New Forest – New Adventure

Words & Images by Rich Windsor

8 minutes

Richard and his family have just returned from a stint living in London and two weeks in hotel quarantine was the perfect excuse for Rich to reflect on an English overnighter with his son Pascoe.

A first bikepacking memory they’re unlikely to forget.

Prepping for a New Adventure

Croydon, South London. 7:31am. The urban jungle. That was where we departed what was our UK home (a small 2 bed converted flat off Park Road) in search of a not-so-tiny adventure.

Pascoe, my son, was approaching two years old and later in the same month, his Mum and I were taking him to Glastonbury Music Festival where we’d be camping along with the masses for four nights. This bikepacking adventure was my excuse to ‘test run’ the camping experience. In reality, the test-run was no test. Pascoe and I are looking at a near-self-supported 36 hours away from the luxuries of running water, nappy change tables and warm beds. The look on his face – excitement, energy – told me he’s up for it.

Gear-wise, we’ve got a duffel bag with warm clothes, two-person tent, a mattress roll, a sleeping bag, some books, toddler essentials such as nappies and frozen yoghurts, juice and water. The third love of my life, a 2000 Specialized HardRock sourced second hand off eBay just a couple of miles away, is carrying us, our gear and a healthy dose of anticipation. Destination: The New Forest and the Woods Cyclery’s Grand Rando campout.

The Woods Cyclery Grand Rando

I didn’t see the point of driving the 100 miles, plus the train gave me the opportunity to entertain Pascoe instead of having him cooped up in a car seat. So, train it was. Three hours later and a fully-laden short haul on the tarmac from Brockenhurst Station and we were at the Grand (Rando) Depart at the Woods Cyclery premises in Lyndhurst. The shop was buzzing; last minute repairs taking place for some of the other ‘Randonneurs’, a few purchases being made and the local Bad Hand roasted coffee going down a treat.

The Woods crew were doing gear transfers from shop to campground so we offloaded the tent, duffel and mattress before setting off.

The New Forest National Park is renowned as a bit of a gravel cycling destination in the UK. I’d been down there a few times in the 11 years I had been in the UK, but I was yet to enjoy any of the hardpack, beauty and the relative wilds of the Forest inclosures. These inclosures are special areas of conservation, including heath, ancient woodland, pastures and wetlands managed by the UK Forestry Commission and it was five minutes into the Rando that we got to our first inclosure gate.

Perfect New Forest Gravel

What followed that gate – and pretty much every New Forest gate we entered across the day – was sublime gravel trails. I was immediately invigorated. Living in London is great; there is so much to do, see and experience across the city but the call of the outdoors and an environment like the one I knew growing up around Bungendore and Canberra remained ever-present. Pascoe’s gurgles of excitement and bursts of exclamation as he sat behind me in his $20 Aldi bike-seat, spotting wild ponies, vibrant foliage and the shadows cast by the trees of those ancient woodlands tells me he was just as pumped as I.

Our route isn’t too strenuous. It’s a good thing as this was the first of the ‘longer’ rides Pascoe and I had embarked upon. The Rando offered several options and that first-time element made it easy to select the shorter of the routes, just 50km and aptly named ‘The Trot’. It may be 150km less than a proper rando but what the heck, we’d be calling ourselves Randonneurs for the next day anyhow.

We meandered south through the New Forest for the first hour or so. The trails were easy as they undulated and twisted, with the most challenging section some single track bordered by barbed wire on one side and bramble on the other. Tough call, but I chose not to tell Mum about a few of the scrapes we encountered on that section.

A scoot through one of the many campgrounds offered us our first break and a chance to spot some tadpoles, skim stones and consider the ominous clouds that were coming in from the west, the direction which we were headed.

Perfect New Forest gravel

Just Like Canberra!

We pushed on, the next inclosure providing a reminder that as well as conservation, the New Forest was also home to controlled forestry. The machinery and the cross section of logs, reminding me of the pine plantations surrounding Canberra and the time I spent driving – not cycling – the firetrails bordering suburbia, taking water samples to test for pesticides in the forest streams that flowed into the Murrumbidgee.

Pascoe had been a trooper to that point – and awake for coming up to five hours – so the threat of rain (he spotted it and it arrived not long after), forced us to take another break and fail an attempt at a nap and book read on the soft, mossy floor of the Brownhill Inclosure: our halfway point.

At Camp – Proud Dad, Proud Kid

The second half of the ride was punctuated by the beautiful aftermath of a typical Southern England spring storm. Puddles made for fun as our 26 inch wheels dodged and splashed in equal measure. The chill of the damp grass and dewy gorse made it easier to take a few more stops, check our layers and dip into our supply of sweets – good times for a sweet-toothed  toddler.

As the various routes and Randonneurs converged on the campsite, we had a bit more company for the second half of the ride but whether by chance or just tired legs, the final few kilometres were just Pascoe and I. I slowed the pace even more, stopping to look at some of the rare-breed pigs and take in a few more of the higher views surrounding the village of Burley before rolling into camp. We crossed a livestock grid and slammed on the brakes, genuinely overwhelmed by the previous 50 kilometres. I put a foot down and turned to Pascoe in his seat. He cracked a huge smile and I choked up, managing to get out a cliched “We did it, buddy”, before giving him (and his bike seat really) as big a hug as I could manage. 

That moment of arrival at the Grand Rando Burley campsite remains one of my strongest memories of my time in the UK. And one of my proudest moments as a father to date; seeing my boy simply pleased with himself and quite possibly oblivious to the proud moment he had just given me.

From then, albeit after a solid hour of setting down, collecting our camp gear and erecting the two-person tent while Pascoe ran amok jumping on the efforts of others in a similar position to me, it was time to relax.

Good Vibes Only – even at 5:30am

The Woods crew laid on an awesome party. It was indeed Good Vibes Only and the inclusivity of the event meant Pascoe made pals with some other kids straight away, climbing trees and some of the picnic tables for a good few hours all under the watchful and amused eyes of fellow Randonneurs.

The excitement of the camp meant for a late bedtime for Pascoe, 10pm in fact. He had, still has, a habit of kicking off any covers so by midnight, when I crawled into the tent, it was he and I sharing the sleeping bag and familial body warmth. He slept like a trooper. Me, nervous about him being too cold, not so well. Nerves that come naturally with the territory of such a first-time adventure.

A lightweight tent and early sunrise never bode well for a sleep-in and after an hour of reading books, we got up at 5:30, just the two of us and explored the camp while everyone else slept. Another quiet moment to soak in a shared experience I will not quickly forget and one I will remind Pascoe of in years to come.

Some sore heads meant coffee outside was served a little later than I needed but with it came the energy I needed to de-camp, re-pack the HardRock and hit the trails for a final shred back to the station and our return journey back to London and the urban jungle we called home.

Clearly, the last 24 hours had overwhelmed Pascoe – as it had me in many ways – and less than a kilometre out of the Burley campsite where we had left the Grand Rando he passed out. As if to say “No worries, we can help with that,” the Forest laid on some of the smoothest gravel for that final part of our journey that Pascoe didn’t stir.

Re-energising meant coffee and fresh air for me, sleep for him. I certainly wasn’t going to argue, the sharp brim of his helmet jutting into my left hip for 10km a small price to pay for the big adventure we wouldn’t soon forget.