Bike-Touring England: (Part 2.) London to Worthing and the Isle of Wight
This is part 2 of our bike touring trip. Read part 1.
After about half an hour of charting our route out of London, we realized that it was hopelessly complex. Just biking the two miles to the map store had been quite an ordeal. We did the sensible thing and jumped on a short train to Woking, a nice quiet suburb outside the city limits and the beginning of a beautiful and virtually car-free bike route to the sea.
We biked through some very exclusive neighborhoods, and even drove through some private roads that were gated on both sides. The people were quite friendly and didn’t seem to mind our intrusion. After an hour of biking, we reached Guildford and stopped for the night.
One thing that’s lovely about bike touring in England is that you are never more than 5 miles from a town with edibles, lodging, and sometimes even a bike shop. The beginner cyclist need not worry about a serious breakdown or running out of water since you can literally walk to the nearest village. Between towns there are loads of farms and random houses. If you get hurt, you can crawl to the nearest one and get help. In contrast, traveling in the U.S. by bicycle requires serious expertise and careful planning. In event of trouble, you may very well be on your own for a while.
Guildford is a pleasant, mid-sized town, and has a nice-sized shopping district. We settled in at the cheapest place we could find, had supper and turned in early.
The next morning, we got an early start. I was very excited, since the entire day’s route was marked on the map as traffic-free, meaning that we would be on a dedicated bike path the entire way. We thought this would be ideal, not realizing that 95% of the path was unpaved and the route was primarily intended for mountain biking.
Our little Bromptons handled the terrain pretty well, but got shaken up pretty good. The paths were alternately covered with crappy gravel, dirt with isolate rocks, and oodles of knotted tree roots and we did our best, but after a while our hands and tuchuses were very sore. We considered finding an alternate on-road route, but we were both too lazy to pull out the map and try to figure it out. Besides, the path was quite nice and I think we were both secretly enjoying the pain.
The road passed through various farms, at first there were large pastures with horses, then cows, and eventually sheep and wheat. July must be wheat-harvest time because we passed many fields where the wheat was baled into large rolls and left to dry in the sun. We stopped at several farm stands, stocking up on gooseberries, water and ginger beer.
Finally, we reached Shoreham-on-sea, a cute coastal town. We stopped by a bike shop and added a bit of air to our tires. We were equidistant from two sizeable towns: Brighton and Worthing and we decided that since Worthing was on our way, we would stop there. We would later learn that this was a huge mistake as would be evident from the face everyone made when we mentioned the place (in contrast, Brighton is supposed to be super cool).
Indeed, when we arrived in Worthing, we weren’t impressed. There was a seedy carnival on the beach and a bunch of run-down hotels on the main road. We checked into the Travelodge (a popular budget hotel chain in England) and encountered some shady looking folk in the reception area. We were exhausted and I was very sore butt-wise, so we went right to bed.
In the morning, we looked around for something to eat and, to our amazement, found a vegan café. Excitedly, we ordered a “full English breakfast”. When we got the food, we were somewhat less excited. The centerpiece was toast smothered in baked beans with side dishes of fried tomatoes and other unspeakables. Virtually every item was cooked in a way that deprived it entirely of taste and texture. It was sort of fun to eat the slop and finally understand why everyone mocks British cuisine.
After breakfast, we packed up and left. Our destination was Portsmouth, a coastal city some 40 miles away. We followed the coastline as much as possible and the weather was stunning, but after 15 miles, Nava wasn’t feeling well, so we took a break. We stopped by a charming little pub, which was open despite being entirely empty.
I asked the bartender to recommend a traditional English drink and he made me a Shandy, a delicious mix of beer and lemonade. After enjoying the Shandy, I asked the bartended “What’s next”? He furrowed his brow thoughtfully and after a moment, replied
“How about a Pimms?!”
I practically burst out laughing at how British that sounded before asking him to make us one. A Pimms is a mix of a gin-based liqueur of that name with lemonade and garnished with cucumbers, apples, strawberries and mint. Neither Pimms nor Shandies are likely to be popular among Americans, but we thoroughly enjoyed them. They became our drinks-of-choice for the rest of the trip.
When I paid the bill, I gave a 10 pound note and indicated that I didn’t need change, intending the extra pound or so as a tip. The bartender couldn’t believe his good fortune asking me repeatedly “Are you absolutely certain?!” Tipping must’ve not yet been discovered in these parts.
Note: Lemonade in British is what we call Sprite in the US. This took us a while to figure out!
We folded our bikes and hopped on a train to Portsmouth, which took about an hour. Once there, Nava felt much better, so we took a ferry to the Isle of Wight (Ryde) and continued riding.
The Isle of Wight has a 62-mile path around the island. In contrast to the mainland of south-west England, which is very flat, the Isle of Wight is famously hilly, but stunning and came highly recommended by everyone we spoke to. On the ferry, I spoke to a seasoned biker who warned us that we’d be working hard and advised that the hills are slightly less punishing if going clockwise.
So clockwise we went. It wasn’t more than five minutes before we hit a steep, extended hill, which had me struggling in the lowest gear, and Nava, walking. It took a bit of maneuvering through local streets, but after 30 minutes we reached the bike path, which is on-road, but has very little car traffic and is exceedingly well-signed.
The hills were relentless. There wasn’t a single flat stretch for more than a quarter-mile, and neither of us was used to the punishment. We trudged up steep hills slowly, coasted down the other side at top speed and groaned when we saw yet another uphill immediately following. It began to get dark after a little while, so we stopped at Sandown, a cute town about 15 miles from where we had started (it felt like much further).
Sandown, as we soon realized, is one of the top destinations in England for folks over 80. We stopped at several hotels before finding one that had a vacancy. It was 7:30 and Bingo was in full-swing at every single place. To even reach the reception desk at one place, we had to navigate a minefield of pensioners sprawled out in the lobby and concentrating intently on the game. For our intrusion, we got some dirty looks from some of the more competitive ones.
The third old age home hotel we inquired at had an opening, so we took it, quickly dropping our stuff in the room and running down to join in on the high-stakes fun. Unfortunately, we missed bingo, but there was live entertainment after, so we bought some Shandies and listened to a pretty sad duo singing oldies. Some of the spryer residents got up to dance, which was little more than slow shuffling, but it looked like they were as happy as ever.
The next morning, we got an early start, since we still had 50 miles to go on the island. We started the day with a very steep climb from the Sandown boardwalk to the main road, and proceeded through miles and miles of farmland. The experience of riding through the farms, was unlike anything we had experienced. The roads were very narrow with virtually no traffic and there were tall trees or fields of crops on both sides. At some point, we reached a more serious road and hit a serious of monster hills, the longest of which had a sustained climb of 2 miles or so. It was so foggy, our visibility was very limited and we were a bit scared of cars, even though we were blasting bright lights.
After this extended series of climbs (we went through at least 2 mountain passes), the hills eased up (as did the fog) and we were able to relax. We stopped in Yarmouth and had a quick bite, before heading back to Ryde.
On the last stretch, the scenery became more suburban and we passed through several towns. When we reached Cowes, we took a floating bridge across a narrow river.
A floating bridge looks exactly like a ferry, except it is connected to both sides by heavy chains that pass through the boat. The boat crawls along the chains and (due to the strong current), operates much more efficiently than a free-floating ferry. We had never heard of such a thing and enjoyed the 90-second ride, resting our legs and chatting with other passengers about how much we love the island.
We soon passed the Osbourne House, one of Queen Victoria’s residences. The grounds were locked, but we sneaked in and had a peek at a beautiful, but modest mansion, which we soon realized was the servants’ quarters. As we marveled at the actual house, we were spotted and had to make a quick getaway for fear of being scolded (Nothing is more shameful than receiving a proper British scolding!).
We arrived in Ryde eleven hours after starting the journey, exhausted and famished. We opted to take a hovercraft back to Portsmouth, which cost three quid more, but was twice as fast and infinitely cooler. Back on the mainland, we checked into the Holiday Inn (one of the posher lodging options in Portsmouth) downed some poorly-made Shandies and hit the hay.
Stay tuned! We still have a ways to go!
(And read part 1, if you haven’t yet.)
More pictures below: