The southern reaches of West Wight are among the most popular destinations for visitors. They include must-see sights such as Tennyson Down and the crumbling coastline above Compton Bay and the sweeping chalk backbone of Mottistone Down. Yet they can also feel remote and ancient. Walk here, or propel yourself up by mountain bike, and you are following in the footsteps of the Stone Age peoples of the Isle of Wight.
Few signs remain of where they lived; but many can be found of where they died. The funerary landscape of these southerly and westerly downs is a world apart from the Victoriana by which it stands cheek by jowl.
Walk from the Longstone along Mottistone Down and Brighstone Down (8km/5 miles)
Points of Interest
Dimbola, Tapnell Farm, Compton Chine and Down, Mottistone Down and the Longstone, heathlands; Brighstone village and down; archaeology; dark skies.
Dimbola Museum and Galleries, Tapnell Farm Park, Brighstone Village Shop,
Home to the pioneering female photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Dimbola Museum & Galleries is a step back into a time when the Victorian A-listers called the Isle of Wight home.
Dimbola is a homage to the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, which was almost exclusively portraits (she would even occasionally lean over a balcony and invite a passer-by to have their photograph taken).
The building was originally two cottages that Cameron had linked by a Gothic tower.
Cameron would regularly entertain her arts friends from London who were eager to breathe the Island’s creative airs; among those who visited were Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Charles Darwin and Virginia Woolf (who was Cameron’s great-niece).
We live in a time of smartphones that allow you to take 100s of images of Tennyson Down, which overlooks Dimbola. Spare a thought, then, for Cameron, who had to work with the ‘wet plate’ process of her day, which required a dark room. For her, the option of lugging an unwieldy, heavy camera uphill was not an option.
Tucked away within Dimbola is Julia’s Tearoom; a gem that seems to have been designed very much in the image of Julia Margaret Cameron: quirky and eclectic. Home bakes prevail, including an exquisitely stylish pistachio rose cake. However it’s the setting that is just as likely to grab your attention, with paintings and drawings by local artists on the walls and your food served on mismatched vintage china.
Access: coastal path grid ref: SZ368853, Bus route: Island Coaster (check hours of operation)
Chines are a real feature of the south and southwest of the Island. Essentially these are relatively short river valleys with walls of hard chalk between which softer mudstones and clays are washed away.
‘The landscape is always changing,’ says Joel Bateman of the Isle of Wight AONB,’ which is why you get so many interesting animals making chines their home for a short while. Wasps and other insects settle in until the next storm or landslip changes everything.’
Access: Coastal trail to Sheppards Chine car park (grid ref: SZ 377841)
Bus route: Island Coaster (check hours of operation)
A magnificent slice of coast, Compton Bay is popular with both surfers and beachcombers. Nose around the base of the beach cliffs and you may turn up a prehistoric souvenir.
Surfers love Compton Bay and you will often see hardy souls riding the rollers on a late afternoon in deep midwinter. Compton Bay gets its fair share of stormy weather but even a strong breeze and a high tide is enough to nibble away at the cliffs around Hanover Point.
The sandstones and mudstones are eroded exposing 8,000 years of geology for you to inspect. At the top of the cliffs, just beneath the top soil, is a brown layer of rock that is 5,000 years old; below that is a darker layer that is dated to the age of 8,000 years.
In each, you can find nuts and pieces of wood. Both are proof that our Neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors managed or grew hazelnut forests here (at that time, the point where land meets sea would have been as much as half a mile further out) with which they fed wild boar or pigs.
The nuts are not fossilised but amazingly preserved. Take one home, place it on a shelf and after six months it will disintegrate into a puff of dust.
Access: footpaths via Compton Down from Freshwater (2 miles)
One of the Island’s most popular attractions, Tapnell Farm Park also offers an insight into how land is managed on the Isle of Wight. The land at Tapnell (and the adjacent Afton Farm) has been owned by the Turney family for generations and, until the start of the 2010s, was grazed by a dairy herd of 800 cows that produced 24,000 litres of milk every day.
Then, with milk prices low, the family relocated the herd to Dorset and set about transforming the former farm.
‘We looked at every way to make the dairy farm work, but the milk price kept dropping,’ says Tom Turney, who owns the farm, along with his members of his wider family.
The new attractions are set out across the old dairy farm buildings and include a children’s go-kart circuit, straw bales to clamber over and a pet farm featuring alpacas, donkeys, rabbits and other creatures with animal magnetism.
Close by is The Cow, a huge converted barn now operating along the lines of a gastropub, with a seasonal menu, championing home grown and locally sourced produce from the Island.
Solar panels make the farm a net exporter of energy; meanwhile, on-site sewage plants use good bacteria to break down the human waste produced into water, which is returned to the ground water table.
A great deal is made – justifiably – of the Isle of Wight’s importance as a place for dinosaurs. Less emphasis is laid on the prehistoric human presence of the Island, from the Neolithic to the Iron Age.
One reason for this is the lack of housing and other building development across the Island: elsewhere in the UK, when an application, for example, to build a new housing estate is submitted, an archaeological excavation can be mandatory. As these are rare on the Island’s hinterland, so are archaeological digs.
‘We know the archaeology is out there, we can see it with Roman field systems,’ says Owen Cambridge of the Archaeology Discovery Centre.
For specific sites to visit, see points 3, 6, 8 & 9 of this route.
Access on foot or by bike along Tennyson Trail across Compton Down
The extraordinary ringed graves, known as the Five Barrows, can be picked out from sea level in much of the West Wight. Standing on the skyline where Brook Down meets Shalcombe Down, they date to the Bronze Age.
They Five Barrows say much about the Isle of Wight’s extraordinary, and often overlooked, archaeology. To begin with, there are actually nine barrows, of which seven are visible (no-one is sure quite how they came to be known as ‘Five Barrows’).
Another remarkable thing is that they are easy to miss. The Tennyson Trail runs immediately below them; approach from the east and if you did not know they were there, you walk past unawares. Yet all you need to do is to clamber for 20m up the flanks of the down to the north of the trail. A trig point will tell you that you are in the right place.
The barrows would originally have appeared as black and white concentric rings. (this colouration was created by digging out a circle, to expose the chalk and throwing the soil around the circumference of the circle; then repeating this process with an outer ring).
Owen Cambridge, owner of the Archaeology Discovery Centre at Fort Victoria (see route 6) is awe-struck every time he climbs up here. ‘You often hear of places where our ancestors built processional ways to bury their dead. But there was no need to build one on the Isle of Wight. I think we’re standing on a natural one,’ he says, sweeping his hands west towards the slopes of Tennyson Down and east towards Mottistone Down, where you can just make out the Long Stone. You have a 360-degree panorama of the Island. This would clearly have been important to our ancestors.’
If you look to the farmland fields to the southeast you will notice how some of them feature circular boundaries, a feature that is frequently a sign of pre-Roman, especially Bronze Age, farming. Owen suggests it is no great leap to connect the burial mounds of Five Barrows with the fertile soils of the inhabited landscapes below.
The walking along the top of the downs is easy thanks to an innovative ‘donate-a-gate’ scheme promoted by the Isle of Wight Ramblers. Visitors are encouraged to provide funds for an accessible stile, perhaps in memory of a loved one, and to create wheelchair-accessible paths.
Access: by footpath from St Peter and Paul Church, Mottistone. Cross the road and follow footpath BS43 and waymarkers uphill for ¾ m to reach the The Longstone. This is a delightful, sunken lane, though it has an unrelenting steep gradient. The path ends abruptly as you emerge on downland in front of the Longstone.
The Longstone is actually two huge blocks, one still standing 12ft metres high, the other fallen. They are often documented as the reminder of two standing stones that were once placed here, aligned with the sun rise and linked in some way to the huge long barrow that stands just to the west.
Their alignment with the sun may well be correct but, says Owen Cambridge, in reality the stone was one of two that, with a lintel, formed a dramatic entrance to a corbelled chambered tomb. ‘The entrance helped create a binary existence – between the world inside the tomb and the world outside it,’ he says.
The downland here is delightful, with a layer of flint laid down during the last Ice Age poking out through the grass. This has in turn encouraged acid loving plants such as gorse and heath bedstraw. Grazing cattle and nibbling rabbits prevent the scrub taking over the grassy flanks.
Start/finish St Peter and Paul church, Mottistone.
Five miles/ two hours
This is one of the finest walks the Island has to offer and repays the short initial effort of climbing onto the downs with an undulating hike across the spine of the Island.
After reaching the Longstone bear left along the clear path and turn right through a gate, heading uphill with the edge of a wood on your left. Exit the wood through another gate and bear half-left uphill, contouring north-east below the sweep of Mottistone Down.
Where the path meets the Tennyson Trail, turn sharp right to walk uphill along the spine of the down. Pass a series of hummocks, thought to be burial mounds and continue due east across Mottistone Down with superb views in all directions. You may lose count of the number of hovering kestrels you see; meanwhile Galloway cattle lazily graze on steep-side ridges.
The path drops down to a small car park on Lynch Lane. Turn left here, down the road for 274 meters to a junction of paths on either side. Ignore the first footpath on the right for Brighstone Forest and instead take the adjacent second, less substantial path, which ascends gently uphill east through forest.
After 0.8 miles this meets a path where you bear left for 45 meters before turning right along footpath BS8, slightly uphill through forest that then drops down towards the sea. A main path (the Tennyson Trail) comes in from the left, turn right along this and keep along this for 137 meters, ignoring paths to left and right, until you reach a T-junction at the edge of the forest where you turn right (west) along footpath BS10, signposted for Freshwater.
The path descends to the road, where you dog-leg across to the right to reach the small car park once again. From here, climb back up onto Mottistone Down and retrace your steps to the church at Mottistone.
The flanks of Mottistone and Brighstone Down are dominated by heathland that creates a hauntingly magical landscape at any time of year and is perfect for walking and cycling.
The heathland of Brighstone is a magical place. Come here on a summer evening and you may well hear the enchanting, haunting ‘churrr’ of the nightjar, a summer visitor. The call of this bird sounds deeply ancient and even spooked people in medieval times who nicknamed the nightjar the ‘corpse hound’ and saw it as an omen of death.
Look out for Dartford warblers in the gorse and summer visitors such as whitethroat and wheatear (the males of the latter are identified by their ‘robber’ mask patterning). The downs are also home to 30 species of butterfly including Adonis Blue and Chalkhill Blue and dark green fritillary.
Heathland was an important habitat on the Isle of Wight in medieval times but agricultural improvement and neglect has seen 82% of the cover lost since that time. Even so, substantial chunks of heathland remain and are carpeted with heather and gorse. Conservation schemes now seek to restore it.
Access: Bus 12
The Isle of Wight is not short of major supermarket chains. Yet despite this competition, the Brighstone Village Shop holds its own.
The forecourt of the village shop is stacked with fresh fruit and veg, chopped logs, coal, and flower beds made from railway sleepers. Inside, the shop is well stocked with everything from tinned fruit to flour and everyday washing up items. Local produce, however, prevails.
‘We’re just a busy, bustling village shop,’ says proprietor David Hollis. ‘I like to think this is a friendly place, that it’s a centre of the community’ ‘If you want something, we can get it. We provide as much Island produce as we can. Farmers have looked to diversify and we want to help market their produce.’
True to his word, David points to local beef from Sheepwash Farm, Wight Wagyu beef from Shate Farm, bread from three bakeries, including sourdough from the Island Bakers. ‘People want to know where their food comes from and we can help them do that.’
The shop was taken over by David’s parents – who were previously local farmers – in 1976. ‘We’ve always been independent. My dad had to fight off the supermarkets when they first arrived in the 1980s. It’s about trying to be original,’ he says.
The shop is perfectly positioned – you can pick up food here and walk to the beach on the south coast and then come back this way and buy an ice cream.
Just to the west of the village of Brighstone, 365 meters beyond the Three Bishops pub, opposite Moortown Lane, look at the wall on the left and you will see the etching of a galleon, dated to the late 17th century.
‘People like to say it’s a sign that smuggling took place here,’ says Owen Cambridge, of the Archaeology Discovery Centre at Fort Victoria, ‘but that doesn’t make sense, the last thing smugglers would do is announce their presence.’
Instead, Owen believes it represents an ancient signpost for sailors docking at nearby Marsh Chine or Chilton Chine who sought freshwater. Walk up Moortown Lane and you see what Owen means. After 730 meters, you pass footpath BS 83 on the left. Just beyond, opposite footpath BS94 signposted for Shorwell, is an old barn which is covered in graffiti.
These include references to Christmas Day 1701, depictions of galleons, foot soldiers. The source of fresh water lies in a field just north of here. Walk a little farther up the road onto Lynch Lane and, opposite Old Rock Cottage you see an extraordinary sandstone outcrop, all but standing alone in a field. The holes you see in its flanks have been dug out by solitary honeybees.
The triangle between Freshwater Bay, Compton Down and Niton is the focus of a bid to attain Dark Skies park status. This would see street lights turned off late in the evening and light pollution taken into account with any new developments.
A lack of light will benefit wildlife, which can be confused by bright white lights, and enhance the tranquillity of the area.
In the absence of light pollution, the thousands of stars revealed at night would also attract star gazers and provide the opportunity for night-time wildlife rambles and activities such as bat-detecting.
‘The advantage we have over some other areas that have Dark Sky status is that our weather is generally better,’ says Joel Bateman of the AONB. A decision is expected to be made in the summer of 2019.
Tom’s Eco Lodge is a collection of tastefully built and furnished wooden lodges, pods and modulogs (somewhere between a pod and a lodge) and safari tents, are spaced around the woodlands just behind the main barns.
Most have superb views of Tennyson Down and are ideal for that sundowner on decking. Some have hot tubs powered by wood chip. The honesty shop for daily necessities is a nice touch.