Ticket to Ryde as seen in Country Walking Magazine April 2015
As I Scramble over boulders the size of small cars and lower myself from a six-foot ledge, I question the wisdom of deviating from the official coast path through the woods and following the beach instead. I clearly spent too long chatting at the floating café in Bembridge and the incoming tide has made my passage to the secluded pristine sands of Priory Bay an ungainly and undignified event. This is the final day of my trek around the Isle of Wight following its coastal path; a distance of 69 miles that I have walked in six easy-going days. I have lived on this Diamond Isle for 20 years and explored for many miles on its footpaths, but this is the first time I’ve hiked right round its shores.
I emerged at the ruins of the old Quarr Abbey. Alongside it is the new rose-coloured Abbey, a working monastery built in 1912 and home to a small group of Benedictine monks and a café. The path meandered inland around the estuary and through Newtown nature reserve which came alive with waders and migrants as they took flight in great numbers and full voice, from the muddy creeks and salt marshes as I emerged from a shrubby hidden path. There are three bird hides around the creek where you can watch oystercatchers, shelducks, terns and little egrets without scaring them away. The path continued through a labyrinth of ancient forests where mammoths and primitive horses roamed during the last ice age. There are fossilised remains of their teeth and bones in the sands of Bouldner, and fossilised alligator bones, shells and plants can be found on the beaches at Fort Victoria.
This was a flat section of the walk but quite muddy after prolonged periods of rain and I found that being covered in dirt camouflaged me quite well in the wood but less so when I arrived at a bar for lunch. Bird enthusiasts will love it, especially in spring when the birdsong of lesser whitethroats, cuckoos and chiff chaff s can be heard in the bluebell-carpeted forests.
From Yarmouth to Freshwater Bay, glimpses of the Needles teased me until I reached Headon Warren where I stopped for a picnic and indulged in dramatic views of the iconic chalk structures. Tennyson Down was next – a favourite place of mine, as it was of its namesake, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who frequently walked this route after moving to the island in 1853. At that time it was called East High Down; it was renamed in his honour in 1897, five years after his death.
At Compton Bay, surfers played in the waves on the same stretch of coastline that claimed the lives of so many mariners, whose ships were wrecked in the formidable seas and rocks at Atherfield Point. I visualised images of smuggling life as I strolled along the cliff top, a little bit romanticised perhaps, by Pirates of the Caribbean. Lethal south-westerly gales, moody seas and ship-wrecking rocks made smuggling a lucrative business along this coast until 100 years ago, and stories abound that smugglers lured ships into the bay on the promise of shelter from the storms.
One smuggling story that can be verified involves the construction and maintenance of the oratory on St Catherine’s Hill. It was the work of Walter de Godeton, Lord of the Manor of Chale, who was ordered to build and pay for its upkeep by the Pope when he was found to have barrels of wine in his cellar from the wreck of the St Marie of Bayonne, a cargo-ship destroyed in 1313 with a hold full of alcohol destined for a French monastery.
Smugglers’ tunnels are still visible in the cliffs. Some only stretch a few feet before the tunnel has collapsed; others, they say, run from the sea to cellars in notable houses or to secret passageways in the Niton Undercliff, which is an interesting woodland to explore with concealed caves lurking behind twisted vines. The southern coastline is sheltered from cold Arctic winds and the climate in Ventnor is akin to the south of France. The coastline from Niton to Sandown hides sheltered sandy coves often missed by tourists; little gems of solitude and sunshine like Steephill cove, which also has a café.
The view of Culver Cliff and Sandown Bay is almost as iconic as the Needles. It is no wonder that Charles Darwin felt inspired to start writing his On the Origin of Species while staying at the Ocean Hotel in 1858. Sandown also has a profusion of ice cream shops, selling tempting exotic flavours of the Isle of Wight’s own luxurious Minghella ice cream. This left me with just one dilemma – which flavour to choose.
I spent some time at Yaverland beach, fossil hunting on one of the best sites in Europe for dinosaur bones. The ever-shifting cliffs, constantly eroded by wind and waves, means that fossil finds are a frequent occurrence; everything from water-worn, pebble-sized bits of black bone to mammoth-sized leg bones.
There is something very satisfying about a circular walk and as I amble along the last few miles back to Ryde, I decide a path around an island has to be the ultimate orbital route. The Wight’s coast path is well signposted and its inclines are mild, its views spectacular and its history fascinating. It’s the perfect trek to ease into a summer of walking and I’m almost tempted to keep on going, and loop around this diamond isle in the Solent again.