Walking: The delight of the Isle of Wight

Posted on: 02 June 2010 by Mark O'haire

Lying just four miles from the south coast, and only two hours from London, the rich and eclectic appeal of this little body of land, still remains a mystery to many, says Jill Fordham.

Steephill CoveThere is something rather mystical about holidaying on a small island, reminiscent in some respects of those robust 1950’s adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. But instead of the perilous freedom of a small wooden boat, I take the 20 minute Solent crossing from Portsmouth to Ryde, within the comfort of a Wightlink catamaran, but still with that same aura of anticipation that sea crossings bring.

The pier at Ryde, completed in July 1814, was constructed to cater for the growing number of Victorian visitors to the island, and was one of the first great British pleasure piers to be built. Always a working pier, it was originally twinned with a tram track, alongside which was added a third pier in 1880, for the provision of a direct steam railway link to the pier head. Today the rail link to this historic seaside resort remains, which is a relief for those less able to walk the length of this, the UK’s fourth longest pier.

Yarmouth 
HarbourFortunately, this is not a problem for me, for I am here to participate in the island’s annual Walking Festival, which is the largest of its kind in the country. Held for a two week period during the month of May, and coupled with a Walking Weekend in October, this popular event, which is now in its 12th year has expanded year on year to offer a diverse range of distances and themed walks to accommodate those of all abilities.

There are 310 walks in total, the longest of which is the 72 mile ‘Round The Island Walk Non Stop’, but do not let this epic 24-hour journey deter you, for there are also many shorter, but no less picturesque ambles within the Festival programme. For whilst walking anywhere within the beauty of the countryside you are almost certain also to experience the captivating views and ever changing hues of a sparkling sea.

No more is this apparent than on my first walk - Needles, Rockets and Tea, which encompasses much of the rugged beauty that is characteristic of the south west of the island. A gently undulating 6 mile circular walk, led by David Howarth, Area Chairman of the Isle of Wight Ramblers, this starts in Totland Bay, with a steady climb, affording spectacular views over The Solent, from the golden gorse covered downs of Headon Warren.

The NeedlesBeyond this, we bypass The Needles Park at Alum Bay, where looking back over the bay, we are treated to the spectacle of magnificently coloured  rock formations that tell a story of significant biological and physical change spanning a period of 50 million years. Chair lifts glide silently from the cliff top, down to boats bobbing below us, which make scenic trips to the white chalk structures famously known as the Needles, which proudly protrude as their name suggests, from the depths of a kaleidoscopic sea.

Then on, past cow-slip covered downs, to The Rocket Exhibition, which tells of the island’s lesser known involvement between 1957 and 1971 as a rocket testing site known as Highdown. Here, over 200 people worked on this top secret mission, instigated by the Royal Aircraft Establishment to produce designs for a guided weapons testing vehicle known as Black Knight. Chosen for its seclusion, the site of The New Battery also offered a structure of underground rooms, basic accommodation and the scope to be developed. In 1975 the site was purchased by the National Trust, but only in 2004 was a historic exhibition opened. From here there is a viewing platform that offers unrivalled views over this dramatic corner of coastline, with at the end point, a lighthouse to protect sailors from the danger and unpredictability of on occasion, a very angry sea.

Heading back, we take the Tennyson Trail over Tennyson Down, which is named after poet Alfred Lord Tennyson who lived at nearby Farringford House for nearly 40 years. At the summit stands a towering granite cross to commemorate his life, and from here there are views way beyond this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which comprises just a fraction of that for which the island is renowned. Dropping down into a valley, we reach Warren Farm, where we receive a warm welcome and the most delicious of clotted cream teas, after which from there, feeling suitably refreshed, we embark on the remaining mile or so back to Totland Bay.

Osborne-HouseAn Evening Beach and Woodland Walk at Queen Victoria’s magnificent seaside retreat of Osborne House in East Cowes, enables you the opportunity to view the glorious gardens, before taking a leisurely two mile stroll through the woodland to her private beach. This is a popular walk with both tourists and locals alike, as unlike the house, the beach is not open to the general public.

The grounds include a scenic terraced garden, a separate walled flower and fruit garden, and a hothouse filled with exotic plants. Mid-way between the house and the sea, is the Swiss Cottage where the royal children played and from where the Queen’s bathing machine ran on stone rails to the family’s private beach, where it was lowered into the sea.

This year the terraced garden is vibrant with red, blue and yellow, set to the dramatic backdrop of a dazzling blue sea. The walk is led by head gardener, Toby Beasley, who tells me that: “Whilst much of the garden stays the same, with trees and shrubbery slowly changing over time, the annual beds and wall garden, and especially the terrace beds, change each year. On the terraces in particular, we use plants to mark special occasions. In 2001 there was a special display to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria, when we used somber colours to depict mourning. Whilst next year, in 2011, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of  the death of Prince Albert, we’re going to again use lots of dark blues and purples, including the zantedeschia plant, which is a type of Arum Lily and being one of his favourite flowers, was used to adorn his coffin.”

The-Hendrix-Garden-at-DimboHendrix in the West Wight 1970-2010 is an easy going three mile circular walk, rather in keeping with the style of the times. Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Isle of Wight Festival, we start from the Hendrix Garden at Dimbola Lodge, and walk up through fields above the village of Freshwater, to view the site of the 1970 Festival up on Afton Down.

Whilst surveying the fields before us, I hear from veteran rockers and local residents, Roger Symonds and Vic King, of how over 600,000 people had camped there, with a gathering greater than Woodstock and making it the largest musical event of its time. The council had prepared only for an audience of 100,000, and so was overwhelmed with the numbers that came. “We just thought that we were coming over for a fun weekend” says Roger, who then lived across on the mainland, “never thinking that it was to be such a historical event.” The entrance fee, now £130, was then £3. “I had to save for some time” he tells me, “as it was half my weekly wage, and when I arrived at Ryde, I hitched a lift over here, to find the organizers just swamped with the event. The surrounding hillsides had become a make-shift shanty town with people living in bales of straw.”

Originally initiated to raise funds for a swimming pool, the Festival lasted for only a further two years due to the logistical difficulties of such a small island coping with the enormity of such an event. However, in 2002, it was reintroduced at a different venue, and boasting an enviable line-up of bands, will next year celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Back at Dimbola Lodge, we chat some more over tea and the most delicious of cakes, for which the Cameron Tea Room, named after the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron who once lived there, is renowned. Upstairs there is a permanent exhibition of her work, together with a changing programme of contemporary art and photography exhibitions, and rooms which depict also, the colourful history of the music Festivals.

During my stay here, I have come to find that good cuisine is indeed a familiar feature of the island, and no less so than in the case of my hosts Ann and Paul Hutchins, owners of the Windsor Carlton. Located in the southernmost town of Ventnor which has a micro-climate long associated with promoting good health, this elegant Victorian town house stands in an elevated position with enviable sea views across the bay. Recently refurbished, the Windsor Carlton offers guests the choice of five superior quality en-suite rooms, inclusive of breakfast.

Special Offer

The Windsor Carlton is offering readers a 15% discount on bookings made when quoting "Jill Fordham". Prices per room start at £40 (single) and from £80 (double). Call 01983 852543 for more information.

Their four star rating is accompanied by a silver award, and additional to that, they last year received a Breakfast Award from Enjoy England, in recognition of an extensive menu of delicacies, using home grown and local produce, whenever possible. Alongside variations of a traditional English breakfast, lies a choice of delicious dishes, including Isle of White asparagus, poached and wrapped in parma ham, and topped with poached eggs and parmesan. The tempting list is endless, and whilst unaccompanied by evening meals, they do prepare picnic hampers, for which they source local, and in high season, home grown produce from their own cliff top garden.

Here I have to end, for there is no limit to my passion for writing about this most pleasing of places, but not without a brief mention to the well hidden secret of nearby Steephill Cove - accessed only by foot, and without doubt one of my most treasured discoveries on this delightful little island.

By Jill Fordham 

Further Information

Ferry services operate from Portsmouth, Southampton and Lymington, with up to 350 crossings a day.

Trains operate along the east coast between Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin village, and also there are many events throughout the year, linked to the island’s award winning Heritage Steam Railway.

Bus routes spider their way from the county town of Newport through quaint and characterful villages to the coastal resorts that circle the island.

Walking can be enjoyed, with over half the island designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, across 500 miles of well-maintained, signposted footpaths and 60 miles of coastline.

The Needles Battery is open all year, with the exception of in adverse weather conditions.

Osborne House, now under the care of English Heritage is open to the public from Spring through to Autumn.

Ventnor Botanic Garden, was founded in 1970 and with a climate more akin to the Mediterranean, its collection comprises worldwide temperate and subtropical trees and shrubs grouped according to origin.

The Isle of Wight Festival is held each year in June, at Seaclose Park, close to Newport.

Accommodation on the island is vastly varied to suit all tastes and budgets.

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