The Isle of Wight Coastal Path – Day 1

July 31, 2001: Yarmouth to Freshwater Bay

Yarmouth Harbor

Yarmouth Harbor

The annual summer expedition set forth in 2001 without one of its usual participants, Tosh – just a few days before our own walk – having fallen down some stairs in Fort William with a bag of rock specimens on her back. I was in a state of shock for several days, not wishing to believe that she could do her back in again on the eve of one of our week-long jaunts, but it soon became obvious that she wouldn’t be able to walk ­– and that, for the most part – she was also unwilling to let our landladies know she wasn’t coming. So this would leave Harold and yours truly with the task of explaining this mysterious defection, and completing the walk on our own. He was still game, and so, with pack fully laden, I set forth at about 7:15 on the morning of Tuesday, July 31.

For many months the Lees and I had talked about doing the first half of the Cotswold Way as our summer walking project. But outbreaks of foot and mouth in Gloucestershire made the opening of this walk problematic and so, when it was time to do some booking, I had nominated another one of my long-cherished projects, the Isle of Wight Coastal Path. It could be accomplished in seven days of walking, including arrival and departure day and, at 70+ miles, the outing would very much replicate the rhythm of our previous summer’s walk on the Coast-to-Coast Path. That is why Harold and I met at Waterloo on this morning – in order to buy singles to Yarmouth (cheaper than returns at this hour, evidently).

We bought some bottled water for the journey and studied Waterloo’s new electronic blue notice boards. Our train was the 8:30 for Weymouth and we marched a long way forward before boarding – since they planned to lose the last five cars in Southampton. No sooner had we taken our seats than an apologetic attendant came through with seat reservation cards and we had to start seat selection all over again.

The train did not make too many stops – nevertheless it was late reaching Brockenhurst and we missed a connection. There was about a 25-minute wait, long enough for many of us on the platform to see something quite unusual. A long weasel-shaped animal with a curved spine was making its way quite deliberately outside the fence opposite the station. This chap squeezed through a hole, descended to the track bed and reversed directions, sniffing along the track. Then he reversed again and climbed through the fence. A chap with a bicycle identified the grey animal as a stoat; the platform guard thought he was a ferret, but I disagreed – without my being able to say just what we had just been looking at. The show made the time pass quickly enough and soon the little shuttle to Lymington Pier arrived. Harold had emerged from a visit to the loo, bent over and scuttling sideways like a crab, and we were off, passing the bike center for the New Forest as we left the station. After fifteen minutes, and only one stop in Lymington Town, we had reached the yacht harbor on the Solent.

There was already a queue for the ferry and soon we were traipsing aboard as cars made their way below decks. We took seats in an upper lounge packed with trippers and used the twenty minute smooth passage to extract from our backpacks everything we might want to use in our daypacks on the trail. On our right we could already see the famous Needles. When the ferry pulled into Yarmouth we headed straight out to a taxi queue and I had soon negotiated with a driver to take our bags all the way to the Chale Bay Farmhouse accommodation – which Tosh had booked for us for the first two nights. We gave the driver £20 and assured him that the bags were expected – since I had insisted that Tosh at least establish this much for us before we sent them off. The cabby set off, after giving us some advice on his favorite way to get to Freshwater Bay, and we were free to pursue our own route, The Isle of Wight Coastal Path – which offered a well-established if not too well signposted circumnavigation of the island. I was very happy to be on the move at last.

I was using a fifteen year-old guidebook, The Isle of Wight Coastal Path by Alan Charles, having found nothing more recent at Stanfords – though I did discover there some relevant chapters in Martin Collins and Norman Birch’s A Walker’s Guide to the Isle of Wight (1996).  Because I wished to carry neither on the trail itself I had laboriously extracted the route finding advice from both these volumes, typed them up with the latter’s comments supplementing the former’s – and adding in as well some suggestions about trouble spots I had found on the Isle of Wight’s own website. These typescripts, about three pages a day, were placed in my map case, with the relevant section of the Outdoor Leisure Sheet 29 folded into place on the reverse side. The strings of this case and the strap of my old Canon AE1 were clutched in one hand or the other or thrown over one shoulder or another from this first moment on.

It was 11:30 and the sun was shining. There was also a cooling breeze as Harold and I crossed the highway to view the colorful sails of the harbor before heading west. We passed the first of the official white seagull-emblazoned blue coastal path signs and crossed the River Yar, escaping the road when the latter turned left and descending past some toilets to the shoreline. We walked along the sea wall and I guessed that a set of steps leading up into woodland was the turnoff we were supposed to be looking for. “Are those sycamores?” I asked Harold. He said they were.

We reached the road to Fort Victoria, a major tourist attraction, but after seventy “man-sized” paces we went half left up a long steadily climbing drive, skipping the off-route Fort, and pausing for our first clandestine pee. It was lovely in the woods but rather humid and it was with some relief that we eventually joined a footpath that brought us out to a bench with a view down to Hurst Castle on the other side of the Needles Passage. The views were lovely and there was never a stretch of sea without a sailboat moving over the waters. There were quite a few trippers about as well and some of them were even heading our way. Soon we had views of Colwell Bay and the first sighting of the endless holiday camps that dot the shoreline.

Our path zigged and zagged and reached a tarmac drive, Monks Lane, where we turned left and climbed up to a road junction. We could see the Needles themselves in the distance but, closer at hand, the chalets of the nearby holiday camp were a little less edifying. We got a chance to see them close at hand as we descended through the Brambles Chine camp and turned left at some tall cedars. At the next junction I was surprised to see that the route that Charles had favored, a quick descent to the beach, was no longer the official choice. The original route was sometimes perturbed by high tides and a cliff top alternative had slipped seaward so the coastal path now rose to the road on top – and we did too.

They were repairing this surface so we didn’t have to compete with cars, but it wasn’t too pleasant either. Soon enough there was a sign pointing down a row of Colwell bungalows and so we headed down this and took a path toward the beach. A sign warned about the cliff top path closure – but also indicated a way down to the beach so we persevered and soon reached the seaside esplanade. The place was crowded with babbling kids and their more stolid parents and many people were in the water. We turned left and walked along the esplanade around Warden Point and forward to Totland.

Here I wanted us to stop for lunch. The cafe at the pier wasn’t licensed so Harold and I actually climbed the steep steps up into Totland village. The Sentry Mead Hotel seemed rather grand so we climbed down to the beach again and this time Harold spotted the Waterfront pub, were we settled in at a table in the covered verandah. It was 1:15. We both ordered cod and chips, Harold disdaining the mushy peas – which seemed to have been dyed a lurid green. We each drank a pint of lager – or, as is usual in Harold’s case, two half pints, and we both left some of the huge portions on our plates. Before we left, after and hour, I unzipped the legs of my Hawkshead trousers and emerged in shorts. Harold has already done so.

We returned to the esplanade briefly, then took to a roadway just beyond the old lifeboat station. Here began a long and steep uphill struggle, first to reach the suburban street above, then on it to the beginnings of the path up Headon Warren. Soon we had left the scrub behind and entered an exhilarating stretch of downland. We had just paused by an NT notice board when four trippers approached us to ask how to get to the top. I offered an explanation (made easier by my perusal of the map in front of us) and one chap asked me, in all seriousness, if I was a local resident!

Near the hilltop tumulus there was a magnificent view, forward to the Needles, with the sea stretching to the horizon on one side and, rising from a valley on our left, West High Down topped by the distant Tennyson Monument. At our feet, moreover, there was a carpet of blooming heather and other wildflowers. We moved slowly through this scene and then, following footpath signs more than any guidebook notes, picked our way down to the parking lot above Alum Bay – where the Needles Pleasure Park was throbbing in painful display. Harold took the lead here and his instincts were always correct for we emerged at an advertised pitch and putt course and took to the highway through the cars and the tourists to head up to Needles Battery Drive.

NT busloads plied this private road and we had to walk on the parapets above it on occasion, facing the intense sun. On our right were views of the multi-colored cliff faces above Alum Bay – with a cable car taking passengers down to the sands. Ahead we could see the coastal path rising steeply to a row of coast guard cottages and we climbed up to these too. I hadn’t been at all sure how I would do on such steep surfaces or over such an extended period of exertion –but I was doing quite well, I thought, and enjoying myself tremendously. Harold too, in spite of his frail appearance, was strutting up ahead of me with confident steps and having a excellent time.

The Needles

The Needles

The coastal route does a hairpin turn to the left at the coastguard cottages but we decided to continue forward on the point itself – following instructions in Charles to have a look at a famous viewpoint above the Needles and the nearby lighthouse. It took us a while to get to the best spot for viewing the famous pinnacles, not so much because of the distance, but because of all the trippers there ahead of us. In the event I found the experience rather a disappointment – the best view of the Needles, as we should have known from BBC balloons and Ordnance Survey photographs, comes from the sea.

When we returned to the coast guard cottages we turned our backs to the sun (I could feel the back of my neck reddening) and, with no path at all in evidence, made our way up to the spine of West High Down, moving in an easterly direction. After a descent we had a steep pull up to the Tennyson Monument, where we had a rest on some benches. The place was overrun by Germans, one of whom noted that he and I had the same camera. His had a real case – not one held together by black and white strands of tape, as was mine. I had a swig of Mango Madness by Snapple and put on my Gap gardeners hat – which covers more of the back of my neck then my white UCLA baseball cap.

Harold descends to Freshwater Bay

Harold descends to Freshwater Bay

I was pleasantly pleased by the speed of our progress, since it was now 4:30 and I could see us making it down to Freshwater Bay in time for the last bus to Chale. Soon we set off, making steady progress downhill on grass, with much of the next day’s route along the southwest coast on view before us. We followed rutted lanes up to the main highway here and Harold asked if there was time to visit the local loos. We had walked 9.5 miles, it was just going 5:00 and we still had twenty minutes before our bus, so we did pause here – and then I discovered that the bus stop was right next door. We sat on a bench, rushing across once to see if the Ryde bus also went to Chale, and then standing in the hot sun for our Southern Vectis vehicle to pull up.

It was a bit late but we were soon aboard and for £3.10 each we soon had a top floor seat for the twenty minute ride along the military road which would also be our neighbor throughout the next day. I knew our stop would be next to the Church of St. Andrew in Chale and when we neared this building we lurched down the stairs and jumped off. Our motel, the Chale Bay Farmhouse, was just down the road and so we retraced our route and tried to rouse someone at reception.

There was no response and the man cutting the grass had nothing to suggest. The place looked quite new and had an oriental garden motif, with a miniature, scum-clogged stream running into a pool of large koi after its journey through fish bronzes. There was a note in the window advising guests that if there was no response they might try reception at the Clarendon Hotel in the village – so we retraced our steps to the church, turned left, and presented ourselves to the staff at the Clarendon which, as the senior partner in the local accommodation cartel, had our keys anyway. The staff advised us how to use the access drive to the pub immediately adjacent – that is the road to the coyly named Wight Mouse Inn – so we fought our way through an army of tourists and their hundreds of children (for whom the pub had provided many amenities) and returned the back way to the military road – and across the street to our habitation. There was a woman about this time and we confirmed a dinner reservation at the Casa De Mara restaurant on our left and unlocked the doors to our rooms (1 and 2) on our right. Our bags were both in 2 and I took mine and went into 1. We agreed to meet in an hour or so for drinks and then we retreated to the quiet of our own spaces.

My room was really very nice, quite spacious and with a nice double bed and modern plumbing in the bathroom. There was also a TV – as there was in every one of my rooms on this trip – but I never turned one on. I had a shower and looked at my red head in the mirror and then I had a bit of a rest. At 7:00 we went back to the Wight Mouse and after a long wait at the bar inside took our drinks to a table outside (we usually drank spirits in the evening) and sat amid the trailer trash on holiday and relaxed. I called Dorothy on the mobile.

At 8:00 we went back to our own place for a table in the Italian restaurant but I was really not very hungry and had neither starter nor dessert, and only pushed my seafood tagliatelli around to please the hovering hostess – who somehow thought that heavy Italian food was just the right ticket for the palates of English tourists on the Isle of Wight. I was also extremely tired after a day out in the sunshine and had trouble keeping my eyes open. Harold had a glass of wine but I switched to mineral water and when I got back to my room, at 9:00, I threw off my clothes, climbed onto the bed, turned out the light and went to sleep.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 2: Freshwater Bay to Chale