A NEW firm in Winchester aims to encourage people back into the saddle to see the best of the British countryside.

Cycle Tours UK has started running trips in Hampshire, Dorset, Devon and the Isle of Wight, with more routes to follow.

The firm caters for all abilities and provides all the equipment, so even those who have not ridden since school can have a go.

This applied to my wife, Louise, who last rode a bike when John Major was prime minister, but was up for the challenge.

Perhaps it was the promise of two nights in top Hampshire hotels that tempted her… The first venue we stayed at was certainly worth any amount of blood, sweat and gears – Lainston House at Sparsholt.

Having organised my own cycling mini-breaks in the past on a shoestring, my idea of luxury after 40 miles of riding is a lukewarm shower.

So I was immediately drawn to the Jacuzzi bath in our palatial room, and tried out all the settings.

Our trip also included dinner and no expense is spared at Lainston House to provide the finest cuisine, often from local producers.

Breakfast the morning after was also excellent, though we both avoided the ‘full English’ as we had a long ride ahead.

Chris Dawson from St Cross, who is the man behind Cycle Tours UK, met us outside the hotel with several bikes.

My wife found one that she liked and tested it around the car park. I picked a Trek 7.6FX that struck an excellent balance between comfort and speed – a superb road bike.

We set off from Sparsholt and took a short climb to the top of Farley Mount, after which the terrain was mostly downhill.

Louise took a couple of breaks on the steeper hills, but a restorative soda at The Crown in King’s Somborne worked wonders.

Indeed, she then led for several miles up the Test Valley while I dropped back to speak to Chris about his new venture.

Formerly in the petrochemicals business, he launched Cycle Tours UK earlier this year to take his love of cycling to the next step.

His trips for small groups have already proved popular with staycation Brits and foreign visitors alike.

The emphasis is on relaxed riding and enjoying the British countryside with scenic views, picnics and good places to stay.

He said: “It is widely overlooked that right here on our doorstep in the UK we have some of the most stunning countryside, historic locations and quality accommodation providing fabulous opportunities for cycle touring that rival any continental destination.

He added: “Cycle Tours UK offers unique cycling holidays for the pampered pedaller, who wants to experience an energetic day out in the countryside and the comfort and excellent fine dining on offer by night.”

Our berth for the second evening was The Peat Spade in Longstock.

It was just as well that Louise set a good pace as the moment we arrived the heavens opened.

Chris took our bikes away in his support car while Louise and I settled into The Peat Spade.

The venue takes pride in its food, and had we chosen to dine there, we might have found it fully booked.

But after freshening up, we headed into the bright lights of Stockbridge two miles away instead.

This actually proved quite tricky, as the bus service was patchy and there seemed to be no local taxis. Eventually we hired a minicab from Andover.

Google recently named Stockbridge’s High Street as ‘Britain’s Best Foodie Street’. Given the choice of pubs, restaurants and delis, it’s hardly surprising.

We settled into the White Hart Inn where I enjoyed River Test Trout with sweet potatoes while a thunderstorm raged outside.

The one minicab that seems to cover Stockbridge then returned us to the Peat Spade for a good night’s rest followed by breakfast.

As agreed in advance, Louise rode in the support car for the return trip while Chris and I tackled a more taxing route.

We headed back down the Test Valley to Mottisfont before turning east and heading up towards Farley Mount.

I strangely enjoy hill climbing, and the gearbox on the Trek 7.6FX made life very easy.

Where the bike flopped is that it did nothing to quell my distaste for off-roading after we left the tarmac.

Chris took me up a muddy and stony trail and then along the Clarendon Way. The views were stunning, but the terrain was hard work.

Then again, the tours are not a macho muscle fest, but designed for what riders are comfortable tackling.

So I kept riding not because I was ashamed to dismount, but because I could handle the terrain … just.

We then returned to Lainston House and I waved farewell to Chris, his support car, and fine bikes.

He certainly took good care of us, and proved that cycling holidays do not have to be hell.

It even prompted Louise to start talking about buying a new bike.

* Warwick Payne and his wife Louise took a two-night tour with Cycle Tours UK.

It offers midweek and weekend breaks costing around £450 per person for two nights and £600 for three nights.

All bicycles and equipment are provided along with picnics, but riders need to arrange their own insurance.

For more details visit www.cycletoursuk.com