PETER CARBERY goes off the beaten track in the Isle of Wight
“SO you want to know how to get up to the Monument, eh?” Darren, the odd job man at Gotten Manor, pointed to the field outside the gate.
“Turn left there, and up the path. Bit steep, mind. And muddy. Very steep, in fact.”
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And how long would this jolly jaunt take us?
“Oh, 20 minutes if you’re fit. Maybe an hour if not. You could always drive to the car park at Blackgang and have an easier walk up to the Pepper Pot, see the Monument from there.”
Five minutes later we’re crossing the road from the car park and climbing over a stile into a field of wary-looking bovines, teenage son in tow grumbling about being “forced to traipse through cowpat hell.”
“I saw Cowes on the map but I didn’t think you meant this kind,” moaned Ciaran, “…and hang on, is that a bull looking at me?”
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Welcome to the Isle of Wight, off-the-beaten-track style. Or rather, Secret Wight style, a tourist drive aimed at restoring the nostalgic virtues of the traditional family holiday.
Fresh air, an Ordnance Survey map, 60 miles of beaches and scenic cliffs, local wild (and not so wild) life, forests, strange wonders waiting to be explored, country darkness nights with brilliant twinkling stars us city dwellers never get to enjoy as a rule…and all on an island half of which is classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
It’s hard not to get all Enid Blyton/Famous Five about it, but at times you really do feel like you’ve gone back to a simpler, more innocent age.
Did we really spot a Zig Zag Road and Steep Hill Climb? Yes, in the gorgeous Victorian seaside town of Ventnor.
Was that a red squirrel we saw? Yes – they thrive here like nowhere else in Britain because there are no aggressive grey squirrels competing for food.
And all this time travel takes is a 40-minute Wightlink car ferry trip across the Solent from Portsmouth.
We headed for the village of Chale, at the southern tip of the island, and into our first adventure…where’s Gotten Manor?
Following the directions we’d been given, we turned down a narrow, rutted lane for half a mile and, just at the point we were thinking of turning around and admitting we’d taken the wrong road, there was the courtyard ahead, with and two self-catering cottages on our left and the manor to the right. Secret Wight indeed.
Our cottage was a blend of modern and old, with an impressive glass frontage surrounded by stonework and a big open plan kitchen/living area. The little touches provided by owner Caroline were most appreciated: fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables on the table and a big bag of ice in the freezer, plus washing-up liquid and plenty of towels and toilet paper!
Despite Darren’s advice (or perhaps because of it!) we never did reach the Hoy Monument but the second of the Towers of Adventure was well worth the shorter trek.
The Pepper Pot, or St Catherine’s Oratory, is Britain’s oldest medieval lighthouse and though built in the early 14th Century its quirky design brings to mind a prototype of an HG Wells space rocket.
It commands stunning views, inland across St Catherine’s Down and the aforementioned Monument, and out to sea, taking in Chale Bay and the distant chalky white cliffs of Needles.
Back then, of course, the islanders would have used blazing beacons to warn ships of impending peril on the rocks…now it’s the rocks themselves that are in danger of erosion from the greedy waves.
Directly below our vantage point is the “disappearing village” of Blackgang, now home to an adventure park and some lovely coastal walks, which featured on the recent BBC series Coast.
If you’re looking for a picnic spot it’s worth checking out the impressive St Catherine’s Lighthouse at the end of Chale Bay, still working, though with automated electricity rather than medieval flame.
Bigger appetites are catered for at the village’s Wight Mouse Inn (01983 730 431), which has a great kids menu as well as hitting the spot for adults. Steak & Tanglefoot Ale pie and scampi supper washed down with Guinness and a bottle of white…the £41 bill for four of us was terrific value.
While the Secret Wight adventures are all admission-free, two attractions are well worth dipping into your pocket to enjoy, particularly if you have inquisitive young minds to entertain.
We spent an hour in the interactive museum at Sandown’s Dinosaur Isle, learning about the Isle of Wight’s rich dinosaur history. The iguanadon, for instance, unique to the island, and the exciting finds that are being unearthed even to this day as the sea erodes cliff faces to reveal secrets buried for hundreds of millions of years.
Dads got their kicks persuading terrified offspring to stick their heads into the reconstructed jaws of a T-Rex and “smile for the camera”.
Next up was the steam train at Havenstreet - pure nostalgia along the 10-mile, three-station stretch of track, with flamboyantly-moustachioed station staff all dressed for the part and almost military-like in their duties.
The Havenstreet station also has a small train museum and an Aladdin’s cave of a shop packed with retro railway and World War 2 memorabilia.
It was back to nature for our final adventure of our stay. Driving to the east of the island took us through a succession of twee villages all seemingly in competition to adorn biscuit tins, jigsaws and chocolate boxes, overflowing as they were with thatched cottages and olde-worlde shops.
Our destination was Newtown Estuary - heaven for bird watchers and lovers of unusual plants, peaceful and picturesque for the rest of us.
Leave the car in the National Trust car park and it’s a 10-minute walk to the long wooden bridge that takes you across to a boathouse and quay surrounded by salt marsh.
The sighting board told us that recent visitors had spotted buzzards, oyster catchers, marsh harriers and spotted flycatchers – over 180 different species have been recorded in all.
In an attempt to add cod in batter to that list, Hannah cast her line optimistically off the walkway, her very first foray into fishing. Sadly, she drew a blank.
“Maybe next time we should put some bait on the hook,” she reckoned.
Not to worry. Before heading home the following afternoon, we got to enjoy mouth-watering fish & chips on Ryde Esplanade, sitting on the harbour wall looking across to the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth.
FACT BOX* Peter travelled to the Isle of Wight with Wightlink Green Getaways (0871 376 0013, wightlink.co.uk/greengetaways) and stayed at Gotten Manor. A one-week Wightlink Green Getaways self-catering holiday at Gotten Manor from April 22 costs from £119 per person (based on four sharing), including return car ferry crossings from Portsmouth or Lymington. A one-week ferry-inclusive holiday in August costs from £218 per person. Short breaks also available on request.
Like Secret Wight, it was a feast too good not to share.
* Peter crossed the Solent on Wightlink’s 40-minute Portsmouth–Fishbourne crossing, one of three routes. Car ferries also operate between Lymington and Yarmouth (35 minutes) and there is a passenger catamaran service from Portsmouth Harbour to Ryde Pierhead (22 minutes).
* Secret Wight: Designed specifically for adventurous families, Secret Wight offers a range of fresh air challenges for parents and children to conquer together on a choice of 10 different itineraries. The Wightlink booklet spotlights parts of the Isle of Wight known to locals, away from the well-trodden tourist path. It's available free by calling 0871 376 1000 or to view/download from the website wightlink.co.uk/secretwight
* Dinosaur Isle (01983 404344 & dinosaurisle.com) is open daily 10am–6pm April to September. Adults £5, children £3.50, family (2 adults and 2 children) £15.50. Fossil walks, led by Dinosaur Isle experts, take place regularly during school holidays and cost £4.50 for adults, £2.50 for children or £13 for a family of four (see website for dates).
* Isle of Wight Steam Railway (01983 882204 & iwsteamrailway.co.uk) is open from March to December and hosts special themed events regularly throughout that time. Check website for train timetables. Fares from £9.50 for adults, £5 for children or £24 for a family of four (valid all day).