Text & Pictures: Andrea Abbott
On a business trip to England, we found ourselves with a week to spare. We decided to spend it rambling – a popular pastime in Britain with its extensive network of public footpaths – 190,000 kilometres of them, according to Bill Bryson in his book, Notes from a Small Island. These trails provide probably the best way of exploring Britain’s surprisingly extensive open spaces and National Parks. England’s longest trail is the 630 mile (1014 kilometre), South West Coast Path starting from Poole Harbour in Dorset and going via Land’s End to Minehead in Somerset. Not quite up to doing all 630 miles, we settled for a section of the path in the Bigbury Bay area on the South Devon Heritage Coast. But first we limbered up on another path, one that traces the north westerly edges of the Isle of Wight.
We kicked off the journey as foot passengers on the ferry from Lymington to the tiny, ancient port of Yarmouth. It’s a short passage – about 40 minutes across The Solent, the strait between the mainland and the Isle of Wight.
“The most expensive ferry crossing of this length anywhere,” grumbled a fellow passenger as we stood on the observation deck under a leaden sky. We didn’t doubt him. The tickets had cost around £20 return each, making our little excursion seem a bad idea. To boot, it was now raining.
Still, sheltering under a transparent canopy, we enjoyed the expansive views of the Solent where yachts scudded across the choppy waters, the skippers stoic in the face of icy sea spray.
On the open deck, an anorak-clad woman and her drenched Spaniel performed tricks – a rehearsal for a dog show on the island. Nöel Coward’s song came to mind: Mad dogs and Englishmen… ( and women, perhaps?)
Happily, the rain had abated by the time we disembarked at Yarmouth.
We dived into a café to fortify ourselves with tea and cake.
The gloomy weather made it tempting to linger in that cosy café but we resisted and, the map app on our phones guiding us, we started along the footpath to Freshwater, where we’d booked a B&B for the night. It was a gentle 10 kilometre walk past sandy beaches and through woods and fields where horses and cattle eyed us or blocked our way until we parted with an apple.
We passed quaint cottages some of whose inhabitants engaged us in conversation, telling us of the laid-back island lifestyle and of the numerous South Africans who’d made the Isle of Wight their home. “No crime here,” one man said smugly.
On a hilltop, we gazed upon the 470 year old Hurst Castle sitting low in the Solent a kilometre from the island shore. Attached by a two kilometre shingle spit to the mainland at Milford-on-Sea, the castle was built by Henry VIII as a coastal fortress to protect the western approach to the Solent.
At our B & B, originally a vicarage, the manager, Boris (not Johnson…), outlined Freshwater’s cultural pedigree. Nearby was Dimbola Lodge, a photographic museum that once was home to Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Another Victorian, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson lived not far away at Farringford Manor. “He would pop in here regularly to gossip with the vicar,” said Boris.
Next day, we took the trail named in Tennyson’s honour. With the sun making epic attempts to break through the clouds, we climbed the long hill out of Freshwater Bay and crossed the Tennyson and West High Down from where great chalk cliffs drop into the sea and where the towering Tennyson Memorial immortalises the poet who, in Tithonus, wrote, ‘I ask’d thee, Give me immortality.’ In foul weather, immortality must get thoroughly tested up on that exposed peninsula, but in kinder conditions, it’s a place of sublime peace and stupendous views. Easy to picture the bearded poet striding across the heathland, the scenic splendour touching his soul to manifest later in timeless verse – lines, perhaps like ‘… the voice of the long sea-wave as it swelle’d now and then in the dim-gray dawn…’
Looking down from the most westerly point, Alfred must have drawn inspiration too from an iconic landmark: The Needles, a series of craggy chalk outcrops rising from the sea. (Could that be the source of ‘Break, break, break at the foot of thy crags, O Sea!’?)
On that same promontory, he’d have seen a new fort – today called The Old Battery – being completed in 1862. Could his poetic mind have imagined that same fort being used in two horrendous world wars the following century? A second fort-like structure has since been built. This is the New Battery and it’s where British-made rockets were tested between 1956 and 1971 in a Cold War race for space.
Our military and literary knowledge thus expanded, we continued on to Colwell Bay where a crazy Englishman was board-sailing toward Hurst Castle on an icy, rain-portending wind.
Ahead, we could see a ferry entering Yarmouth. We had come full circle.
On then to south Devon and a B&B in the olde-worlde village of Ringmore, once the hangout of pirates and now ours for three days while we explored the lovely estuarine town of Kingsbridge and the trail between Bigbury-on-Sea and Newton Ferrers.
We were smitten! Here was big sky country, a place of outstanding beauty, of dramatic headlands, wide bays, coves, rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, and tidal estuaries where the rivers Yealm, Erme, and Avon born on the misty heights of Dartmoor emptied into the sea. The region is a proposed Special Area of Conservation partly because some of the richest underwater reefs in Europe are found there, the diverse sea life thriving in the plankton rich tidal currents.
The ‘seaside’ in Britain can be unpleasantly crowded on high days and holidays, but we had that bit of the Devon Riviera almost to ourselves. Strolling the paths and cliff tops, we could imagine pirates of old sailing into bays under the cover of darkness and hauling contraband up cliffs or rowing it up estuaries on nocturnal high tides.
Bigbury-on-Sea triggered another set of imaginings. Offshore lies Burgh Island. At low tide, a sandbar links it to the mainland.
At high tide, a sea tractor gets you across.
That hilly landmark is acclaimed not only for its art deco hotel but also, our B&B hosts told us, for having inspired legendary crime-writer, Agatha Christie in two of her books: And Then There was One, and Evil Under the Sun. Another literary connection!
It was a glorious day when we rambled that way: tranquil, the sea and sky sapphire blue, the island adorned with wild flowers. A most unlikely venue for a heinous crime!
But factor in foul weather and an isolating high tide and it’s not hard to conjure up a sense of foreboding; of evil under the sun.
Our rambles over, we headed east to relatives in the Surrey village of Dockenfield. Tea was served in an oak arbour that brother-in-law had built himself, naming it A Room with a View. “Why do you think I chose that name?” he quizzed us. The obvious answer was plain to see – an uninterrupted view across all of Surrey. Surely though, there was a more subtle reason? Perhaps it was named for the song of the same title by Nöel Coward who’d featured earlier in our ramblings? Indeed it was. Mr Coward wrote it in the house next door.
“We’ll take a walk there,” brother-in-law added. “There’s a footpath going past.”
We might have guessed.