Saturday, 10 January 2009

A Wight Winter Wander Day 4 Ventnor - Ryde

Ventnor High Street
Today I took the train all the way from home as it allowed me to buy a through ticket to Shanklin, the southern extent of the last rail line left on the island. It was an easy trip from home as the passenger ferry from Portsmouth Harbour station connected easily with trains at both end of the crossing. The Island Line is a little surreal and badly in need of some investment, with old London Underground trains plying the 10 mile route from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin. The stations are mostly dilapidated and the trains painfully slow but it did make a change from using the number 7 bus. The line onwards to Ventnor is long since closed, but a connecting bus does take you the last few miles to the southern-most town on the Island.
Ventnor Church

The weather was very unpromising, with prolonged snow showers from the very outset and when I arrived at Ventnor I was pretty unsure whether I could complete the day. However, the sun did come out when I arrived so I decided to chance it. The first section out of Ventnor is along the sea wall and this was a little hairy as the sea was very angry and waves crashed up over the front. I was please when after a short while I was able to climb up onto the small cliff and away from the sea. At this end of the island there is very little land area beyond the huge mass of St Boniface Down and the path weaves around an area called the Landslip (so-called for obvious reasons).

View from Luccombe Chine
Luckily the path stays at a relatively low level and there is no major climb around this section of coast. The landslip is characterised by some very attractive woodland and was a haven for smugglers in years gone by. There are few clues to this activity now, but there is a ‘wishing seat’ half way round that looks like a natural stone formation.

Shanklin Clock Tower
Eventually you reach Luccombe Chine and here there are some very attractive houses, where the owners are clearly keen gardeners. There was even the chance to walk through one of the gardens as the path cut across it. Shortly after the path turns into a road and this leads down into Shanklin. At the beach you can see the exit of Shanklin Chine, a tourist attraction that was heavily fenced to make sure that no-one could see its charms without paying for a ticket! At this point I decided to walk along the foot of the cliffs along the promenade as there was a choice of routes. Shanklin and Sandown seafronts were perhaps a sadder sight than anywhere else along the Isle of Wight coast at this time of year. There were no businesses open and some had clearly fallen by the wayside some years before. Indeed it was difficult to imagine this being a hive of activity during the summer months.
Shanklin Beach Huts

After a fairly long walk along the promenade I eventually reached Sandown Pier, which claimed to be the best day out you could have. As the only fully functioning pleasure pier left on the island there may have been a grain of truth to that boast, but I was unconvinced as it looked tatty and seriously in need of bringing into the modern world since its last refurbishment was probably some time in the 1970’s or early 1980’s.

Sandown Pier
I took the opportunity of stopping in Sandown for a bite to eat. In the high street there was fortunately no shortage of choices of places to eat and after some fish and chips I felt fortified enough to carry on. By now the weather had improved considerably and I continued along the last part of the promenade in brilliant sunshine, passing the leaping tiger atop the entrance to Sandown Zoo before heading out on to Culver Down. This had dominated the horizon for most of the morning since I turned the corner at Luccombe Chine, but I was pleased that it wasn’t as far as it had seemed earlier in the day.

Coast Path at Sandown
The climb up Culver Down wasn’t nearly as daunting as it seemed from a distance and as I approached the top I could clearly see the line of the chalk ridge that extends the length of the island. At the top of the ridge was Bembridge Fort, another defence installation that was built in 1860. A little further along was a monument to the Earl of Yarborough, who was the founder of the Royal Yacht Squadron. By the time I got to the top of Culver Down, another snowstorm had arrived although this was thankfully short-lived.

Sandown Zoo
The view from the top of the Down was pretty spectacular with the sweep of Sandown Bay on one side and a view of Portsmouth, the Spinnaker Tower and Spithead on the other. Surprisingly there was still some way to go today, and the trek around Bembridge took quite a long time. Due to cliff erosion much of the official route has been closed in this area, with re-routing mostly along roads. However, I again struck lucky with the tides and was able to divert along the beach. This made for an interesting walk, although hard going as I had to skip between sandy parts of the beach so as not to come to grief in the many rock pools. The path passed Bembridge lifeboat station, a very impressive affair that was built out on stilts above the low water area to ensure that the lifeboat didn’t come to grief when launched.

View From Culver Down
At the end of the beach was the mouth of the River Yar and I soon had a sinking feeling when I realised that I would have to make a huge detour in order to reach the lowest bridging point at St Helens, nearly a mile away. The road was a bit of a shock to the system, but the houseboats moored alongside proved distracting enough to make it less of a problem than I expected. One of the boats was for sale, a tempting prospect although it didn’t look like it was in great shape. When I reached the far end of the estuary I turned back along the other side and across a long causeway that had been built across the northern side of the harbour.

Yarborough Monument
A section of sand dunes follows before the path heads inland for a short time around the Priory Hotel, a large country house hotel that probably costs a small fortune to stay there. Soon I found Seaview, a small and very attractive town that is well off the usual tourist trail. The path wound through the streets before coming to the promenade, which would lead all the way into Ryde. The views across Spithead were constantly changing with ships going to and from the ports of Portsmouth and Southampton. Some were big ocean going container vessels, while at least three cross-channel ferries also passed by. This stretch of water is also notable for the forts which have been built in the gateway to the important naval port of Portsmouth.

Bembridge Lifeboat Station
The last little bit of the walk went through Puckpool Park and by now the daylight was fading fast and my energy levels had been sapped. I did enjoy looking out across the considerable sands off Ryde, but I was not tempted to see how far they went out, even though it was very low tide by now. Ryde Esplanade station could not come quickly enough and I was very pleased to finish my Wight expedition.

St Helens Causeway
This stage of the hike is relatively easy, although for me the weather was the worst of the days with many snow showers and there were a couple of points on the walk where this could present a safety issue. However, this part of the island is fairly well developed and there are numerous shops, pubs and bus services that should get you out of trouble if you should need them.

Puckpool Tower
On the whole the walk around the Isle of Wight is a very enjoyable experience, even in the depths of winter when (apart from a couple of notable areas) mud is not a serious issue. If four days seems too ambitious, or the thought of commuting or carrying loads of gear seems too much the walk can easily be split into different, shorter sections. There are a number of holiday companies offering luggage carrying and accommodation booking services. This is a really good walk for the beginner as there is lots of variety of scenery, has a couple of challenging sections, and there are plenty of refreshment stops and places to stay. You can even have tasters by doing circular walks based on the coastal path. If you would like to have a go at this challenge, I would be pleased to offer any practical advice before you go. It is a thoroughly recommended expedition.

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