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A South Coast Cycle Adventure - NCN 2

Updated: Mar 19

National Cycle Network route 2 runs between Dover in Kent to Dawlish, just west of Exmouth. In March 2020, literally a week before national lockdown, I decided to pack my panniers and ride 240 miles over 5 days from London to Exmouth along NCN route 2.


Day 1 - #Muscle memory?

For some reason I hadn’t been out on the bike that much over the previous six months. So, much of the first twenty miles were spent pondering whether my legs and perhaps more importantly my derriere were ready for the next two hundred plus miles. I chose to start the adventure at Sutton train station and ride cross country to pick up NCN 2 in Chichester, purely because I had another ride in mind that would take me along the Brighton stretch later in the year. The initial part of the route was mainly on roads, passing through a number of Green Belt towns and was pleasant enough just to get the legs working. After two months of almost continuous rain the sun had finally asserted its authority with bright skies, puffy clouds and the temperature just warm enough for cycling. As I weaved my way across the North Downs and descended into Shere, I felt a touch guilty when I elected to stop for a coffee in the Dabbling Duck and their lunch time menu relegated my packed lunch to a mid-afternoon snack.

My route turned west for a while, onto NCN route 22, an off-road trail taking me cross country to Shamley Green where I’d turn due south again. An unhurried road route scooted me through the wooded lanes of Haslemere, Dunsfold (the home of the old Top Gear test track) and my first glimpse of the South Downs.

Overall the route was quite undulating, perhaps not surprising as I had to cross the North and South Downs, so by the time I trundled into Singleton I was pretty tired. Thankfully, Regional Cycle Route 88, the New Lipchis Way / Emperor Way, took pity on me and rolled out a few miles of smooth tarmac all the way to Chichester.

At the south west corner of Chichester I finally connected with NCN route 2, my guide for the next four days and an easy cruise into Bosham for an overnight stay at The Boat House B&B. Gammon, eggs and chips was courtesy of the White Swan, a ten minute walk away, then it was into bed for a well-earned first nights sleep. Thankfully my legs had woken up to the fact that they were going to be the engine house for the next four days, unfortunately the same positivity couldn't be said for the saddle sores I could feel brewing.



Day 2 - #messing about in boats

I suffered a slight delay to my departure time after the Boathouse owners, Jane and Hamish, asked if I’d feature on their new website. Vanity getting the better of me, I adopted various poses with my bike for the next few minutes as photos were duly taken. It’s a great B&B, spotlessly clean with well-appointed rooms and caters for cyclists with secure bike storage and the route literally passing the front door. The flat roads out of Chichester, albeit slightly busy, allowed me to catch up the lost time. I passed through Emsworth, onto Hayling Island and enjoyed a beautiful ride along the nature reserve on the western edge, arriving with five minutes to spare for the scheduled 10:45am Hayling Island ferry departure. This was to be the first of five ferry crossings I’d make on this journey each one with its own quirks and peculiarities. It was also the only one I’d arrive at on time.

An easy ride round the sea front, past South Parade Pier and numerous war and naval memorials brought me into Portsmouth. After taking a few wrong turns through a cluster of newly developed water front properties, I arrived at the Gosport ferry. Somehow I’d managed to forget to make allowance for the ferry crossing times into my route plan, so I’d ended up with only twenty minutes to cycle seven miles from the Hayling Island ferry to Portsmouth! Thankfully the ferry departed every fifteen minutes so only my pride was damaged and I made a mental note to alter the times on my route plan for the rest of the day.

The “Millennium Town” of Gosport was looking a little tired round the edges as I arrived on the other side of the harbour. But a few miles west the coastal cycle way opened out to horizon bending views of the dark brown sea meeting the pale grey sky as I looked across to the Ilse of Wight. The previous days bright sunshine had lasted until around eleven o’clock this morning but was now struggling to fight its way out from behind a thickening layer of clouds. Coupled with an inshore headwind, it had me zipping up my jacket and tucking in my neck scarf.

Lunch was a quick affair courtesy of shop bought sandwiches and eaten on a sea view bench at Lee-on-the-Solent. Another short ride took me to the River Hamble and the Wasash ferry. It’s difficult to miss in its barbie pink livery and thankfully I didn’t have to wait long for it to arrive. I was carrying all my gear in my two rear panniers, plus the tent on my rack which made the bike a little off balance and challenging to manoeuvre. Lifting it onto the ferry was a sorry affair and almost necessitated removing the panniers in order to get it onboard! The trip across the Hamble was only five minutes but it’s a pretty crossing point full of sailing boats and has great views up the river and out to sea.

The Solent Way provided the route for the next stretch, linking the River Hamble to Southampton. Royal Victoria Park still has a slight regal feel to it with its open grass and wind swept Scots pines surrounding the gravel paths and brick built chapel. But the Itchen Bridge at Southampton with its exposed height and a gusty wind makes for a nervous ride next to the speeding traffic. Crossing the River Test is a functional activity and with its hourly crossings, timing your arrival is beneficial otherwise be prepared to make use of the motorway service style waiting room. Arriving at Hythe is a polar opposite. It’s a quaint if somewhat weather beaten green wooden building and six hundred metre long wooden pier served by a train which takes passengers from one end to the other. Unfortunately cycles are not allowed on the train and you can’t ride down the pier so I had a long walk overlooking the sea and watching the little train disappear into the distance.

A ride through Hythe town, including a short stop to pick up some extras for my evening meal, saw me cross the A326 and into the New Forest. I’ve been visiting the New Forest for years but crossing the boundary cattle bridge never fails to humble me. It’s like two worlds; on the outside the hustle and bustle of every day life, urban sprawl and development; and inside, the calm serenity of unspoiled open rolling heathland, small pockets of woodland and the pony’s roaming free and easy where ever they please.

My campsite was a few miles down the road where a hot shower awaited. Tent pitched and dinner on, I watched the sun go down as I sorted my kit and caught up with general admin. The temperature had been just the wrong side of cold today, I never really built up enough effort to warm up my extremities but sitting in my down jacket eating Pasta Bolognese washed down with a mini bottle of red wine, I was now warm and content.



Day 3 - #Blame it on the campsite manager

With all good intentions I’d planned to set off at 8am today. I had a long ride ahead and I was just leaving when a slightly over enthusiastic campsite manager got chatting. An hour later I wound my way up the camp site drive and out onto the road, cursing my inability to cut the (albeit interesting) conversation short.

I felt like I had the whole of the forest to myself this morning. Aside from the odd car I don’t think I saw a single person until I reached Brockenhurst. It felt slightly surreal, but I was enjoying the peaceful calmness as I trundled along the forest tracks talking out loud to myself. At one point I glanced back to find a mountain biker on my tail, the only person I’d seen for miles. The illusive figure stayed at a small distance off my rear wheel for around four or five miles until I made efforts to loose them as I snaked my way down towards Christchurch. For a brief moment I felt like Richard Hannay in the novel The Thirty Nine Steps being chased across the open moorland not knowing whether the follower was friend or foe.

Christchurch is interesting, and if I had more time I would have stopped for longer. It’s a perfect blend of bustling town, medieval ruins and pretty houses. But, with time pressing I passed through and onto the eastern end of Bournemouth beach. The route was a flat ride, along the beach promenade and although I had the advantage of very few pedestrians being out, the headwind had picked up and the sand had been blown into a thick layer covering the path.

I made it to Bournemouth pier, grabbed a bite to eat and took shelter. The headwind was relentless and the sand too loose to ride at any speed, so I made the decision to break from my flat route and head inland for some shelter and less treacherous surface. A steep climb up over Canford Cliffs followed by a long descent down the other side took me away from the headwind and brought me to the chainlink ferry at Sandbanks.

My legs still felt good at this point but the same couldn’t be said for my rear end. A quick application of chamois cream in the toilets on the ferry would help me through the next few hours but I knew the sores were only going to get worse as I continued.

Studland on the Isle of Purbeck is beautiful, rather like a cousin of the New Forest and the route was equally as good. It wound its way off-road on almost single track type trails, weaving in between the gorse and heather, and was quite muddy in sections as well. By the time I picked up smooth tarmac on the western edge I felt like I’d ridden for a day already. Unfortunately, I was only half way…

The route west continued on country lanes, reasonably flat, passing through East Stoke, Wool and Moreton. I think the high hedged country lanes would be quite cheerful in the summer, but now, in March with the cold wind and the prospect of another twenty miles still to go it just seemed a little bleak. I rolled into Dorchester and skirted south of the main high street as dusk approached and I felt the first drops of rain. Lights and water proofs donned and a raisin Yorkie and a cup of tea still in reserve I pressed on. There was a fairly chunky hill ahead and I’d decided to chose whether to go over or round it when I arrived at the junction. Somehow I’d managed to pass the “go round it” turning so I was committed to an off road route taking me up and over.

Darkness fell as I came off the hill. I pressed on, fog now settling in the valley and enveloping my silent journey. One final hill loomed, one of those with a number of false summits made worse by the fact I couldn’t see any more than fifty meters in front of me. I crested the hill top, the Hardy Monument looming out of the darkness and began a brake squealing decent down into Portesham. There was a distinct lack of street lights in the village and I had to use my GPS to locate the campsite entrance but it appeared soon enough allowing me to trundle in, straight into the middle of a bunch of caravans. I found a decent spot for my lonesome tent, locked my bike up, dived into the shower then headed over to the Kings Arms pub for dinner and a pint. Whilst I sipped my beer waiting for my home-made burger I wrote my diary and wondered how much easier this last leg would have been if I’d set off one hour earlier…

Day 4 - #Horsey, horsey, don’t you stop…

At the pub the previous night I had been dragged out of my cosy corner seat (where I was drying my clothes and charging my various electronic devices) to join the locals at the bar. One too many beers later I crawled into my tent only to wake at 6am, bladder at bursting point. Deciding to go for the early start I hadn’t managed the day before, I packed up my wet tent, gobbled down a cold Wayfayrer breakfast and a carbohydrate drink. All not very appealing, but a kind lady offered me coffee for my flask as I was securing my panniers, which I gratefully accepted before setting off into the morning drizzle.

And not three minutes later I was back off the bike pushing it up the first of many, very steep Devon hills. Despite it being a grey, cold, drizzly day, the scenery was trying its best to cheer me up. Swathes of green rolling hills, all very Devonish with low stone walls lining the narrow roads and the daffodils just coming into bloom along the hedgerows. But even this didn’t detract from my painfully cold hands and feet and the mud rivers washing across the road covering me and all my gear.

I found some brief respite from the rain and cold outside an old telephone box which had been converted into a medley of hill walker's paraphernalia. "Please leave a comment in the visitor book" it said. At this point I thought it would be more useful to burn it to warm up! Despite the hills, they were actually a welcome distraction. Stomping up them gave me the opportunity to warm my feet up at the expense of making clipperty clop - horsey noises as my cycle cleats struck the tarmac. And so the cycle loop continued, down hill - freeze. Uphill - "clipperty clop" - thaw. To be honest most of the section from Portesham and through Bridport my head was down just battling the cold, potholes, mud and rain so lunch on the forecourt of a Tesco's petrol station in Axminster was a blissful haven for ten minutes.


Thankfully the sky cleared a little after that and by about 3pm the sun was just peeking out of the clouds making the ride along the coast past the seaside towns of Seaton and Sidmouth quite picturesque.

As I approached Budleigh Salterton I knew it wasn't that much further and also that the last leg was on a disused railway. However, as if to remind me that I was still firmly in Devon even the old railway line was steep! Thankfully it was only a short climb, giving way to a long straight descent, dodging evening runners and cyclists, leading me into Exmouth just as the sun was setting.



Day 5 - #A distinct lack of planned preventative maintenance A well-deserved overnight stay at Premier Inn Exmouth was topped off with an "all you can eat" breakfast before setting off on today's leisurely ride up the river Exe. The sun was back out again, although it was still cold, it was bright and cheery and a welcome change from yesterday’s grim conditions. Now I wasn't worried about mud, hills or the cold, I was suddenly in tune to the awful sound of my gears grinding and chain squeaking; every turn of the pedals had me wincing in sympathy. It hadn't seemed appropriate maintaining my filthy bike in the hotel conference room last night. And anyway a glass of wine and a chicken pie was much more appealing. Should I stop and put some lube on now? No, it's stuffed in my spare shoes which are at the bottom of my left pannier, and it's only a few more miles to go anyway.

It’s a delightful ride along the Exe, following the train line past the Commando training ground at Lympstone, a dog leg through Exton and on to Topsham. The boardwalks over the water also make for an interesting thrumming sound as my tyres roll across the semi smooth surface. And it’s at this point that I depart NCN route 2, my friend for the last three days, and make a brief acquaintance with NCN 34 along the Exe Valley Way for the last few miles into Exeter City.

I find I'm taking it more and more slowly at this point. Was it perhaps because I had an hour to kill before the train departed, or perhaps it was because my legs were tired? I have a feeling it was probably because this mini adventure was coming to a close and I really didn’t want it to.


Exeter St. Davids train station appeared on the left as predicted and it was journeys end to a great ride. But now both my bike and I needed a long rest and some much needed maintenance. And perhaps a saddle fitting session booked up as soon as possible.


Route:

240miles (385km), 4230m total ascent. The route starts at Sutton Station, SM1 1DE, which has plenty of great rail connections.

  • Day 1 – Sutton to Bosham (Chichester) - 57 miles (92km), 1020m ascent. Leatherhead, Shere, Dunsfold, Lodsworth, Singleton.

  • Day 2 – Bosham (Chichester) to Beaulieu (New Forest) - 45 miles (72km), 335m ascent. Havant, Hayling Ferry, Portsmouth (Gosport ferry), (Hamble ferry), Southampton (Hythe ferry), Beaulieu.

  • Day 3 - Beaulieu (New Forest) to Portesham (nr. Dorchester) - 68 miles (109km), 837m ascent. Christchurch, Bournemouth, Sandbanks (ferry), Wareham, Dorchester.

  • Day 4 - Portesham (nr. Dorchester) to Exmouth - 59 miles (95km), 1798m ascent. Pymore, Axminster, Brainscombe, Sidmouth.

  • Day 5 – Exmouth to Exeter (Exeter St. David’s train station) - 12 miles (19km), 238m ascent. Topsham

My return journey was via GWR trains from Exeter St. David’s to London Paddington @ 2hrs 15 mins. They have dedicated bike storage on board but you do need to book your cycle in advance.


Ferries:

Accommodation:


Eating:


Equipment:

  • Specialized CrossTrail “Adventure Bike” running Schwalbe Marathon Mondial 35c tyres

  • 40 ltr rear pannier set + 5 ltr bar bag

  • Sleeping: 1 person tent, sleeping bag, inflatable mattress and pillow

  • Cycling clothes: Helmet, gloves, glasses, cycling shoes, overshoes, padded cycling shorts, cycling jersey, cycling gilet, arm warmers, windproof smock, neck warmer

  • Spare clothes: 2nd set of cycling kit – gloves, jersey, shorts. Plus down jacket, zip off trousers, short sleeved shirt, socks, underwear, thermal top and leggings, waterproof jacket, trainers

  • Wash kit and first aid items

  • Collapsible seat and sit mat

  • Stove, pot, gas, food

  • 2 x 1ltr water bottles, thermal flask/mug

  • Head torch, multitool

  • GoPro, GPS, mobile phone, battery, cables

  • Bike tools, innertube, pump, bike lock, lights

Notes:

  1. The majority of this route is on metaled roads, however some parts are very much off-road and across some fairly rough terrain. Any good gravel, hybrid or mountain bike would be suitable for this route, something with a reasonably wide tyre with some off-road grip. I wouldn’t personally take a road bike with slick tyres as the terrain is really not suitable.

  2. My route starts in Sutton train station in Surrey, however there is a good train service which runs from London Victoria to Brighton which takes just under one hour. It’s possible therefore to start cycling a whole section further back along NCN route 2 and ride along the coast from Brighton to Bosham.

  3. NCN route 2 can be viewed on the Sustrans website https://www.sustrans.org.uk/find-a-route-on-the-national-cycle-network/route-2, which if you haven’t visited before is an excellent source of cycling information. You can also purchase the paper maps of the route here as well.

  4. For reference I’ve included the official NCN route 2 route if starting at Brighton (Ovingdean), travelling in a westerly direction. Although it’s split over 5 days, the same as my own route, the fifth day is a full day of riding.

  • Day 1 – Ovingdean to Bosham – 44 miles

  • Day 2 – Bosham to Brockenhurst – 53 miles

  • Day 3 – Brockenhurst to Moreton – 45 miles

  • Day 4 – Moreton to Axminster – 43 miles

  • Day 5 – Axminster to Dawlish – 47 miles

Attachments:

The attachments below are .gpx files for each of the 5 days. They include the route from Sutton to Bosham (NCR2-D1) and all overnight stops as featured in this blog. Please feel free to download these routes and modify them to suit your own adventure accordingly.

NCR2-D1
.gpx
Download GPX • 90KB
NCR2-D2
.gpx
Download GPX • 71KB
NCR2-D3
.gpx
Download GPX • 97KB
NCR2-D4
.gpx
Download GPX • 115KB
NCR2-D5
.gpx
Download GPX • 23KB

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