I’m cycling in the New Forest. A man 15 years my senior zips effortlessly past on the hill climb. My thighs are burning and I watch as he accelerates away from me while I work hard to turn my pedals. He’s reaping the benefit of a sage decision to use an electric bicycle while I opted for a conventional cycle.
I’m not complaining, I’m enjoying the work out. With the exception of one or two other undulating sections along our 27-mile woodland route, cycling in the New Forest is proving flatter and easier than I anticipated.
Cycling in the New Forest
Cycling in wintertime means I came prepared for cold. Following a brief spell of rain at the start of our ride the sun came out and it’s subsequently been pleasant to zish along the wet country tracks. My gloves and the frame of my Giant bicycle are caked with mud that’s been kicked up by my wheels. Whatever happened to bicycles with mudguards?
The bike’s shock absorbers have protected my hands from what might have been a pneumatic-like buffeting on the potholed lanes. It’s been impossible to avoid all of the puddles along the route. Frankly it’s been fun to tear through shallow fords and to part curtains of muddy water while powering through inch-deep puddles.
We’ve passed donkeys and New Forest ponies while cycling in the New Forest. A few minutes ago we paused to view an ancient oak that started growing in Tudor times. While pumping my legs I’ve admired countless attractive thatched cottages. There’s no doubt this is a pretty part of Britain’s countryside.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave
At Minstead, whose village green displays a set of wooden stocks, a few of us park our bicycles and wander through the All Saints Churchyard. A cross at the back of the churchyard marks the final resting place of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who created Sherlock Holmes. A pipe rests on his grave. Presumably it has been placed there by a fan of the detective stories? Holmes, undoubtedly, would have been able to answer such an elementary question.
While in Minstead we pause for lunch at The Trusty Servant, one of several traditional country pubs that dot the New Forest. Despite being dressed in mud-caked gear, no-one seems to mind when I push open the pub door and waddle to the bar like some shorts-wearing Western gunslinger that’s been thrown from his horse: it’s been a while since I was last in the saddle of a bicycle.
With beef and ale pie plus fish and chips on the menu, I’m looking forward to a bite to eat. First though, I’ll have a chat with two of the people who made today’s cycle excursion possible.
Cyclexperience in the New Forest
Ross Kempson, the founder and co-owner of Cyclexperience in the New Forest, doesn’t normally join groups out cycling.
“It’s something we’re looking to do more of. Mostly, we’re a self-guided company. Mainly people go off and do their own thing with their family. All they want is the means getting into the forest and knowing where they are going. All our routes are self-guided: we have an app (Cycling in the New Forest) that people can download to their smartphones,” says Ross.
“We have 16 different routes and people of all ages and abilities come along. It’s making sure that they go and have a great day out in the New Forest. So they go out and normally we don’t see them until they come back with big smiley faces,” he adds, in his West Country burr.
The group that I’m part of has people aged from their late 20s up to 70. Electric bicycles have enabled the mixed ability group to stay together.
Electric bicycles in the New Forest
“There’s no excuses at all. Anybody can do it with electric bikes. It’s so much fun. There’s a misconception that you’re cheating but you can decide what level of assistance you choose. You can go on eco and give yourself a good work out or you can turn it off if you want a real work out. Or you can use turbo if you’re going up a steep hill. They last for a good day — for 30, 40 miles,” says Ross.
John Thurnell-Read, Cyclexperience’s General Manager, returned to university in his early 30s to study conservation management.
“I have been involved with tourism conservation over the last five years, mainly in the New Forest. We work very closely with and have been well-supported by the New Forest National Park Authority and we work closely with their rangers. We’ve just become a local information point, so we’ll give information to visitors. We also work closely with the Forestry Commission, who manage a lot of the trails,“ says John.
Rail travel and sustainable tourism
I ask about the sustainability of the forest tracks and threat to the environment posed by mass tourism.
“The challenge for the forest is day visitors. It’s a very popular place. Either side of the seasonal times there’s plenty of space, there’s not a lot of people here. People tend to descend on the New Forest in the school holidays and it clogs up the roads. The reason we started in Brockenhurst was because of the rail links,” answers Ross.
“More than 50 per cent of our people come by train and then we can scatter them around the forest and it’s very low impact tourism in that sense,” he adds.
“Our routes range from eight miles up to about 30, 35. So, part of the customer service is people come in and we ask how far they want to go, their ability and how much time they’ve got and if there’s anywhere in particular they’d like to go,” chips in John as we chat by the bar.
“A couple of our routes take in the coastline. If people have been in London all year it’s a chance to see the sea. Getting on the coast, with views over to the Isle of Wight, is pretty impressive, so that’s very popular. We have a couple of other circular routes that take in all the main villages, tourist spots and sightseeing,” he elaborates.
“Most of the time you can just turn up and get a bike. School holidays and bank holidays, book in advance: maybe a couple of days. Just bring yourself, we’ve got pretty much everything that you need,” says Ross before we head to one of the tables to refuel before the ride back to Brockenhurst.
Cyclexperience (tel. 01590 624 808) is located within easy walking distance of the New Forest’s Brockenhurst railway station.
The New Forest is dotted with a number of hotels and guesthouses. I stayed at Bartley Forest Lodge, one of the New Forest Hotels, for the duration of my sojourn in the area.
For more information on the surrounding area, take a look at the Visit Hampshire website.
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Disclosure: Stuart cycled as a guest of Cyclexperience while being hosted in the New Forest to attend a conference. This post includes links to affiliate links to books sold on Amazon.