brocks Copse, Woodhouse Copse, undulating up and down various small hills. The route passed the village of Wootton, a short distance from the station that is part of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway11. From the top of Wootton Hill it was a straight descent to Wootton Bridge, crossing Wootton Creek and Old Mill Pond. From there it was a short journey uphill and then down hill to Fishbourne, where the fourth ferry of the day, the Wightlink car ferry to Portsmouth, is located. I arrived at about 1:05pm, and had assumed that I had missed the boat, as they normally run on the hour and half hour, but apparently HMS Illustrious had left Portsmouth Harbour and delayed the ferry. Nothing on the waves, not even the Isle of Wight ferry, argues with an aircraft carrier12. Once onboard the ferry I enjoyed eating my packed lunch while crossing over the Solent to Pompey and taking photographs of Spitbank Fort13.
Portsmouth to Gosport (0.68 miles)
On arrival at Pompey the cyclists onboard were allowed to disembark from the ferry, the St Faith, first. I was in the middle of a long line of cyclists. For the only time during the challenge the cyclists taking part in the challenge stayed together, cycling in convoy for the two thirds of a mile journey from the Wightlink car ferry to Portsmouth Harbour station and the Gosport ferry14, the fifth ferry of the day.
Gosport to Warsash (over 15 miles)
After disembarking from the Gosport ferry I checked in with the checkpoint, where I was given a top up for my water bottle, and continued on my way. Here, following the north coast of the Solent west towards the mouth of Southampton Water, it was hard work as a strong sea breeze was against us all the way, however I made good time and was cycling along the B3333 as it reached the outskirts of what is labelled in Bold and Red on my OS Map 'DANGER AREA'15. The area lived up to its name; without warning my back wheel's axle snapped.
I was devastated - surely this meant that my bike ride was over and that I was stranded miles from home, somewhere I didn't know. I didn't even know whether there was a railway station nearby to help me get home. The booklet given to cyclists full of directions gave the phone number to call in case of emergency – twice I phoned the number, but got no reply. The leaflet did mention that on Marine Parade West there was a bike shop listed as doing emergency bike repairs. The few other cyclists who stopped, seeing my trouble, confirmed this, informing me that the bike shop was located a couple of miles ahead and on the road I was on, so I wouldn't even have to divert from my path to look for it. So, pushing my bike, I underwent the walk of shame, getting to the bike shop, named appropriately Solent Cycles16.
Braced for the worst, I was delighted to be told that yes, they would be able to repair my bike and replace my back wheel, and it would only take them half an hour. While I waited, I took advantage of the next-door ice-cream parlour and enjoyed a sit down by the sea front.
Within half an hour I was back on the road, making up for my lost time, pausing only to admire the outside of the Lee-on-Solent Hovercraft Museum17.
The route passed close to Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve and headed up towards Titchfield Abbey18 but unfortunately due to emergency pylon repair work, there was a large diversion as the road the booklet directed us down was closed while the overhead electricity cables were repaired. Instead of a quick, short journey a long, winding diversion eventually took us to Warsash on the east side of the river Hamble.
After checking in with the challenge officials I made my way to the riverbank. There two microscopic pink boats, which barely looked capable of floating, yet alone carrying bicycles, were ploughing back and forth, somehow without sinking. These were the sixth and smallest ferry of the day. The ferry was not able to carry all the cyclists waiting, but fortunately a second small boat arrived a few minutes later. I was feeling quite pleased, the Warsash ferry only runs until 6:30pm. Despite my setbacks I had made it this far in plenty of time before this vital deadline.
Hamble to Southampton (6.96 miles)
After being carried over on the sixth and final boat of the day I sped along, making it to the Royal Victoria Country Park an hour later than I'd hoped. My initial plan had been to arrive before 4pm so I could have a ride on the miniature railway, as I had not been on it since 2009 and I wanted to see if they'd constructed the tunnel they had been planning then. Sadly I arrived in the park just before 5pm, after the last train had gone.
Somewhere in the wood of the Royal Victoria Country Park I think I took a wrong turn and left the park somewhere random and saw no more cyclists or signposts for quite a while, and did not pass near Netley Castle or Netley Abbey (Cistercian, founded 1238) as I should. Fortunately I managed to make my way to the Itchen Bridge19 and back on track, passing numerous signs labelled 'Please do not Commit Suicide; Phone the Samaritans'.
From the bridge it was a short journey through Southampton's city centre. I passed behind Solent Sky, the Southampton Hall of Aviation, along Canute Road20, the walled Southampton Old Bowling Green, the oldest bowling green in the world, God's House Tower, the former Southampton Archaeology Museum before closing on the opening of the SeaCity Museum in 2012. I passed the Southampton Mediæval walls at the end of the Southampton QE2 Mile. There I was able to return to Town Quay, the location of the Hythe Ferry, from where I had started my journey earlier that morning. I signed in with the checkpoint and was given a medal21 for completing the challenge.
Having completed the challenge I went back to Southampton Central station, arriving just in time to see a steam train (70013 Oliver Cromwell) rush through the station.
Could the route possibly have involved any more ferries?
The Cycle Challenge passed several ferry routes that were not part of the Cycle Challenge. Only two of the six ferry routes from the Isle of Wight were utilised, and other ferry routes from Portsmouth were not involved either. Cyclists, after crossing from Fishbourne to Portsmouth, could have caught the ferry from Portsmouth back to Ryde Pier, followed by the hovercraft from Ryde to Southsea, then cycled to catch the Hayling Island ferry over and back. There are also European ferry routes from Portsmouth, including to the Channel Islands, France and Spain.
On arrival in Southampton, cyclists could theoretically have then caught the Red Funnel car ferry over to East Cowes, back across the Floating Bridge to Cowes and from there returning to Southampton on the Red Jet22. Southampton was also seeing the gathering of all of P&O's cruise ships to celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the Peninsula & Oceanic Line on the 3rd July, so I think they could have allowed cyclists onboard the cruise ships and allowed us to cycle round all of them too.Isle of Wight Cycling Festival WebsiteHampshire's Miniature And Narrow Gauge Railways