Walk of the Month: The Isle of Wight - a stroll through a sleepy backwater
Following quays and inlets along the island's north-west coast, Mark Rowe stumbles on 'England in a nutshell'
Monday 26 May 2014
Tucked away among woods, down a single-track lane, away from the bucket and spade market, the Isle of Wight reveals an altogether sleepier side. At Shalfleet boatyard, life dozes on. A handful of boats have been hauled up on to land but there is no one around, only birds - black-headed gulls jerkily flicking back and forwards in mid-air, and little egrets settling down among the reeds for a spot of fish-catching.
Click on map to enlarge
Shalfleet quay has been in use since medieval times, when the harbour was more swollen and deeper. Across the water - and visited later on this walk - is the minuscule hamlet of Newtown. The clue is in the name, as Newtown in the 14th century was the most important port on the Isle of Wight. At that time, Newtown creek opened into a mighty harbour estuary, but centuries of coastal ebb and flow, erosion and silt have changed all that. What's left today is a delightful setting for an easy walk meandering along rivers and streams, guarded from the sea by large shingle banks and tidal mudflats.
Thanks to playful weather, which long ago breached the sea wall, this walk involves retracing my steps here and there. I begin with a short, there-and-back-again linear walk to Shalfleet quay, where mature trees line the inlets and Lilliputian river.
Before setting out, I'd chatted with Mark Buckett, who used to work for the island's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. "I met a Japanese tourist here who'd landed at Heathrow and made straight for the Isle of Wight. She told me this was because it's England in a nutshell," he said. "We've got the chalk downs of the South Downs," Mark added, counting the island's merits on his fingers, "the coastline of the New Forest, the estuaries, everything in a little package. We've the diversity and the variety. The only things we don't have are the mountains of the Lake District - so we just need some kind of monumental and unexpected geological incident and we'll have the box set."
The boats at the quay are coated with resin to waterproof them, a process known as caulking and which gives rise to the local name for a true islander, a caulkhead. To qualify, your family must have lived on the island for at least three generations. The resin makes the boats watertight. "You tend to need to be good at that if you live on an island," Mark had added.
My walk heads east, along a delectable wooden bridge of the kind where Christopher Robin and co might play pooh sticks. There's a brief stretch of a B road - irksomely treated like a motorway by drivers - before the path cuts across fields for Newtown.
Newtown Creek, Isle of Wight
As I cross Cassey Bridge below Newtown, the air is full of honking as hundreds of dark-bellied Brent geese settle down on the water. You may still just catch them as they set off for the summer breeding lands in Greenland and Russia.
The walk winds it way down to the estuary, this time on its eastern flank, the mats and moorings of Shalfleet Quay now looking surprisingly distant. The hay meadows here are edged with hedgerows and grazed by the black-and-white belted Galloway cattle and Hebridean sheep. Instead of pesticides, the dung from the livestock is used to attract insects, which is in turn good for birds and bats.
An enticing wooden walkway leads out to an isolated hut marooned over the water. The planks flank two large ponds that were once saltpans until breached by a fierce storm in 1954. The coastline is gorgeous - soft, green rolling hills tumbling to a foreshore, while the New Forest makes for a wooden-framed horizon across the Solent.
It's utterly glorious, but this part of the island once - depending on your view of such things - endured a close shave. A nuclear power plant was proposed here in the 1960s but was dropped amid the AONB designation and the area's status as a National Nature Reserve.
I retrace my steps, this time taking a slightly different route out of Newtown, passing the idyllically positioned Church of the Holy Spirit and - one last oddity - Newtown old town hall. The redbrick house rests on large pillars and dates to 1659.
As Newtown's influence waned, so did the fortunes of the hall, to the point that it became a town hall with no town. I push open the door to learn more. The building was rescued from collapse only by the intervention of the eccentric "Ferguson's Gang", a group of masked women who remained anonymous but devoted their time to raising funds to buy property for the National Trust. They would burst into Trust meetings, Robin Hood style, and plant a sack of cash on the table, with strict instructions on how it should be spent.
I get the impression that Newtown dozed on through the whole drama: it's looks as though it's been a wonderfully sleepy idyll for centuries.
Mark Rowe travelled with Wightlink ferries from Lymington to Yarmouth (0871 376 1000; wightlink.co.uk).
Red Funnel (0844 844 9988; redfunnel.co.uk) operates a foot passenger ferry service between Southampton and West Cowes.
Mark Rowe stayed at Nettlecombe Farm in Whitwell (01983 730783; nettlecombefarm.co.uk) which has self-catering cottages from £360 per week.
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