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Cycle from Fishbourne to Chale (counter-clockwise)

24 September 2011

Today, we're driving down to Portsmouth, where we'll ditch the car and check-in as foot passengers on the Wight Link ferry. We mount the bicycles on the back of the car and get going at 8:30, heading straight for the nearby A3, which leads all the way to Portsmouth.

The roads are remarkably quiet at this time on a Saturday and we make excellent progress down to the coast. There's quite dense mist as we approach the brand new Hindhead tunnel, which opened barely two months ago and shaves about five minutes off the journey, but this soon clears.

I've scouted out some free on-street parking in the Southsea area of Portsmouth to save us £20 on the overnight rates at the car parks near the port. We park up at 9:45, off-load the bikes, install the panniers and cycle over to the ferry terminal, a 10-minute ride away.

By 10:00, we're at the check-in counter inside the terminal building. We pre-booked last night and, while the car fares across the Solent are frequently described as the most expensive per mile of any ferry crossing in the world, we've paid a very reasonable £16.60 each for the round trip. Bicycles go free so we're travelling as foot passengers which, as an added bonus, allow us to return on any sailing tomorrow.

Just after 10:15, we're ushered on to the boat. There are only a dozen or so foot passengers and, surprisingly, we're the only ones with bicycles. We're asked to lean them somewhat precariously against the disembarkation ramp and then we head upstairs to the lounges (though I am surprised to see that passengers are permitted to stay on the car deck if they wish to).

The upper decks offer panoramic views of Portsmouth as we sail out of Gunwharf Quays on this warm September morning. The crossing takes 40 minutes, during which we indulge in a breakfast of chocolate muffins while browsing some Isle of Wight tourist pamphlets. Only the Needles capture our attention, a row of pointy chalk rocks which rise out the sea at the western extremity of the island.

We dock at 11:10 and within minutes we're riding up a steep climb out the port of Fishbourne. I thought this island tour would be a fairly mundane and flat affair, but I'm immediately proved very wrong. At least the sign-posting is good, with clear directions towards the "Round the Island Cycle Route", as it is unambiguously called.

The route can be followed in either direction. The clockwise signs show a white bike on a blue background, while the colours are reversed for the anti-clockwise route. We are aiming for the latter and head west out of Fishbourne, parallel to (but not within sight of) the northern shore of the island. The first few miles are on busy A-roads but we eventually turn off on to quieter lanes at Whippingham.

Shortly before midday, after about 45 minutes of cycling, we arrive in East Cowes, where we must wait a few minutes for the Cowes chain ferry to cross the River Medina. It's a small shuttle ferry which avoids a 10-mile drive to the head of the river in Newport; it's free for pedestrians and cyclists.

Across the river, the quaint town of Cowes is delightful, hosting a marina and pebbled beach, as well as a bustling high street. However, we press on to Yarmouth for lunch, on the western side of the island and about half way round to our overnight stop in Chale, which lies near the southern tip of the Isle of Wight.

We're in Yarmouth by 14:00, tucking in to burgers and shandys at a lovely old pub, the Bugle Coaching Inn. There's a large beer garden at the rear, allowing us to soak up the sun while also keeping an eye on our possessions. Perfect.

After lunch, we head off on a short tour of tiny Yarmouth. With a population of barely 800, this is one of the smallest towns in the UK, but still boasts a castle (built in 1547), the longest timber pier in England (a 30p toll applies for pedestrian access) and a ferry port (WightLink operate from there to Lymington).

From Yarmouth, we're directed along a bridleway as the route turns to earth and stones for the first time. About 15 minutes later, we're in Freshwater Bay, where we've decided to deviate from the route to go and see the Needles, which we read about this morning.

It's a very long and gentle climb from Freshwater Bay towards the Needles. We improvise a route along a country lane, then a farm track and finally straight up the unmarked grassland towards the top of the cliffs. The hill takes about half an hour to climb but, with a low gradient and panoramic views of the ocean on either side, it's thirty minutes of pure pleasure.

On our way up, we pass dozens of walkers, all of whom are heading down already. Towards the top, we reach a fence and stile, forcing us to abandon the bikes (the panniers make lifting the bikes impractical) and continue on foot, just a few more metres to the edge of the cliff.

We come across a large concrete structure which was the site of intercontinental ballistic missile testing until 1971. That was unexpected. There is also a decommissioned artillery battery, which is now under renovation. Finally, there's a small concrete platform, providing stunning views over the Needles.

The views were certainly worth the detour but we must reluctantly glide back down to Freshwater Bay and resume the official route. As we get back down to sea level, I estimate that there's probably 1.5 hours remaining to our destination for tonight, Chale Bay Farm. We want to arrive no later than 19:00, so we give ourselves half an hour to enjoy the beach at Freshwater.

Gareth bravely goes for a swim while I search unsuccessfully for an ice cream stand (I spotted one earlier, but it has already closed). At about 17:00, we head off, along very hilly terrain. It's an A-road up to Brook, but the stunning views make up for the dense traffic. Eventually, the cycle route takes us inland, on to quieter lanes, as the sun lowers to the horizon.

Dinner is of increasing concern, as the miles go by without any shops or restaurants. However, as Chale Bay Farm comes in to view on the right hand side of the road, we're very relieved to find a huge country pub directly across the road. Never has the simple sign "food all day" been quite so satisfying.

The sun is setting over the sea as we pull in, a sublime sight and a relief that we've made it in daylight. The island's winding and unlit lanes are not well-suited to nocturnal cycling and, had we not found the pub at such close proximity, we would have had to take a taxi to the nearest restaurant instead.

The pub, the White Mouse Inn, sits at the end of a long pebble driveway, behind no fewer than thirty picnic tables. On the inside, it feels even larger than it looked from outside, with dozens of oak tables spread throughout a network of small rooms.

The place is almost void of customers, yet it somehow takes 15 minutes to get served at the bar. I can only speculate how slow the service would be when the place gets busy. And the food service is equally erratic, as Gareth has already finished his fish and chips by the time my pie arrives. Still, it's a pleasant atmosphere and there are sofas to retire to after dinner.

We leave the pub a little later and head back along the driveway. The remote location and lack of light pollution gives us a phenomenal view of the stars, with thousands of them glowing against the pitch black sky. I even spot my first ever shooting star (or is that part of the NASA satellite which crashed to Earth last night?). It's quite an extraordinary sight to behold.

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Cycle from Chale to Fishbourne (counter-clockwise) >

Isle of Wight by bike

Article location

Bikes on car

Wightlink ferry

Colour-coded "Round the Island" sign-posting

Cowes chain ferry

Lunch in Yarmouth

The Needles

Freshwater Bay

Chale sunset