Follow the 70-mile Isle of Wight Coastal Path and be rewarded with a bewildering range of landscapes and coastal scenes that – thanks to local Ramblers – will form part of the England Coastal Path.
By: Mark Rowe, photography by Ross Woodhall.
Sir John Betjeman once described the western part of the Isle of Wight as ‘an earthquake poised in mid-explosion’. Standing above the Needles, the incisor-shaped chalk pinnacles that punch up from the Solent on the island’s western extremities, it is easy to see what he meant.
Looking east, the cattle-grazed Tennyson Down roller-coasters its way to the horizon, collapsing on its southern haunches into white cliffs so severely sheer that they seem to have been guillotined. Beyond this vanishing point, the island coast re-emerges, the downland’s trailing edges sweeping upwards once more, no longer chalk white but now the yellow of sandstone. More immediately – and dizzyingly – down to my left, are the swirling multicoloured soft sands and clays of Alum Bay’s cliffs, twisted by ancient subterranean upheavals so that their many colour bands – 21 have been identified – are more vertical than horizontal.
The Needles and Tennyson Down are simply breathtaking and represent an exhilarating start to my walk around the island’s coastline. The Isle of Wight Coastal Path route covers 112km/70 miles of coast, a circumnavigation that takes most visitors an easy-going week to walk. The good news is that soon it will take a little longer, thanks to the expansion of the England Coast Path, which is poised to add a further 25.75km/16 miles to the route, opening up parts of the coast currently closed off to walkers. The walk will then be designated a National Trail.
These access improvements are seen by the Ramblers as finally settling a long-standing injustice. When the idea for the England Coast Path was first conceived, it excluded islands, except where the government deemed them large enough. Puzzlingly, the Isle of Wight, 23 miles broad in the beam and 13 miles from north to south, did not initially pass the size test. ‘It was a bolt from the blue,’ says David Howarth of the Isle of Wight Ramblers. The Ramblers organised a public consultation that put support for the coastal path at 92%. ‘We threatened a judicial review,’ says David, ‘at which point the government agreed.’ The expectation is that, with final additions secured this summer, the new access will be in place in 2020.
Clambering up Tennyson Down, I am accompanied by buttercup-yellow gorse flowers, ascending skylarks and a hovering kestrel, and monitored by a brooding peregrine. Eventually, I reach a monument to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who called the island home for 40 years until his death.
Descending to the town of Freshwater, I pass through a newly installed gate. It turns out to be part of the Donate a Gate scheme run by the island’s Ramblers. Recently, the 200th such gate was opened on the island, making progress easier for walkers who struggle with stiles, as well as dog walkers.
After 24km/15 miles, I approach the town of Ventnor. The climate and views change utterly, now Mediterranean and subtropical and kept pleasantly warm by the protection provided against northerly winds by the chalk downs towering above the town. The Botanic Garden, right on the coast path and worthy of a diversion, is home to more than 6,000 species of plants, many of them exotics. Ventnor’s climate was considered by Victorians to be a curative for tuberculosis – and the gardens were once home to the Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest. Among those who took the air here were Karl Marx and the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
The southern edge of the Isle of Wight is often described as ‘dynamic’, which is a euphemism for ‘collapsing’. Nowhere is this more apparent than when I follow the coast path through the Bonchurch Landslip. The present terrain results from major landslides 200 years ago caused by the soft Gault clay that underpins this part of the island, buckling under the weight of the chalk that sits upon it. The effect is other-worldly.
The landslide has long since settled down, and as the coastal path coils its way through, I find myself enveloped by a fine mist. A tiny church emerges out of the spectral haze. St Boniface Old Church is entered through an arched doorway of thick planks that leads to a chilly interior. Light is only grudgingly allowed to squeeze through the tiny medieval windows.
Back outside, and in the heart of the landslip, I head uphill, ascending wooden staircases along footpath V65c. Every footpath on the island has an individual ID. Here, ‘V’ stands for the parish of Ventnor; elsewhere you will see ‘BB’ for Bembridge, ‘CS’ for Cowes. In all, the island packs in more than 800km/500 miles of rights of way, as dense a network as you will find in the UK.
The landslip runs for a couple of miles and has one last surprise. The path appears to come to a dead end in front of a sheer rock face. Then I notice a narrow gloomy chink, through which I can just about squeeze without edging sideways. This cleft is known as the Devil’s Chimney. Inside this open-air passage, every shade of green on the colour spectrum seems to seep into the rocks.
I emerge on the southern headland of Sandown Bay, a magnificent five-mile stretch of beach that offers the quintessential seaside experience. In between the Victoriana of arcades and postcard shops in the towns of Shanklin and Sandown, the views of the coast and the cliffs – white chalk and russet sandstone juxtaposed once again – that frame the bay are magnificent. At the north end of the bay, around Yaverland, people are rooting around in the soft cliff base for fossils. Everything from 65 million-year-old oyster shells to dinosaur footprints have been found here. Elsewhere, the Isle of Wight coast has thrown up skeletons of sauropods and iguanodons.
Beyond Sandown, I reach Bembridge Harbour, where the path hugs the rim of a tidal bay, home to stately houseboats. I cross the harbour via a tidal causeway onto St Helens Duver (the name rhymes with cover), a local word for a large spit of shingle and dunes. Woods bookend the harbour, and a line of beach huts adds a parti-colour touch to the view.
Work to be done
One of the last legs of my journey is along the north coast, north-west of the island’s major town, Newport. Here, around the village of Newtown, lie some of the most delectable, little-visited walking spots the island has to offer. The low-lying land sinks gently into the sea, with mudflats and lagoons infilled twice daily by the Solent and boardwalks reaching out into the creeks.
Newtown is poised to become one of the great triumphs of the improved coast path. A lack of suitable public rights of way means that the existing ‘coastal path’ runs inland for 5km/3 miles, following one of those country lanes where a walker’s heart sinks as they hear a vehicle coming around a blind corner at speed.
‘Newtown Creek has five “fingers” of land that stick out into the water,’ explains David. ‘Before, we had to walk across the “wrist” of that hand – now we will be able to walk up and down all the fingers.’
I cross a hay meadow that will be on the new coast path. In spring and summer, it is a delight, fringed with the blue tinge of sea aster and the purple of sea lavender, and in between with green-winged orchids and marbled white butterflies.
To the east rises a headland where another battle is still being fought. The Ministry of Defence owns land known as Jersey Camp here and has objected to a footpath, even though the area is only lightly used for military training. ‘We recognise that there has to be a balance between walkers, nature and landowners, but we’ve been campaigning for a new coast path since 1988,’ says David. ‘It’s been poor for many years. We have one shot at this and we have to get it right. We need it to be the best, not a compromise.’
Another issue awaiting resolution, also on the north coast, involves the parish of East Cowes, which has no public or permissive footpaths. Hopes that the new coast path might run across the beach at Osborne House – where Queen Victoria used to bathe – have met resistance from the owners, English Heritage. ‘I think English Heritage is missing the point and missing an opportunity,’ says David. ‘Walkers would probably buy an ice cream from the café by the beach, see the house and make a note to go back and pay to enter the next day.’
I complete my circular walk in Yarmouth. I walk along the pier: water, woodlands and slivers of beach are all visible. Once on board my ferry, on deck, I stare at the retreating island – now Tennyson Down and then the Needles reveal themselves. I’m struck by how incredibly varied this coastline is, and struggle to think of many other stretches of coast in the UK that squeeze so many changes in landscape into a similar distance.
The Isle of Wight Coastal Path is currently 112km long (70 miles) and typically takes 6-7 days to complete at an easy pace.
OS Explorer OL29; Landranger 196.
Seaview Hotel (seaviewhotel.co.uk, 01983 612711). Seaview is located on the coast path and provides free bus passes for walkers staying there.