ANNABELLE Thorpe puts on her hiking boots and discovers the Isle of Wight is a walker's paradise, with gastro pubs to match...
Walking, we agreed, as we squelched through muddy fields, wove through gorse and scrambled over stiles, is a bit like listening to Radio 4.
When you’re young, it’s something you think only “old” people do; suddenly you hit your mid-30s and you’re tuning into the Archers while lacing up your Timberlands and poring over Ordnance Survey maps with the same interest you used to show copies of The Face.
If I’m honest, I’m a pretty low-grade walker, which is why the Isle of Wight suits me so well. Not for me 15-mile hikes up mountains; I’m more of a five-mile stroller, with a good pub at the end (and preferably half-way too).
The island specialises in these kind of routes; family-friendly romps where the gradient is never more than “gently undulating” and the walk itself rarely takes more than a couple of hours.
Ths year the Isle of Wight Walking Festival celebrated its 10th birthday and celebrated in style. Walkers from all over the country came to follow the trails and waymarked paths that criss-cross the Downs and coast.
It’s such a success story that there will be a second, weekend festival in October. The island is fully geared up for walking; pubs positively welcome muddy-booted hikers, all routes are clearly signposted and the mix of dramatic clifftop walks, hikes across the Downs and strolls through chocolate box-pretty villages means there’s something for everyone.
The weather can be unpredictable on the island; on our first day we stoked up for a coastal walk with lunch at the Spyglass Inn in Ventnor. Sat outside in the sunshine overlooking the beach, tucking into bowls of shrimp and crab chowder, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
A gentle stroll along the coastal path bought us to the prettiest village on the island: Steephill Cove, only accessible by foot, with a fine restaurant – the Boathouse – where the day’s catch is served straight on to your plate. The sky was a clear blue as we walked. Only the increasing blusteryness a sign of what was to come.
The next day, in spite of the worst storm of the winter barreling towards us from the south-west, we decided to do the walk from Alum Bay to Freshwater on the westernmost part of the island.
For such a small island there is plenty of drama to be discovered; the Needles and the vast cliffs that sheer down to sleepy Freshwater Bay looked positively menacing against the granite sky; once up on the top of the cliffs at the Tennyson Monument, we could see a dozen types of weather – pools of sunshine over Southampton, torrential rain out to sea, glowering clouds above Lymington, windy mist over Yarmouth.
There’s something tremendously uplifting about walking, whatever the weather. Buffeted by winds, high on the cliffs, we skipped about like children – next day under clear blue skies again, we walked through woodlands that would soon be rich with bluebells and small, clear lakes edged by Scots pine trees, where we stopped simply to soak up the silent tranquility.
The other uplifting thing is that if you stomp across the countryside for five miles in the teeth of a howling gale, you can eat pretty much what you like for lunch. Which is good news, because in recent years the island has reinvented itself as something of a foodie destination.
Pubs such as the Red Lion in Freshwater and the New Inn at Shalfleet are all scrubbed wooden tables and blackboard menus of locally caught fish, meats from local farms and stickily-delicious puds.
A Sunday lunch at the New Inn of the freshest whitebait, garlicky prawns and seared fillet of ling – a meaty fish, reminiscent of monkfish – left just enough room for a slab of the orange Madeira cake we had picked up from a farm shop earlier that day.
If you haven’t been to the island for several years, the change is remarkable. A gentle gentrification is taking place; alongside the pubs, towns like Ryde now offer elegant brasseries and slick bars, and hotels such as the Hamborough offer boutique-style elegance (although at boutique-style prices).
The old-fashioned bucket-and-spade island is still there – and always will be around the east coast resorts of Sandown and Shankhill, but the rural West Wight – where much of the best walking is, is slowly getting a facelift. Our cottage, in Freshwater Bay, was delightful – a roaring log fire in the cosy lounge, kitchen with all mod cons and country walks from the front door.
We chose to stick to the simpler, shorter walks for our weekend – but there are more taxing, lengthier routes for hardcore hikers. Of the 500 miles of footpaths on the island, there are 14 longer trails and coastal paths – some of which reach up to 16 miles, but all still do-able in a day.
Which is just as well, as you need to leave plenty of time for sitting in the sunshine, eating ice-cream, sipping cold beers and gazing out across the clear blue waters that surround this most enchanting of islands.GETTING THERE: The Isle of Wight Walking Festival (www.isleofwightwalkingfestival.co.uk) runs from May 3 to 18 2008. Red Funnel (0844 844 9988/ www.redfunnel.co.uk) offers return fares from Southampton to East Cowes from £30 for a car and four passengers. A three-night break at Caesars Cottage (01386 701177/www.ruralretreats.co.uk) costs from £324 (four sharing).Isle of Wight Tourism: 01983 813813/ www.islandbreaks.co.uk