On the beaten track

The New Forest has safe cycle routes for children and lots of family-friendly attractions, says Tania Alexander

A cycling weekend with the children in the New Forest sounded like fun, but when we received our booking confirmation I began to have second thoughts. The suggested routes were up to 20 miles a day - a little daunting considering that the youngest of our trio, Joshua, is only four and still rides a bike with stabilisers. Our older two, Anoushka, nine, and Alex, 11, have bikes but the most cycling either of them do at home in London is a few laps around the park or a trip to the shops and back.

A cycling weekend with the children in the New Forest sounded like fun, but when we received our booking confirmation I began to have second thoughts. The suggested routes were up to 20 miles a day - a little daunting considering that the youngest of our trio, Joshua, is only four and still rides a bike with stabilisers. Our older two, Anoushka, nine, and Alex, 11, have bikes but the most cycling either of them do at home in London is a few laps around the park or a trip to the shops and back.

I immediately phoned Simon Scoble who runs the Country Lanes cycling office in the New Forest to express my concerns. No worries, he said. He would adjust the routes accordingly and Joshua could go on a bike attached to my husband Stuart's.

Country Lanes specialises in short cycling breaks using bed and breakfast accommodation in selected inns and guesthouses. They have centres in the New Forest, the Cotswolds and the Lake District - the idea is that you leave the car behind and enjoy a couple of days of organised cycling with or without family. As we were with the children, the New Forest, with its gentle terrain and plentiful off-road tracks, was recommended.

It would have been easier to have taken the train from Waterloo to direct Brockenhurst (85 minutes), but we decided to drive instead in case the weekend did not go to plan with Joshua in tow. The last time we had tried to put him on the back of Stuart's bike he was two and had refused point blank as it was "too high".

We left North London at the crack of dawn on Friday to make the most of our two-night stay. By 10am we had deposited our luggage at the Rose and Crown pub (just a few hundred yards from the cycle centre) and were all kitted out with bikes and helmets. The older two thought it cool to be given small adult mountain bikes with 21 gears that were better than the ones they have at home.

The cycle centre is located in a converted railway carriage in Brockenhurst station. Our first ride would take us through the forest to a pub for lunch - a gentle round trip of about 10 miles. Joshua's tag-along bike was bolted onto the back of Stuart's - it looked like a tandem but actually enabled him to just sit and enjoy the ride without having to worry about braking, steering or even pedalling. We were given some simple instructions about not veering off the Forestry Commission approved cycle tracks ("subject to a £500 fine"), and given laminated, typed rules and an Ordnance Survey map for back-up.

Setting off through Brockenhurst's continual traffic was a little daunting. The first mile or two of our route was on the road, and all of us were nervous. We were only half a mile into our journey when Joshua refused to go any further. He was understandably terrified when a giant lorry rattled past, and he instantly dismounted and insisted that we walk. With nearly 10 miles ahead of us we turned back to the cycle centre. Simon replaced the tag-along with a bright yellow-and-blue trailer covered with a little tent that made Joshua feel much more secure. Alex and Anoushka taught him how to do a regal wave through the plastic window.

At 10.30am we were off on the road again, retracing our rather hair-raising route through town. We breathed a huge sigh of relief after a mile and a half when we finally turned off onto a gravel path. We were now truly in the New Forest - an area that covers 90,000 acres, with 150 miles of trails making up the Forestry Commission Cycle Network. The children were in raptures when they saw the first of many ponies roaming free, grazing outside a thatched cottage. Although I had told them that there were ponies in the New Forest they had imagined that they would be behind fences. The thrill of seeing them on the road sides and village greens never ceased to delight them, and provided excellent opportunities for a stop when they were feeling weary.

Yet now that Joshua was happily strapped into the trailer, in truth it was Stuart and I who tired before the children. The two of them were off and away on the trails, spattered in mud from all the puddles they kept racing through and travelling at such speed that it was hard to keep up. The route was mainly flat, but the few exhilarating hilly bits were approached with such velocity that Anoushka declared gleefully that it was "like a roller coaster". As Alex pipped Stuart to the post at the end of a long stretch of gravel track, he announced that he had never cycled so fast in his life. Despite my regular bike sessions at the local gym, I could feel my heart pounding.

We arrived, rosy-cheeked and with healthy appetites, at the Oak Inn pub in Bank, near Lyndhurst, at about 1pm. Refuelled and energised after a hearty meal, we decided to lengthen the 10-mile route by adding a three-mile detour past some deer fields on the way back. All the trails are cleverly designed so you can take shorter or longer options. We could only glimpse the deer at the other end of the fields but it did help stretch our legs that bit further and made us realise by the end of the first day that 20 miles was not overly ambitious.

So, after all my initial protests, on day two we set off on a 20-mile route to Beaulieu and back. Again it started with a lengthy stretch on the road, but we were a little more used to this by now. The terrain was varied and featured moorland, open commons, some roads and mile upon mile of tranquil forest.

The highlight of our morning was an encounter with a small herd of roaming donkeys who took a shine to Joshua's Fruit Pastilles and, much to his annoyance, insisted on following us until we shooed them away.

It took us about three hours to get to Beaulieu with several pony stops, a visit to Boldre church and a short play in an adventure playground. As Alex was keen to see the James Bond exhibit at the Beaulieu Motor Museum we decided to make that our lunchtime break. It is a venue well worth visiting, with an excellent restaurant that serves giant-size portions of hot food and plenty to occupy the whole family for several hours. In fact we liked it so much that we took advantage of their "come back for free in six days" offer and returned on our way home to London.

It was hard getting back on our bikes at 3pm, as we knew we still had about seven miles to go and were all exhausted. The return journey went fairly well, despite a long and rather hairy climb up the busy road from Beaulieu. This was soon forgotten once we were back in the woods, and we were all enchanted when we had a close sighting of a small herd of deer.

But two miles from the Rose and Crown disaster struck. Joshua's trailer got a flat tyre, and while the older two were anxious to keep pedalling it was hard work for Stuart, who eventually had to abandon his bike and push.

We arrived back shattered but satisfied and realised that we had covered the 20 miles with relative ease. The staff at the Rose and Crown could not have been more accommodating throughout our stay, and after another hearty meal we were glad to crash out by 9pm.

The weekend was a success, although it would have been easier without Joshua in tow. The older children could easily have coped with 20 miles each day and it made an invigorating break that we will no doubt try again.

Country Lanes (01590 622627; www.countrylanes.co.uk) - two nights B&B at the Rose and Crown in Brockenhurst, based on two adults and two children sharing two rooms costs £595. This includes cycle hire with helmets, locks, routes, souvenir T-shirts and water bottles.

OTHER OPTIONS

CYCLING FOR SOFTIES

(0161 248 8282; www.cycling-for-softies.co.uk) - a week's cycling holiday in the Mayenne and Sarthe region of France this summer costs from £733 per adult and £668 per child. All holidays are tailor-made. The price includes half-board accommodation in small hotels, bike hire with service back-up, maps, itineraries and tour packs with local information. Travel from the UK is not included.

FREEWHEEL HOLIDAYS

(02920 786650; www.freewheelholidays.com) offers a 10-day holiday in Austria called "Into the Valley of the Alps". Accommodation en route is in three- and four-star hotels chosen for their family-friendliness, including the Alpenland in Maria Alm, which has its own bowling alley. Prices start at £693 per adult, £599-£623 for two to 17 year olds and £49 for under-twos. These include bicycle hire, B&B accommodation, luggage transfer between overnight stops and all route notes/maps. Travel from the UK is not included.

NEILSON

(0870 9099 099; www.neilson.com) has mountain biking, windsurfing, dinghy sailing and tennis in its Surf, Sail and Cycle holiday in Porto Heli, Greece. The minimum age for guided bike rides is nine, and a week's holiday costs from £465 per adult and £372 per child (under 14), including return flights, transfers, half-board accommodation, all activities, tuition and bike-guiding services.

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