Walking Across the Isle of Wight

An alternative to the wet and bruising business of sailing. Unedited version, so as to include provocative sheep line.

 (click pics for high res)

It’s a tragedy that so many visitors miss the best of the Isle of Wight. Most of the 60,000 or so Cowes Week sailors are pressed by gung-ho families or corporate derring-do. They would have a finer time walking the IOW’s wonderfully unspoilt, idyllic rural interior and majestic coastline. Sticking to the north shore yacht clubs is like visiting Scotland and stopping at Gretna Green. Most Cowes veterans, sadly, don’t know this.

Luckily, I do. My family has a holiday house in Seaview, a sleepy north shore IOW village which is flooded to the gunnels every August with posh yachties and their binge-drinking public school progeny (like Cornwall’s Rock, but undiscovered by the Daily Mail). After a sailing childhood, I realised that walking and cycling the Island’s 500 miles of footpaths with friends was vastly preferable to being shouted at in a cold, uncomfortable boat. Particularly after a night’s binge-drinking.DSCN0475

I’d never done the Island’s greatest walk, however – across the whole thing, west to east. So last weekend, so that FT readers might learn its secrets, three of us – wildlife documentary producer Bill Markham (left above), TV producer Laurence Boyd (right), and I – traversed the diamond-shaped isle.


Saturday, The Needles to Rookley, 14 miles


You can stay in Yarmouth the night before, perhaps at the George Hotel. Early risers could get train and ferry from anywhere in southern England in time to stride the 14 glorious miles from The Needles to Rookley. However you do it, when disembarking from the ferry, stop for a while, and look back at the mainland. Feel a mysterious sense of calm? That’s the effect of seeing several billions tons of water between you and all your problems.

DSCN0446We stayed with my brother and sister-in-law near Yarmouth on Friday night. They are excellent hosts, so it was past midday on Saturday when the taxi dropped us bleary-eyed at the Needles Battery (say you’re a member of the National Trust to be allowed up to the Battery in a car, avoiding the half mile walk uphill from the Alum Bay car park).

We glanced at The Needles (above), glaringly white chalk stacks extending from The Island’s westmost point, and agreed that, like Stonehenge, they’re a good shape but disappointingly small. The Dan Dare-esque rocket testing site was more interesting, but, conscious of our late start, we soon pressed eastwards along the chalk upland. To our left were the coloured cliffs of Alum Bay, then the Solent, then England. To our right were 400 foot chalk cliffs, then nothing but wheeling seabirds and shimmering AW BM anf LB on West High Downsea to the horizon. The Island lay ahead, under a massive summer sky arrayed with regiments of brilliant white fluffy clouds – nearly as good as African sky, Bill and Laurence (above) agreed. Behind us though, where the weather was coming from, was ominous darkness.

AW Ominous mohican sheepThe downpour struck as we ambled up Tennyson Down past fascinated sheep (had they never seen ramblers before?). Tennyson, who lived nearby from 1853 to 1892, claimed the Island’s air was “worth sixpence a pint”. Indeed, the air was doing wonders for our hangovers as we sauntered along in the rain, bisecting ridges dug across to stop enemy gliders landing in World War II. By the time we ducked into a tea shoppe in Freshwater, three miles into our Odyssey, we felt positively healthy.

AW looking back at Tennyson DownThe rain stopped, and we were off up Compton Down. Tailwinds buffeted us on, sun shone lustrously off lush chalk grassland, butterflies flitted and sheep stared provocatively. Sunshine and magnificent views, increasingly massive as we gained height, put us in excellent spirits. Even having our path blocked by young highland cattle didn’t daunt us, and they skittered away as we bravely approached in a trying-to-hide-behind-each-other bundle. AW Obstruction on Compton Down 2

The West Wight Downs are the UK’s best para-maritime chalk grassland (chalk grassland under coastal influence), and home to an internationally important population of early gentian (a rare flower), AW LB heel clacking on Compton Downand loads of Chalkhill and Adonis Blues, (both rare butterflies). Even if you don’t know all that, the scenery’s stunning.

Luckily we had Bill. Walking with a zoologist is a treat – they’ll have a jolly good go at naming every insect and leaf, and sound really quite confident about some of them. As the landscape changed to woods and grazing-land, Laurence and I searched for red squirrels under Bill’s directions. Alas, we found none.

AW FarmlandThe change in landscape produced a surprise verdict. The Downs are the Island’s unique, signature scenery, famously strode by Victorian poets. Yet we preferred the central valleys, perhaps because they were prettier on a more manageable scale, or possibly because on a sunny Saturday in July, on a small island visited by more than a million tourists every year, we didn’t see another person for two hours. While roads were jammed with potterers, sea-fronts thick with dodderers, and the Solent heaving with yachties, the marvellously calming rural interior was utterly deserted.AW BM and LB near Shorwell


Sunday, Rookley to Bembridge, 12 miles

AW Beginning of Day 2, hung over

After a great night in Seaview (we took taxis there and back – a B&B in Rookley or nearby Godshill is an alternative), we started late again (starting point at Rookley above). During a mile along country roads, we saw rarer wildlife than on all the rest of the journey. A proud stoat strutted just yards ahead, then a shrew, then a very hairy caterpillar. As we dived back into deep countryside we looked out for dormice, although, as Bill pointed out: “the thing about dormice is that you’ll never ever see one.”

AW LB and AW on cylce trackWe saw no mice, dor or otherwise, but our route along the disused Newport – Sandown railway, now the Yar River Trail, was delightful (three rivers on the Island, two are called Yar – clever). Tiny bicycling girls bombed along in pink helmets, excited small dogs pranced, and DSCN0558friendly families greeted us cheerily as we wandered through farmland, wetland and wildflower-filled woods, past pretty houses, churches and surprisingly un-timid rabbits.AW big skies above the Yarr Valley 2

As countryside morphed into the budget tourist megalopolis of Sandown and Shanklin, zoology gave way to anthropology. It was a change from Seaview’s sloanes (“From OK Yah to Lidl and Spar”, Laurence noted as we stopped to buy crisps). The seafront was thick with topless beer-bellied Brylcreamed men, toddlers in bikinis, and podgy teenage girls dancing around their children’s prams to a steel drum version of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. It’s very easy to sneer at that sort of scene, so, as we ate our fish and chips, we did.

The last four miles were beautiful again, up over white-cliffed Culver Down with its colossal views of the busy Solent, Portsmouth and the densely populated and caravan-park heavy northeast Wight, then along wooded coastal path to Bembridge.AW Big Skies from Culver Down

We piled into a taxi on the eastern tip of the island, and were soon on Ryde AW LB and BM we made itpier, tired but happy, waiting for the ferry back across the Solent to real life and all our problems.


Walking logistics

The Island is diamond shaped, 23 miles long and 13 miles wide. West to east is the obvious route for a weekend’s walking, as it’s the right length and the prevailing southwest wind should push you along. We went straight across the middle, which I’d recommend as it’s the most diverse and under populated, but best to get an Ordnance Survey map (available from www.Amazon.co.uk) and plot your own path.


Animals of the Isle of Wight

Free from introduced nasties like grey squirrels and American mink, with half its countryside protected, the Isle of Wight is a wildlife haven. More species of mammal live in the Island’s Briddlesford Wood, for example, than anywhere else in Britain. Here are some animals to look out for:

Red Squirrel

Protected by the ravages of the insidious grey squirrel by the Solent, The Isle of Wight has the most significant population of red squirrels in the southern UK. They spend most of their time up trees, so keep looking up and you might see one.

Hazel Dormouse

Unfortunately the tiny and very cute hazel dormouse only ever ventures out at night, it’s illegal to look in their nesting boxes, and they rarely cross roads. So you’re unlikely to see one, dead or alive, but they are there.

Bechstein’s Bat

Britain’s rarest bat was found in 2004 in Briddlesford Wood. Look for them at dusk, as well as the almost as rare Barbastelle, and several other bat species.


The southern para-maritime chalk grasslands are a butterfly netter’s nirvana, with many rare species including the endemic Glanville Fritillary.


The Island’s diverse ecosystem provides a birder’s paradise, with a huge range of seabirds, hawks, larks, finches and many more.


The Island has plenty of freshwater fishing, plus sea-fishing trips running from Bembridge, Cowes and Yarmouth.


The base of the IOW’s sea cliffs is one of the world’s best fossil hunting spots. Dinosaur Isle, in Sandown (www.dinosaurisle.com) is a good place to start searching.


Not strictly an animal, more a sailing and marine industry town on the Island’s northern tip, but included so we can have the IOW’s favourite joke:

“What’s brown and steaming and comes out of Cowes?”

“The Red Funnel ferry.”


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007 / Copyright on pictures Angus Watson 2007