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Solent Coasts Cycle Challenge

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The Solent is the stretch of water that separates the mainland, especially Hampshire, from the Isle of Wight. The Solent Coasts Cycle Challenge is a bike ride that roughly follows anti-clockwise both the north (Hampshire) and south (Isle of Wight) coastline of the Solent. First started in 2002, this annual event takes place on the last Saturday in June and was launched to raise funds for Hope and Aid Direct, a humanitarian aid charity designed to 'take aid, not sides' in war zones.

The Solent Coasts Cycle Challenge is 66 miles (106km) long and involves crossing over on six ferries. The challenge has many potential starting points. On the Isle of Wight these include Yarmouth, Freshwater, Newport, Cowes, East Cowes and Fishbourne. Hampshire starting points include Portsmouth, Gosport, Warsash, Hamble, Southampton and the main starting point, Lymington. Southampton, having excellent transport links by motorway, railway, ferry and airport, is perhaps the easiest for most cyclists to get to and is the northern most point of the route.

Finding the way

Although a booklet of directions is provided, yellow signs are put up along the route to help guide cyclists. Although following the yellow signs is easy they should not be entirely relied on. The yellow signs are sadly easily vandalised, and other events held on the same date may also use yellow signs to provide directions.

It is recommended that you take an up-to-date Ordnance Survey map with you. These can be found in outdoor pursuits, tourist information, book shops or ordered online in advance:

  • Three maps are needed for the highly detailed (1:25,000 scale) Outdoor Leisure and Explorer map series:
    1. Isle of Wight - Outdoor Leisure 29 - Isle of Wight
    2. Hamble, Southampton and Lymington - Outdoor Leisure 22 - New Forest
    3. Portsmouth to Warsash - Explorer 119 - Meon Valley

  • Alternatively, one map covers the whole route in the less detailed 1:50,000 scale:
    1. Landranger 196 - The Solent & Isle of Wight, Southampton & Portsmouth

It is also possible to use Online Cycle Maps, maps provided by local civic authorities, road maps. It is even possible to download cycle route apps for mobile phones. These, though, are no real substitute for a proper Ordnance Survey map. The best of both can perhaps be found in using GPS devices. These are becoming increasingly popular as they have longer battery life than mobile phones and can even contain ordnance survey maps covering the whole of the UK.

Solent Coasts Cycle Challenge Official Safety Rules and Advice

  • The Solent Coasts Cycling Challenge is NOT a race.
  • You must obey all traffic regulations and observe the Highway Code at all times.
  • There are some hazardous sections, highlighted in the Route Booklet. Exercise caution, particularly on the Isle of Wight off-road descents from the downs.
  • Wear a helmet and high-visibility clothing.
  • Notify someone of what you are doing and when you will check in with them.
  • Keep fluid levels up.
  • Carry a puncture repair kit and pump.


The route passes several official checkpoints. Here there are volunteers next to bright, yellow flags wearing high visibility jackets adorned with the Solent Coasts Cycle Challenge logo, either with a clipboard or a desk. They check cyclists in, taking their ride number, provide information on whether there are any diversions or other known hazards in the route ahead, top-up water bottles and even provide snacks. The Checkpoints are usually located near the ferries at Southampton Town Quay, Lymington Pier, Gosport and Warsash, with additional checkpoints located on the Isle of Wight, such as on the top of the downs.


The road route can be completed by any type of bicycle, although there are alternate off-road sections more suited to bikes with wider tyres, such as mountain and BMX bikes. Hybrids and touring bicycles are ideal for the road route. When on the ferries, cyclists should follow the guidance of the ferrymen on where to leave bicycles, and be aware that many of the larger car ferries have movable decks which ascend or descend to allow extra car storage.

When cycling the Solent Coasts Cycle Challenge your bicycle used should be in a fully working order. Brakes, tyre pressure and lights should be checked and moving parts lubricated before the journey. Consider carrying useful tools such as a chain breaker and spare links. Although there are bicycle repair shops en route should they be required, these are infrequently spaced and should not be relied on.

It is recommended that you take a phone and/or whistle with you and you could consider carrying a first aid kit. Clothing appropriate for the weather should be worn and/or carried with you.

As a rough guide, the Hampshire section is comparatively flat. Hazards include busy roads, cattle grids and the likelihood of horses and cattle blocking the narrow country lanes in the New Forest. The last ferry between Warsash and Hamble leaves at 6.30pm, so cyclists should aim to be at Warsash before then; otherwise cyclists are forced to take a six mile diversion to the nearest bridge over the river. The Isle of Wight section is quieter and more picturesque, however there are several steep hills, both to ascend and descend.

Southampton to Lymington via Hythe and the New Forest (16.59 miles, 26.70km)

The northernmost start point for the challenge is in Southampton's Town Quay ferry terminal, where a checkpoint is located. From Town Quay the route crosses on the Hythe ferry over Southampton Water to Hythe Pier and the village of Hythe, a 12-minute boat journey. Please note that as well as the Hythe Ferry, the Red Jet catamaran to the Isle of Wight also berths at Town Quay, so cyclists should ensure they do not attempt to board the wrong boat.

After crossing Southampton Water, the tidal estuary from where the rivers Test and Itchen meet at Southampton to the Solent, cyclists disembark the ferry at Hythe Pier was built in 1881 and is the seventh longest pier in Britain1. As the planks are laid parallel to the pier, cycling is forbidden on the pier as the gaps between the planks could potentially trap narrow bicycle wheels.

From Hythe the route heads into The New Forest, a National Park. Here the route crosses several cattle grids2. The narrow country lanes regularly contain cattle and New Forest ponies.

The route passes the attractive village of Beaulieu. This is the site of a dissolved Cistercian abbey founded in 1204 which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed Building, Beaulieu Palace House and the National Motor Museum, as well as one of only 6 Monorails in Britain3. From here the route passes towards Buckler's Hard and St Leonard's Grange, a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed Building that was a former monastic grange and its barn, one of the largest tithe barns4 in Britain.

From St Leonard's it is a short journey east to the port of Lymington, where outside the ferry terminal there is the Lymington to Yarmouth ferry.

Yarmouth to Cowes (22.4 miles, 36.0km)

Travellers on the Wightlink5 Isle of Wight car ferry from Lymington are often rewarded with the sight of up to 2,000 yachts on the Solent, as the Cycle Challenge coincides with the day of the Round the Island Yacht Race.

The Route to Cowes

The ferry disembarks in the town of Yarmouth, one of the smallest towns in England, close to the Grade II listed Yarmouth Pier and the English Heritage owned Yarmouth Castle. This is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed Building.

Out of Freshwater is the first of two alternate routes, a road and off road route. Most bicycles would be able to cope with the off-road route from Yarmouth to Freshwater; along the flat former railway track which is part of the Round the Island Cycle Path6. This route followed the bank of the river Yar in the Isle of Wight's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This is part of National Cycle Route 22, although the track at time of writing (2014) remains gravel and is not up to National Cycle Route standard. The road route is almost a quarter of a mile longer and follows the west bank of the Yar, crossing the Yar's swing bridge near Yarmouth.

From Freshwater Gate the route joins the A3055 Military Road and heads up a steep hill for the first, but not the last time, up to Afton Down7. Here the route separates into a road and off-road route, with the off-road route following the crest of the downs, suitable only for mountain and BMX bicycles. The road route climbs Compton Down as the route turns off the Military Road, through the villages of Brook and along the B3399 through Hulverstone and Mottistone, passing Mottistone Manor, a Grade II* Listed building owned by the National Trust. After Mottistone the route traditionally ascended Brighstone Down8 up Strawberry Lane but in 2012 this was changed for a longer, more gradual ascent via Brighstone up Hunny Hill and Lynch Lane, passing the remains of a Roman Villa, as experience has shown that in poor weather Strawberry Lane can be difficult to scale. A checkpoint is often located at the car park close to the down's summit, where the on-road and off-road trails join.

From the top of Brighstone Down, the route undulates up and down across the spine of the Island. The next landmark passed is Winkle Street and its row of picturesque thatched cottages in the village of Calbourne. After Calbourne the route turns right at the crossroads, joining the B3401, heading towards Carisbrooke, famed for Carisbrooke Castle. From Carisbrooke there is a sharp descent to Newport, the Isle of Wight's capital located in its centre. This route passes a historical wall postbox dating from 1857, the year the first wall boxes were introduced in Britain. Only one other wall box, in Oxford, dates from the same year. The route then passes along Newport's High Street and follows the route of National Cycle Route 23, turning off the High Street on Quay Street opposite St Thomas Square, the location of St Thomas Minster. Quay Street is distinctive as on the corner is the Museum of Island History located in Newport Guildhall.

The route passes the Quay Arts Centre to Little London, the site of the former dock warehouses here at the edge of the river Medina, when Newport was a busy port. The Quay Arts Centre is housed in former Mews Brewery9 warehouses.

The route passes Medina Riverside Park Nature Reserve, continues along the former Newport-Cowes railway and heads through Dodnor Creek Nature Reserve to Cowes, a town famed for being the home of world yachting.

In Cowes the route heads east to the floating bridge or chain ferry to East Cowes.

East Cowes to Fishbourne (6.3 miles, 10.1km)

From East Cowes the route heads uphill, passing Osborne House, soon reaching the village Whippingham and heading into the country. This section of the route follows the path of the Isle of Wight Coastal Path as well as the Round the Island Coastal Path. From Whippingham it led through Brocks Copse, Woodhouse Copse, undulating up and down various small hills. The route passed the village of Wootton, a short distance from the station that is part of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.

From the top of Wootton Hill the route follows a straight descent to Wootton Bridge, crossing Wootton Creek and the Old Mill Pond. From there it is a short journey uphill and then downhill to Fishbourne, where the Wightlink car ferry to Portsmouth, is located.

Portsmouth to Gosport (0.7 miles, 1.1km)

On arrival at Portsmouth10 the cyclists disembark, cycling for the two-thirds of a mile journey from the Wightlink car ferry to Portsmouth Harbour station and the Gosport ferry11. This, the fifth ferry of the day, is located next to Portsmouth Harbour railway station and close to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, home of HMS Victory, the Mary Rose and HMS Warrior is easily visible from the Gosport ferry.

Gosport to Warsash (15 miles, 24km)

A checkpoint is usually located close to where cyclists disembark from the Gosport ferry. From here the route follows the north coast of the Solent west towards the mouth of Southampton Water. This section follows National Cycle Route 2 for much of its way and passes near to several historical sites built to defend the strategically important harbour, from Alverstoke Motte, an earthwork castle, as well as Grade II* listed Fort Gilkicker and Fort Monckton, both of which are Scheduled Ancient Monuments. The route then follows a cycle path along the B3333 as it reaches the outskirts of Browndown. This was an Armed Forces artillery range, battery and hovercraft testing centre. In 1845 it was the site of the last duel in England, when Lieutenant Henry Hawkey, Royal Marines, fatally shot Captain James Alexander Seton. From here it is a short distance to the small town of Lee-on-Solent, also known as 'Lee-on-the-Solent, but usually referred to as 'Lee-on-Solent'. Here is found the Hovercraft Museum, the world's largest collection of Hovercraft.

The route then passes Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve. The route then splits, with the off-roaders cutting through Thatcher's Copse while the road route heads up towards Titchfield Abbey12. From here the route passes through the village of Hook to the village of Warsash, on the banks of the river Hamble. Here is usually located another Checkpoint close to the Hamble-to-Warsash ferry. Here are the sixth and smallest ferries, coloured bright pink, crossing the river Hamble. These only run until 6.30pm, after which time cyclists have a six-mile diversion to the nearest bridge.

Hamble to Southampton (7 miles, 11km)

From the village of Hamble-le-Rice, normally referred to as Hamble, the route has now entered the Borough of Eastleigh. Cyclists should follow National Cycle Route 2 into Royal Victoria Country Park. This was the site of a quarter-mile long hospital personally ordered by Queen Victoria13. It is a picturesque spot and is the location of the Royal Victoria miniature railway.

After passing through the heavily wooded country park, the route passes near Netley Castle and Netley Abbey (Cistercian, founded 1238). The route then enters the outskirts of Southampton and the districts of Weston, the location of the Seawings 2000 Airshow, followed by Woolston. At Woolston the route crosses the River Itchen over the Itchen Bridge14.

Cyclists over the bridge have a short journey through Southampton's city centre. They pass behind Solent Sky, the Southampton Hall of Aviation. The route turns right along Canute Road, named after King Cnut who was crowned King of All England in Southampton in 1016 and is said to have told the tide not to come in around this area. It passes the General Gordon Memorial and walled Southampton Old Bowling Green, the oldest bowling green in the world, God's House Tower, a Scheduled Ancient Monument that was the former Southampton Archaeology Museum before closing on the opening of the SeaCity Museum in 2012. The route passes the Southampton Mediaeval walls at the end of the Southampton QE2 Mile before returning to Town Quay.

This, the location of the Hythe Ferry, is where the journey began. On arrival, cyclists should present themselves to the checkpoint to collect their medal for completing the challenge and then return home for a well-deserved rest.

1After Southend, Southport, Ryde, Walton-on-the-Naze, Llandudno, and Ramsey. The pier also has the world's oldest pier railway, which is a 2-foot (60cm) narrow gauge electric railway that does not carry bicycles.2There is no official recommendation of how to best cycle over a cattle grid, with some cyclists believing a fast crossing works best, others advising caution. They can be potentially dangerous, and in 2011 a cyclist in the New Forest died when he fell off his bike on a cattle grid. Most cattle grids have gates beside them, which are safer to use.3The others are at Alton Towers, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Butlins Skegness, Chester Zoo and Flamingoland Theme Park in Yorkshire.4A grange was an outlying farm that acted initially as a storehouse to produce food to supply an abbey, with the word 'grange' deriving from 'grain' - its prime function was originally that of a granary. Tithe barns were used in mediaeval times as somewhere the Church could store the tenth of all farm goods that were legally required to be given to the Church.5British Rail used to own several ferry routes, known as Sealink, but these were privatised in 1984. Three routes from the Isle of Wight to the mainland became Wightlink.6The Round the Island Cycle Route is signposted using distinctive blue and white diamond and bicycle signs.7Famous for being the site of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, headlined by The Who and Jimi Hendrix, now owned by the National Trust and part of the Tennyson Heritage Coast.8The down is 700 feet (over 200 metres) above sea level at its highest point.9The dominant brewery on the Island between 1814 and 1965, when it was taken over by Strong's Brewery which itself was taken over in 1969 by Whitbread. Mews invented the screw-top beer can at the end of the 19th Century for the Royal Naval base in Portsmouth; India Pale Ale was stored in cans rather than bottles in order to survive the journey to India and stay fresh.10Portsmouth is Hampshire's second largest city and is located on Portsea Island, a tidal island close to the mainland. It has been the home of the Royal Navy.11Between 1840 and 1959 a floating bridge chain ferry, similar to the one on the Isle of Wight, was in operation between Portsmouth and Gosport, when it was replaced by ordinary boats.12A Premonstratensian abbey founded in 1232 that is Grade I Listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.13Queen Victoria, hearing of Florence Nightingale's campaign to improve hospital conditions during the Crimean War, ordered a hospital to be constructed and laid the foundation stone. The main hospital building, built in 1856, was a quarter of a mile long, the largest military hospital in the world of its time. In the hospital, the first vaccine for Typhoid was discovered, but after the Second World War the hospital was no longer needed, with all buildings except the Grade II* Listed chapel demolished and the site purchased by Hampshire County Castle for use as a Grade II Listed country park.14A replacement for the Southampton Floating Bridge which opened in 1977. Despite promises to the contrary during construction, it is a toll bridge, except for pedestrians and cyclists. Immediately on completion, the Itchen Bridge became Southampton's most popular suicide spot, an unforeseen consequence of replacing the charming and quaint floating bridge with a concrete eyesore.

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