The Isle of Wight looks like a squashed diamond on the map, with its northerly point northernmost tip pointing aimed at Southampton and its bevelled edges facing off out across the Solent at towards Lymington on the western side and Portsmouth respectively on the eastern side. The island is a compact jewel to visit, too: there’s a breathtaking amount to do and see here, most famously in the surrounding waters (Cowes Week is the oldest and largest regatta in the world), but also on the wonderfully diverse green bit in the middle.
I use breathtaking advisedly. The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, who lived here for 40 years, declared the air to be “worth sixpence a pint”. In the short time I spent on the island, I think I sucked down enough of the stuff to warrant a second mortgage.
Summer in the Isle of Wight is bookended by a walking festival (the largest of its kind in Europe) in May, and a cycling festival in September. I based myself at The West Bay Club, in Hallett’s Shute, just outside Yarmouth. It has tasteful New England-style self-catering cabins, set within nearly 30 acres of grounds, and offers both mountain biking and hiking excursions among its many activities. I decided to have a go at both.
TURN SOME PEDALS
The West Bay Club’s Steve Holloway led the ride. I like mountain biking, and go often, but I was still intimidated by Steve’s legs. I needn’t have been. Not because they didn’t work as impressively as their size intimated, but because Steve was in charge of them, and he was careful to turn his pedals slowly enough for me to catch up every now and then.
Our three-hour ride took a big slice out of the western, more rugged end of the island. It criss-crossed the Tennyson trail, a walking route which runs from the Needles in the west to Carisbrooke Castle in the east, along the spine of Compton and Brighstone Downs. I tried to pay attention to the map as we went, but we rode hard and, if I’m honest, I was mostly preoccupied with taking in the scenery, breathing and not falling off.
It was an exhilarating ride through forests and over the downs, a combination of challenging, rock-and-root-entangled singletrack, huffing climbs and slashing descents. We ground up firebreaks. We churned across flint and mud. Every now and then, the cloud broke to reveal spectacular views: luminous cliffs, pewter sea, a sweep of escarpment pebble-dashed with sheep. Ripping through the flock, with Steve yodelling the sheep out of the way up ahead, and my heart hammering to the beat of the pedals, it was impossible to concentrate on anything other than the ride itself, which is what an “active break” should be about, surely.
There are dozens of gentler off-road rides to try, as well as more than 200 miles of road-biking routes. You can hire bikes for all types of rider at White Cycle Hire in Yarmouth. All bikes come with helmets, lights, mobile support and high-visibility jacket. You don’t have to go with a guide, but if you want to head off the beaten track, I recommend it: during our entire (peak season) ride, Steve and I didn’t see another mountain biker.
STRIKE A BALL
With some time to kill before hitting a trail without a bike, I found myself looking at the loungers by the pool. But I’d booked a tennis lesson before I went biking (the club has something for everyone, with a pool, gym, squash courts, badminton, and wide-open kickabout spaces), so I went on court beneath a newly rinsed blue sky with Will Newnham, The West Bay Club’s tennis coach. I liked Will. He was patient, specific in his advice, and honest. At the start of the lesson, after he’d told me that the best bit about being a coach was seeing people progress from lesson to lesson, I asked him if there was anything he didn’t like about it. “Hitting the ball in the net,” he said.
I could relate to that. It turns out that to avoid the Mary Rose feeling (the ship sank north of the island in 1545) I needed to do about eight things. I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritty here; but it’s enough to point out not only that Will managed to make the list seem manageable, but that by the end of the lesson, some of his advice had actually worked. So had I, and I was exhausted.
I retreated to the nearby Red Lion (Isle of Wight pub of the year 2010) for a delicious helping of Dover sole with a liquid side order, and from the comfort of the bar marvelled at the pluck of the red squirrel. It may have been decimated by the grey invader on the mainland, but out here on the Isle of Wight it’s alive and nibbling.
HIKE A TRAIL
With more than half of the island designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, the Isle of Wight is a favourite with walkers and cyclists. I’ve already said that each group has its own festival, but this year the ramblers have two. Those who attended the fortnight of events on offer this May had more than 300 walks to choose from, so some of them will no doubt be back for the Autumn Walking Weekend from 22 to 25 October to cover a few of the miles they missed.
Many of the established walking routes take in sections of the island’s 64-mile coastline, more than half of which is classed as heritage coast. And given that you’re never more than a few miles inland, even those sections that have not been awarded that distinction still offer glimpses of the sea.
I walked for three hours along the north-western side of the diamond, from Fort Victoria through Yarmouth and on to Hampstead Point, before ducking back inland to finish up at the Horse and Groom pub in Ningwood. What struck me most, taking in the scenery at a more leisurely pace, was the variety of landscapes in so compressed a space. One minute I was on a flinty beach, the next I was in a grove of oaks; then I was crossing farmland, ducking past a stand of pines, and emerging in picturesque marshland, criss-crossed with wooden boardwalks.
Yarmouth itself sits at the head of a stunning estuary pricked full of masts. During my walk the Solent was alive with sails canted over by the breeze, and across the water more white streaks glinted in Lymington harbour. It’s only 10 miles from Cowes to Southampton, and you can make the crossing in under an hour on the Red Funnel car ferry, but the island feels very different – a glittering jewel set apart from the busy mainland.
* Red Funnel (08448 449988; redfunnel.co.uk). For ferry-inclusive accommodation deals, visit redfunnel.co.uk/holidays .
* The West Bay Club, Halletts Shute, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight (01983 760 355; westbayclub.co.uk ).
* The Red Lion, Church Place, Freshwater, Isle of Wight (01983 754925)
* Wight Cycle Hire, Station Rd, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight (01983 761800, wightcycle hire.co.uk ). Rental prices: £8 for four hours, £18 for 24 hours.