South coast: Exeter to Brighton
National Cycle Network route 2 from Exeter to Brighton offers so much variety that we felt like we’d been on the road for weeks not days. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that this route takes in five English counties – Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex.
We covered the 218 miles in five days (with some train travel at each end) and with four overnight stays.
So what has National Cycle Network route 2 got to offer?
Countryside: Not all of the route is by the sea. The most beautiful countryside was in Dorset – especially the stunning Hartland and Studland nature reserves near Swanage.
The New Forest: There really are ponies everywhere. It’s also cycling heaven with loads of traffic-free paths through the forest and roads with few cars and drivers that seem to be far more considerate than usual.
Beaches and beach huts: We became slightly obsessed with beach huts and talked at length about the best colours and what we’d keep in ours if we ever got one. If I did this ride again, I’d allow more time to hang out on some of the beaches.
Hills: If you like them, then this ride has certainly got them – at the beginning anyway. You just have to look at the cliffs at Sidmouth to see how the land lies. Dorset is not much better. We forgot how much time it takes to cycle in hilly terrain.
Ferries: There are five altogether on this route – one car ferry at Sandbanks, a sizeable passenger ferry at Gosport and three small boats at Hythe, Hamble-Le-Rice and Hayling Island. These ferries proved to be delightful punctuation points along the way. Hythe ferry, with its tiny train that takes passengers along the pier, is especially charming.
All in all, it was a fantastic trip and I would highly recommend it.
Exeter to Axminster
40 miles / 64 km
It’s a gentle start from Exeter to Exmouth along the estuary. We prepared for the hills ahead by stopping in Topsham at the Matthews Hall Café for their delicious cheese scones. The gradients get pretty serious on either side of Sidmouth. After a punishing first day, we stayed at the Green Dragon B&B and ate at the River Cottage Kitchen in Axminster. Both were excellent.
Axminster to East Knighton
46 miles / 74 km
It turns out Dorset is as hilly as Devon. It was tough going from Axminster to Bridport but slightly easier from there to Dorchester. The best bit came at the end of the day with a smooth and flattish ride from Dorchester to our accommodation at The Countryman Inn in East Knighton. I recommend the chilli nachos!
East Knighton to Studland
21 miles / 34 km
A wonderful stretch on quiet country roads and then we were cycling through stunning nature reserves after Stoborough on our way to catch the ferry across to Sandbanks. Some of this traffic-free route is on very rough terrain. We had to detour as our pannier-laden bikes could not cope. So we took our life in our hands on the winding B3351 where, for some reason, loads of the drivers were complete idiots.
Studland to Brockenhurst
22 miles / 35 km
Ferries to Sandbanks are frequent and it’s a short crossing. Soon after Sandbanks, NCN 2 follows the Bournemouth seafront to Christchurch, then turns inland to the New Forest. We had an excellent lunch at the Jazz Café, close to the beach in Sandbanks. We got a friendly welcome at the The Toppest Room (AirBnB) in Brockenhurst.
Brockenhurst to Hythe
11 miles / 18 km
Cycling on paths through the new forest is really peaceful and even the roads have more ponies and cyclists than cars. Head for the wonderful Hythe ferry that takes you over the Solent to Southampton. Foot passengers take a little train to the end of Hythe pier; we were really looked after by the lovely people that run the ferry and had our panniers carried by the train while we cycled along the pier!
Hythe to Portsmouth
22 miles / 35 km
In Southampton, you have to cross Itchen Bridge before you can get back to the quiet lanes and cycle paths of NCN route 2. Seven miles on, you’ll get to pretty Hamble-le-Rice where you take a tiny ferry across the Hamble estuary. The route then takes you alongside the Solent to Gosport where you’ll take a bigger passenger ferry, this time across the harbour to Portsmouth.
Portsmouth to Chichester
21 miles / 34 km
The next stop is Hayling Island. To get there you’ll cycle along the esplanade in Southsea before getting yet another delightful ferry. The skipper seemed happy to ignore the timetable (which said there were crossings on the hour) and came straight over to get us. We had drinks at the Ferryboat Inn and then set off along the traffic-free Hayling Billy leisure trail. We stayed at the Premier Inn in Chichester.
Chichester to Bognor Regis
7 miles / 11 km
NCN route 2 is not complete in this neck of the woods. To get to Bognor Regis, Sustrans suggests some quiet roads as well as a cycle path close to the A259. Signage was a bit tricky but we got to Bognor in time for a late breakfast at the Coffee and Bagel Company which has tables outside.
Bognor Regis to Brighton
28 miles / 45 km
Route 2 is also not complete between Littlehampton and Goring-by-sea. It’s not too hard to find your way although there is a certain amount of going round the houses and crossing the odd railway line. After Goring, though, you’re pretty much by the sea as you go through Worthing, Shoreham and eventually get to Brighton.