This route will take you from sea level to the highest points of the Island and show you how to slither down to hidden beaches. You’ll also see how the Island coastline is changing and be able to explore your way through collapsed cliffs. If all that sounds as though you are heading for the wilds of the Island, you can retreat to the Island’s major town, Newport, and refuel with great food and drink before exploring some excellent art galleries.
Undercliff, Nansen Hill
Points of Interest
Ventnor Botanic Garden, Blackgang Chine, Carisbrooke Castle, Quay Arts, Ian Whitmore (artist, Jubilee Stores), Brownriggs Farm Shop, Ventnor Park, Bonchurch Landslip
Quay Arts, The Tea House, Ventnor Botanic Garden, The Buddle Inn, Brownriggs Farm Shop
Home to two galleries, a theatre and a mighty fine café, Quay Arts, perched on the edge of the River Medina in Newport, is one of the artistic focal points on the Island.
That Quay Arts exists at all, thanks should be given to those who had the foresight to save the buildings that house it from demolition in the 1970s. At that time, when a dual carriageway was being built over the river, the site was just a collection of derelict factory buildings.
Jacqui Cusack, Arts Manager says:
“A key aim of Quay Arts is to make its galleries, shows and talks stimulating and accessible, a hub for both the Island community and a welcoming cultural venue for our visitors. As well as showcasing local talent we also host national and international work from artists, performers and writers and offer learning opportunities for our young people.
We believe that the Island environment inspires people to want to make and create and we are very lucky to have the best venue on the Island to do so.”
Food in the café is excellent and ranges from vegan burgers made from butternut squash and chickpeas to frittatas with kale salad. The local ales are recommended.
Just a five-minute walk upriver (on the east bank) along the Medina in Newport you reach Jubilee Stores, located in a restored grain store. Home to seven artist studios, the building is a real artistic hub for the Island.
Jubilee Stores is not formally open to the public, though some of the artists in situ do open to visitors by appointment. Look for their work around the Island (some is on sale in the shop at Quay Arts) and keep an eye out for Open Studios week in July. The venue does, however, offer classes in pottery, jewellery-making and print-making to several hundred Islanders each year.
Among the resident artists is the tireless Ian Whitmore, who works on projects across the Island with schools and local groups and in between fitting in time to work on his own distinctive cyanotypes (hand-cut prints). These feature striking Prussian blue (hence the name) images of the sea, such as whale sharks. ‘They also feature rockpools and the creatures in them, and starfish which is a strong connection to the Island and the Solent,’ says Ian.
Steeped in history, Carisbrooke is every inch the classic castle, with ramparts, castle walls, a portcullis and generally assumed to be thoroughly haunted.
Carisbrooke Castle has been an Elizabethan artillery fortress, a king’s prison and a summer residence. Take a walk around the exposed battlements, stairs, Norman keep and walls and you get a sense of the castle’s prominent Island geographical and historical presence. The views from the walls take in rolling countryside and give you an idea of Newport’s strategic importance.
Within the castle you can see donkey’s drawing up water on a 16th century treadwheel as well as visit the rooms where Charles I was held for 14 months before his execution.
Native trees and flowers come into their own in spring and summer (but the stark branches add an austere quality in deep winter). The Princess Beatrice Garden has been designed to recall the original garden retreat of Queen Victoria’s daughter and includes a water feature and blue, red and gold plants that mirror Beatrice’s heraldic crest.
Lukely Brook, flows through beautiful meadows west of Carisbrooke Castle through the village of Carisbrooke and into the town of Newport where it flows into the Harbour.
The area south of Carisbrooke is historically important and at one time as home to 14 mills, along with breweries and tanneries, dating to the 18th and 19th centuries and powered by the local waters.
You can walk along Lukely Brook from Carisbrooke Castle – you will need to take one of the footpath’s down from the Castle Car Park to Miller’s Lane.
The brook forms the northern boundary of medieval Newport and, although nearly seven miles from the sea and almost narrow enough at times to leap across, the brook is subject to tides.
Lukely, incidentally, is thought to mean ‘stream of the shining way’.
The headwaters of the brook are fringed with beautiful meadows. Local organisations are trying to improve the quality of the brook’s water which has long suffered from encroachment of development and alteration to its course and flow. To the northeast of the castle lies Mountjoy cemetery, a grand old Victorian cemetery which is magical for wildlife and offers fine views across the Medina.
To explore further, you can follow the eight-mile Mill Trail.
Access bus route 6
Ask anyone born on the Island and the chances are that as a child they visited Blackgang Chine, a resolutely entertainment-based ensemble of Victoriana set amid what was once a desolate gorge.
Blackgang Chine was opened to the public in 1843 by Alexander Dabell, a lace maker from Nottingham and over the following 170 years, the gardens have been developed into an eccentric and eclectic collection of displays about the local history, fantasy animated shows, cowboy towns and dinosaurs, and rides for most ages.
The origins of the venture lie with the Victorians, who were drawn to the area by a spring, which promised health benefits. Another turning point was the stranding of a fin whale – the second largest species of whale – off the Needles. Dabell made sure he bought the whale – all of it – at auction. He sold off the blubber and put the skeleton on display; it remains on site today.
Access bus route 6 (Niton stop)
Quite simply, Blackgang beach is a strong contender for the most beautiful – and rarely visited – of all the Island’s beaches.
Access: on foot along Old Blackgang Road, south of Niton.
The reason for Blackgang beach’s low profile is clear enough: it is inaccessible to all but the most determined and reached by a steep, sometimes awkward (but never dangerous) path. The walk from car park to beach takes around 15 minutes but can feel much longer. The reward is a glorious beach of ochre coloured, fine-gained pebbles (your feet sink ever so slightly as you cross the beach) that lies under a magnificent sandstone escarpment that looks like a vast slab of honeycomb.
Delightfully isolated – you won’t find an ice-cream van here – it is not too fanciful to think that the beach could pass for an iconic image of a remote part of Australia’s coastline. Note that the western end of the beach is known as Rocken End and is an established naturist beach but you are under no obligation to follow suit!
The beach is not accessed from Blackgang Chine, nor from its car park. Instead, head south from Niton and, where the A3055 turns sharp left, head straight on into St Catherine’s Road and first right along Old Blackgang Road for 730 meters. This ends in a small car park.
Take the first gate in the car park and follow the grassy path for 137 meters into a glade where you turn right downhill and over a gate. For a south-facing path, the descent is surprisingly muddy and slippery for much of the year and a ski pole is definitely helpful in places (despite what you may read online, as of March 2019 there were no ropes to help you keep your balance).
Just after you go over a second stile the paths diverge above a small pond. Take the right-hand path to continue to slither your way to the beach. (The left-hand path leads to a part of the beach covered in vast boulders from the collapsed cliff and offers fine views of nature at work at high tide).
Note that, when you get onto the beach along the right-hand path, do not turn left, as the sand soon turns to Blue Slipper mud and you may get stuck. From Niton to the beach is a good mile in each direction.
Access: Bus 3 (from either Ventnor or Shanklin) stops outside the entrance gate to the landslip. Cross road with care if coming from Ventnor.
One of the most extraordinary landscapes on the Island can be found between Luccombe and Bonchurch villages, where a partly collapsed cliff face makes for some novel – but safe – walking.
A large area of woods and jumbled paths, Bonchurch Landslip features some remarkable landforms, cliffs, boulders and steep steps. The present terrain derives largely from major landslides in 1810 and 1818 but the landslip is believed to have existed in some form for thousands of years. Ash, oak and beech have thrived in the woodland that has emerged in the landslip.
The Bonchurch Landslip was developed as a picturesque woodland walk in Victorian times, with natural features, many of which still can be seen today, including the Wishing Seat or Wishing Stone, a large moss-covered rock by the path and the bizarre and claustrophobic climbs of The Devil’s Chimney (or The Chink) which leads up the inner cliff. In great contrast to the chaotic wilderness that awaits below, the upper layer of the landslip is a formal public garden.
Paths clamber up, down and along the landslip to create a terraced effect. The area is well signposted and should definitely be on any walker’s to-hike list.
The best option for exploration is to take the right-hand (westernmost) entrance into the landslip from the bus stop/ car park area. Heading west from here you come to the Devil’s Chimney where steep steps squeeze you through a tiny fissure in the cliffs.
The descent ends at a T-junction with the coastal path. Turn right (west) along this for half a mile way you reach the wonderful spectacle of St Boniface Old Church. The church dates to the Norman Conquest and replaced an even earlier Saxon church on the site (the Isle of Wight was one of the last places in Britain to embrace Christianity).
The church always seems to be open; inside look out for the delightful 17th century Flemish altar cross made from black oak. On the north wall you can make out a medieval wall painting, which may be of the Last Judgement.
On the way back, just before the car park and bus stop, you can refresh yourself at Smuggler’s Haven, a lovely café (seasonal opening).
Access same bus stop as for Bonchurch Landslip. Cross road with care if coming from Shanklin.
If you still have any puff left after exploring Bonchurch Landslip, you can climb Nansen Hill for superb views across Sandown Bay to Culver Cliffs and the vastness of the English Channel.
From spring to autumn this chalk grasslands are magnificent for butterflies and orchids. Most years see a good population of autumn gentian at the top of the slopes – the Island also has 80% of the UK population of the extremely rare Early Gentian.
Walk up Nansen Hill.
Two miles; 1 hour (return). Steep climb from bus stop.
This walk has a swine of a climb right at the start but the effort is worth it for superb views from Nansen Hill and Ventnor Downs across what feels like much of the Island.
Begin from the gate directly across the road from the Bonchurch Landslip. The ascent is super-steep, ascending some 100 m in height in just 300 m. Keep going until you reach the gate.
Eventually, the incline relents, and you follow a broad sweep of cattle-grazed downland to reach the broad summit where Shanklin Down, Luccombe Down, Ventnor Down and St Boniface Down all collide (at 241m/791ft, St Boniface Down is the highest point on the Island).
The scenery here is monumental: to the north the entire sweep of Sandown Bay is laid out for inspection, right across to the distant Yaverland monument. The fenced-off grounds in front of you protect the former RAF radar station from WW2. A delightful walk around the perimeter of the station allows for more fine views.
It’s best to head clockwise, keeping the fence on your right to return, after a mile, to the same place. Along the way you can almost gaze right across the Island. The ridges of the downs reach out into the Island like the two arms of a comfy sofa.
Below, to the west the ground falls away in dramatic geometric sweeps. As you walk along, spare a thought for the youthful Mahatma Gandhi, who sojourned in Ventnor and was left trailing and gasping for breath while walking here with the daughter of his landlady.
The wild goats you may spot are left to graze away at the holm oaks, a non-native species that has inhibited local wildlife (they were an adornment planted by the Victorians).
The raised humps that you see in clusters are burial mounds dating to the Bronze Age and situated here, it is thought, to enable the deceased to guard their living descendants.
You will see signs for ‘Undercliff’ all around the southeast of the Island but will search in vain for a village of that name, nor a single geographical location. In fact the Undercliff extends from Shanklin to Blackgang Chine, a distance of some eight miles and is the name given to the long stretch of collapsed land that slumps and tumbles towards the sea.
Along the southernmost edge of the Island, the feature known as the Undercliff creates an area that feels protected from the rest of the Island.
The explanation lies in the geology. Parts of the downs that run around the southeast corner of the Island are topped with angular flint gravel; below this is a layer of chalk (this often pops out of the ground as you walk along the tops of Luccombe and Ventnor Down).
The next layer below the chalk is green sandstone, and below that lies gault clay, also known locally as Blue Slipper. The combination of hard and soft rocks, the movement of freshwater through the layers and between the joins, and the nibbling away of the cliff base by the sea, has resulted in a sequence of dramatic landslides over the last 8000 years, continuing to this day.
3 miles (one way); 90 minutes.
The collapsing cliffs of the Island’s south coast have claimed many roads and lanes but arguably the most mesmerising of these is the old A3055 between Ventnor and Niton. A walk along this road with no cars is an oddly eerie experience.
The A3055 is simply among the most bizarre walking experiences you will ever have: you walk along a road where you might expect at any moment a lorry to turn the corner and whizz towards you.
Walk for a 1.5 miles west past Ventnor Botanic Gardens along the A3055 and, after passing bus stops where buses no longer stop, you reach roads end: the road tapers to a narrow path accessible only to walkers and cyclists. The road is effectively cut in two. A few metres later it opens up into a ‘proper’ road once more.
No-one, apart from owners of a handful of houses, uses it. From here you can walk for a further 1.5 miles to St Catherine’s along a two-way road with occasional waymarking but accompanied by densely packed woods and escarpments.
The route is equally enjoyable by cycle, as Kevan Ansell of RouteFifty7 cycle hire attests: ‘It’s is just magical. I cycle here from Shanklin and it is one of my favourite places to cycle on the Island.’
Along the way, look out for the small wooded alleyway that leads north to the magical Old Church of St Lawrence, sitting on the hillside in the Undercliff. This tiny Grade II-listed church is of 13th century origin, though it was restored nearly 100 years ago. When first built it was 20ft long and 12ft wide and for centuries was regarded as the smallest church in England. The interior is exquisite and features a 15th century baptismal font and 18th century coat pegs.
Walking through the Undercliff, with the exposed chalk cliffs high above, you release just how completely wild this landscape is. Buzzards float past, utterly unbothered by your presence. You can hear the waves sloshing far below. Here and there, long-forgotten and closed roads peel off towards the sea but are now moss-covered and unmaintained. You have to pinch yourself that this is southern Britain. It is magnificent and lovely but some people may also find it surprisingly isolated.
Just before you reach the road junctions for St Catherine’s and Niton, keep an eye out for the honesty farm shop operated by the Stonelands Project, selling local grown vegetables and fruit, including squash, lettuce and chillies. The project has a strong religious element and seeks to offer young people in difficulties the opportunity to work in agriculture.
If you’ve walked along the Undercliff you can mark the occasion with a drink or a bite at the excellent 16th century Buddle Inn in St Catherine’s.
Access: on foot, half a mile south from Niton
The pub has a history of smuggling (a long time ago) and it’s easy to imagine ne’er do-wells hauling their booty up the cliff faces before sinking a pint with their ill-gotten gains in a snug corner, one eye keenly alert for customs inspectors….
The menu is extensive and mixes traditional mains with inventive local dishes such as Island pheasant stew with chestnut dumplings.
In an ideal world you’d visit this pub on a sunny early summer evening when you can sit in the flower-decked gardens that have won awards as the best Island pub garden. For the sake of seasonal balance, the pub interior is wonderfully atmospheric and equally welcoming on a cold winter’s night when the inglenook beams, flagstone floors and – most importantly – roaring fires, come into their own.
Ventnor Botanic Garden makes the most of the hospitable climate and more than 6,000 species of plant are grown here, fighting for space alongside more substantial mature and exotic specimens.
In many ways, the botanical gardens are the epitome of the town: lush plants, many of them exotics – Mediterranean and sub-tropical – thriving in a broadly frost-free environment. The climate is kept pleasantly warm by a south-facing aspect, the moderating influence of the sea and the protection provided against northerly winds by the chalk downs that tower above the town. On average, the gardens are typically 5C warmer than the rest of the Island.
The gardens are jaw-dropping, with many of the rare and hardy trees being the largest identified of their species, including a striking Alpine cider gum. Around 6,000 species of plant are grown here and the colours schemes from early spring to late autumn are striking and unrelenting. A real crowd-pleaser is the flowering of the giant echiums in May and June, which has been likened to a floral firework display.
Given the uplifting nature of a visit here, it is salutary to learn of the rather sadder origin of the gardens and buildings, which were once home to the Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest. The hospital developed in the 1860s after Dr Arthur Hill Hassal visited Ventnor to recuperate from an illness and foresaw the role the micro climate could play in alleviating the scourge of the day, the Victorian horror of tuberculosis. Over time families stepped up as benefactors to build the hospital wings.
Sit back and imagine you are closer to the Mediterranean than the North Sea. The café is an ideal pit stop for those walking or cycling the south coast; meanwhile the adjacent restaurant offers more formal dining.
The café is a favourite of keen cyclist Kevan Ansell, who runs Route Fifty7 cycle hire in Shanklin. Kevin heads here after cycling up Luccombe Down from Shanklin (hard) and down into Ventnor (easy). ‘The cafe is perfectly positioned, it’s on the second floor and somehow the sun so often seems to be shining when I get there,’ he says.
Also at Ventnor Botanic Garden is the more upmarket Edulis Restaurant, which showcases local produce including the herbs, salads and fruits grown in the gardens.
In both eateries, and the shop, you can buy the garden beers, Botanic Ale and a separate pale ale, brewed from hops grown on site. The hops are only truly ripe for one day a year and in late August the garden botanists keep an almost hourly vigil before picking them. If your visit coincides with this harvest, you are welcome to join in.
Although small in size, Ventnor Park to the east of the town is delightful and less heralded than the adjacent Botanic Garden. The grounds regularly win national and regional Britain in Bloom awards and are a dizzying collage of exotic Mediterranean pines, and sturdy British specimens. One magnificent oak resembles a candelabra, with branches reaching upwards like imploring hands.
Far away from the sailing activity of Cowes, far away from ferry ports, and indeed the gentility and refinement of Bembridge and Seaview, Ventnor is quirky town, landscaped by the Victorians in a manner that creates a slightly make-believe environment.
Ventnor is shoehorned into the contours of the towering downs that overlook it from above; terraces of houses work their way up from sea level; here and there you will see grand mansions, classic Victorian townhouses, Mediterranean palms and other Italianate features.
Perhaps most strikingly of all, look out to sea and water is all you can see. The Mainland is out of sight. In such a tightly packed town this can, paradoxically, give you a sense of space.
This small town also has a distinct vibe. Stay a while and you may hear a local mantra: ‘Keep Ventnor weird’. That’s not to be taken too literally; it really just means that those mining Ventnor’s artistic seam are keen for the town to resist any attempts at gentrification.
‘I think that our remoteness from everything mitigates against that risk, ‘says Jack Whitewood, who manages the Ventnor Exchange, a creative hub that also features a theatre and a craft beer bar.
‘Each town on the Island has its own character,’ says Jack, ‘and Ventnor is different from what people expect,’ he adds, pointing to the two banks and post office that have been turned into art spaces and a theatre.
‘Ventnor has been wrestling with its identity. It has never really been a bucket and spade resort in the classic sense. There is a real determination to do things differently and it is going down the food and culture route. This is an interesting dynamic place in its own right, it is a good place to live – that in turn makes it interesting for people to visit.’
This sense dates back to the 1970s when the Island attracted a fair few creative types who had lost jobs to market forces. ‘There was a sense that, if you were going to be unemployed, at least you could be unemployed somewhere nice, such as the Isle of Wight,’ says Paul Armfield, writer and musician.
Unconventional guests have certainly long been a feature. Both Karl Marx, convalescing in 1882 and the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie sojourned here, the latter staying at the seafront while in exile in 1938.
Every July, the town runs its mini-version of the Edinburgh fringe, the Ventnor Fringe Festival, which includes an eclectic range of entertainment, from pop-up street comedy to puppet shows in a launderette; more than 100 shows take place over six days and several acts then head up to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival.
Last of all, look out for Ventnor’s wall lizards, which are thought to be yet another introduction by the Victorians. They are widespread on the Channel Islands but considered alien in Britain. ‘We’re very fond of our lizards,’ says Jack.
The Tea House is an excellent place to boost energy levels after clambering over Ventnor Down. Main meals range from soups to brunches but you may also yield to the wide selection of cakes which include slices of Speculaas, a Dutch bake that squeezes almond pastry between cinnamon and nutmeg.
Don’t leave Ventnor without taking in the magnificent spray-paint mural at the eastern edge of town, which features a sea-creature morphing into the Isle of Wight. It’s an unforgettable site and will finally dispel any misconceptions you might have that Ventnor is where you go to retire.
Access: This is one to visit by bus; route no 3.
Paul and Sue Brownrigg opened their farm shop ‘Brownrigg’s Farm Shop‘, set in a low-slung, cabin-like building, in 2013 and sell their own free-range pork in the form of bacon, sausages, and ham joints. The Brownriggs are a farming family and also rear some 1,000 sheep, a herd of ruby red cattle and free-range hens that lay up to 3,000 eggs a day.
The Mission, Chale, is one of the converted properties developed by The Shacks, a retro accommodation company run by Frazer and Helen Cunningham.
Access: bus route 6
The striking former mission house and Sunday school, built in the 1800s from corrugated iron, has been refurbished in part-traditional, part-modern style with a dramatic and sleek Mezzanine floor dominating the middle of the house. Elsewhere, the effect is completed by wooden panels and vintage items such as an original wall-hanging, hand-dialled (and working) telephone and cinema seats. Sleeps up to 8.
Ventnor Botanic Garden has several sleeping options, all of which include free admission and the options of ordering meals from the restaurant chefs or having breakfast and barista coffee in the Plantation Room Café. Accommodation ranges from a cottage sleeping six to a pair of cabins each sleeping two and camping and glamping.