Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Isle of Wight is a small island off the south coast of England. It is famous for many things; Cowes week for sailing; the Needles for danger to shipping; IOW Steam Railway for a trip back in time; Alum Bay for its coloured sand; Ventnor and Shanklin for jolly holidays; Osborne House, the holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their family; and much more. As we had never visited this busy little island, we decided to walk around its coastal path to take in as much of the sights that this would bring us. The path is approximately 100 km long and we planned to take five days of walking to complete our task. Contour holidays booked our b&bs and arranged to take our bags to each night’s stay. We were just left with our day sacks.
We arrived via the ferry at Ryde on our first day, and having dropped the bags at the b&b; the taxi took us up to Osborne House. Here we spent a very pleasant afternoon discovering Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s country retreat. It is easy to see why they loved this place so much. It really must have been so relaxing for them to be able to escape the limelight and play at being a normal family, without the affairs of state impinging on their daily lives.

Our first walking day took us from Ryde to Cowes (13km). The first part of the walk took us past Quarr Abbey dating from 1131. Today’s buildings date from 1912 and are in a red Belgian brick. We stopped for coffee at Osborne House; not realizing that we would have had plenty of time to see the place today. Then we dropped down into Cowes, crossing the Medina River with the little chain ferry. Cowes is a lovely fishing village, which has been taken over by the ‘sailing set’. It bustles with life and looking out over the Solent, one can see many south coast towns with their busy ports. Traffic in the Solent is constant, with every type of craft sailing up, down and across.
Our second day took us on to Yarmouth (26km). We had to walk a little inland as part of this coastline is riddled with various river mouths. It was very interesting, nevertheless and we stopped for lunch near Shalfleet Mill. Our landlady had provided us with some sandwiches, so imagine our surprise when we discovered spam in one round and tongue in another. As the b&b was above an antique restorer, perhaps it was no wonder! When we reached Yarmouth we found another busy but smaller town. The ferry to Lymington arrives here, and was busily to-ing and fro-ing with day trippers.
The following day we had another long walk from Yarmouth all the way to Brighstone (23km). This took us down the west coast of the island, sometimes scrambling over areas where the path had collapsed down the cliffside. Our first views were of Hurst Castle (1544) seemingly almost touching distance away, across the water. This is one of Henry VIII fortresses protecting the Solent and the south coast ports.

We left the busy Solent behind us, with the Poole Bay opening out to our right. Ahead of us, we caught glimpses of the Needles jutting out into the sea beyond Alum Bay, and soon found ourselves descending into the resort area. We stopped here for coffee and then climbed up onto the chalk downs for good views of the Needles and back into the bay. This view showed us the different rocks that provide the coloured sands that have fascinated visitors for eons. We now walked up onto the downs, following the path to the Tennyson Monument where we stopped for lunch.

The weather was glorious, and it was a joy to be walking along in the clear air, with sea sparkling below us. At one point there was a very strange phenomenon. Looking out to sea, we could see a ship on the horizon, which appeared higher than we were on the cliff. Our route took us along the cliffs, negotiating the various chines that cut into the cliffs. Chines are the remains of ancient river valleys, now mostly small gullies leading down to the sea. The term "chine" is only used on the Isle of Wight and parts of Dorset and Hampshire. As the walls of the chines and cliffs of the south coast of the Isle of Wight are so unstable and erode continually, the strata are clearly visible. Chines are therefore very important for their fossil records, their archaeology and the unique flora and fauna they provide shelter to.
Walking day four had us tramping from Brighstone to Shanklin (24km). This section saw us reaching the southernmost point of the Isle of Wight, St Catherine’s Point. Actually, we saw the point from Gore Cliff as we turned the corner to begin the trek up towards the east coast. The waterways here seemed very quiet after the Solent, even the seabirds seemed in short supply. It gradually became busier as we came first into St Lawrence, where we descended onto the seafront. We walked on through passing the picturesquely named Woody Bay and Orchard Bay until we came for the signs for the Botanic Gardens. It was here that we had decided to have lunch. Arriving a little late, the choices were a bit limited, but it was very pleasant to have a seat in the gardens and to enjoy the sunshine. The new visitors centre is an impressive building with views out over most of the gardens. If one has plenty of time to explore, you can visit gardens from Japan and New Zealand to the Mediterranean and the Americas, not forgetting the Palm Garden.

We now pressed on along the path through Ventnor. This is quite a holiday town with hotels and attractions along the Esplanade. Coming away from Ventnor towards Shanklin, we walked through a wooded area at Bonchurch, passing the old church and the rock formation known as the Wishing Seat. This lead on to the area known as the Landslip. This area rests on the blue slipper layer of Gault. After a wet winter the rocks above the clay layer slide off causing the landslip. The path tries to keep well away from this area, with difficulty, but we had some lovely views along the coastline to Shanklin in the distance. Eventually we came to the steps down to Appley Beach, and the Fisherman’s Cottage Pub.  It was only a short walk now into Shanklin, back up the east cliff and into town and our Hotel. Contrary to our belief, the hotel was without a restaurant, but after restorative showers, we wandered downtown and were very lucky to discover a wonderful restaurant, The Cottage, on Eastcliff Road. They served us a superb meal and delicious wine. If the showers were restorative, this meal was elating. We floated back to the hotel for a delightful nights rest.
So, now it was our last walking day. This was Shanklin back to Ryde (22km) we began by walking along the cliff, then we soon came down into Sandown – down steps and a steep slope. We walked along the Esplanade and past the pier and the zoo at Yaverland where we climbed up to the cliff top again. It was lovely walking up on the cliff, but there are many holiday places, scattered along the routs. We descended at Bembridge and came to where there is a Lifeboat Pier, and a pleasant coffee stop. Bembridge has a huge harbour we had to walk around and we had to cross the River Yar. This is a bit confusing as we had been in Yarmouth on day 2 – so there are two river Yars on this small island. We made good progress and stopped in Seaview for a tasty sandwich for lunch. The Copper Kettle cafĂ©, on the High Street is run by a young man, who makes exceedingly good sandwiches. We now had only a short walk in to Ryde – all along the coast, passing all sorts of attractions for visitors. But best of all we were able to walk along the beach for part of the way. Ryde was a Victorian resort, although today it has all modern facilities. The old Victorian Pavilion has been preserved and still offers a variety of amusements for visitors.  But we still had to walk to Binstead where we were staying. The route took us up through the town to the golf course and along the footpath, cutting through its middle. We then descended to Binstead church and finally into Binstead, and along to our b&b.

 We had closed the circle, and although tired, we were pleased with our achievement. The next morning we were driven back to Ryde, the ferry and then the train home.