Thursday, 8 January 2009

A Wight Winter Wander Day 2 Shalfleet - Freshwater Bay

Newtown River Mouth
When I decided to walk round the Isle of Wight I soon realised that I would have to become acquainted with the number 7 bus route. This appears to be the main service to just about anywhere on the island and can even take you completely around the coast if you so wish. Unfortunately, I discovered that although West Wight is served, direct links between Freshwater Bay and Shalfleet were few and far between. This was the only day where I actually had to take my car onto the island in order to help me complete the section.

The bus journey was actually pretty short from Freshwater Bay and I got going from Shalfleet just before 11am. The weather was sunny but a bit fresh, with a few puffy white clouds skating across the sky, hinting perhaps at a change in the weather later in the day. From Shalfleet, the path continues around the inlets and salt marshes of the Newtown River. The path negotiates causeways and bridges, making for a very interesting stretch. In between the waterways were fingers of woodland, now in the early stages of bud hinting at the arrival of spring.

The Solent
On the way down to Hamstead Farm I had a close encounter with a fox, which stood no more than thirty yards away. Its fearlessness seemed appropriate on the day after the foxhunting ban became live. It soon caught a scent of me and was away in the blink of an eye across the fields and into the distant woods.

Hemmed In
Beyond Hamstead Farm the path has a reunion with the coast and there is a short stretch along a shingle beach. The path then climbed a small cliff and through another farm where there was a field full of goats wearing woolly jumpers! The view back across the Newtown River estuary and the Solent towards Southampton was quite spectacular from this point. The path then disappeared into Bouldnor Woods, which was allegedly a good place to spot red squirrels. Unfortunately try as I might I never did see any, presumably they were being sensible and hibernating still on such a cold day.

Eventually the path reached the small town of Yarmouth and by now the weather was showing signs of deteriorating considerably. The few puffy white clouds that had been a feature of the sky up to now were now gathering together and threatening rain or snow. When I got to Yarmouth it was lunchtime and my initial thought was to disappear into a café. However being a ferry port and a Sunday, all the cafes were heaving so I thought better of it and bought a pasty and continued on my way. Yarmouth itself was an attractive little town, quite different from the sprawling towns on the eastern end of the island. The town was dominated by a castle that overlooked the harbour and the ferry that was being loaded in readiness for the 30 minute crossing to Lymington.

Looking Back to Yarmouth
The path crossed the estuary of the River Yar, a large yachting marina and turned along the sea wall. This leads into Fort Victoria, one of the only tourist attractions locally that was still functioning in the dead of winter. Once through the woods that hug this stretch of coastline, the path comes out into yet another deserted holiday camp at Cliff End Battery. At this point I got my first glimpse of the Needles, which still seemed a long way distant. Across the other side of the Solent, I got a good view of Hurst Castle, which seemed almost close enough to touch. This structure was built at the end of a long spit and was clearly designed to protect the narrow channel from attack.

Fort Albert
I did have a stroke of luck at Colwell Bay, as because the tide was out I managed to take a short cut along the beach, obviating the need to take the official route down to the main road. This was Colwell Chine, a very nice stretch of sandy beach that is completely covered at high tide making this was impassable. As well as another view of Hurst Castle, Fort Albert came into view, the Isle of Wight equivalent. Beach huts appeared to be the order of the day along the next mile of coast to Totland and there were a couple of cafes that were catering to the few adventurous people that had ventured out. How busy they were I couldn’t tell since the windows were completely steamed up.

Totland Bay
Totland was obviously popular enough in Victorian times to warrant the building of a pier. Unfortunately on closer inspection the pier had clearly seen better days and much of it was now fenced off. Just beyond Totland I left the sea wall and climbed up onto Headon Warren. This was a completely different landscape to what had gone before. It was an area of heathland characterised by heather, bracken and gorse bushes and looked more like a piece of the New Forest that had got lost. It was a stiff climb to the top and once at the summit there was an extremely strong wind which instantly made my eyes water. The view back across the Solent was quite spectacular with the twin sentinels of Hurst Castle and Fort Albert dominating the scene.

The Needles
At the western end of the Warren the Needles came into view, suddenly much closer than the last time I saw them. The Warren ended abruptly at Alum Bay, famous for its coloured sand for which the only use appears to be as filling for nasty glass ornaments sold by the shed load in the shops at the top of the cliff. The path passed this shopping extravaganza, which was still busy even on a late February afternoon.

Alum Bay
For motorised traffic, the Alum Bay experience is the end of the road at this end of the island. The road does continue to the Needles Battery, at the very end of the peninsula but is barred to traffic. It was a good job since there were a lot of walkers on this stretch going up to see the Needles. Just before the end of the peninsula, the path turned up on to the chalk ridge and then again to head eastwards at the coastguard cottages at the top. When I got to the very top, the wind was unbelievable and I felt like I was almost walking horizontally. Life in the coastguard cottages must be really bleak during the winter months.

Tennyson Monument
I didn’t linger long to admire the view of the Dorset coast some miles distant but pressed on as quickly as possible. At the top of the chalk ridge was a monument to the poet Tennyson, the most famous resident of this part of the island in Victorian times. Just past there I was thankful that the path dropped down into Freshwater Bay, my destination for the day. Ahead I could see Blackgang Chine in the very distance and the cliff line that would form the bulk of the next section of the hike. For now I was very relieved to be reunited with my car so that I could get out of the wind and thaw out.

West Hill Down
This section of the walk is far more varied than the first day and was my personal favourite, with a dramatic end section from the Needles across Tennyson Down. If you only manage one section of the walk then in my opinion this should be it! You could also try a circular walk from Freshwater Bay using the Freshwater Trail (another waymarked path) to Yarmouth and then use the coastal path to complete the circuit.

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