The crossing to Yarmouth from Lymington on the mainland is among the most scenic you could wish for, with the journey accompanied for much of the way by reed beds and – always – striking views of the Needles and Tennyson Down. As you approach the Island, look to port (east) and you’ll notice a forested coastline that invites exploration.
The hinterland just to the east of Yarmouth is unlike anywhere else in the Isle of Wight. This is a world of creeks, muddy inlets, unvisited coast, wildlife-rich woodlands and tucked away hamlets. It can feel like a slice of the Island that time forgot, appreciated only by those in the know.
Shalfleet to Newtown, coastal path around Hamstead and Bouldnor Copse
Points of Interest
Newtown Town Hall, bird-watching at Newton Creek, Shalfleet Quay, Parkhurst Forest, Bouldnor Forest Nature Reserve, crumbling cliffs, Hamstead coast, Dodnor Creek & Dickson’s Copse, Slab Fudge
PO41 Coffee House, Slab Artisan Fudge
PO41 is the ideal stop for the just-landed seafarer; this cosy café serves cakes, meringues, excellent coffee and hot chocolate.
‘We are just passionate about coffee,’ says co-owner Aiden Collins, who bought the premises in 2015 when the Post Office closed down. The coffee is purchased through Direct Trade, which sees the growers paid 25% above the Fair Trade rate. It is then processed at Collins’ own roastery, which is located inside a young offenders institute near London and is used as part of the rehabilitation process for inmates.
Cakes include date and ginger and an exquisitely presented beetroot flavoured cupcake; all are prepared at home by Aiden’s wife, Louise. They are made without palm oil but with what Aiden calls ‘real’ butter; and the cakes are both produced and sold within the PO41 post code.
In homage to the building’s history, the original post box and letter box remain in situ and still function, with collections made daily.
Bouldnor comprises the woodlands and coastline immediately to the east of Yarmouth. This is where you need to go if you want to get off-grid on the Isle of Wight: there are no roads along the coast, just two entry and exit points for walkers and no facilities while you’re here.
This is a tranquil and secretive coastline of low-sloping clay cliffs crowned with woodland and farmland where the settlements of Hamstead and Cranmore have the feel of remote hill communities.
Hamstead was designed by the architect John Nash in 1804 and after WWI the government issued land grants to returning soldiers who were able to build whatever they wished. The legacy today is mixed, with some houses in states of disrepair; others ageing with more grace and character, and modern properties springing from the Grand Designs school of architecture.
The coast path does run thorough here, along Newtown Creek, through the woodlands of Bouldnor Copse, across an unvisited landscape of clay heath and above the steep crumbling cliffs near Hamstead.
For a brief stretch, northeast of Hamstead Farm, the coast path takes on a more literal meaning and comprises the pebbles and shingle of the shoreline. This is another of the island’s excellent fossil hunting locations, with the early Oligocene beds on the shore featuring mammal, crocodile, turtle, crustaceans and fish remains. Molluscs, plants and seeds can also be found simply lying on the foreshore.
The only way to explore the area is on foot and the best route is the Coastal Path.
From the Horse and Groom, take footpath S9 north. After 800 yds you cross a footbridge and turn right with a stream to your right. Follow waymarkers through woodland until you reach the Coastal Path (S27), where you turn left. From here, follow the coastal trail signs all the way back to Yarmouth.
The views are consistently stunning, from the grey-green shore-scape of the mires around Newtown Creek to the shockingly collapsed cliffs of the north coast. At the former, you may conclude that mud can indeed look magnificent. At the latter, you will find toppled trees lying on the beach, awaiting further decomposition by the next tide.
Lying a mile to the east of Yarmouth, Bouldnor Copse is an enchanting place home to unusual bird life and offering a serenity that makes the busy shipping activity of the Solent seem a world away.
The heathland is an excellent place to see and hear nightjars in summer, a bird known for its spooky ‘churring’ call. The heathland here is slowly being restored by removing scrub and conifer trees and allowing heather and dwarf gorse to return.
The huge concrete building that stands behind the recovering heathland is a WW2 battery that supported heavy gun emplacements.
Just offshore from the battery lies a submerged prehistoric settlement, the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom. Nothing is visible today as it is buried in the silt of a drowned oak and hazel forest under up to 12m of saltwater; nevertheless it is astonishing to think that, 8,000 years ago, people were living by the shores of the huge swamp and marshland that connected the Island to the mainland.
A tiny hamlet and mooring point for fishing boats and pleasure craft, Shalfleet, it seems, dozes quietly as the world passes by.
Access: To reach Shalfleet Quay take the no 7 bus from either Newport or Yarmouth and walk north towards the coast along Shalfleet Quay Lane.
Shalfleet Quay has been in use since medieval times, when the harbour was more swollen and deeper than it is today. At that time, Newtown creek opened into a mighty harbour estuary but centuries of coastal ebb and flow, erosion and silt have changed all that.
What’s left today is a delightful setting alongside meandering rivers and streams that are guarded from the wider sea by large shingle banks and tidal mudflats. Mature trees line the inlets and Lilliputian Newtown river.
At Shalfleet boatyard, life dozes on and there is always a handful of boats hauled up on dry land. The boats at the quay are coated with resin to waterproof them, a process known as caulking and which gives rise to the local name for a true Islander, a caulkhead. To qualify, your family must have lived on the island for at least three generations. The resin makes the boats watertight.
Yet there is hardly ever anyone around, only birds – black-headed gulls jerkily flicking back and forwards in mid-air, and little egrets settling down among the reeds for a spot of fish-catching.
It’s highly likely that water voles also do well on the banks of the creek and indeed along all the Island rivers. For this, they should be grateful that mink have not made the journey across the Solent.
1.5 miles; 30 minutes (one-way).
This short walk menders alongside creeks, inlets and coppices to reach the hamlet of Newtown.
Take the no 7 bus to Shalfleet from either Yarmouth or Newport and walk towards the coast along Shalfleet Quay Lane. From the Mill Road car park head east, crossing a footbridge over the creek and go through woodland. This brings you out onto Corf Lane. Turn left and left again into Town Lane. Cross Cassey Bridge to reach Newtown Hall. The hamlet’s church and bird hide are a further half mile towards the northwest coast.
The clue is in the name: Newtown, now a miniscule hamlet, was once a thriving port. Today, it has an important town hall, an appealing church and fine bird watching to offer the visitor.
The hamlet of Newtown is visible across the creek from Shalfleet Quay. The clue to its more substantial history lies in the name, as Newtown in the 14th century was the most important port on the Isle of Wight.
Newtown is unusual, as it is a rare example of a medieval new town that failed economically. Consequently, it has escaped developed and regeneration and much of the original green lanes, street patterns and small paddocks (known as burgage plots) have survived.
As you enter the village, you pass Newtown Old Town Hall, a redbrick redbrick 17th century building with pillars forming a portico for the door. As Newtown’s influence waned, so did the fortunes of the hall, to the point that it became a town hall with no town.
The town hall was rescued from collapse only by the intervention of the eccentric “Ferguson’s Gang”, a group of masked women who remained anonymous but devoted their time to raising funds to buy property for the National Trust. They would burst into Trust meetings, Robin Hood style, and plant a sack of cash on the table, with strict instructions on how it should be spent.
The Church of the Holy Spirit here seems the epitome of the rural idyll and was described by Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, as ‘the finest early 19th century church on the island’.
Bring a thermos and stay a while and watch the birds come and go at this delightful bird hide that juts out into Newtown Harbour’s National Nature Reserve.
The end of the road in Newtown leads along a boardwalk to an attractively positioned bird hide. The lagoon-like waters either side were once salt pans (they ceased production in the 1930s) until breached by a fierce storm in 1954. The coastline is gorgeous – soft, green rolling hills tumbling to a foreshore, while the New Forest makes for a wooden-framed horizon across the Solent. Footpath CB16A leads around the south side of Newton and has further fine views.
Hundreds of dark-bellied Brent geese over-winter here along with teal and pintail ducks.
Incredible as it may sound, in the 1960s serious plans were drawn up to build a nuclear power plant here. Fortunately, the scheme was dropped amid the area’s designation as both an AONB and a National Nature Reserve.
Set back from the north coast and the River Medina, Parkhurst Forest is a rich mix of conifer trees and native broadleaves and home to that epitome of animal magnetism, the red squirrel.
The Island has long been a stronghold for the red; the greys have never been introduced here and the Solent acts as a natural barrier to their advance. In 1945, reds were widespread across the east and southwest of England; today the Isle of Wight is the only place in England you will find them south of Northumbria and Cumbria.
Another reason red squirrels do well on the Isle of Wight is that the Island has no deer. Without grazing deer, the cycle of tree growth, coppicing and regrowth is quite fast and provides plenty of foraging cover for the squirrels (and dormice).
Parkhurst is a good place to see the squirrels. From the car park (which is a 400 yd walk from the bus stop), a clear signposted track winds its way through the woods to a hide where, with a little patience, you have every likelihood of seeing the animals. You should see them elsewhere too – as you walk, simply look up!
Don’t overlook the other charms that Parkhurst has to offer, ranging from fly agaric, the classic red cap and white spotted mushroom, to birds such as crossbills and goldcrests and the great crested newts which live in the ponds in the centre of the forest.
The landscape of remnant ancient woodland and heathland is similar to that found in the New Forest and is another reminder that until the end of the last Ice Age and sea level rises, the two were part of the same landmass.
Located on the west banks of the Medina, this is an exquisite sliver of haven for wildlife. A short circular nature trail explores the site, which is managed by Gift to Nature. Access the site from the footpath leading from the north side of the viaduct down to the riverside path.
The River Medina was one of the main trade routes onto the Island for many centuries. The creek was dammed in the 1790s to provide water for a flour mill. After the mill failed the cement industry moved in – it’s a little-known fact that the Isle of Wight was, for a brief period, the epicentre of cement production in Victorian England, with the quick-setting cement used for sea fortifications. Recent archaeological work has uncovered cement kilns.
The creek has been designated as a RAMSAR site (an international status granted to wetlands of high quality) for its importance to winter wading birds such as teal and grebe. Much of the site is dominated by reed swamp and bulrushes.
Dickson’s Copse, meanwhile, was once part of the ancient deer forest of Parkhurst oak and features ash on the higher ground with a rich shrub layer comprising holly, hawthorn, spindle, privet, butcher’s-broom, hazel and field maple. The copse floor hosts ancient woodland indicator species such as lords-and-ladies, red campion, stinking iris, primrose and violets.
Sea-salted caramel, cookies and cream, lemon meringue…we are of course talking fudge, glorious fudge…. and most recently, vegan fudge. In all, you can choose from 12 flavours at Slab Artisan Fudge.
Having run Bliss Ice Cream in Cowes for the best part of a decade, Rachel Powell and her husband Steve opened Slab in 2015. ‘We thought it would complement the ice cream and we were surprised there wasn’t an “Island” fudge -after all, you expect to find fudge in seaside towns,’ she says.
Fudge-making is far from plain sailing: fudge, if it takes the mood can choose not to set, or it can set like concrete. ‘It’s a pretty science-based business,’ says Rachel as she recalls how she taught herself to make fudge over the winter of 2014. ‘You look at recipes online and you quickly realise most of them are awful – they burn or don’t work the second time. So, it was a question of coming up with my own and tweaking it, cooking it a bit hotter, using less sugar, more butter until you settle on the recipe that is right.’
After spending three months experimenting with recipes in her home kitchen, Rachel was ready. She has been kept busy working late into the night and cutting and packaging fudge at 5 am ahead of selling at fares, fetes and Cowes Week.
The move into the shop was a logical next step and visitors can watch fudge being made. ‘We opened the shop because we were storing the fudge in our house and it was full of boxes, the fudge was just taking over,’ she laughs.
The Caledon is a lovingly refurbished Victorian house combining modern features with original features such as exposed beams and fireplaces. Run by a supremely helpful family who make you feel that their home is your home. Breakfast includes fresh local eggs and bread. The honesty bar for the Island’s Wight mermaid Gin, or wine, in the lounge is a nice touch. Eight rooms.