Where do you stand on the issue of thunderstorms? Terrifying, inconvenient and destructive or wonderfully exciting, overwhelming and refreshing? Generally speaking, I fall into the latter camp. However heavily you invest in scented candles and cashmere throws, nothing will make your home feel quite as cosy as being warm and dry inside it as the thunder clatters and the rain falls in forceful sheets, bouncing off your windowsills and gushing though your gutters. A good storm reminds you that you are only a little vulnerable person, responsible for only a tiny bit of a vast and powerful world, so there’s no need to worry or take life too seriously.
Waking up early on Saturday morning to the sound of rain hammering down outside, I admit that my enthusiasm for storms felt somewhat diminished. The plan for Saturday was to cycle along the south coast of the Isle of Wight, from Bembridge to Yarmouth. A distance of just under 60km, I wasn’t too keen on the prospect of a day spent hunched over my handlebars and squinting through the driving rain. It would have been a mistake to dwell on any of this – there was no option but to get on with it – so up we both got, wriggled into our blissfully dry (not for long, I thought) freshly washed Peloton jerseys and went down to breakfast.
The proprietor greeted us in the cheerful manner of one not about to set off into the great outdoors and was quick to deliver steaming coffee over to us. We must have looked like we needed it. A hearty full English breakfast followed, during which we were assured by our hosts that the weather would brighten up. I don’t know what privileged information they had access too – I’d been obsessively thorough in my examination of every local weather forecast available in my desperation to find good news – but they turned out to be right. Once we’d loaded our bikes and saddled up, the sun was starting to make an appearance and the rain had stopped.
Eager to make the most of the reasonable weather, we set off at a decent pace and were whizzing along the faintly naff seafront before Shanklin before we knew it. I grew up in Yarmouth, in West Wight, and always felt that people were unduly snobby about ‘the other side’. I still think lots of people are, as a matter of fact, but there is some truth in the observation that Shanklin and Sandown are holiday towns that have seen better days. Cycling along the high streets here, the impression is that shops are really struggling. Just after Sandown is where we made our biggest mistake of the whole trip. As is so often the case with mistakes, I feel quite pleased about it now, but at the time it hurt. The cycle route we were following is so well signposted that I would venture to call it idiot-proof. At some point, however, we must have missed something because as we were approaching Ventnor we realised that the signs had disappeared and the cycling was getting serious. We were definitely not on a family friendly route.
A particularly demoralising moment came after about 20 minutes of hard pedalling up a not aggressively steep but agonisingly persistent hill. After rounding yet another corner that I thought must be the end of this endurance test, I saw a sign saying ‘Cowleaze Hill’. Fabulous. This is the point where the hill begins. Soon afterwards, I saw a sign saying ‘Dangerous Road for Cyclists’, which hardly lifted my spirits. I spurred myself on and vowed to keep Richard, who was up ahead, in my sights. Wimpy girl is not an accolade I felt keen to acquire. When eventually he stopped for a rest, the relief was something I can’t describe. Slumped against a fence, our bikes discarded by the side of the road, two geriatric whippets in head to toe black lycra pulled in casually to ask if we were OK. We insisted that we were, of course – admitting to two men in their mid-seventies (they were both very keen to emphasise their maturity) that we are not as fit as them would have been one slap in the face too far. Soon after they hopped lightly back on their bikes and shimmied their way up that murderous hill, we decided that we must do the same, in our own slightly clunkier manner.
One advantage of reaching the top of a hill is the view. Another is the guarantee of a bit of freewheeling. We enjoyed both as we flew through Whitwell and Niton on our way to St Catherine’s Point, the southernmost tip of the island. We felt hot and tired, but there was a heaviness in the air that suggested rain might come to spite us after all, so we carried on. Had Richard not been powering ahead, I would have been tempted to stop at The Wight Mouse Inn at Chale, which I remember being famed as one of the best pubs on the Island. There was no time for regret though and I was soon distracted by Mottistone, which looked as splendid as I remembered it as we whipped through the lush green landscape in which it is so perfectly nestled. By the time Richard flew past The Sun Inn at Hulverstone, which is another excellent pub I remember visiting with my parents on bike rides as a child, I realised I was getting keen for some lunch.
Joining the undulating Military Road, which is on the edge of a cliff above Compton Bay, felt like a turning point. In my mind, we were nearly there. Compton Bay is the best beach on the Isle of Wight. Entirely unspoilt, its sandy shores stretch along a beautiful coastline and, with the orange cliff as a backdrop, you would never realise that a road run along its length. The majority of my summer holiday was spent on this beach and I always thought of it as close to home, so it couldn’t be far now.
Descending into Freshwater Bay, we turned right and made our way to The Red Lion, a pub that used to be owned by Michael Mence, the brother of the dear friends we stayed with that evening. Sadly we arrived ten minutes after they’d stopped serving food, but the garden there is so pretty (and we were so thirsty for a proper drink) that we stopped there for a while anyway. I then guided Richard along the old railway line, a mercifully flat bridleway that runs along the peaceful River Yar towards Yarmouth. Uplifted to be in the town that I used to call home, and even more relieved to be sitting down in The Wheatsheaf with a cold glass of wine and some crisps waiting for my large crab salad to arrive, we paused to notice that the sun was shining with an intensity we couldn’t have envisaged when we had listened to the rain that morning.
Our final short but demanding leg up Hallets Shute and down Pixley Hill to the Mences’ house was instantly rewarded when we saw that, in typical Mence style, they had pulled out all the stops to prepare for our arrival. A spectacular bell tent, complete with bunting sewn by Rosie, a double bed, a tea-light filled chandelier, wooden chests with glass vases containing beautiful garden flowers and a guitar welcomed us at the bottom of the garden and, in the house, we enjoyed (post-shower) a perfect evening with delicious food and some wonderful friends. We retired to our tent in the sure knowledge that a good night’s sleep stretched ahead of us.