|Where to stay |
It may not be sunny at the moment, but there’s one place in the UK where the sun is still shining: the idyllic Isle of Wight. With an average of 34.2 hours of sunshine a week, it’s the sunniest place in the UK, and as if that wasn’t enough, half of the island is also designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. On this magical isle you’ll find ancient forests full of red squirrels – although numbers fluctuate, the woodland here can provide habitat for around 3,500 squirrels – thatched villages, meadows bursting with wild flowers and dotted with rare butterflies, thriving wetlands and friendly pubs serving fish caught that morning.
Maybe it’s the sunshine, or the local Goddards ale, but islanders like nothing more than holding a party. Summer is the best time to catch a festival, whether it’s Britain’s oldest carnival in late August at Ryde, now in its 121st year, or the international sailing regatta during Cowes Week earlier in the month. Even though the small diamond-shaped island is only 23 by 13 miles, it attracts big names to the Isle of Wight Festival held every June, and Bestival still entices music fans to make the one-hour ferry ride every September.
As well as ensuring festival-goers stay dry, all that sunshine means lots of fertile patchworks of farmland producing delicious food. The island is famous for its garlic and asparagus, but you can also tuck into delicious local lamb, beer, honey and seafood. The island has a fantastic fresh food scene, with all sorts of eating places from Michelin-starred restaurants to crab shacks – all using the island’s natural bounty. Looking for somewhere to eat I stopped a gentleman on his rickety bicycle and asked where the nearest pub was serving local food. He looked confused: “Er, they all serve local food here,” he said, wobbling off on his bike.
The island is celebrating two lots of bicentenary celebrations this year. It’s 200 years since poet and resident Alfred Lord Tennyson’s birth, and the island is also celebrating 200 years of Darwin. The area is treasured by fossil hunters because 48 long-lost animal species, including dinosaurs, have been discovered here.
When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert built Osborne House near East Cowes in the 1840s, fashionable Victorians decided that the Isle of Wight was the place to be seen. When the poet laureate Tennyson moved to Farringford House a few years later the island became a holiday destination for well-to-do Victorians. Seaside resorts are still a big part of the island’s character; from kiss-me-quick Ryde and the golden stretch of sand at Sandown in the east, to the long, rugged Compton Bay in the south. Between the beaches on the quieter south coast are hidden gems like the charming Steephill Cove, between Ventnor and St Lawrence, which is lined with ramshackle beach huts selling fresh crab and boats perched on the small beach, unloading the day’s catch.
Cycling is a great way to get around and, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a festival to celebrate that too. The Isle of Wight Cycling Festival
features rides for all levels from family jaunts and forest trails to a grueling 70-mile Cycle the Wight and the scary-sounding Hills Killer Mountain Bike Challenge.
If you prefer to see the sights on two feet rather than two wheels, the island is also home to Britain’s biggest walking festival. Held in May, more than 24,000 people took part in 300 walks at last year’s Isle of Wight Walking Festival
, including some quirky speed dating, ghost and food-themed treks. And the festival is such a huge success – you voted it as your favourite walking festival in last year’s readers awards – that there’s now an annual spin-off Autumn Walking Weekend, featuring more than 50 different walks to choose from.
But you don’t have to wait for a festival to don your walking boots. The island is perfect for ramblers of all levels, with eight trails covering 500 miles of footpaths and bridleways crisscrossing the inland area. Around the rugged coastline there are 67 miles of coastal path – including 30 miles of stunning Heritage Coast – passing by scores of beautiful beaches and dramatic drops.
The coast is interrupted by chines – a local word for a gorges – and some are untouched, while others are now a tourist attraction. Shanklin Chine, near the attractive old thatched village of Shanklin, has a pretty Victorian walkway through the chine, passing semi-tropical flowers and waterfalls.
Around the south and west of the island, the coast is particularly stunning, with paths along the multi-coloured cliffs of Alum Bay heading out to the jagged white rocks of the Needles and trails taking you right along the edge of the dramatic landscape. The Tennyson Trail follows 12 miles from Carisbrooke Castle, famous for the imprisonment of Charles I before his execution during the Civil War in 1649, to Alum Bay, passing by a monument to the poet with panoramic views from Tennyson Downs. Further along the south coast at Ventnor there are 7 miles of undercliff from Dunnose to Blackgang, where collapsed terraces between the inland cliffs and the sea have been created by the unusually unstable geology of the area. At the southern tip of the diamond, at St Catherine’s Point, you can see where forests have grown on the huge landslip near the lighthouse.
Inland, birders will find lots of interesting species in the wetlands. In Sandown you can even sit on the beach and look across the road at the lake and marshes. If you want to immerse yourself further, the RSPB’s first reserve at Brading Marshes covers a large area in the valley of the lower River Yar, which runs out to the sea at Bembridge from the Roman village of Brading. The marshes are home to buzzards, woodpeckers, dragonflies and butterflies.
Another good spot to go birdwatching is at Newtown’s salt flats, where you’ll find a National Trust hide on the estuary looking out at egrets stumbling around the creek and little owls nesting in the trees – there’s even a family of swallows nesting in the toilet block by the car park.
Newtown is worth a visit just to see the town hall, which is not that unusual in itself, but an oddity when you consider that there is no town at Newtown. It was a notorious rotten borough from Elizabethan times, with two MPs but only a few residents.
There are several charming villages scattered across the island to explore, mainly inland. Godshill is a pretty place with picturesque thatched houses and an old smithy, but it’s totally overrun by tour buses. A better bet to avoid the crowds is to head to the equally attractive village of Shorewell, which also has beautiful thatched houses. On your way to the village look out for fields of poppies in the summer. You’ll see a flash of colour through the bushes and if you can peer over the hedge you’ll see ribbons of bright red threading through the fields.
Wild flowers blanket the island and pop up in the most unexpected places. Along the coast above St Catherine’s Point it’s easy to stroll past the field of Pyramidal Orchids next to the coastal path, but if you look closely you’ll see hundreds of these wild purple flowers along the way. In the orchid fields you might also be lucky enough to spot the rare glanville fritillary butterfly, as this is the only place in the UK where it still thrives. Keep an eye out as you walk through the clover fields – Brading Butterfly Walk near the Adgestone Vineyard is another good place.
As well as marshes and open downs, the island is home to an ancient forest at Parkhurst, near Newport, a Site of Special Scientific Interest that is home to a large red squirrel population. Follow the Red Squirrel Safari trail to visit three of their habitats. At dawn or dusk there’s a hide with tips on squirrel spotting.
With such diverse wildlife and scenery you can go from the beach to forest and marshland all in one day – and after all that exercise there’s nothing better than a hearty meal overlooking the beach while the sun goes down. Sitting outside, sipping local ginger beer and eating a crab sandwich by the seaside, it’s hard to believe there’s anywhere more perfect than this little diamond in the sea.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE ISLE OF WIGHT
The Golf House
Alum Bay New Road, Totland Bay PO39 0JA
Tel: 01983 753293
When you arrive at The Golf House in Totland Bay you’ll be greeted by resident rock stars Charlie (Watts) and Jimi (Hendrix) – the Blakemore’s two loveable Labradors. Sue and John have been at the Golf House for over five years and their comfy old home was once the clubhouse for the Needles Golf Course. The B&B has three rooms (one is a family suite of two rooms) and a beautiful dining area looking out onto the fields of heather on Headen Warren. Sue and John make the most of the local produce available in West Wight to cook a hearty breakfast with local or homemade bread and jam, and will soon be using eggs from their hens. Nearby Warren Farm serves lovely cream teas and Totland and Alum Bay are within easy reach – they’ll even pick you up from the Yarmouth ferry so you can leave your car at home.
Newport Rd, Afton, Freshwater PO40 9XR
Tel: 07802 678591
Yurts are a great option with double beds, a stove and solar-powered showers. The site is located in Afton Park orchards and has beautiful gardens and an excellent farm shop selling local produce.
Hambrough Road, Ventnor PO38 1SQ
Tel: 01983 856333
For a chic treat stay in one of The Hambrough’s seven tastefully decorated boutique rooms with views of Ventnor harbour. Try a meal in the Michelin-starred restaurant where chef Robert Thompson works his magic.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 25 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!