WEST WIGHT: A SECRET TO SHARE

West Wight is the quiet side of the Island.

The picturesque landscape of the West Wight is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). Much of it is protected by the National Trust. But you’ll have heard of our most famous natural landmarks the Needles rocks and the coloured sands of Alum Bay. As well as breathtaking coastal scenery, we also have our fair share of pretty villages and rolling countryside. It really is the best of England all in one place.

Freshwater Bay

Love Freshwater Bay
Alfred, Lord Tennyson bought Farringford House at Freshwater Bay because “The air is worth sixpence a pint.” Esme and I did come. We do walk across the downs. We also enjoy watching the sunset over West High Down. Without doubt or hesitation, this is where we belong. We’re more than happy to share West Wight with you.

The Wightlink ferry from Lymington, Hampshire, brings you straight to Yarmouth harbour. This is overlooked by the last castle built by Henry VIII. It’s just a 10-minute drive to Freshwater Bay. The number seven bus towards Alum Bay brings you to Church Place, Old Freshwater. It’s then a pleasant walk down to the bay. We often meet visitors at the Red Lion and bring their luggage ahead.

Another Island

The westernmost corner of the Isle of Wight used to be called the Isle of Freshwater. The old name for the bay, Freshwater Gate, the opening to the sea, lives on as Gate Lane. Apart from a track across the marshland to the south, the only way to reach the Isle of Freshwater from mainland Wight was by ferry. This crossed the mouth of the Yar below Norton. The first bridge, the causeway at Old Freshwater, led to Afton Manor. Black bridge, across the stream in the shadows of the trees in the middle of the marshland, came next. The crossings at Yarmouth and Afton Road, near the End of the Line cafe, are relatively recent.

Golden Hill stands proud above the Solent and the Channel, surrounded by ancient hamlets. It is still separated from the rest of the Isle of Wight by the river Yar and the fresh water of Afton Marsh. Only the beach, shingle bank and sea defences at Freshwater Bay stop the three watery boundaries meeting up.
The much-photographed West Wight icon, Arch Rock collapsed in 1992. Stag Rock recalls the deer that jumped from the top of the cliffs. Mermaid Rock used to hold up the roof of Freshwater Cave. Other caves nearby, below Tennyson Down, were used by Lord Holmes to entertain guests in his cellar, kitchen and parlour.

River Yar

Photo: Albany Associates

Walks from Freshwater Bay

The walk from Freshwater Bay through Afton Marsh, fields and woods to Yarmouth is clearly marked F1 Freshwater Way. Continue clockwise on the eastern side of the Yar. The former railway line comes back to The Causeway and Afton Road.

But the classic West Wight walk is up to the Tennyson monument and across West High Down to the Needles rocks. Needles Old Battery is owned by the National Trust. The fort was built in 1862 to keep an eye out for Napoleon III’s threatened invasion from France. There are more great views of the Needles from the searchlight position 80 metres (250 feet) above sea level… if you can squeeze yourself down the spiral staircase and along the 70 metre (200 foot) tunnel. Alternatively, go to the cafe for a cream tea or warming soup and enjoy the view from there. The gap, where the third rock, Lot’s wife, used to be, allows sailors to thread the needle. When the stack collapsed in 1764, the noise could be heard in Portsmouth.

The headland also saw active service in both world wars. Needles New Battery was then home to rocket testing in the 1950s and 1960s. In the underground rooms above the old battery there is an exhibition of models about Britain’s missile and space rocket programme. You can also learn about the National Trust’s conservation work in the area. The buildings are closed in winter, but the chalk downland is always open to walkers. It takes 1½ hours to hike from Freshwater Bay. Come prepared with suitable shoes, hat and coat. Winds here in the West Wight can be strong at any time of the year. West High Down is very exposed.

Nestled beneath the downs

Dimbola Lodge is a museum of photography with a tearoom and a shop selling postcards and souvenirs. There’s also an antiquarian and second‑hand bookshop. The garden gives excellent views across the bay.

Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron fell in love with the intense stillness, clarity of light and mystical aura of Freshwater Bay. The name of her house comes from the family tea estates in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Dimbola Lodge Freshwater Bay

Photo: Albany Associates

The poet Henry Taylor wrote: “…a house to which everyone resorted for pleasure, and which no man, woman or child was ever known to be unwelcome.” Everyone included Tennyson, Darwin, Thackeray, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Lewis Carroll, Robert Browning, Edward Lear, Ellen Terry and little Alice Liddell. Later literary pilgrims include DH Lawrence, TS Eliot (on honeymoon), John Betjeman, JB Priestley, WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

There is a statue of Jimi Hendrix in the garden. The musician gave his last public performance at the rock festival on Afton Down, Freshwater Bay, in 1970. Local historian Brian Hinton, curator of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust, writes: “The festival provided an alternative society where people forgot their particular class, creed, race or religion. They lived together to do the simple things in life.”

West Wight Wildlife

Red squirrels still live and thrive here in the West Wight. There are no deer to eat the young trees and shrubs that they need for feeding. If you’re lucky, you may catch sight of them as you walk in the woodland near Fort Victoria, alongside the river Yar or in the gardens of Mottistone Manor. In winter they even venture into Afton Marsh and neighbouring gardens looking for food.

Five things to do in West Wight

For a small island, the Isle of Wight has many, many things for first-time visitors to discover. Here in West Wight I would suggest:

1. Walk across Tennyson Down to the Needles and back, stopping for afternoon tea at Warren Farm.

2. The water mill, Calbourne. Your ticket allows return visits.

3. Chessell Barns Pottery for morning coffee and then drive along the Military Road from Brook for the views of the chalk cliffs below Tennyson Down and lunch at Dandelions, Freshwater Bay.

4. Walk through Afton Marsh from Freshwater Bay and then along the former railway line to Yarmouth.

5. Totland Bay or Hatherwood Point for the sunset.

Somewhere special to stay in West Wight

There is a wide selection of individually owned self-catering cottages and B&Bs in the West Wight, and around Freshwater Bay. Rabbit’s Bothie, for example, is tucked away in a corner of the conservation area and is perfect for two.

David Ballard
Rabbit’s Bothie

2 Responses to “WEST WIGHT: A SECRET TO SHARE”

  1. Are you sure the poet T. S. Eliot visited the Isle of Wight? I can’t find any details elsewhere. Perhaps it’s me! Would appreciate details – sources – if you have them.

    Kind regards, Roger.

    • David says:

      The story is that TS Eliot honeymooned with his second wife at a small hotel in Coastguard Lane. Check with Dimbola. Dr Brian Hinton is a good source.

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Credits

All content © 2017 by Albany Associates

Editorial: Albany Associates
Photography (Gallery and Slideshow): Jason Swain