August 4, 2001: Ryde to Cowes
Harold and I reconvened for breakfast in the basement dining room at 8:30. A small table had been reserved for us – at some distance from the phalanx of gummers who occupied one end of the large room. In spite of the numbers, the staff did a good job of keeping up – but Harold and I were not best pleased that our eggs had been poached in vinegar.
We brought our packs down and Carol, the receptionist, tried to get us a taxi – but none was available until 10:00. In the event we decided to leave the bags with her and the money quoted by the cabmaster – £16, plus a £2 tip. Naturally Carol had no change so we left a request that they leave £2 change for us at the other end and slapped down a £20. In this way we were able to get started at 9:25. When I had proposed an outing on the Isle of Wight, Tosh had agreed only on the condition that we visit Osborne House – and this is one of the reasons I had planned a fairly short day for us today.
We again had lovely sunny weather, with clouds helping to keep the temperatures down to very pleasant levels. We re-walked the esplanade to town center, passing a children’s clothing store called Designer Minor, and reached the foot of Union Street – where we continued on St. Thomas Street. A bit of uphill walking on pavements followed as we turned right into Buckingham Road, which did doglegs to the left and the right again before reaching a more level Spencer Road. I paused to take a photo of an ornate gate (but to what? – we guessed a health club) – indeed I was looking for every opportunity to slow our pace down, since we had a short day today, only nine miles, and there was no point in our arriving at our lunch spot too early.
We passed a retirement home on Spencer Road and continued past the dog walkers in suburban Ryde as the road turned to gravel and ended just shy of the main A3054 road. Here we turned half right to join a tarmac path known as Ladies Walk; sure enough, three ladies were walking up it as we descended. The path bisects the grounds of the Ryde Golf Club and the golfers were out in force. Once a foursome, tugging at carts, emerged to cross from one side to the other but they let us play through. At the bottom of the hill we crossed a stream and then climbed steeply uphill on the opposite side.
Near the top we met Wally, who was sitting on a roadside bench with his old pooch. “Just giving the dog a rest,” he explained, “and me too, of course.” Coming down the hill with his dog was another senior citizen of Binstead, Eddie. The two gents had many questions about our origins and they were delighted that we were enjoying the Isle of Wight. They didn’t like London and predicted disaster for a friend of theirs who was being urged to return there by his wife. Eddie had a sack full of dog treats, which he was systematically feeding to Wally’s dog. We finally made our escape, but only as far as the Binstead churchyard, where we paused for a rest on a bench.
I took off my boots in order to unzip my trouser legs, had some water, and got out my sunglasses. But after a few well-marked suburban zigzags we were invited to use a long woodland track that was so dark I had to carry my glasses in my hand. We passed more houses on our left as we emerged from this path and continued forward on a westward track to enter the precincts of Quarr Abbey. These very ancient ruins appeared in a field on our right. We spent some time reading an information board and I would have liked to stand on a nearby bench to take a photo but an immensely fat couple had taken up residence here.
Our track now climbed uphill and one could just see the cupola of the more modern version of the abbey above the trees. As we drew level with this quite impressive red brick edifice I kept looking for a suitable vantage point from which to take a picture. Finally Harold found a way to hop a low hedge into the monks’ orchard, and I took a picture here. Not surprisingly a few more paces up the road brought us to a much more satisfactory vantage point. In Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves (who was recovering at Osborne House from wounds received while fighting in the trenches in 1916) tells us that he visited Quarr Abbey – where he asked if he might borrow some poetry books from the friars. Alas, there were no such books because, as one friar put it, “Poetry could not be regarded as improving.” The Isle of Wight is replete with literary associations like this –and that is one of the reasons why walking its coastal path is such a treat.
We passed through an iron gate at the bottom of the hill (gates beat stiles 2-1 on this day) and continued forward to the Fishbourne Inn. This elegantly Tudorized pub looked very inviting but it was too early for us to stop so we turned left on the road and continued past the entryway to a ferry terminal. Cars waiting for a chance to return to the mainland were queued up here and one family was walking about in the midst of a contretemps. “Emily,” dad was saying to an enraged four year-old, “stop whining. You’re spoiling things for everyone else.” Mom too was trying to placate the little madam. “You can have a sandwich later.” Miss Emily, for her part, had only one response to this request for deferred gratification – a loudly screeched “Now!”
We turned right on a footpath and descended to Ashlake Copse Road, which rose and fell, taking us past cottages and bungalows, and soon emerged on the main road, where we turned right. Harold never liked to walk in the road, even when there was good visibility and cars could avoid us easily, so he insisted on crossing the highway to reach pavement. A ferry must just have disgorged its load because it took a long time for us to find a break in the traffic and a few hundred yards later we had to repeat the process as we neared Wootton Bridge. Unfortunately the bridge had pavement only on the opposite side as well – so we had to do all of this road crossing all over again. In this way, however, we drew up to the Sloop Inn just as it was approaching 12:00 noon.
The pub was not crowded, for once, and we had a choice of tables. Even so, Harold moved us once to get away from the pool table. He drank a g&t and a coke; I drank a pint. He had a tuna sandwich; I had scampi and chips. A baby in the next room yowled without letup.
We left at about 1:00 and made our way through back alleys and lanes in Wootton. It was amazing to me that the same group of garages mentioned in Charles’ account of 1986 still served us as useful guideposts fifteen years later. We passed through an unedifying estate and reached a street appropriately called Footways. Here we began a long westward stretch of road walking, first on Brock’s Copse Road, then on Alverstone Road. We were back in farming country here and there was only the occasional sighting of the sea on our right. A descent brought us down to a crossing of Palmer’s Brook and then we had a steep climb up the other side. There weren’t many cars on this quiet country road and so Harold seemed to take the road walking in stride this time. Under any circumstances he was usually several hundred yards ahead of me.
Eventually our street curved to the left and deposited us on the whizzing A3021, a highway whose pavements can be used to walk all the way into East Cowes. That is the official route, but both of the guidebooks recommended a diversion to take in the royal family’s church in Whippingham. So we decided to leap across the highway and turn left almost immediately (with views of the Medina Valley ahead) down Beatrice Avenue. After a few turns we faced the steeple of the Whippingham Church and continued downhill to enter its gates. Charles had warned us that we would find little traffic on this road save for the coaches ferrying tourists to the church. We were therefore expecting mobs in the churchyard but there was not a soul about. We strolled among the gravestones, used the loos, had a peak at the almshouses across the street – and all this time there wasn’t anyone else in view.
After this pause we continued on, passing the football ground of the East Cowes Vics (a game was in progress) and a middle school and turning right on a street called Crossways Road – to return to the main highway. Then it was another leap across the traffic and a few steps later we were at the entrance to Queen Victoria’s favorite country home, Osborne House. Now Harold and I would be the tourists for the next hour and a half.
We passed some magnificent trees and approached the visitors’ entrance. I told Harold that I didn’t feel quite right entering Victoria’s private chambers in my naked knees and that I was going to put my legs back on. He said plenty of tourists would be wearing shorts – but he too changed back into full trousers. We performed these sartorial adjustments on a bench outside the visitors’ center – where some kids in naval uniforms were holding out collection boxes for some charity and telling all incoming tourists, “I hope you have a pleasant time at Osborne House” and all exiting tourists, “I hope you had an enjoyable time and return again very soon” – all delivered with such mindless insincerity that not many people seemed to be reaching for their change purses. Maybe they were already bankrupted by the £7.50 entry fee. (And they didn’t have a place to check bags here – which should have been left in the car anyway, right?)
Osborne House was an attractive structure – I think – half of it was in scaffolding. Packs on backs we traipsed through the state apartments, the dining rooms, the kitchens, the Durbar room (full of Indian antiquities which especially fascinated Harold), and the staterooms and private quarters of Albert and Victoria. We even stood before the little couch in the queen’s bedroom – on which she had died 100 years ago. It was a pretty tiring visit, with three floors to climb, but quite interesting nonetheless.
It was close to 4:00 now and we repaired to a refreshment tent, much buffeted by the breeze, for cappuccinos and cake – mine was sticky ginger. The trouser legs came off again and then we continued on the highway into East Cowes, turning left to reach the river, which was crowded with vessels. We didn’t have long for the chain ferry to arrive from the other side and we were soon aboard while cars were still driving off. It almost looked like rain. The journey itself lasted about 45 seconds and we followed the crowds uphill on the other side and walked into Cowes.
There was a map in front of the police station and I had a look to confirm the position of the Fountain Hotel. It was the beginning of Cowes Week, sailing’s grand competition and festival, and the streets were jammed with tourists and competitors. We had been lucky to get into this hotel at all, but we soon had plenty of reasons to question our luck. Our bags were in reception but we had to lug them up three flights of stairs to our rooms beneath the eves (the cabby had left £2 in an envelope strapped to Harold’s bags). They wouldn’t make a dinner reservation for a party as small as ours in the hotel restaurant, and the bar, which we visited for our whiskeys, was stuffed with loud and drunken crews. One shave-headed novice roared incoherently as he worked the room – told to sit down by his teammates he did so on the floor – and one of the hotel staff appeared to call for quiet. So it wasn’t a very pleasant drink for us.
We went upstairs to clean up and tried our luck in the dining room at 7:00. They did have a table for us, though staff members were clearly preoccupied with the crews. These assemblages, made up of boys who wouldn’t grow up, wore identical shirts, and they usually included some senior toff in grey hair and glasses (perhaps the man who paid for it all) and then a large number of beefy guys in their twenties and thirties. At best there were one or two female hangers on, smoking in the corner. I had an enjoyable avocado and prawn salad and a gammon steak. They were out of every ice cream flavor but vanilla – well, it was Harold’s favorite. Outside there was a bar set up on the patio for the sale of Pimms and other favorites of the yachting fraternity.
After dinner Harold and I strolled through the rest of the town, fighting our way among the tars and tarts and got as far as the official headquarters, where the results of the day’s races, in a variety of categories, were flashing on a screen. It seemed that most of the results included penalties for some of the competitors and protests over the finishing position of the others.
Next to our hotel was a huge fairground, of sorts, in which a rock band was in full sway. When we returned to the front door of our hotel there were even two bouncers on duty here – but they let us in anyway. Upstairs the volume of the speakers was such that it was impossible to rest, as tired as I was, and several times I had to reach for the light and get up again. The band played on and on and occasionally there was a response from the crowd, a chant on cue that included the indispensable word “fucking.” Curiously I could hear a second back beat thrumming away as well as the one below us. Every time there was a pause and someone got on the microphone I was hoping for an end to the festivities but after a minute they started up again. It seemed to be a very good show, full of classics, but I guess I wasn’t in the right position to enjoy it on this night. Fortunately it faded out at midnight and Queen Victoria and I were at last able to get some rest.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: