I went down to the Isle of Wight to walk the Coast Path over the long weekend of the May bank holiday. This was cutting things a bit fine, and I didn’t really have a plan for what I would do if I discovered that I wasn’t up to a long walk. I didn’t think too hard about that. The Isle of Wight is, quite literally, home turf; I know its footpaths and byways better than I know those of any other county. It was where I first discovered the sanity-saving practice of walking, and the combination of a familiar landscape and a moderately challenging parcours would make the perfect warm-up.
I took a train straight down from London on the Thursday evening, and started out walking from Ventnor the next morning. My mother accompanied me as far as the seafront. I walked around the edge of the paddling pool, which has a concrete map of the Isle of Wight in the centre. Perhaps I was setting an intention on the micro scale to work through on the macro scale or some woowoo like that. I didn’t walk all the way round, which, considering how things worked out, might suggest that there’s more to the woowoo than I’d first thought.
I set out eastwards along the sea wall; I’d decided to go anticlockwise around the Island, as I had on my previous Isle of Wight Coast Path attempt. Some public benefactor has set up a scale model of the Solar System along the coast between Bonchurch and Ventnor. I counted off paces between planets. The sun is about the size of a football, an orange-painted sphere springing up from the end of the railing. Shortly afterwards the path heads away from the sea, up the cliff, over a delightful little stream with wild garlic blooming on its banks, and past St Boniface Old Church. I looked in. It’s a lovely church: ancient, tiny, and set apart from hustle and bustle, even more than the rest of the Isle of Wight, even more than the rest of Bonchurch.
The sun was trying to break through as I kept on eastwards, and managing it in selected patches on the sea. I lost sight of the sea when I plunged into the tangled vegetation of the Landslip. I don’t think I’d ever walked through there in spring before. It was lovelier than ever, erupting in green, with intensely purple bluebells – possibly they weren’t bluebells at all. I followed the path up and down and up again, picking my way through tree roots and flights of worn steps, emerging at last between brick walls at Dunnose. I headed on past sprawling Victorian hotels into Shanklin.
The great thing about going anticlockwise is that at Shanklin one goes down the steps that run between the clifftop and the beach, not up them. I stayed on the seawall all the way to Sandown out of sheer laziness: I couldn’t be bothered to find where the route goes inland. Besides, I thought, if one’s walking a coast path one might as well stick as close to the sea as possible.
I bought and ate Turkish Delight ice cream from the children’s activity centre on Shanklin seafront, which didn’t seem to be doing a huge amount of business otherwise. When I got into Sandown it was just about lunchtime, so I sat in a café and waited for their fryer to heat up, then ate chips before heading off on the long climb north-east to Yaverland and Culver. All day it had been getting steadily brighter, and by the time I reached the top of Bembridge Down there was brilliant sunshine.
This took me about as far east as it was possible to get; now I turned the corner of the island and went around the edge of the harbour at Bembridge, picking my way across the causeway and then moving a little way inland along the edges of fields. Unlike the last time I’d walked the Isle of Wight Coast Path, I managed not to get lost around the Priory Bay Hotel: there was some sort of organised run going the other way and lots of little pink flags marking the route. I had to stand out of the way of runners every so often.
I ate another ice cream – rum and raisin, this time – in a stiff breeze at Seaview. After that I thought I might as well push on to Ryde, where I had a better choice of buses, so I followed the sea wall around the edge of Puckpool Park. That meant more concrete, and my knees and the soles of my feet didn’t like it much. But the bus home to Ventnor was a nice forty-five minutes’ sit-down.
I ended up setting much later than I’d meant on the second day. I was just about to leave without John when he got up and wanted to come, and then we were about to miss another bus so delayed another half hour…
We messed around a bit buying snacks (vegan for John) in the Sainsbury’s at Ryde, then got going properly. We admired the magnificent Victorian houses on the way out of town, with their cupolas and their barge boarding and their fish scale tiles. We admired the lodges and the more modern houses on the way into Quarr, and debated a bit as to whether one of them had been on Grand Designs and, if so, which.
We talked to a jolly old buffer working in his front garden; he told us that at one point in the 19th century house prices in Ventnor outstripped those of central London. We stopped in the grounds of Quarr Abbey to look at the pigs; the previous time I’d done the Coast Path there were piglets as well, but not this time.
It started raining at Wootton Bridge. This was at least an excuse to try my new waterproof trousers. John had the sort of poncho that’s basically an oversized binbag. On the way up through the housing estate above Wootton Bridge we met one of John’s colleagues, who was rather horrified by the state of his face and then caught him up on all the workplace gossip.
After that it was a long, long descent towards Whippingham, walking on the road all the way. A little way down the road I lost the vision in my right eye so stopped to take my jumper off and wait to be able to see again. This had been happening intermittently ever since I trapped a nerve in my neck the previous summer, and seemed to be associated with overheating. (Some months later, I took it to the GP, who had never seen anything like it, and referred me to a consultant, who had, and told me that it is fairly common in, I quote, ‘young people’. It had been a while since anybody had called me a young person.)
We met many cyclists coming the other way, some coping better with the hill than others. This was the beginning of a long tedious traipse into Whippingham (no pavement, a lot of criss-crossing the road to be on the safer edge of blind bends) and then East Cowes (pavement alongside main road). It was boring and, given the unforgiving surface, painful. I promised myself that I never had to do it again, and that I wouldn’t.
We stopped for lunch at one of the fish and chip restaurants in East Cowes. The floating bridge was out of action, so we were ferried across the Medina in a little launch called the Jenny Lee. It had stopped raining by this point but was still pretty gloomy. Having taken my waterproof trousers off, I managed to sit in a pool of leftover rain.
West Cowes seemed yachtier than ever. We went on along the sea wall as far as Gurnard, at which point we got the map out, engaged in some posturing about being able to go on if the other wanted to, and I finally called it in favour of giving up. This was, I thought, a useful data point for the Camino. I hoped there would be less road walking. We called on John’s local bus knowledge (he has driven a lot of Isle of Wight buses, on and off over the years) and walked up to the nearest bus stop and went home.
Next time: the rest of the Isle of Wight Coast Path – or is it? Will the paddling pool woowoo be too strong? Have valuable lessons been learned? How many more photographs of the Channel and the Solent can there possibly be?