It is thought that the Needles (the chalk stacks at the Western tip of the Isle of Wight) were once joined to the Old Harry Rocks at Handfast point near Swanage on the Dorset coast, but the sea broke through the chalk. The Old Harry Rocks mark the eastern extent of the Dorset and East Devon World Heritage Coast. In my opinion the southern coast of the Isle of Wight from the Needles round to Ventnor should also have been given World Heritage status as I think this stretch of coast is just as spectacular – it really is that good. But it does at least have the designation “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” which it certainly does deserve.
This is the first time I did this walk and I travelled over to the island from home. In hindsight doing the south coast of the island from home is a long (and costly) trip and it would have made much more sense to stay over on the island, but I didn’t.
This time I started by taking the train to Southampton Central, which took around an hour. From here I took the free bus to the Red Funnel terminal and then the Red Jet passenger ferry over the West Cowes. As I had travelled over as a foot passenger I needed to use the bus to get to Ventnor. At the time I could then take the bus direct from Cowes to Ventnor which is what I did (but this service no longer runs, you now need to change in Newport).
So from the ferry I headed down to the streets of Cowes and found I had around half an hour for the next bus to Ventnor. But it gave me time to look around this lovely town.
There were also fine views back over the blue waters of the Solent.
The bus arrived on time and I sat upstairs. It was shown as going to Ventnor on the front but when we arrived at Newport the driver switched off the engine and every other passenger I could see got off. Then the driver did too. I was beginning to wonder if I had been forgotten and the bus was in fact terminating at Newport. But a couple of minutes later another driver arrived, loaded the waiting passengers and we continued to Ventnor. It was nearly an hour after I left Cowes that I had reached Ventnor – a long journey.
Ventnor is a lovely town though and worth the effort that it takes to get there. The buses stop at the town centre at the top of the hill. So I headed down the steps to the coast. The reason why the buses don’t come down to the sea front soon becomes apparent – they would have to negotiate this tight zig-zag road down to the sea.
The reason for this is some complex geology in the area, which I admit I don’t fully understand. But I think the gist of it is that the ground here is very high and made of different layers of rocks, with high chalk downs behind. One of the layers is “blue slipper clay”, which when it gets wet is prone to going all soft and wobbly (I hope I’m not getting too technical). And something that sometimes goes soft and wobbly is not a good thing to be building houses on. Which is exactly what has happened at Ventnor. This means the whole southern part of the island is very prone to land slips and erosion, which causes a lot of problems, as are illustrated on this walk. One of the more dramatic is further west an area known as the Undercliff. Here I believe the history is that there was a massive landslip, where the firmer land above the “blue slipper clay” slipped down to end up below the new cliff face. This area, like the area west of Lyme Regis in Dorset is known as the Undercliff. But whilst the Undercliff area between Lyme Regis and Seaton on the mainland is no longer inhabited (and now a wilderness) here on the island the Undercliff is very much still inhabited.
The location of the town, south facing and with high cliffs on either side means it is very sheltered and it enjoys an almost sub-tropical climate which allows palm trees to grow and so the town has many beautiful gardens. I descended down to the promenade passing this unusual map of the island which is part of a paddling pool. It reminds me of the map of the UK that used to be used for the weather forecast on This Morning.
The beach itself is beautiful but it is only around 250 metres wide, so it does not take long to walk the length of the bay.
The weather was good and the beach was pretty busy. At the far end of the bay the promenade ends and the coast path goes up behind a large (and beautifully located pub), the Spyglass Inn. From here I could look back over the length of the bay.
Beyond this the coast path continues as a tarmac path beside the main car park for the beach. Below the beach is now rocky, backed by low chalk cliffs.
When the car park ends the path continues as a tarmac path through some nice gardens, where “Ventnor” is written out in large letters on the ground. I think these gardens were originally laid out in Victorian times when the island was incredibly popular. The erosion that effects this part of the island is clear to see as the tarmac path closest to the sea is closed and disappears off the cliff. This is now the beginning of the Undercliff, with cliffs behind the paths as well as below them.
The path continues through the gardens to a large grassy area that I seem to recall once had a small caravan park in it, now all gone and returned to grass. Beyond this the coast path heads down, still a wide tarmac path to follow behind a sea wall. I remember this being built when I came here in the past and it makes for an easy, if rather unexciting walk.
This path leads me around the corner, out of sight of Ventnor now, to the lovely little beach at Steephill Cove. This consists of little more than half a dozen houses (one of which houses a very quirkly cafe) and a small sheltered sandy beach. The name hints at the terrain ahead, though.
To continue the path now heads up between some of the buildings on steps, goes behind them and then continues along the low cliffs. The footpath now continues below Ventnor Botanic Gardens. At the time, this was free to enter but it has subsequently been sold by the Isle of Wight Council and now has an admission charge. I understand signs went up on the coast path suggesting a “donation” but I don’t know if they are still there, but since it’s a right of way you can ignore this.
When the path reaches the end of the Botanic Gardens, it reaches a pretty little beach called Orchard Bay, though there is not an orchard now.
There is just a large house at the beach here which fronts right onto the beach.
A lovely location, but that large sea wall tells you all you need to know – this is a very exposed location and the house is under constant threat from the sea and erosion. The sort of house that it might be nice to rent for a holiday but which I could never own.
There are steps down onto the beach at the far end (or at least there were, I think they have been closed now), but I did not go down to the beach but continued on the coast path. This took me along the top of the low cliffs, it is a nice easy walk. It does not take long to reach the next little beach, this one undeveloped and with some sand as well as shingle. It goes by the odd name of Sir Richard’s Cove, but I don’t know why and I couldn’t seem to find out why.
The path rose up from the end of the beach and followed through field edge and bushes right along the coast of these undulating chalk cliffs.
It did not take long to reach another pretty beach, this one called Woody Bay.
It’s a lovely secluded spot, with steps down at the far end of the beach though again I did not go down.
Instead I stuck to the coast path behind the beach. But just beyond this the problems begin. I mentioned earlier that this whole stretch of the south coast of the island suffers from landslips and erosion and the situation beyond Woody Bay has been particularly serious in recent years.
Firstly, the official route of the coast path now diverts inland here, heading along the streets of St Lawrence, crossing the A3055 and climbing up above the cliffs that make up the Undercliff and then follows the top of these cliffs around to Niton. But it was not always so. As you can see on the modern map there is a footpath that continues west to Binnel Point before heading inland. But there were (and legally speaking I think, still are) footpaths that continue all the way along the low cliffs at the back of the beach to Reeth Bay near St Catherine’s Point. You can just make out the dotted track behind the beach at Puckaster Cove (where a seemingly dead-end path comes down from the A3055).
So what happened? The legal record of a public right of way is called the Definitive Map and Councils are required to put together such a map recording the route of all the public footpaths. The Isle of Wight Council is unusual in that it makes these maps available on their website. If you check out this part of the map and this part you can see these paths are clearly marked along the south coast of the island. Yes they are not (mostly) on Ordnance Survey maps any longer. Sadly the Council website reveals the answer, which carries the statement:-
The following Footpaths NT47,48,49,50 & 51 are permanently closed under a Traffic Regulation Order because they are unsafe to use because of land slippage. The paths will remain on the definitive map and will be periodically inspected in case of any changes to the land which would allow reinstatement.
Given this whole area has been effected by landslips for very many years this is far from a new problem. I suspect it is more about not wanting to spend any money and using safety as an excuse to justify it. As I have found there are very many footpaths on the Isle of Wight that the Council does not bother to maintain. But I didn’t let such minor details stop me, I carried on along the coast anyway.
It is not however just footpaths which suffer from a lack of action by the Council, as a look at the current Ordnance Survey map of the area will reveal. The dark red line is the A3055 road. Except as you can see there is a problem – it seems to have a gap in the middle where the road is white. What’s going on? Well here hangs an even sadder tale.
This road, Undercliff Drive has suffered from land movement for very many years. Keeping it open has been a constant battle, and one that now appears lost. There has been a long history of repairing and re-building this road as the land around it moves. In 2001 a mud slide and landslip closed it for 18 months as a new section of road had to be built. After this the road continued to suffer problems with cracking and deterioration. In 2012 the Isle of Wight Council decided that the solution to it’s road maintenance problems was a Private Finance Initiative scheme (PFI) to essentially privatise road maintenance and so a new company, Island Roads was set up. They promised to undertake major “geotechnical” schemes to stabilise roads in 6 areas of the island prone to land movement. One of these was Undercliff Drive. They made a press release about it in 2013. The work began, but the winter of 2014 was one of the wettest on record. The area is known to be prone to landslips when there are high groundwater levels, so doing the work in the winter would seem rather risky. And so it turned out, when in February 2014, during one of the wettest winters on record, a dramatic landslip closed the road.
The problems worsened when the army were called in to evacuate residents living on the effected area of the road. One house was condemmed, but the rest in the area suffered no damage or only minor damage. Residents of 9 properties that were undamaged were left with houses they could not access and had been evacuated from, as well as a small caravan park, with the road now closed and blocked with a barrier, preventing even pedestrian access. Unfortunately those with insurance found that policies would not pay out since neither the homes nor the contents were damaged and all utilities were connected, even though residents had no access. The Isle of Wight Council (who, despite the PFI deal, still have ultimate responsibility for road maintenance) and Island Roads seemed to be locked in legal battles over who was responsible for fixing it. My understanding is that ultimately it was concluded that Island Roads could not be forced to repair the damage. It sounds like a lot of privatisation schemes where the private company manages to avoid work that would hit it’s profit margins….
More than 6 months later the residents still had no access to their homes. As one resident (I suspect accurately) commented “All the Council has done in the last 8 months seems to be writing reports and holding meetings”. By October 2014 frustrated with the lack of progress, residents took matters into their own hands and re-built a section of the road themselves. This allowed them access and meant residents could get heating fuel deliveries, important for the winter. As soon news of this became public, Island Roads issued letters stating they would block access to the new road by 2pm the following day and stating that vehicles should be removed before then because the road was “unstable”. Councillers even visited the area on a Sunday and the section of the road the residents rebuilt was subsequently blocked by the Council again, with water filled barriers. These were (predictably), emptied so the barrier could be moved. So the Council had them put back and somewhere they could less easily be tampered with, blocking the road once more.
It was subsequently claimed that asbestos had been found in the re-built part of the road. It was agreed in 2014 that £500,000 would be spent re-instating access, but the only vehicle access would be for residents, with it only being accessible on foot for the public. Areas around the road are owned by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife trust, and negotiations were made over a land swap. 18 months after this closure a further delay was announced due to rare bats in some of the trees. It was not until April this year the Council finally submitted a planning application for this work. However this planning application would mean the section of road being permanently closed as a road (with a turning circle at either end), the remaining section of road being a private road with only access on foot or bicycle for the public. Questions have been asked over why public money is being used to seemingly turn a public road into a private road with a footpath. To date, work has still not started, almost 2.5 years after the landslip. Even when it does it seems there is now no chance of the A3055 being restored as a public road. Through traffic now has to divert on minor roads further inland, through the village of Whitwell. What a fiasco. The Isle of Wight Council should be ashamed of themselves.
Anyway, on with the walk. The path continued around Woody Bay and proved no problem.
The scenery was beautiful with the geology of the coast clearly changing as I headed further west and the chalk ended.
I soon passed the remains of some old buildings, which turned out to be RAF St Lawrence, with an underground bunker visible beyond the fence.
Ahead I soon reached Binnel Bay.
The coast was now showing very clear signs of erosion but I could make out the lighthouse at the southern most tip of the island, St Catherine’s Point, ahead. The path soon led down to the beach via steps.
From here there was no obvious path onwards. Landslips were visible at the far end of the beach where earth and trees had slid down to the beach. My options now were to try and follow this path which now headed inland up to Undercliff Drive, or try to make my way onwards along the shore.
I headed along to the end of the beach but as you can see the landslip had gone right down to the beach so it was not easy to climb over. Once I did, I was faced with more rocks and trees with soft mud going right down to the water. I decided it was too difficult to get across the shore. So I took the remains of the path and made it up onto Undercliff Drive. In fact, the road was not that busy even then (when it was still a through route), with traffic lights in one place where the road was narrow.
However I was glad to be able to leave the A-road and follow more minor roads to pick up the bridlepath down to Reeth Bay.
I could get a good view over the lighthouse at St Catherine’s Point.
I followed the bridlepath as it zig-zagged back down to the slipway of a boat club at the western end of Reeth Bay.
I was now back on the coast, having found a more coastal route than the coast path and could continue on a footpath (open!) right along in front of the lighthouse on the low cliff tops. This took me past a small and rather run-down looking caravan park.
Emerging from this I had a good path along the low cliffs to reach the lighthouse at St Catherine’s Point.
I’m rather a fan of lighthouses, I think they are beautiful buildings as well as performing a vital role in saving lives over the years. The path was a narrow squeeze in front of the lighthouse, with the fence falling off the cliff in places. Once past the lighthouse the path improved, and I could follow this down to the secluded Watershoot Bay.
It was a peaceful spot and there was no one on the beach. However the path I had been following soon ended according to the map, leaving me on a dead-end. However there was a very rough and un-official path leading up the old landslip area to a large car park. It was hard going, but I made it.
Given that this was a dead-end road, I was surprised to see how many cars were parked here! Indeed this road too has an interesting story. A look at the modern Ordnance Survey map reveals a road that comes to an abrupt end at this triangular shaped car park. You have probably guessed by now – this road used to continue westwards through the Undercliff. This is the Old Blackgang Road, which used to head to my destination, Blackgang Chine. If you trace the map further west you can see traces of the old road, now with several dead-ends and a memorial marked on part of the road. This closed back in 1928 although this interesting website shows the road on the 1930 Ordnance Survey map, where it was still shown as complete and open. As you might expect, this is the original route of the A3055. It was abandoned as a result of land movement and a new road (Blackgang Road) was later opened further north above the Undercliff. The same fate now seems likely to happen to other parts of the old Undercliff Road further east, as I mentioned above, although this time it looks like no new inland route will be built and the A3055 will become the road to nowhere, broken into two dead-ends.
I was curious about what the area might be like now, with an abandoned and isolated stretch of road. Fortunately, I don’t have to wonder, or try to get there myself because I found this very interesting video of someone who had walked the old road.
From the car park I followed the remaining part of the road east where a zig-zag footpath brought me back onto the official route of the coast path at the top of the cliffs above the Undercliff. It is a long way back down to St Catherine’s Point from here! I stopped on a handily placed seat to take in the view. It really was spectacular.
Looking down at the area I had walked up the lie of the land is very interesting, I suspect the result of many historic landslips.
After a rest I continued on the coast path heading west, now having passed the southern most point of the Isle of Wight, I was now around half way round the coast. It was not long before I was presented with this phenomenal view.
Most of the west of the island laid out, far far below me. Here again you can see the dramatic landslips that shape much of the south coast of the island, with a huge slip below Blackgang Chine. I could see round towards Freshwater Bay where there seemed to be a bit of a mist clinging to the coast. The large landslip is known as Blackgang Bluff and it really is stunning. I stopped to admire the view for a few minutes before continuing. Soon I was heading down to Blackgang Chine below.
Here there is a child-oriented theme park. I can remember visiting it as a child and loving it, but I suspect it would not have the same appeal now. Looking back the cliffs I had been on were spectacular.
I continued down where the path emerged onto the road and followed this down into the car park of Blackgang Chine, which was about to close for the day. It had been an absolutely beautiful walk, even if it had been a bit tricky in places.
At this time, the islands bus company, Southern Vectis, used to run a “round the island” bus, the Island Explorer, which ran right around the coast (in both directions) roughly once an hour in the summer. It was a good service but one that sadly no longer runs, an early casualty when the company was bought out by Go-Ahead. But this walk was before it ended, so I used it for this walk. I did not have long for the bus and decided that rather than try to make my way back to Cowes, now quite a long journey, I would instead take this bus back to Yarmouth and return home on the ferry that goes from Yarmouth to Lymington.
I enjoyed the great views of the coast I got from the bus, which follows the coast road. Here is one at Compton Bay.
The bus continued through Freshwater Bay and up to Yarmouth, where I got a good view of the river Yar.
From here I enjoyed the views over the marina at Yarmouth.
At this time Wightlink ran an excellent service on this route, with ferries running every 30 minutes and taking 25 minutes so it was more or less “turn up and go”. Sadly the service has been rather ruined over the last few years. Wightlink replaced the ferries with newer boats which are slower and larger and so could not run to the old frequency. We now have an hourly service taking 40 minutes. Such is progress! What I hadn’t factored in was quite how much it would cost to get from Yarmouth to Southampton, but at least it saved the long journey to Cowes.
It is a very beautiful crossing to Lymington and offers lovely views over to Hurst Castle, the Lymington River and the New Forest.
Here we are approaching the Lymington River.
The boats moored in the river were particularly attractive in the early evening sun.
We soon passed the ferry going the other way.
Finally entering the harbour where I liked the line of boats catching the sun.
The sun was now getting low in the sky as I reached Lymington.
I got off the ferry and crossed the road to the rather spartan railway station, but it was a beautiful evening and my train soon arrived.
The train took me to Brockenhurst where I changed for my onwards train. It was one an old slam-door train, once a common sight over the South of England. The Lymington branch line was in fact the last line in the UK to see the operation of these trains, with the last withdrawn in 2010. Although to be honest they were pretty grotty trains.
This was an absolutely wonderful walk. I had seen so much beautiful scenery, found many remote and largely undiscovered beaches and enjoyed some stunning views. I had also found a lot about the history of the island and the challenge with living in this land-slip prone region of the island. Definitely somewhere to visit, but not buy a house!
Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk.
Southern Vectis route 6 runs between Newport, Blackgang Chine and Ventnor : Newport – Carisbrooke – Whitecroft – Chillerton – Chale Green – Chale – Blackgang Chine – Niton – Whitwell – Ventnor. This bus runs hourly Monday – Saturday and 4 times a day on Sundays.
If you are travelling from the main land there are buses from all of the ferry ports to Newport Bus Station where you can use bus 6 to Blackgang Chine. In addition route 3 runs from Newport to Ventnor, and is more frequent. Southern Vectis route 3 : Newport (Bus Station) – Rookley – Godshill – Wroxall – Ventnor – Upper Bonchurch – Shanklin – Lake – Sandown – Brading – Ryde. Every 30 minutes seven days a week.