Every family should cycle together. It’s a liberating and bonding experience to ditch all the distractions, pack a rucksack with drinks and snacks, stick the bikes on the back of the car and drive to a scenic spot for an afternoon trundle.
As a self-confessed MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra), my solo two-wheeled expeditions take me 40, 50 miles and more on the road, through the rolling Hampshire countryside, enjoying my solitude, battling climbs and gripping the drops of the handlebars during the thrilling descents earned by all that uphill legwork.
But with kids, cycling on the road is a far less relaxing experience, so the ideal family foray is on a quiet, accessible, car-free and flat route that allows you breathe deeply, sit back in the saddle, relax and take life at your own pace. Or, more specifically, at your children’s pace!
For this kind of trip, the Hayling Billy Trail is pretty much perfect. The route follows the line of the old Hayling Billy steam railway, the tracks now replaced by a coastal path shared by walkers, the occasional horse rider, and cyclists.
For older children, or those with more stamina, consider the full route, which runs from Havant railway station. Getting started from there is even easier if you nip over the bridge from Bedhampton and round the back of the station to join the trail at the Spring Arts Centre.
The route begins signposted as the Shipwright’s Way, so follow it under a canopy of trees, cross over the main road via a traffic island (this is the only part where you’ll need to worry about cars), and cycle down the trail until you reach the bridge at Langstone. Cyclists can take the path shared with pedestrians at the side of the bridge to cross into Hayling, and then slip back onto the coastal route to follow it all the way down to the south of the Island.
My two girls are enthusiastic but relatively inexperienced cyclists, so joining the trail after the Langstone Bridge was ideal, allowing for a five-mile round trip to the end of the route and back again. Blink and you’ll miss it, but the second petrol station, on the right on the Hayling side of the bridge, has a car park behind it that is an ideal place to stop and offload the bikes before hopping onto the route.
The trail itself is fairly gravelly and, in the hot weather, quite dusty – definitely not ideal conditions for a carbon road bike! However, on a hybrid with wider tyres or a mountain bike, it’s possible to maintain a steady pace without any fear of losing traction. Like us, you’re more likely to take it slowly, breathing in the sea air and soaking up the coastal views.
There are several natural stopping places along the way – a steam-era signal fully restored thanks to a Lottery grant is at the Langstone end, in a spot which offers gorgeous views across the water to Portsmouth. Nearby, a little deviation from the path takes you on a short climb up to view the oyster beds and nature reserve which were fully restored by Havant Borough Council in 1996, creating a wildlife haven and seabird breeding site.
Near the southern end of the trail, a rope swing left hanging from a high tree was lots of fun for the girls, and a hop down to the flat sand revealed shells, bird footprints and worm casts to my beach-combing duo.
At South Hayling you can go on to Beachlands, with its sandy shores and Funland amusement park, just a mile or so further on from the trail’s end on relatively quiet roads, if you fancy rewarding the kids for their efforts with ice cream and a roller-coaster ride before heading back.
Or, if you’d rather rest up after the return journey, nip back over the bridge to sit outside The Ship Inn at Langstone, enjoying a well-deserved drink and stunning views across the harbour. Another option might be start at that pub, leave the car in its large car park and either pedal north to Havant or South to Hayling – the world really is your oyster!
Whether you take in the whole route or just part of it, the Hayling Billy Trail is perfect for lazy weekend afternoons, and Hayling as a whole is very cycle-friendly. Hampshire County Council has a good mini guide and map here.
Incidentally, the Hayling Billy Trail is officially part of the Shipwright’s Way, a 50-mile walking and cycling route which links Alice Holt Forest to Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard via towns and villages in East Hampshire. That’s also well worth checking out – most of the route is off road and provides ample opportunities for many more family-friendly days in the saddle.