I decided to start my walk around the Isle of Wight in the centre of the north coast, where the River Medina, the biggest river on the island, separates the towns of East Cowes and West Cowes.
The Isle of Wight is fortunate in that it does have a properly signed coast path all around it (generally signed with a blue sign with a sea gull on it and “Coast Path” text). That’s the good news. The bad news is that much of the coast path (mainly on the north coast) is not actually very coastal and that it is very poorly maintained, so parts of it marked on the map aren’t actually usable. However there is some further good news in the the Isle of Wight was originally excluded from the plans for the England Coast Path on the basis that it already had a coast path. But a campaign by the Ramblers association amongst others convinced the powers that be to include the island in the England Coast Path so that hopefully a better route could be created and, importantly, one that will automatically “roll back” where parts of the path are lost to erosion. I like to think I helped with that, as I did make a donation to this campaign.
This brings me neatly on to my first walk. The Isle of Wight Coastal Path crosses between West Cowes and East Cowes via the so called “floating bridge“, in reality, a chain ferry. But it’s route eastwards is along the busy A3021 for the first couple of miles and sticks to roads all the way to Fishbourne. This misses out two bits of coast that can be accessed and it is these I will be visiting on this walk. The first is East Cowes. The second is the beach at Osborne House. This latter beach is private – but it has recently become possible to visit it albeit for an admission charge, but more on that later.
I headed from home to Southampton in order to catch the ferry to East Cowers. This also gives me the opportunity to see the bits of the west side of Southampton Water I was not able to walk alongside.
I had hoped to travel by train, but it was a Sunday and all the options gave me a 40 minute wait at the ferry terminal because some genius had scheduled the bus to the ferry port to depart at exactly the same time my train arrived at the station, so I would in all probability miss it. However the main advantage of going by train is that at the weekend (as this was) I can use my Network Railcard to get 1/3 off the fare and this includes the ferry fare. Therefore I actually bought a train ticket from Southampton Airport Parkway station to East Cowes the previous day when I was at a rail station and used this just for the ferry part of the journey. My train ticket (including the ferry) cost £13.15 but if I had booked direct with the ferry company it would cost £16.80. I also had the advantage of being able to use any ferry back rather than having to book for a specific one.
I drove down to Southampton (which took a little over an hour) and parked in the Gloucester Square car park (at the bottom of the High Street) , this is because Southampton Council only charge for parking on Sunday afternoon (not morning) meaning that because it was Sunday, this car park was cheaper than the one at the ferry terminal, and only a couple of minutes walk away.
I made an early starts and so arrived in time for the 9am ferry and it was a pleasant crossing over. If crossing from Southampton I have previously only ever used he “Red Jet” high speed service but since this goes to West Cowes and I wanted to go to East Cowes (the towns are linked by a chain ferry) it made sense to opt for the East Cowes route. This is a conventional ferry and takes around 1 hour. However it was a glorious late spring day (a little over 20 degrees and warm and sunny) so I enjoyed the views of the Solent from the open top deck of the ferry and remembering the bits of coast I walked on either side of it!
The start point in Southampton was not the most salubrious being next to a large derelict pier.
Southampton is also the main cruise ship port of the UK so there are almost always cruise ships to see, as there were on this day.
Passing the heavy industry around Southampton I could soon see up the estuary of the Itchen and the toll bridge that crosses it.
We soon passed one of the sister ships travelling the other direction.
Although the ferry company is called Red Funnel, I was disappointed to note that they don’t have red funnel, though we passed one of the surviving original ferries moored up beside the estuary which did have a red funnel.
Southampton is a busy port and there is a large container port to the west of the town where ships docks from all over the world. We passed some sizeable ones on the way.
On the eastern shore I soon spotted the Royal Victoria Country Park with it’s distinctive old chapel.
As we neared the mouth of the estuary it became very industrial with the refinery at Fawley now off to my right.
The boats that serve this seem to dock a bit away from the banks of the estuary, I think the oil or gas is pumped out to them, so the ships can stay in deeper water and there was a whole line of them moored up.
Thankfully the industry soon passed and I was passing the familiar landmarks of Calshot at the edge of the New Forest.
Finally we were out of Southampton water and to the open sea, or at least, the Solent. The Isle of Wight was now visible.
The Solent crossing did not take long and we were soon approaching the harbour at Cowes.
This offered views up the river Medina with West Cowes to the right and East Cowes to the left, with the chain ferry, sorry, floating bridge, just departing East Cowes.
You are met with this rather patriotic boat yard on reaching East Cowes.
Indeed I believe one of these boat yards has just completed work on the new Red Jet 6 ferry that was built on the island and will enter service linking the island with the mainland. It is nice to see Red Funnel investing in the local economy and buying British!
The ferry had arrived bang on time, at 10am at East Cowes and as I mentioned previously, the coast path heads inland along the A3021. But I wanted to explore the beach at East Cowes first. I made my way through the streets behind the boat yards above and then down onto the coast road through East Cowes. I think it is fair to say the town has seen better days, for my first impression was passing a toilet block (with a sign saying it was permanently closed) and then a small car park. From here things improved with there now being a nice shingle beach on my left and a few beach huts, with woodlands behind them. It was peaceful and very pleasant.
There was a pavement beside the road but soon a sign saying the road was closed, but the pavement continued so I followed it. Soon the edge of the road was fenced off (except the fence has fallen over) so you could only walk on the pavement and the reason for this soon became clear.
The retaining wall for the woodland on the right was giving way and ahead a part of it had, caused a landslip right over the road and I think possibly damaging the sea wall. Although this is officially a dead end road I had to end my walk earlier because the road is now blocked and part of it in the map does not really exist any more. Indeed it looks like the land is still moving and in places a lot of water was still flowing off the hills behind the promenade and the retaining wall seems to have been strengthened by old bits of railway track.
Frankly the whole area was a mess, with the temporary barriers between the road and pavement fallen over and the ugly barriers at the end, it does seem this whole part of East Cowes is being abandoned. In fact as I have found on my walk around the Isle of Wight it is not just the footpaths that are very poorly maintained, whole stretches of roads, such as this one, seem to have been abandoned by the Council.
I must admit I was also curious to see if it would be possible to walk along the shoreline around to the beach at Osborne, but the landslip blocked the road and pavement, it was a long way down over the sea wall and I could see that below the landslip had reached the waters edge, so it is not possible.
Therefore I had come to a dead end (which is I presume why the official coast path misses this bit out). Heading back it was time to continue to Osborne House. I decided to take the first road I came to on the left (signed Old Road) which I think pre-dates the current A3021, as I thought it would be a quieter road to walk on. This turned out not to be such a good idea because only about half of it had a pavement (unlike the main road), but thankfully there was not much traffic. I soon reached the entrance to Osborne House. It costs £16.50 to go in, which sounds a lot but I actually thought it pretty reasonable as there is much to see there, I was not just going to see the beach. The house covers a huge area of land, in fact all the way from the A-road to the coast, more than mile.
For those that don’t know the history, Queen Victoria fell in love with the Isle of Wight and this part in particular. She purchased the estate and had a grand house, Osborne House, built. Her and Prince Albert adored it here and spent as much time here as they could. Having seen for my self, I could see why. I think the Government ministers of the time were less keen because of the time it took to get there from London! The house was completed in 1851 but sadly Prince Albert died 10 years later aged just 42. Queen Victoria however continued to come here as often as possible. She died in the house in 1901. She loved the house and left strict instructions that it must stay in the Royal Family. However children were less keen and decided (and I cannot work out why!) they did not want it. It was therefore passed to the nation. It was used during World War I and II but later opened to the public, under the management of English Heritage who operate the site today.
I wont cover all the houses and grounds (this is meant to be a blog about walking the coast, after all) but suffice to say the house and grounds are stunning. So here are a couple of photos.
I had been here before, but it was more than 20 years ago so I did not remember that much about it. I was very pleasantly surprised and the size of the house is much bigger than I remembered. I found it baffling the Royal Family decided that they did not want it on Victorias death and gave it to the nation – but at least it is accessible to the public to enjoy. It did get me thinking, that unlike other Royal Palaces this one does not attract anything like the same number of visitors as other former and current palaces, presumably because of the less accessible location.
The interior too is also very interesting, particularly this Indian themed room.
However on to the beach. The beach is where the royal family (and particularly) the children enjoyed to relax on this private and secluded beach (one wonders how much privacy they would get nowadays with so many private boats around in the Solent). I headed down the valley path from the houses, descending slowly through some old woodland and catching glimpses of the sea through the trees and then down to the beach itself.
The waves were surprisingly large and it is a mostly shingle beach, but with trees either side and a lovely view, it was wonderful.
It has also been well done by English Heritage, as the original bathing machine, used by Victoria is here. There are also many deckchairs you can sit in and a lovely wooden hut which sells ice creams, teas and sandwiches and also houses a couple of changing rooms. From here you can buy an ice cream (as I did) sit in the deckchairs and enjoy the wonderful views and relaxing environment.
I can see why Victoria liked it so much (she used to paint the scene, apparently). Sadly only around 200 metres of the beach are accessible. To the east it is soon too many trees to get through (and a sign warns of the danger of being cut off by the tide) whilst to the west the beach is roped of part way along so you can’t walk far along the beach.
In addition to the main house, you can also visit the Swiss Cottage, built to Alberts specifications as a grand play house for their childern, as well as the replica fort he built for his children.
There is also a museum, woodland and extensive grounds and gardens to explore. I found these lovely bluebells.
All in all, a very worthwhile and enjoyable day. Next time I will begin walking properly along the coast path, but it was nice to have a more lazy day exploring what I consider to be one of the best visitor attractions on the island.
I returned from Osborne down the main road to the ferry and took the 3:30pm boat back. From here I drove home, though it took nearly 90 minutes this time because there was heavy traffic. I highly recommend a visit to Osborne House and it’s grounds but it is best in the summer when the flowers are out and the weather likely to be better. However it is not worth it if you only want to get to the beach (although if you are a resident of the island, annual membership of English Heritage would be a good investment I think, allowing you to visit often for no extra cost).
Here are details of the public transport for this walk:-
Red Funnel ferry from Southampton to East Cowes. This runs hourly in the summer and roughly every 90 minutes in winter and takes 1 hour. If you are arriving by train and book a through rail ticket to East Cowes your ticket also includes the Quay Connect bus service which runs regularly between Southampton Central station and the ferry terminal.
If you prefer not to walk up the hill to Osborne House there is Southern Vectis bus route 4. East Cowes – Osborne House – Whippingham – Wootton – Binstead – Ryde. It takes 5 minutes from East Cowes to Osborne House (the bus stops on the main road) and costs £2.50 each way (sadly the bus company on the Isle of Wight do not issue return tickets, only singles). It runs hourly, seven days a week.