Wednesday, 7 January 2009

A Wight Winter Wander Day 1 Ryde - Shalfleet

Arrival on the Island
When deciding upon a walk I like to think about what I want to achieve. A rare opportunity arose a couple of years ago in February when my wife went to visit her parents; four free days to get out on the hills. Where to go? February is a funny month for walking. The weather has usually improved from the darkest days of January and December and there is sufficient daylight to get a lot of mileage in. However, conditions on the hills can be dicey to say the least, with mud the biggest enemy. I settled on a project that I felt able to complete in four days, where mud shouldn’t be too much of a problem. This would be the time I walked around the coastline of the Isle of Wight, a 65 mile trek along clifftops, seaside resort promenades and river estuaries. It was something I had wanted to do for ages, and here was the perfect opportunity.
Ryde Tunnels
As a lot of hotels were closed at this time of year, I decided that I wouldn’t stay on the island but would make a series of day trips. This had the distinct advantage of being a lot cheaper and there were no cumbersome backpacks to carry but the days were quite long and required a good deal of planning in advance.
Ryde High Street
When the week arrived we had a cold snap, where snow showers were quite frequent. This was the main hazard I had to contend with, although I also experienced a couple of occasions where I was very tight for time meeting public transport.
Cottages at Binstead
Ryde is an appropriate place to start the walk. It is the town where many tourists first experience the Island. The tall church at the top of the hill in Ryde town centre almost acts like a beacon to welcome visitors. On this particular cold February day I decided that Spithead was calm enough for me to take the hovercraft across. The crossing was only 10 minutes, the shortest of any to the Island although the departure point in Portsmouth is not particularly convenient as it is a fair distance from the train station.

Binstead Churchyard
As soon as I reached Ryde, I got going on the path out of town. The day started promisingly, with sunny skies and puffy while clouds bobbing along. There was a stiff breeze however, and wrapping up warm was the order of the day. On the edge of Ryde, the path took the old road towards Cowes initially through a golf course and then into small sections of the forest that once dominated the landscape before agriculture and then tourism completely changed the environment.
Binstead Church
After a mile or so, you come to Quarr Abbey. Originally a Cistercian Abbey, this was one of those dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536 and is now a ruin, being demolished quite quickly after the dissolution. One part is now a house, and the abbey ruins were inhabited by a couple of small Shetland ponies when I passed. A little further up the road is the new Benedictine monastery called Quarr Abbey, built in 1901 and quite a contrast to the old building.
Old Quarr Abbey
A little beyond Quarr Abbey I came across the ferry port at Fishbourne, which was enlarged to take car traffic back in the 1930’s. Even on a Tuesday in February the port was still a hive of activity, being one of the main gateways to the Island. Just by the port is the Fishbourne Inn, a good stop for lunch if you reach it at the right time (I didn’t today but the food is rather good).
Old Quarr Abbey
Unfortunately the next stretch of the walk to Cowes is not particularly pleasant, with a lot of road walking and not much coast. This is presumably because of the Osborne House estate, which extends along this stretch of coast. Queen Victoria obviously didn’t like the idea of her subjects getting too close to the house so no public footpaths exist along this stretch of coastline. You would certainly be forgiven for catching a bus from Wootton Bridge to East Cowes, as I wished I had done about half way along the three mile road.

New Quarr Abbey
By the time I got to East Cowes the weather had completely changed and I had experienced a couple of heavy winter showers on the way. I took refuge in the little cabin on East Cowes harbour front and waited for the chain ferry to the other side of the River Medina. Cowes is a bit of an anomaly, a small harbour with a fair amount of industry. Most of these types of port have almost disappeared from the mainland, but in keeping with other aspects of the Isle of Wight, the port has a feeling of England thirty years ago.

Butterfly House

The crossing took only five minutes, giving me just enough time to enjoy the pictures drawn and painted by local children in the passenger cabin. The crossing for foot passengers was free, which was a bit of a bonus. West Cowes feels like a completely different town, with more of a history about it and a lot more care taken over the town centre. Presumably this is because it is the location of the start of Cowes Week, the famous yachting regatta that takes place each summer. The path continues past the Royal Yacht Squadron, where the race is started from and there are warning notices about the sound of the starting cannon. However, the cannon itself resembles a pea-shooter rather than the nice big chunky ones that are more familiar.

Cowes Chain Ferry
Unfortunately the road walking didn’t stop at Cowes but continued on to Gurnard the next town along the coast. On the way I encountered an enormous snow storm, which made visibility incredibly difficult for a short while. Unfortunately I was by now on a stretch of the Esplanade that was not frequented by so many pedestrians presumably, since there were no shelters and I had to brave the worst of the weather. Luckily for me the storm passed very quickly and within minutes the sun was out once again.

Fast Cat
Just outside Gurnard I cheered as the path finally left the road and went out across the cliffs towards Thorness Bay. The path weaved its way through gorse bushes that had thankfully been kept at bay by the number of walkers passing this way. Eventually, the path descended down into the bay which was quite remote feeling and gave a clue to the character of the west of the island, which is quite different from the east. Overlooking the bay were a number of holiday homes that were made from converted railway coaches. These must have been sold off cheaply during the wholesale closure of the island’s railways in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the other end of the bay was another desolate holiday camp consisting of large caravans and at this point the path again left the coast and headed inland.

This time the diversion was not for Queen but for country since this part of the coast has been requisitioned by Her Majesty’s forces for military training. The path crossed some fields to a road, which should have been straightforward but was far from it. I managed to find the biggest bog on the island and spent about twenty minutes crossing one field using tussocks of grass as stepping stones. By the time I reached the road, I was about three inches taller because of the amount of mud that had stuck to the bottom of my boots.
Royal Yacht Squadron

The next couple of miles were a pretty unattractive trudge along a busy road until I reached Newtown. This was clearly a misnomer, since it was neither new and not really a town either. It did however possess a town hall, built around 1700 when the town was much more important. Originally Newtown was called Francheville but gained its new name when the town was rebuilt following French raids in 1377. At one time Newtown actually returned two members of parliament but when declared a ‘rotten borough’ in 1832 its importance declined.

Thorness Carriage
The last stretch to Shalfleet continued by road around the spider like inlet of the Newtown River. This is a huge nature reserve, which was a constant companion for the next few miles. I decided not to linger too long as I had a bus to catch and so made my way to Shalfleet church quickly to ensure that I didn’t miss it, for the next one wouldn’t be for another two hours.

Newtown Town Hall
All in all the day was an interesting mixture of landscapes and history, although there was far too much road walking for my liking. This is less of a problem on a winter weekday, but I wouldn’t like to tackle some stretches on a summer Sunday because of the traffic.

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