August 5, 2001: Cowes to Shalfleet
It seemed to me that the rock concert had just ended when the noises of the dustmen and the hoots of harbor traffic began to offer new challenges to sleep – but I suppose it was now 6:00 am. Harold and I met for breakfast at 8:00; the dining room was already busy with activity but we found a sunny table next to a window (and a glowing radiator!) and had our usual repast. Then we climbed all those stairs and pushed our way through all those landing doors in order to retrieve our packs. When we settled up the receptionist suggested our best bet for a taxi was the rank next to the Red Funnel ferry slip, just behind the hotel.
She promised to phone for a cab if we had more than a fifteen-minute wait so we joined a queue and waited for twenty minutes. I wasn’t too worried about this, for I knew we had another easy day. Finally a cab drove by us with a passenger and we waved. He did a circle of the hotel and drove by us a second time, acknowledging our wave, but beginning another circuit with the same passenger. She finally decided that this was where she wanted to get out – because the driver, now free at last, began to back up around the corner to reach us. Just at this moment two or three rivals pulled up and there were words over who had the right to these fare-payers – with our guy convincing the others that we had hailed him first. He took our bags and headed for Shalfleet.
As we walked back to the main drag I was surprised to hear someone say, “Anthony, is that you?” My surprise was compounded by the fact that I was being addressed by a crew member, dressed in full sea-going regalia, that the voice belonged to a woman, and that the woman was black. It was, of course, Gwen Williams, one of our American School PE teachers, who had spotted me. “Are you racing?” she asked. We had to explain that our activity was far more earthbound; she had been competing on the high seas for a week.
At 9:00 we repeated our walk of the previous evening, heading north among the pedestrian precincts and then the marine parade, passing the headquarters of the Royal Yacht Squadron – where chaps in brass-buttoned blazers were already assuming positions of importance on the balcony. I think both of us were glad to get out of Cowes. This had not been the right time of year to enjoy it properly and we were in shock after all the noise.
The morning was fabulous. We walked in shorts from the outset, with great views over the Solent and a lively breeze to keep the temperatures comfortable. It was surprising how quickly we left the crowds behind, circling the northernmost tip of the island at Egypt Point on smooth pavement – where only the occasional jogger or dog walker offered any competition. On our right a huge red tanker made a U-turn in its approach to Portsmouth.
On the far side of the point we had to cross the street because of construction and this put us off-route just a bit as we reached Gurnard Bay. I switched back to the other side as the road headed inland – looking for a continuation of the route closer to the shore. It was interesting how our two guidebook authors proposed what comes next. Charles says, “Continue along the sea wall to a slipway. Go left in the road here,” while B&C suggest, “Keep seaward of the beach huts at East Gurnard then turn left just before the sailing club.” In fact they were describing the same stretch of esplanade. However, when we did turn left the instruction from Charles: “Not far up the hill take the footpath on the right” left us in some confusion. There was a path just a few feet up the hill on the right, a shore path so designated, but we weren’t on it for long when it degenerated, leaving us with no way forward at all.
I knew we had to make progress by climbing uphill on the left and there were woodland paths descending to the sea here – so up we went. It was a far more strenuous enterprise than I anticipated but at last we emerged into sunshine at a bit of parkland just at a spot where Worsley Road (which we should have been following) turns inland. It didn’t take me long to figure out where we were and to turn right on Solent View Road – where we began a descent to Gurnard Bridge.
At the bottom, amid a downmarket jumble of chalets and shacks, I paused to take a picture of a gnome-bedecked front yard. Then we crossed the bridge and I did a bit of scouting – just to see if there were any rivals to the track along the creek – which Charles says you are to take immediately after the crossing. There weren’t. At the end of this short stretch, therefore, we encountered a coast path sign (not the official seagull symbol – which had all but disappeared – but a more local one). I still wanted to know why this was hidden around a corner instead of back on the main road, but I was happy to be on certain ground.
We passed a few more backyards, exchanging greetings with folk in their gardens and began a gentle climb up the cliff edge. It was easy to follow the route on the OS map and in the guidebooks too and we made good progress. We passed a line of chalets on our left and walked beneath scrub for some distance. There were many stiles (who resumed their more normal triumphal pose, beating gates 18-3 on this day). Soon we were joined by inquisitive cows (From Cowes to Cows?) – who sidled over to the wire fence on our left to have a look at us.
At the summit we had a good view of our next objective, Thorness Bay and its holiday camp. The route downhill was a little more eroded and required a bit more scrambling than the ascent, but soon we had reached the shore, making our way along the back of the beach and over a concrete bridge. Windsurfers were arriving to take to the waters and there was an inviting picnic area at the foot of the camp’s main road – and here we paused for some water and a bit of a rest.
In my study of the guidebooks I had always been a bit concerned about the next section to Porchfield, for this is an entirely inland path and the sea would not be available as a reassuring route-finding presence. Of course I was wearing my compass around my neck and I had determined to go slowly, making sure that I could follow the route’s progress on the map. The instructions for getting through the holiday camp seemed most fraught with potential for wrong turns – and we were not encouraged when, after climbing up the hill to the first buildings, we discovered two coastal path signs (real ones this time) both pointing back to the sea – well one of them, if followed, would have required a visit to the camp cafeteria.
We stuck to the main road, always guessing which road that was, but I soon sensed that something was not quite right. We had been advised to turn right just before reaching the camp’s gates but we seemed to be heading south on a road with no gates whatsoever. I told Harold I needed to check something, turning around and walking back a few feet – where I discovered the path I wanted, its foliage hiding a path sign in its shadows. No gates.
We followed our path for only a short distance and climbed a stile into a long field with several fences requiring additional climbing. We had to guess when to leave and which stile to take but we were soon on the drive we were looking for – and heading south again. Someone had put a crippled boy collection box statue in the front drive and Harold and I emptied our pockets of change.
Again we left a road for a footpath with farm buildings on our right and again we turned south to enter a series of fields (some requiring the deft crossing of electrified wires). A woodland appeared on our left as we approached the Porchfield Road. It was in this last field that an inattentive Harold put a foot into a cowpie, setting off a series of boot scrapings in the grass as we neared a stile, one that lead us over into the road itself. Here we turned right, just at 12:00, and five minutes later, timed just perfectly for a Sunday afternoon, we pulled even with the Sportsman’s Rest pub.
We ordered our lagers and our food and sat down for a very leisurely midday repast beneath an awning in the front garden. The place seemed to be a favorite local haunt and many of the tables inside were already reserved. They brought our food out to us (I had a last cod and chips) and we enjoyed a leisurely repast. I was in no hurry, and we had already covered six miles.
Finally it was time to resume our trod, which included almost two miles of road walking. We continued on to the war memorial and turned south. I noticed that Harold never used the edge of the tarmac if there were an uncomfortable piece of verge on which to place his feet instead – but I took my rightful position in the roadway. There wasn’t that much traffic anyway. The sun was quite warm in our faces but the open stretches alternated with shady places provided by overhanging trees. We took a road turnoff for Newtown, our next objective, but after a bit there was a footpath alternative and we took this, using a variety of fields to head west and guessing once or twice where to turn – in the absence of signs and after the disappearance of a few of the landmarks cited in Charles.
We emerged onto one of the main roads (if two buildings count as main) of Newtown at 2:30. The history of this once prosperous seagoing community is quite fascinating – it was a classic rotten borough, sending two members to Parliament and boasting a town hall which (after passing a former public house called Noah’s Ark) we soon reached. This place is managed by the National Trust and it was open. Harold had a look inside while I had a lie down in the shade nearby. I had noticed that Harold can’t relax this way and so I was not surprised that as soon as he returned he wanted to get going again.
Because it was so early I decided that we had plenty of time to undertake a diversion recommended by Charles – a walk out to the old quay. To do this we walked along a street of modern Newtown and, passing its millennium bench, turned into the church’s graveyard. I believe that Harold actually got inside this one while I was falling into a pothole in the graveyard as I attempted to get some distance away for a photo. I fell very slowly and didn’t twist anything. Then we went down a farm lane, heading in a northerly direction, and reached marshland just at the point where an observation hut had been provided for birdwatchers. We went into this (there was one chap sitting sullenly with his binoculars) but there was very little bird life so we continued through the salty marshland and walked across a long narrow causeway over an arm of tidal Newtown Creek, going as far forward as we could on the little island at the end. It was all very beautiful.
Coming up behind us was a couple with a dog. “Is that a Schnauzer?” I had to ask. It was, an all-black standard, a handsome powerful looking specimen who barked when I showed interest. We had to wait for others to clear the causeway before making our return journey. We could actually see little fish in the waters below.
Our return route replicated our advance and we had soon passed the Town Hall and dropped down to Cassey Bridge, which spanned another arm of the creek – continuing on roads again towards Shalfleet. Once again there was a footpath escape, a track to a cottage and a woodland walk down to the Shalfleet millstream. Here we climbed up to Mill Road and soon we were opposite the cottage door of our b&b, the Old Malthouse. It was just 4:10, we had covered ten and a half miles, and we decided to see if the pub across the street, The New Inn, was still open. It was.
I had a Diet Coke as we sat in the garden, staring down at our b&b’s door, which we rang at 4:45. We were admitted by Mr. Martin Young, who asked us to remove our quite dry boots before taking us upstairs to two very nice rooms. He started to explain the intricacies of the TV in mine but I assured him there was no need. I was delighted to see that I had my own bathroom (you never know with b&bs.) However before we could settle in we decided to cross the street to a make a dinner reservation at the New Inn. There weren’t too many choices and we took a slot at 6:15. Then we stayed on for our whiskies before returning to the Old Malthouse. I had a bath, my only option, and hit my head, not for the last time, on the low entryway into the bathroom.
The New Inn has a very extensive menu, with seafood a specialty; nevertheless I struggled to find something that appealed. I had another prawn cocktail and a half a lobster salad while Harold has sea bass, again. He had his vanilla ice cream fix while I switched to an appropriately ersatz banana version. The pub was again full of crews, we couldn’t escape them, and this always led to an appropriately mad scene – with drink and food orders for a table of twelve.
After dinner Harold and I took a walk across the street and visited the churchyard where, after escaping the menace all trip, I had a brush with nettles. It was just turning dark when we used our front door keys to gain entry to the b&b for our last night on the road. I called Dorothy, who was entertaining a visiting Bill Vincent, and we had a long chat too. By this time I was down to reading articles from Friday’s Guardian. A few of these and I was asleep.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: