Yachtsmen’s ‘capital’ near Queen Victoria’s island home
Every year thousands of visitors spend their holidays on the Isle of Wight. Yet the island, though it is only 23 miles long by 13 miles wide, has space to absorb and entertain them all. The visitor who wants to escape the crowds can stroll beside peaceful estuaries, walk through the shady grounds of Queen Victoria’s favourite home, or stride across breezy clifftops that seem a world away from the busy commercial centres just across the Solent.
The three 100 ft pinnacles of chalk standing in the sea are the remnants of a ridge which once joined the Isle of Wight to the mainland, and are still being eroded. Until the 18th century, a fourth rock, a 120 ft pinnacle known as Lot’s Wife, stood in the chain’s largest gap; it collapsed in 1764. The lighthouse at the tip of the rocks was built in 1859 to replace one on the clifftop.
A fort, Old Needles Battery, built in 1863 overlooking The Needles, has been restored by the National Trust and contains an exhibition of the fort’s history.
The bay, named after the alum mined there as early as the 16th century, is backed by steep but insecure cliffs renowned for their coloured sands. White quartz, red iron oxide, yellow limonite and other minerals combine to create the mixture of colours.
A chair-lift and flights of steps provide access to the pebbly beach. The bay is a favourite mooring spot, and there are boat trips to view The Needles.
A leisure park (open in summer) at the top of the cliff includes a car park, shops and a model railway layout. Half a mile away along the B3322 is a clock museum. A walk along the clifftop to Headon Warren, covered with gorse, heather and ling, gives a panoramic view of The Needles.
A sea-wall 1 mile long fringes a beach of steeply sloping shingle, with sands at low tide, that offers safe bathing. Totland is backed by hills and crumbling clay cliffs that show few signs of habitation. Boat trips run to Alum Bay and The Needles from the pier, where fishing tackle can also be hired.
A short walk northwards along the sea-wall from Totland lies Colwell Bay, where holiday houses fringe the beach, low-tide sands offer safe swimming and there are sail-boards for hire.
The bay’s northern end is dominated by the massive brick cube of Fort Albert, now converted into flats. The fort was buiit in 1856 as part of a series of fortifications against a possible French invasion.
The fort, which stands on Sconce Point, is the remains of a structure built in 1853 to guard the Solent. It is part of a 50 acre country park which has a large car park and picnic sites.
From the fort’s remaining 21 arches there is a fine view across the Solent at its narrowest point. Bathing is prohibited because of rapid currents, but there is good fishing off the shore for many species including bass, plaice, sole and conger-eel.
This neat little town lies beside a large, snug harbour set in the estuary of the River Yar, with wooded banks to the water’s edge. The town’s beach is pebbly, but the adjoining Norton Beach is sandy and suitable for bathing. The 200 yd wooden pier is popular with fishermen, and the Royal Solent Yacht Club has offshore moorings.
Overlooking the harbour is a castle completed in 1547 as part of the coastal defences built by Henry VIII after his break with Rome. The castle is open to the public, and the original gun platform overlooking the Solent now forms a grassy terrace.
A bridge across the Yar estuary leads to a safe, sandy beach.
This tiny hamlet was, in the 17th century, a thriving port, but the only sign of its past glory is its town hall. Built in 1699, it fell into disrepair in the 19th century as Newtown declined, but it has now been restored and is owned by the National Trust.
The National Trust also preserves the entire estuary of the Newtown River and more than 4 miles of the adjacent Solent shore. From Newtown, a signposted path leads down to the estuary and along a wall that for 300 years enclosed reclaimed pas-tureland, until in 1954 the sea broke through and flooded the area again. The estuary is a maze of low-lying marshes and narrow creeks where boats moor. An 800 acre nature reserve embraces five different types of habitat – salt-marsh, shingle, sand, woodland and pasture – and some 300 species of plants and 180 species of birds have been recorded there.
Narrow streets lead down to the mouth of the River Medina and to the harbour, crammed with the shipwrights’ yards and yacht clubs of the world’s greatest yachting centre. The Royal Yacht Squadron commands the entrance to the harbour with a row of 21 little brass cannons. It is widely, though not universally, believed that the town owes its name to the grey stone building which now houses the Royal Yacht Squadron – a ‘cow’, or fortress, built by Henry VIII to defend the Solent. Though the Royal Yacht Squadron was formed in 1815, the town did not become fashionable until the 1890s when Edward, Prince of Wales, raced yachts there.
The Parade, which runs in front of the Royal Yacht Squadron and continues westward as the Prince’s Esplanade, is an ideal viewpoint from which to watch the races, especially the numerous regattas held during the nine days of Cowes Week in August. Other major events include the Round the
Island Race in June, which attracts some 1,000 entries. A maritime museum in Cowes Library displays relics of the local shipbuilding industry over the last century. To the west of Prince’s Esplanade is Gurnard Bay, with two small shingle beaches, weed-covered rocks and a stream running down to the sea.
Cowes is also the island’s main port, and car and passenger ferries and hydrofoils run regular services to and from the mainland.
Queen Victoria called Osborne her ‘little paradise’, after having it built for herself and her family as a country retreat in 1845-6. The house was built by Thomas Cubitt, to designs by Prince Albert. Around the Italianate villa are extensive gardens with a collection of rare trees, and a full-size Swiss chalet in which the royal children played.
Visitors can see the state and private apartments, preserved almost exactly as the Queen left them when she died there in 1901. Her son, Edward VII, did not share her enthusiasm for the house, and gave it to the nation in 1902.
The beach along the seaward side of the Osborne estate is private, but in summer the public can visit two other features of the estate. One is Norris Castle, where Queen Victoria stayed as a child. It was built in mock-medieval style in 1795 by James Wyatt for Lord Henry Seymour, and has wide views over the Solent. The other is Barton Manor, 20 acres of gardens including 5 acres of vineyards.
The creek is dammed in the summer season to create a bathing lake, surrounded by mellow woodlands. There is a sailing school at the mouth of the creek on the northern side. Opposite lies Fishbourne, a terminal for the Portsmouth car ferry. There are sandy beaches round the point to the west, but there is no access for cars except through the holiday camps.
The building of a half-mile long pier in 1814 began the transformation of Ryde from a tiny coastal settlement to the major holiday centre it has become today. It has a wealth of Regency and Victorian buildings, but its main attraction to holidaymakers is its broad sweep of gently shelving sands, ideal for swimming, which at low tide extend for nearly a mile out to sea. Care should be taken at the eastern end of the beach, known as Appley Sands, where the tide comes in very fast, covering deep holes.
The pier spans the sands, and trains run right to the end of it, where regular ferry services from Portsmouth berth. Londoners arriving by ferry will feel at home, because the electric trains once ran on the Piccadilly line. There is good fishing from the deeper, western, side of the pier, where plaice and flounder can be taken close inshore.
At Appley Park, at the eastern end of Ryde, the grounds of a former private estate have been neatly landscaped to create public gardens, with trees close to the beach and a golf course. Bathing huts and a cement wall line the shore, and a Victorian Gothic folly houses a shell collection.
The sandy beach of this little village provides safe swimming. A quarter of a mile inland, between the sea and the B3330, lies the 10 acre Flamingo Park, with waterfowl and water gardens. The park has 2,000 birds of 70 different species; most of them are waterfowl, but there are also macaws, a toucan and other tropical species.
Bembridge Harbour, often called Brading Harbour, is a bay that provides good anchorage. On its northern side is the Duver, a spit of land leading from the ruined tower of St Helen’s Church and backed by a National Trust area of gorse and open grassland where 260 species of plants have been identified. Across the harbour are the remains of a tidal mill. Bembridge also has the island’s only remaining windmill, which dates from 1700 and contains much of its original machinery.
Bathing is good all round Bembridge, but yachtsmen must beware of a rock shelf to the south which appears at low tide. The town has a small nautical museum.
Offshore, the strip of sea known as St Helen’s Roads was favoured by Nelson as a mooring for the Navy because of the shelter it gave against westerly and south-westerly winds. The four rocky offshore bastions that look like islands are in fact massive granite fortresses built in the 1860s on the order of the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, at a time when French invasion was feared. They were never used and are known as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Brading Lilliput Museum of Dolls and Toys, daily in summer; Morton Manor, 17th-century house and gardens, most days in summer; Osborn-Smith’s Wax Museum, daily; Roman Villa, daily in summer.
Calbourne Watermiil. 17th-century working water-mill. Daily in summer.
Cansbrooke Castle. Norman and later; Isle of Wight Museum. Daily.
Robin Hill Country Park. Daily in summer.
Roman Villa, Newport. Daily in summer.