A Red Squirrel Trail Adventure
Updated: Jun 6
We've enjoyed a number of joint-family adventures over the years and this one was originally planned for Summer 2020. But as the previous diary date had come and gone due to the Covid pandemic, the Nation decided to celebrate the Queen's Platinum Jubilee over the 2022 late May bank holiday, perfect for our long-awaited two-day Isle of Wight cycling adventure.
Day 1 - Cowes to Shanklin
With eight bikes packed onto two cars we headed out of London to catch the 10am Red Funnel, Southampton to East Cowes, car ferry. The journey was good and by 9:15am we were wheeling our bikes from the Triangle Car Park into the terminal building next door. Our kit was packed either on our backs or in dry bags strapped to the handle bars (bike-packing style). Boarding was dead simple via a quick check-in and a cycle lane straight on board the sizeable car ferry. Our friends were accompanied by the latest addition to their family, Sonny, a four month old Cocker Spaniel, who not only had his own bike trailer but also enjoyed a dog friendly bar on the top floor of the ferry.
As soon as we departed the Red Funnel ferry, we turned right to cross another waterway this time on a chain link ferry, or floating bridge, taking us from East Cowes to Cowes for the start of the route proper.
The Red Squirrel Trail is pretty much National Cycle Network route no. 23, running from Cowes to Sandown then onto Shanklin via, mostly traffic-free, old rail lines and dedicated paths. The return via a southern loop takes in Wroxall and Godshill on the Stenbury Trail before re-joining NCN #23 at Merstone. The route is around 32 miles long and we chose to split the trip into two days. The first was from Cowes to Shanklin at around 16.5 miles and the second day 15.5 miles with just a fraction more climbing.
A short cycle through the houses takes you to the start of a former train line that forms much of the route following the River Medina from Cowes to Sandown. It's a wonderful trail, comprising of arched tree canopies, a good surface and every so often breaks in the foliage providing sweeping views out over the water.
Unfortunately the beginning of the trail wasn’t going to be as smooth as our promised surface as a rather catastrophic mechanical failure brought the team to an abrupt stop when a rear derailleur managed to wind itself backwards, bending the hanger and snapping the jockey wheel cage clean off!
After the heat of the moment had subsided, two of us walked a couple of hundred metres back down the path to Adrians Bike Shop in Cowes. After chatting with the wonderful staff we quickly elected to hire a bike for a very reasonable charge and leave the broken machine with them until our return the next day.
Back on the route and eager to press on, we quickly made our way south along tarmac lanes passing through Newport in just under an hour. We'd elected to carry a packed lunch and knew we'd be hungry due to the early morning start so we found a peaceful spot just inside a farm field near Blackwater to eat our picnic and catch a few winks under the warm summer sun.
On this occasion we should have perhaps held on for a little longer as the old station at Merstone, just one mile further along the trail, would have provided us with picnic tables, a BBQ and dedicated bike rack.
(Images taken on the return leg)
The continuing trail is much of the same, this time a little more open as it winds itself in a south easterly direction towards Sandown. The route is well sign posted all the way and deposits you neatly at the sea front at Sandown right next to a perfectly placed ice cream shop!
The next 2 miles were a beautiful easy cruise down the Espanade with the English Channel on your left all the way into Shanklin.
Our accommodation was the Harrow Lodge Hotel in Shanklin. A lovely 2 star hotel with friendly and helpful staff. The hotel is at the top of a hill, a short push (or ride for those with low gears) up from the sea-front away and the Crazy Golf to just outside the cliff-top-to-sea-front "Lift" built in the late 1950s. After our bikes were securely locked away, we ended our day with fish and chips on the sea wall and a pint (for those that could).
DAY 2 - Shanklin to Cowes
The weather reports had been threatening a wet second day and the heavy overnight rain certainly reinforced the point. As we munched on a tasty full English breakfast we were already thinking of fleeces and water proofs for the return journey. But as we set off into the grey sea mist, the air felt warm and the heavens remained leak free tempting us to remove our layers and trust the u-turned weather reports.
We knew the first part of day 2 would be fairly hilly for those with little legs so we took it easy as we wound our way out of Shanklin via the off-road Stenbury Trail towards Wroxall and Godshill. Appuldurcombe House, and its majestic arched gate were both impressive and eery, a glimmer of former life and times. Passing through the ancient iron gate marked the point of a down hill route pretty much all the way into Cowes, 10 miles further on.
The route joined back on to NCN #23 at Merstone where this time we made full use of the picnic tables, even just if it was for a few mid-ride snacks and a drink from our water bottles.
One of the boys had tried to get us to stop at a trail side cafe just outside Newport on the first day, with the lure of ice creams, cold beer and "Bikes & Dogs welcome" as displayed on the blackboard. So we'd ear marked it for the return journey and turned right, off the trail, crossing the stream and into.... Newclose County Cricket Ground!?!
Newclose Bar and Cafe
Don't be fooled though, the trek around the grassy boundary into the cricket club is well worth the diversion as the food is superb and facilities excellent. We enjoyed an assortment of dishes: cream teas; jacket potatoes; tuna sandwiches and Sonny devoured a portion of dog friendly ice cream!
We sat on the benches in the warm sun and despite delaying the inevitable restart with extra cups of tea, we knew we needed to press on with the last seven miles to Cowes for our 3:30pm ferry.
The cruise back was good, along a mix of gravel and concrete paths and before we knew it we were back at the trail head, returning the hire bike and threading our way through the back streets towards the chain link ferry.
Progress was so good we managed to hop on the earlier ferry and were back on the mainland loaoding the bikes onto the cars by 4pm.
The Red Squirrel Trail was created by amalgamating two popular themed trails – The Sunshine Trail and the Troll Trail, in order to facilitate a circular route that could connect to the mainland via the ferry to Southampton.
Full details, including the history, routes (both printable maps and .gpx files) and things to see and do on the way can be found on the Red Squirrel Trail website:
I used the brilliant cycle.travel website to plan the actual route. It is, in my opinion, a far better route planning tool than many of the more "mainstream" tools as it's developed and maintained by real UK based cyclists and someone who truly understands maps!
Day 1 - Cowes to Shanklin, Red Squirrel Trail (northern loop) - 16.5 miles (27km), 125m ascent.
Relatively flat, small hills at Sandown and Shanklin
Cowes (0), Newport (5), Blackwater (7), Merstone (top of hill) (9), Sandown (14), Shanklin (16), Slope to get to hotel (16.5)
Day 2 - Shanklin to Cowes, Red Squirrel Trail (southern loop) - 15.5 miles (25 miles), 165m ascent.
Undulating, Shanklin to Appuldurcombe gate (4.5 miles), then descent all the way to Cowes (11 miles)
Shanklin (0), Wroxall (3), Godshill (5), Blackwater (9), Newport (11), Cowes (15)
The attachments below are .gpx files of the entire route split over our two days. Please feel free to download and modify to suit your own adventure accordingly.
Alternatively, routes can be found here, although I havent checked these myself.
We'd planned this ride for 2020 when the kids were aged 9, 12 and 14. Back then I think it would have been perfect for their age range, but now I would suggest the older kids could have easily ridden further given the flat route and excellent paved trail surface.
The Harrow Lodge Hotel (dog and bike friendly)
31 Palmerston Rd, Shanklin PO37 6BD. 01983 862 800
Horizons Take-Away and Cafe, Esplanade, Sandown
Bayside Fish and Chips, Esplanade, Shanklin PO37 6BG
Newclose County Cricket Ground, Blackwater Rd, Newport PO30 3BE
These establishments were recommended although we didn't visit them on this trip:
Newchurch - Peddallers Café
Sandown – The Beach Shack, Western Esplanade, Sandown PO36 8JS. +44 1983 401392
Shanklin - The Salix Beach Café, Esplanade, Shanklin PO37 6BG. +44 7772 056204
We all carried a variation on the list below. Four of us transported our kit in drybags strapped to the handlebars, bike-packing style, others used rucksacks.
Hybrid or MTB bike in good functioning condition.
Water bottle or water bladder (min 1 ltr)
Cycling clothes: Helmet, gloves, glasses, shoes, padded cycling shorts, over-shorts, wicking t-shirt, fleece, waterproof
Spare clothes for the hotel, or the next day if day 1 clothes get wet (some of us also carried spare shoes)
Wash kit, personal items
Money, mobile phone etc.
Maps, GPS, spare batteries etc.
Bike tools, innertubes (to cover tyre sizes), pump, lights
(Accurate at the time of publishing)
Red Funnel Ferries. Southampton to East Cowes
Terminal 1, Dock Gate 7 (Royal Pier), Town Quay Road, Southampton SO14 2AL
0238 001 9192
Triangle Car Park
Platform Rd, Southampton SO14 2HJ
0203 046 0010
Chain link ferry
East Cowes - Cowes Chain link ferry
East Cowes PO32 6SL
Adrian's Bike Shop, Unit 4, Medina Court, Arctic Rd, Cowes PO31 7XD, +44 1983 755007
Wight Cycle Hire, Newport
Red Squirrel Electric Bikes, Newport
Wight Mountain, Newport. 31 Orchard St, Newport PO30 1JZ. +44 1983 520530
Al's Bikes, Unit 8, Senator Trading Estate, College Cl, Sandown PO36 8EH. 07962373277
West Cowes - Medina Rd/Floating Bridge, Cowes PO31 7BX
Newport - Church Litten/South Street, Newport PO30 1JD
Sandown - Pier Street, Sandown PO36 8JJ
Shanklin - Esplanade Gardens, Shanklin PO37 6EL
Godshill - Godshill Car Park, Godshill PO38 3JD