Our guide to a new cycling initiative in the south of England that makes planning a weekend break by bike a breeze – and rewards hungry cyclists with artisan ice creams, wild boar meatballs, seafood platters and pints of local ale
Exploring the New Forest National Park by bike is the kind of weekend trip we’ve always fancied taking but never quite got round to organising. Until now. Cycle Southern England, a new initiative to encourage cyclists to explore the region’s quieter but easily accessible roads and tracks, has made it simpler both to plan a trip and to execute it.
Not only is there a dedicated website listing information on route itineraries (everything from short family pedals and long-distance rides to mountain biking trails), bike hire, bike-friendly accommodation and food and drink providers but enthusiastic partner companies are making all of those components stress-free to link up.
Booking through Cyclexperience, a specialist hire company based in Hampshire, we linked together two of its suggested Garmin Sat Nav-aided routes. In this case two circular itineraries that began and ended at the company’s bike hire shop at Brockenhurst train station (a 90-minute train ride from London) and, over two days, led us through spectacular, off-the-beaten-track forest cycle paths (no chance of getting lost with that Sat Nav) via more than our fair share of culinary pitstops.
Leaving the train at Brockenhurst on a Saturday morning, the cycle hire hut was right next door. Quickly kitted out with our choice of wheels (choose from hybrids, mountain bikes or even a tandem), Garmin Sat Navs and panniers for overnight gear we headed straight for East Bouldre following a scenic route through the forest. Passing the park’s famous wild ponies (plus a few donkeys) on our way, we found the dirt tracks easy to follow and a relatively easy ride.
Our first stop, around 45 minutes east of Brockenhurst, was The Captains Cabin, a tearoom on the banks of the River Beaulieu at Bucklers Hard, where we rewarded ourselves with scoops of ginger ice cream from New Forest Ice Cream.
For a more substantial meal the same village is home to the genteel Master Builders hotel; walk your bikes through the entrance to lock them up, then wander through the bar area into the hotel’s garden for the best spot. Order lunch here and you can feast on whole grilled Cornish sardines (served straight from the coals on wooden boards), meatballs made with wild boar mince, linguine with South Coast clams or a seafood platter to share (plus a pint or two of local Ringwood ale) with a view of bobbing yachts.
We were saving ourselves for dinner at the Montagu Arms, however, a 15-minute cycle ride away at Beaulieu. From here we could have meandered back to Brockenhurst and headed home in one day but, wanting to make a weekend of it, we made this our overnight stop, checking in and freshening up before enjoying a stroll around the village and a pre-dinner drink at the hotel’s wood-panelled pub, Monty’s Inn.
Food is a serious draw at the hotel and our stunning supper at its Michelin- starred The Terrace restaurant felt richly deserved after the day’s pedaling (read our in-depth review here). Cooked by head chef Matthew Tomkinson, highlights included golden scallops with cauliflower puree and apple, Cornish coastal lamb with crisp sweetbreads, and South Coast turbot, wild mushrooms and creamny pearl barley. Not to mention an impressive cheese trolley, worth the visit alone.
Breakfasts are equally carefully crafted. Pondhead Farm bacon and sausages from down the road in Lyndhurst, served with eggs from the hens in the garden. We also had delicately smoked haddock with poached eggs, which was the perfect pre-cycle fuel, gearing us up brilliantly for another day’s gentle pedalling around the New Forest. Heading back to Brockenhurst to complete our first loop we were greeted with a choice of lunch spots: Bongusta for hearty, American-inspired street food and sandwiches, Melt ice cream parlour for a taste of weird and wonderful ice cream creations (cherry amaretto, trifle or pink bubblegum anyone?). And Rosie Lea’s tearoom and bakery for a generous wedge of cake and tea in pretty china cups in a quaint setting.
Resisting temptation (well, almost – that cherry amaretto was too good to miss), we got back on our bikes to follow the Lyndhurst loop. Another route through the forest, this one took us north to the Crown Stirrup, a traditional pub 20 minutes’ bike ride away serving classic pub lunches – and all manner of burgers (think wild boar, Moroccan lamb, and beef and jalapeno).
Burgers aside, the pub’s other great selling point is its forest location. Wheel your bikes through the beer garden at the back and you come straight out into the heart of the forest after lunch (if you want to lock them up and head off on two feet you can do that, too). Completing our second loop we headed back to Brockenhurst along another leafy cycle track, arriving in plenty of time for a pint while we waited for our train home – and a toast to a weekend that had given us just the right ratio of indulgence to exercise along the way.