The Isle of Wight Coastal Path – Day 3

August 2, 2001: Chale to Sandown

At Blackgang Chine

At Blackgang Chine

For days we had been hearing dire predictions about today’s weather – so it was with some trepidation that I parted the curtains on the third morning of our walk, a gray Thursday. Visibility was still not too bad and there seemed to be some brighter patches in the clouds– but you sensed it could all go wrong at any minute.

Harold and I again sat down to breakfast at the Casa de Mare and endured another half hour of Neil Diamond’s lamentations before finishing our packing. I wrote a postcard to Tosh, who would have completed her two thousandth mile at Fort Victoria two days earlier – if she had been well enough to walk. We lofted our full packs and used the roadway to walk up to the Clarendon, where Harold settled up on our behalf. The receptionist had suggested that the courtesy van would forward our packs to Sandown – so we left them in the vestibule and at 9:25 we were off.

We walked back to the military road and took a left. Almost immediately there was a line of cottages on The Terrace, to our right, and from this short road a dark path leading uphill. When we emerged at the top we were reunited with the main road and used it to continue our climb, passing a pub and reaching a roundabout. I was puzzling over the map and trying to match things up with my two written descriptions. I believe that the map suggests keeping to the road here – but I wanted to see the fun park at Blackgang Chine to our right.

We therefore dropped down with its access road, passed the water shoot and approached the giant Bunyanesque statue of a pirate – where I paused to take a photo. A parking lot attendant across the street was still waiting for the day’s first customers and I asked him to confirm that there was a footpath at the top end of his empire. In fact, we could already see the steps leading uphill and so we took them and struggled steeply up. About halfway up this stretch of St. Catherine’s Hill the rain began.

St. Catherine’s Lighthouse

St. Catherine’s Lighthouse

In a somewhat sheltered spot we paused to put on full rain gear, emerging into a field with a light rain as our accompaniment. At a footpath crossing at the top I was a bit puzzled how best to continue and headed left initially – in part just to orient myself. We were near a parking lot on the main road and I could at last see our position on the map. We did have to reverse our direction so that we could now proceed along an exhilarating cliff top path that slowly rounded the point as we at last left the world of the chines behind. Ahead was a more gentle, wooded undercliff, with the beginnings of suburbia. On our left were fields and below us we could catch our first glimpses of a lighthouse.

The rain was not too unpleasant and I paused once to take a picture before returning the camera to my pack. A descent began, with the occasional stile (stiles beat gates today 4-3) and we were soon using tracks, like Boxer’s Lane, to drop down to the Niton Road.

When I had looked at the county’s website I had discovered information about four possible path diversions, one due to the proximity to animals, the others due to subsidence. There were still plenty of signs advising caution because of foot and mouth disease – though all paths seemed open – but I was still anxious about diversions due to landslips. One section that had been closed was ahead of us now and if it were still closed this would mean three miles of road walking from Niton to Ventnor’s Botanic Gardens. However the website bulletin I had consulted was dated May 24 – and I had no way of knowing if restrictions were still in effect.

We crossed the Niton Road, turned right, and took a left almost immediately. A few suburban zigzags and we were at the start of the path to St. Lawrence. There were no closure signs so we climbed up to a cliff edge path, somewhat overgrown, and continued in the northeasterly direction that would predominate for some time. Fields dotted with radio masts were on our left and every now and then there would be a break in the hedgerow and we could see the sea, as at Puckaster Cove, or some stately pile, such as Spindler’s house, Old Park. It was raining a bit harder now, but overhanging foliage protected us from some of the worst effects of the moisture.

We climbed a hill and descended to one of the tall aerials. In an open spot there was a meeting of the ways, and we turned right to descend on St. Rhadegund’s Path. This uses steps and rails to get the walker steeply downhill and into St. Lawrence. It had been brightening steadily and the sun actually broke through in the middle of our descent. I held my face upward, joking to Harold, “This is probably the only time today that we can work on our tans.” It was no joke; I was right.

I had noticed that Charles’ description for the St. Lawrence section had been superseded by new advice from C&B and by new green diamonds on the OS map. There were some path signs around as well, but I wasn’t too confident I was making all the right turnings. At the bottom of the steps we crossed a road and entered a suburban street, found a tarmac path forward and reached the main road again. Here we turned left, passed the pub (too early for us) and continued amid pretty posh surroundings toward Ventnor. I had just about given up hope of returning to a proper coastal path when we reached Wolverton Avenue, which C&B had proposed as the right turnoff. So we headed down it and at its foot we saw a man working on a hedgerow with a scythe.

This was Jim, who engaged us in conversation for several minutes. He was wearing an Australian hat and working away on his uncle’s garden. He was a veteran walker and scout leader, 65, and he had done the coastal path as a series of day walks from Newport, using buses to get to the beginning of each stage. He had done much walking in the Lakes as well and he was a great fan of Wainwright and had even read A Pennine Journey. “Met him once,” Jim said. “Aren’t you Wainwright?” Jim had asked – to which the reclusive one had evidently replied, “I’ve been mistaken for him many times.” Jim then pointed in the direction we needed to take to reconnect with the coast path and we were off.

The rain had definitely returned as we rose and fell with the twisting path. On our left we passed the Rare Breeds and Waterfowl Park – where I spotted one llama, several of Hemingway’s Fiesta bulls and one authentic Texas Longhorn.

Wildflowers near Ventnor’s Botanic Gardens

Wildflowers near Ventnor’s Botanic Gardens

Next we passed the outskirts of the Botanic Gardens – but I found one field of wildflowers that made an even more attractive photograph. There were some steep steps to climb before things leveled off and we could begin a descent into Ventnor. It was just going 1:15 and we were pretty well soaked. Near the foreshore we spotted the Spyglass pub and decided to give it a try. The place was jammed with holiday makers looking for a place to get out of the wet, but after waiting for the grannies to get settled we at last found a corner table underneath a life preserver and sat down for the first time since leaving Chale.

Harold went to register our food orders and fetch the pints. He spilled a good deal on our table as he returned – “Not to worry,” I said, “I am wearing my rain pants.” It wasn’t a very comfortable lunch. There was more batter than fish in my flattened plaice, though the warm chips were good. And we had to hear everyone else’s conversation. The old folks at the next table were baffled by today’s popular music scene and one of them much preferred last night’s Prom on the telly, especially Johann (!) Strauss’s Four Last Songs. We used the loos and left at 2:00.

The rain, given added force by the sea breeze, was worse, but at least the footing had improved as the next section put us on the esplanade to Bonchurch. A few other brave souls were about but we had the walkway pretty much to ourselves. Again I was following C&B’s advice and we had just reached a turnoff for the old church at Bonchurch when a chap paused to ask us if we were looking for the coast path. When he heard we wanted to see the church he volunteered to accompany us uphill and to show us how to get back to the coast path as well. He wanted to know where we were from and he told us that he had lived in Los Angeles too – when he worked with the horses at Hollywood Park.

The church was quite lovely, though it ­– like almost every other one we visited on the Isle – was locked. Still there was some shelter in the entryway and we paused here for a bit. I sallied forth once to take a photo but thereafter the camera stayed in the pack.

We were about to begin another section subject to subsidence, a famous undercliff, and it too had been closed earlier, according to the Isle of Wight website. Fortunately it seemed to be open today – so we began a mile or so of halting progress, reminded very much of out walk through similar terrain west of Lyme Regis.

I was having a lot of trouble. I couldn’t see through my glasses, which were steamy on one side and rain-dappled on the other. Finally I gave them to Harold for safekeeping. I had tied the hood of my rain jacket so tightly over my white UCLA baseball cap that the bill of the latter was pushed down in front of my eyes and I couldn’t see much more than my feet. What I could see was dispiriting. Much of the twisty, up and down pathway was over clay, which was becoming menacingly slippery because of the rain. There were rails in place in some steep spots but it was still very slow going and Harold often had to wait for me. Also, my rain pants and my pack were acting as a depressive force on my shorts and my underwear (which wouldn’t stay in position) and I could feel an abrasion wearing a groove in my dampened groin. The little toe of my right foot was also sore.

We persevered and the clay gave way to some better surfaces. A woman with three dogs got mixed up in our party but at least her occasional wrong turnings were instructive. My hat hell off as I adjusted my trousers and I stepped on it – white no more. At last we reached the end of the undercliff route and returned to harder tracks and roads. Only now did it occur to me to put my cap on over rather than under my rain hood.

We walked through suburban Luccombe and began a long descent. At the Rylestone Gardens we chose a steep set of steps down to Apley Beach at Shanklin, walking briefly along the shore and into the town, where we spotted a pub, the Longshoreman. We were the only customers and sipped whiskey in a quiet corner. Some of my route-finding sheets were a bit wet, but the map was still dry.

When we emerged from the pub the weather was somewhat improved. The rain had stopped and the skies were brightening again. This meant that we could make good progress toward the distant pier at Sandown, using the esplanade beneath the tall cliffs on our left. It took almost an hour, however, to reach our goal. I had been given some instructions by our landlady, Mrs. Radford, so I knew to head uphill in search of the High Street. Melville Street was staring at us when we reached this crossroads and two blocks later Harold walked right by the Cabrera Hotel. It was 5:30 and it was time to go in.

Harold had to explain why we were just two instead of three, and then we were shown to our rooms on the first floor. I usually got the one with a double bed in it – Harold taking the twin-bedded room. My room had a magnificent series of windows curving around one wall, with curtains held in place by rope ties. We had been allowed upstairs in our boots, which were dry enough on the outside – but I now shoved some newspaper into the toes of mine to remove any internal moisture. I took a shower, applied some Savlon to my abrasion, looked at my reddened toe and read another article from The New Yorker.

At 7:00 Harold and I strolled back to the High Street and selected Francine’s as our dinner spot. This was a friendly mom and pop restaurant and bar that catered to vacationing families in a genuine and efficient manner. We started off with double whiskies and then had the vegetable soup and the spaghetti bolognaise. This was simple fare but, in truth, the tastiest and most satisfying food of the trip. Ice cream followed. Outside it was growing darker, the blare of the boom boxes from passing teenage cars was intensifying, and the little tourist train was still chugging up the street. We were back at our hotel at 9:00. I called Dorothy on the mobile phone and the next hotel as well and, after a strenuous twelve-mile day, I was asleep by 10:00

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

Day 4: Sandown to Ryde