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Hill and dale on the Isle of Wight

Father and son soak up history and customs on a low-cost bicycle tour of the peaceful island near London.

August 31, 2003|Joe McElwee | Special to The Times

Ryde, England — The old Beatles song kept replaying in my head:

"Every summer we can rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight, if it's not too dear."

I guess it wasn't just in my head.

"Dad, please stop singing that song," said Steve, my 17-year-old son.

I yanked an imaginary zipper across my mouth.

Steve and I were riding the Wightlink ferry across the Solent River toward the Isle of Wight. It was June 2002, and this was our last vacation together before his departure for college.

At Ryde, population 26,000, the largest city on this 147-square-mile island, we hoisted backpacks onto our shoulders and headed down the gangway. Hawsers bearded in algae dripped from the bows of schooners tied to the dock. Victorian homes basked in the sunshine from their hillside perches. Their pastel colors wavered in flickering shards across the water's surface.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 09, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Bicycle tour -- An article in the Aug. 31 Travel section about a bicycle tour on the Isle of Wight misspelled the town of Niton as Nitton. Also, the island is southwest of London, not southeast, as stated in the story.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 14, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 2 inches; 99 words Type of Material: Correction
British bicycle trip -- An article in the Aug. 31 Travel section about a bicycle tour ("Hill and Dale on the Isle of Wight") misspelled the town of Niton as Nitton. Also, the island is southwest of London, not southeast, as stated in the story.

Only 50 miles southeast of London and just three miles off the English coast, the Isle of Wight transports visitors to a unique time and place. The island stretches just 18 miles, from the northern city of Cowes to St. Catherine's Light House at its southern tip, but it deserves more recognition than a line from a Beatles song. More than half the island has been officially recognized as an area of outstanding beauty. But like most baby boomers west of the Atlantic, I knew nothing about the place except what I learned from the "Sgt. Pepper" album -- at least until I researched information about bicycle trips through Britain.

My homework paid off; our expenses for three days on the island -- including postcards, brochures and donations to churchyard poor boxes -- averaged $160 a day. That's a hefty savings when compared with the cost of organized bicycle tours throughout Europe.

My research on the island turned up some interesting facts too. Around 6000 BC the Isle of Wight was connected to the British mainland, but as the great ice sheets of that era melted, the sea carved this island from the shoreline. In the 11th century, William the Conqueror built Carisbrooke Castle here, a 7-acre complex of buildings and earthworks that still draws tourists. Alfred Tennyson, Queen Victoria's poet laureate, lived here in the 19th century.

The Isle of Wight seemed an excellent place for us to soak up history and culture.

Our cycling adventure began on High Street, across from St. Mary's Church at the Autovogue Bicycle shop, where we connected with a road called the RTI (Round the Island), a 62-mile trail that loops the island's perimeter. Blue-and-white signposts in the shape of arrows point the way. We strapped our gear onto our rear fenders and headed clockwise.

Walled in by hedgerows

Twelve miles east of Ryde, we turned south. Traffic evaporated as we rolled through a quilt of farmlands. Scattered cows grazed in open fields. Chickens clucked. The scent of damp peat stung our nostrils.

Lower Adgestone Road, near Yarbridge, took us deep into hedgerow country, and the bike path narrowed into paved slivers only 6 1/2 feet wide. Impenetrable hedges hugged the road and towered overhead like the nave of a medieval cathedral that filters the sunlight with an emerald tint.

Puddles on the RTI occasionally splattered our socks. A loose stone could flip our bikes. Thorns from strewn hedge clippings might puncture a tire. And mounds of horse manure made tempting targets for a teenage cyclist.

"Dad -- watch this!" Steve aimed for another buzzing pile.

"Car!" I yelled to my son as two headlights crested the hill in front of us. A gleaming grille filled the width of the road. Bumpers thrashed through the wild grass hanging over the edge of the macadam.

"Steve, pull over."

A bespectacled driver saluted me at the breakneck speed of 4 mph. The roof of his vehicle barely reached as high as my rib cage. He plowed to a stop as he pulled alongside me.

" 'Ave you enough room there, mate?"

"Sure. I can squeeze in three, maybe four more molecules." I playfully tapped the hood of his car and chuckled along with the driver.

"Splendid," he said, giving me a wink and zooming off at warp 6 -- mph.

By late afternoon we reached Ventnor. Agents at the Information Bureau helped us book a room. Later, showered and dressed in fresh clothes, we struck out for a hot meal at the Spy Glass Inn overlooking the English Channel, an establishment that welcomed "muddy boots and well-behaved dogs on leads."

The next morning, we picked up the RTI in Nitton on the southernmost tip of the island. Hills along this section posed our first serious challenge. Headwinds thrashed us as we approached the Needles, Britain's tallest chalk cliffs. Bleached white in the sun, these colossal formations swept the waters in a wide arc melting into the horizon. The dazzling view from the top was worth our Herculean efforts to get there.

From prehistory to Saxon times

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