Bays and chines along the Isle of Wight’s sunshine coast
Safe sandy beaches sheltered from the prevailing west winds are for many the main attractions of the south coast of the Isle of Wight. But the coastline includes more dramatic landscapes – isolated bays, narrow ravines or ‘chines’ and, on the more exposed south-west coast, precipitous cliffs revealing chalk beds that are the thickest in the country. All these features are linked by the coastal footpath which runs round the entire island.
The horseshoe-shaped cove has a steep pebbly beach and a short promenade, rimmed by low cliffs of white chalk. A few hundred yards inland is the source of the River Yar, which flows north to Yarmouth and almost divides western Wight from the remainder of the island.
To the west of the bay rises Tennyson Down, a grassy, whale-backed ridge of chalk which rises to 480 ft above the sea. The view embraces Portland Bill to the west and, to the east, the Solent up to Southampton Water, a sweep of 50 miles.
Tennyson Down is named after the poet Lord Tennyson who lived at nearby Far-ringford House for nearly 40 years. The poet used to walk on the down almost every day, saying that the air was worth ‘sixpence a pint’. There is a monument to Tennyson on the summit of the down. Plants growing on the down include cowslips, hairy violets, betony, ragworts and several species of orchids. Cormorants, shags, guillemots and other sea-birds nest in the cliffs.
From the tiny hamlet, a 3 minute walk down Brook Chine leads to a sandy beach, with some pebbles. This is one of several ‘chines’, or ravines, which cut through the cliffs along the south coast of the Isle of Wight. The word derives from the Anglo-Saxon cinan, meaning ‘to crack’; others that lead to the sandy foreshore around Compton Bay are Compton Chine and Shippards Chine.
Brook is also the southern starting point of the Hamstead Trail, one of the Isle of Wight’s marked cross-country walking routes. At nearby Hanover Point, the Pine Raft – the fossilised remains of a forest – forms rock flats visible at low tide. Behind the 200 ft chalk cliffs facing Compton Bay soars Compton Down, popular with hang-gliders.
To the south-east of Brook Chine more chines lead down to extensive sands, with safe bathing in calm weather around Brigh-stone Bay. The soft clay cliffs are, however, constantly being eroded, and there are many landslides and cliff falls.
This ravine, which is easily missed, leads down from a small car park beside the A3055, 1 mile west of Chale. Descent to the beach is by some 126 wooden steps, and as a result of this descending approach the beach – all 2 miles of it – is refreshingly uncrowded even at the height of summer. There are no facilities on the beach, which is free of rocks and consists of shingle and low-tide sand. Fishing is good, particularly for mackerel.
The cliffs are clearly stratified and some of the strata – the Wealden Beds, formed in a lake about 100 million years ago-are famous for their fossilised oysters, ammonites and lobsters.
This chine, supposedly named after a local band of smugglers, has now been overlaid with a large Fantasy Theme Park, which includes a maze, models of Isle of Wight houses, an Indian camp and a series of model dinosaurs, most of them full size.
In the entrance hall hangs a 75 ft whale skeleton – the largest and best preserved in Britain. The 80 ton animal was washed up near by in 1842 and for almost a century its skeleton was preserved, encased in cement, beside the road.
From the chine’s top, 400 ft above the sea, there is a superb view of the cliffs leading north-west past Whale Chine. The rocks along the base of these cliffs have claimed 180 ships since 1750. At the base of the cliffs can be seen the Cault Clay-known locally as ‘blue slipper’ – which by acting as a lubricant to the overlying layers causes continual cliff falls along this coast. Blackgang Chine shows many signs of the slippage, which in recent years has taken away the original coast road and many houses. Until 1913, there were steps to the shore at this point; now there is no access.
Just east of St Catherine’s lighthouse and its treacherous Rocken End rocks lies perhaps the most secluded beach on the island. A road declared to be unfit for cars drops down for about a mile to a bay some 300 yds across which is otherwise completely cut off by sheer cliffs. There is safe bathing and fishing from a tiny dock.
St Catherine’s lighthouse is open to the public at the discretion of the keeper. Bathing is dangerous near the headland, but the walks in the National Trust’s Knowles Farm area offer breathtaking views. Paths cross the landslip area below the cliff, and the main coastal path passes along the cliff-top.
Just inland off the coastal path, on the 780 ft summit of St Catherine’s Hill, stands an unusual octagonal tower known as the ‘Pepper Pot’. It is the relic of a lighthouse built in about 1323 by a local landowner, Walter de Godeston, as an act of penance for having received casks of wine looted from a wrecked ship. A second circular lighthouse was begun near the tower in 1785, but never completed; its base still stands today. The new lighthouse, on the coast near St Catherine’s Point, was built in 1838.
LADY OF THE ISLES The Glanville fritillary was named after Lady Glanville, an Ihlh-century collector, and is found in Britain only on the south coast of the IsleJof Wight and in the Channel Islands. ‘It is a weak flier, and rests with wings open on grassy slopes. It has a wingspan of 6 in.
Close together lie three o the Isle of Wight’s gems: a tiny, ancient church, a bird park and a secluded little bay.
St Lawrence Old Church is just 45 by 15 ft – one of the smallest churches in Britain. A Norman building dating from the 12th century, it lies 100 yds up a footpath and is. set about with gravestones and shaded by mature yews.
The bird park, occupying part of the Old Park estate, is for tropical birds. Most are in cages, but visitors can walk through most of the cages. The birds include a pair of erectus parrots, male and female bearing such different colours that they were once classir fied as separate species. The same complex of buildings includes a hotel and a glass works.
The bay at Binnel Point, rocky and with some low-tide sand, is accessible from the main road by a footpath west of St Lawrence, or along the cliffs from Ventnor. It was once a harbour, and the ruins of the old walls still guard it.
The resort, developed in Victorian times, descends like an amphitheatre below the slope of the highest point in the Isle of Wight, the 787 ft St Boniface Down. The town has good bathing and a wide range of seaside amusements, though the pier-head was closed in the early 1980s. The Botanic Gardens are extensive and a Museum of Smuggling commemorates a way of life that was once common on the island. A smugglers’ pageant is held every June.
One mile west of Ventnor is a small secluded beach – Steephill – that can be reached only by footpath, either from the shore or from the main road above. It is ringed with cliffs and hemmed in by cottages.
The gorse-and-grass summit of St Boniface Down is marred by a large radar and telecommunications site, but there are all-round views over the coast and rolling inland hills.
This tiny village – the ‘bon’ is a contraction of St Boniface – has an equally tiny and charming beach, with good bathing.
Adjoining the village to the north-east is an area called The Landslip, where the effects of the underlying ‘blue slipper’ are obvious. Two major ‘slips’ in the surface strata have occurred in the last two centuries – in 1810 and 1928 – leaving the landscape a mass of contorted blocks which are now overgrown and crossed by paths.
A long, safe, sandy beach is Shanklin’s principal attraction for holidaymakers. It has in addition a fairground and pier entertainments. A lift carries passengers from the Esplanade up to Keats Green, from which there is a fine view of the coastline.
At the southern end of the green the cliffs have been sliced by a stream to form a chine. To follow the nature trail through Shanklin Chine is to enter a different world, a grove enclosed by trees that follows the stream from a waterfall at the top to a thatched fisherman’s cottage, now a pub and restaurant, at the bottom.
The chine contains a relic of the Second World War: a section of the Pipeline Under The Ocean (PLUTO) that was used to pump fuel across the floor of the Channel during the Normandy landings.
The main part of the town is Victorian and Edwardian, but from the top of Shanklin Chine walkers can continue through Old Shanklin, with its thatched houses, and along the coastal path to Luccombe Village, less than 1 mile away. Walkers who can face the long return climb can descend Luccombe Chine – 300 rough steps leading to an unspoiled beach.
The safe bathing beach of Shanklin continues unbroken along the foreshore of Sandown, which has a pier, pavilion and every beach amusement. The Battery Gardens, once a fortress, offer spectacular cliff-top views. A small zoo set in the granite ruins of Sandown Fort contains Bengal tigers and a reptile house. The town also has a small geological museum.
The down, rising to more than 300 ft, is topped by a giant stone needle raised in 1849 to the memory of Charles Pelham, Earl of Yarborough, first commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron. At its seaward end it terminates in the dramatic Culver Cliff, a nesting site for many sea-birds.
The adjoining Bembridge Down is crowned by a fortress built in Lord Pal-merston’s time and used until after the Second World War. Though now overgrown, it is used by an industrial company.
Culver Down and Bembridge Down together form a saddle from which there are superb views to Bembridge and across Sandown Bay.