Isle of Wight Off the beaten track
A new guide to “hidden treasures” will steer you away from the tourist trail towards the most gorgeous spots.
I like to think that I know parts of it quite well but sticking to the tried and tested means that we’ve sunk into a holiday rut. We always stay in the same place — the sleepy and delightful village of Seaview. We always go crabbing from the same rock. We invariably spend a fortune on vampire chutney at the Garlic Farm, go tobogganing at Robin Hill Country Park, pay at least two visits to the Minghella ice-cream factory (I recommend the absinthe sorbet) and never miss Wednesday curry night at the Old Fort.
Time to explore somewhere new. And inspiration came in the shape of Secret Wight, a new guide to “hidden treasures” loved by locals to help to steer visitors away from the tourist trail and towards the most gorgeous spots; making the most of the 60 miles of beaches and idyllic countryside.
Free Things to do on the Isle of Wight
There are ten “challenges” to encourage adventurous — and, yippee, free — days out without a theme park in sight (lashings of ginger beer optional). Perfect for a half-term break, they range from exploring Newtown estuary, where you walk over a timber boardwalk to a boathouse marooned in a salt marsh, to finding Britain’s oldest lighthouse — St Catherine’s Oratory, known locally as the Pepper Pot and shaped like a medieval spaceship with a conical roof and fin-like buttresses. On the western edge of Headon Warren, one of the wildest places on the island, you can search for the spot where 3,500 years ago the local tribe buried their chieftain.
The guide isn’t hugely detailed — once you’ve picked your challenge, a little extra online research for the nitty-gritty detail will pay dividends — but if you’ve never visited the island before it’s a great introduction to some of its natural wonders. And it certainly gave us a fresh take on familiar haunts as well as the motivation to venture farther.
Our first target was east of Bembridge harbour, and a mission “to discover what the waters reveal when they sink back into the sea” on the “Ledge of Adventure”. Although I’d been to this stretch of beach before, it was only for brisk constitutionals after long lunches at the Crab & Lobster pub on the cliff above. This time, I actually took notice of what was beneath my feet. It is, in fact, a site of Special Scientific Interest, and at low tide an extraordinary rocky ledge of limestone is exposed, its surface curiously reminiscent of elephant hide.
The rock is broken up by shallow pools, hidey holes for an array of marine life including sea slugs, porcelain crabs, sea anemones and “periwinkles of international importance”. How we wanted a glimpse of even one VIP periwinkle. Shamefully, appalling townies that we are, our problem was that we hadn’t the faintest idea what a periwinkle of even passing interest looked like. (After further investigation at home we discovered that we had in fact been collecting the common-as-muck but gorgeously golden periwinkle from nearby St Helens beach for years — the rare one is a disappointingly nondescript greyish-brown.)
A cuttlefish bone and lots of beautiful but unnamed shells later, we moved on to seaweed spotting. The ledge was carpeted with the stuff, in striking colours from lime to scarlet. This time there were pictures in the guide to aid identification and, yes, we did find red Chondrus crispus, the green Enteromorpha and the peskily invasive brown Japanese seaweed Sargassum muticum.
But what my children really wanted to find were fossils, so we moved on to the “Cliffs of Adventure”, the soft clay cliffs around Compton and Brook that have given the island its reputation as the richest source in Europe of dinosaur remains. Most families visiting Compton beach seem to go no farther than the sand near the steps to the National Trust car park.
Walk up towards Hanover Point, however, and you can spot the footprints of the lumbering, plant-eating iguanodon, captured for ever in the form of three-toed casts on huge sandstone boulders. Almost as impressive are the layers of lilac and gold sandstone in the cliff that date back some 130 million years and, off the beach, the Pine Raft, the fossilised remains of a forest that is revealed at low tide. However, small fossils proved elusive — I suspect it required more patience and pebble-sifting than a seven-year-old could stand.
The pretty village of Brighstone, a few miles away, was the setting for the last challenge of the day, the “Trees of Adventure”. Home in the mid-19th century to the Rev William Fox, Darwin’s second cousin and the island’s first dinosaur hunter, it’s best known these days as a pleasant spot for afternoon tea.
But it also has some magnificent trees. Thanks to a Lottery Fund grant, the island’s finest specimens — those that were planted by somebody famous, mark an ancient boundary, have a special name or are just rather wonderful — are now included on “histree” trails. Our mission was to hunt down the last tree on the Kings and Dragons trail, the Dragon itself, an ancient oak with branches that snake and corkscrew right across the stream that used to power Brighstone’s water mill. Its fantastical shape is the result of being blown over, and it’s long been a rite of passage for Brighstone children to cross the water on its boughs.
But while my children gave this Harry Potteresque ritual their best shot, they need a little more practice. Never mind, they can have another try next year — and we still have another seven challenges to go.
Need to know
Where to stay Wight Locations specialises in the chichi villages of Seaview and Bembridge, where a week in one of the smartest houses can top £2,000 in August. There is availability for half-term, including 1 Harbour Strand, Bembridge, which sleeps up to six and costs £635 a week.Wight Locations wightlocations.co.uk
Airstream trailers offered by Vintage Vacations on its site in bucolic Ashey sleep four and start at £160 for a weekend, £360 a week in October; utilities, towels and linen included. Vintage Vacations vintagevacations.co.uk
The Seaview, within a pebble’s throw of the seafront, has a variety of family rooms, including the Vault Suite, complete with an original banking counter. £265 a night B&B for four during half-term. The Seaview Hotel seaviewhotel.co.uk
Robert Thompson’s Michelin-starred Hambrough restaurant and hotel add glamour to Ventnor. The seven rooms start at £170 a night B&B. The Hambrough Hotel thehambrough.com