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Yarmouth, Totland, Freshwater & The Needles

The westernmost part of the Island offers one of the most delightful coast-to-coast excursions the UK has to offer; this is somewhere you realise not just what an extraordinary island the Isle of Wight is, but what an extraordinary shape it is.  A three-dimensional image would resemble a top-heavy iceberg ready to topple over into the sea.

Approach across the Solent to the small port of Yarmouth and you berth in a low-lying, almost swampy world of marshes, lagoons and tidal mudflats, where a huge estuary quickly constricts and tapers into miniscule streams. Beginning in Yarmouth, the route nudges through the contours of a part of the Island known as West Wight.

Following the course of the River West Yar upstream, you bump into the chalk downs that shield the town of Freshwater. Here, in the south-west of the Island, rising like a breaking wave, is a backdrop of high, whale-back chalk downlands. Beyond that, the Island plummets abruptly into the English Channel where the waters turn the colour of milk chocolate as wave after wave thumps into the chalk cliffs.

Transport

7 & 12, FYT bus, Island Coaster (check for dates), Wightlink ferry to Yarmouth

Cycle Routes

Taste Round the Island

Walks

Walk along River Yar to Compton Down

Points of Interest

Dimbola House, birdlife on the Yar, the Victorian A-listers, Farringford, Alum Bay & geology, The Needles, Archaeology Discovery Centre

Eat

Off the Rails, The Freshwater Coffee House.

Route highlights

Access: 20-minute walk from Yarmouth; FYT bus drops off in car park; bus route 7 stops at top of access road.

The Archaeology Discovery Centre houses a small but captivating display of archaeology and more recent discoveries. Here is a chance to skip along the timeline of the Isle of Wight. While the Island is known for its dinosaurs; its important archaeology is much less heralded.

The Archaeology Discovery Centre has recently been taken over by two professional archaeologists, Katie and Owen Cambridge, and is well worth a visit. Katie and Owen are freshening up the exhibits and bringing their own expert eye to the displays. They run the centre as a not-for-profit community interest centre.

The fascinating displays rampage through history. The most eye-catching item is a 16th century canon recovered from the nearby waters; the most moving is a smashed porthole from the SS Mendi, which sank in 1917 with the loss of more than 600 soldiers from southern Africa who were headed for the Western Front. ‘The smashed glass records the moment of the impact that sank the ship,’ says Katie.

Rather older artefacts are on view too, including a Paleolithic hand axe and timber stumps dating to the Mesolithic, some 8,000 years ago.  ‘They were used to make log boats, so there was boat building on the Island then, just as there is today,’ says Owen.

Next door is the Information Room where you can look at turtle fossils and fossilised shark and ray teeth, many collected from the beach just a few yards away. You are encouraged to scour the beach yourself and see what turns up. Between June and August guided tours are run along the beach.

Historically, Fort Victoria, which houses the centre, has been an important strategic location. The Isle of Wight has been heavily militarised for many centuries. The first defences around the Island appeared during the time of Henry VIII and the north-west of the Island has been defended since early Tudor times. Fort Victoria was a later arrival with the first garrison stationed here in 1855.

Access: follow walking trails behind the Archaeology Discovery Centre.

The small country park behind Fort Victoria is well worth exploring: you’ll find a relatively young woodland, planted in the 19th century and featuring beech, sycamore and hawthorn shrubs.

The easiest approach is to follow the red squirrel markers which run up and down two trails through the outer limits of the park and back, a distance of no more than 1.5 miles.

You can take smaller but rougher paths off to the west which skirt the coast; here and there, these further split into narrow paths that drop down to the sea. These little routes are handy as this corner of the Island is not well-served by footpaths (partly because they tend to crumble into the sea).

Eventually the paths converge on high ground by a small plaque to Robert Hooke, a pioneering 17th century geologist from the Island who was widely ridiculed by his contemporaries for his theories – since borne out – on how tectonic movements and geological processes shaped the earth.

This spot also offers fine views across the Solent. Hurst Castle, built in 1554 on a narrow shingle spit, is so close you feel you could almost reach out and touch it.

Access: The park is located a five-minute walk from the School Green Road bus stop (routes 7 & 12).

The site of the former fort, Golden Hill Country Park comprises just 20 ha of country park but is a gem. Up on high ground you have superb views across West Wight. Paths work their way through the woodlands and grasslands. Among the butterflies you may see are ringlet and brown argus while the drumming of a green woodpecker may halt you in your tracks.

Start/finish; Yarmouth bus station, by Wightlink ferry port

4 miles; two hours

A circular route loop around the River Yar offering delightful walking amid reedbeds and hedgerows that are bursting with bird song in spring and summer. The River Yar, meanwhile, seems to operate as a lake for kinds of wildfowl. The meandering walking is flat, pleasant and easy.

This is an easy, walk around the River Yar, following its eastern shoreline until you begin to bump onto the chalk ridges near the south cost and returning via fields and farm lanes to Yarmouth.

To begin, simply walk through the car park across the road from the bus station and pick up the path that runs along the east of the river. The mouth of the Yar is huge enough to accommodate ferries and a sizeable marina, but you’ll be taken aback by just how quickly it withers to little more than a meandering stream.

The explanation lies deep in the ancient geological history of the Island. The Isle of Wight was not only once much bigger, with those downlands rising higher and further to the south, but it was also connected to the UK mainland at a time when the Solent was a river rather than a passage of open water.

As the sea slowly eroded the soft chalk hills to the south, the Yar was deprived of its original tributaries and today’s river is an emaciated shadow of its former self that once rose higher and further from its ancient more southerly source. The lopsided shape of the Island means that it, and all other rivers on the Island, flow from south to north.

Along the way you will pass handsome buildings that look as if they were once customs houses or mills, and thick hedgerows and brambles. Swans and (in winter) dark-bellied Brent geese nudge around among the reeds and fringes of the river. A handsome bank of woodland rises up to the west and there’s the occasional church spire to complete a comforting picture. Further on, you pass a delightful coppice with alders, ankle deep in bog-like, dark waters.

At the Causeway, turn right (west) to cross the shrivelling Yar with thick, swampy reed beds to the south. At this point you can feel as if you have stepped into the Wind in the Willows.

Soon afterwards you pass another of the Island’s beautiful and often overlooked churches. All Saints Church, which has an extraordinarily large and sprawling graveyard. If you explore it, take a ball of string with you to find your way out. The path then heads due north, passing Manor Farm.

The final leg can take longer than you expect, as the path strays away from the Yar, through undulating woodland. Soon enough, though, the woodlands fade away and you’re looking across the Solent to the New Forest. A right-hand turn takes you briefly along the A3054 back to Yarmouth.

Housed in a renovation of the old Yarmouth Station railway building, Off the Rails is a deservedly popular café/restaurant that serves as halt for walkers and cyclists exploring the River Yar and its delectable hinterland. Word of mouth has seen visitors from the New Forest take the ferry across from Lymington solely to dine here.

Off the Rails serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with much of the produce coming directly from the Island, including giant gourmet burgers, Yarmouth Crab, and veggie, vegan and gluten-free dishes. The menu ranges from ‘Bradshaw’s Breakfast’ – smoked salmon with chive butter – to ‘Smoke Box Chilli – mushrooms with chillies, spiced rice, lime and salsa. The place is also dog friendly to the extent it even has a dog menu (complete with ice-cream for hot days).

Off The Rails is quite unlike any other eatery on the Isle of Wight. ‘We are not really either a café or a restaurant,’ says Philippe Blot, the Michelin-starred trained French-born manager.  ‘When we opened, we thought about trying to do something funky but we decided just to do our own thing. We decided to offer food that was pretty similar to Michelin-star quality but for a fraction of the price.’

The food is only part of the experience: come on a busy day and the place still feels unrushed, staff look you in the eye and you feel like you are getting personal service.

There’s no children’s menu; instead, you can order smaller portions. ‘Most children’s menus are rubbish,’ says Philippe, ‘they just offer deep-fried food.’

As you munch you can enjoy the eclectic replica station which includes details such as specially commissioned seats with patterns that pay homage to early-era London underground trains. ‘The train theme is essential, given the history it would have been a crime to ignore it,’ says Phillipe.

Outside are serene views of waterways, where swans trundle elegantly against a backdrop of reeds and rushes. Nearby, the hedgerows brim with birdlife – this is an excellent place to spot flocks of goldcrests, one of the UK’s smallest birds.

It’s fair to say the restaurant is more successful than the railway that served the station. Yarmouth Station was constructed as part of the Freshwater Yarmouth Newport Railway in the early 1880s. Oddly enough, the railway line never connected with the Lymington ferry, and as a result all coal, livestock and passengers had to be transported down the backstreets of Yarmouth to get to the train.

The FYN railway never really made any money (one year’s accounts show a profit of £6 for the whole year) and was closed for good in September 1953, not even waiting for the inevitable death sentence that would have followed the Beeching cuts 10 years later.

Access, bus route: Needles Breezer

Farringford, the former home of Alfred, Lord Tennyson is a Grade I listed building and an exquisite, turreted Georgian country pile. The interior is well worth exploring on an excellent audio tour, during which you could well be overwhelmed by the intense colour scheme to be found – you may never see such a rich azure blue as that found in the reception room.

The Farringford estate is managed sympathetically in relation to the landscape in which it is set. Striking colours can also be found in the recently restored walled garden immediately to the west of the house.

The garden is a homage to the one that Tennyson knew and tended. Sadly, the original was razed and replaced by holiday homes and even once managed by the Pontin’s family, of seaside holiday fame.

In 2016 these buildings were removed and work began on the walled garden. A good deal of effort has been taken to recreate the garden as Tennyson may have known it.

To achieve this, walled garden manager Ellen Penstone-Smith has turned to historical records, including the journal of Emily, Tennyson’s wife. ‘Her journal talked about 7 ft-tall tobacco plants, which we think is a bit of an embellishment as they don’t usually grow that high,’ says Ellen.

Tennyson’s poetry also gives clues and poems such as Maud have given Ellen licence to plant flowers that are referenced in them, such as passion flowers, lilies and larkspurs.

A contemporary etching also provided a guide for the replica summer house, covered with jasmine, roses and other scented plants. ‘Walled gardens were quite formal but Tennyson was ahead of his time and wanted something wilder and adventurous,’ says Ellen.

In one letter, he referred to a ‘carelessly ordered garden’ on a ‘ridge of a noble down’, which is widely assumed to have meant Farringford.

There are challenges: in Tennyson’s time, mature elm trees sheltered the garden from the strong westerlies; ever since those succumbed to disease the wind is funnelled off the downs and through the garden. Keep an eye out for wildlife: red squirrels often bounce along the walls and buzzards perch in trees in the adjacent skyline. From spring to autumn, the garden is a haven for pollinators.

The wider grounds and farmland of the estate are also being managed in a sympathetic way that echoes the landscape Tennyson would have known. Short Horn Cattle, the same breed as stocked the land during Tennyson’s time, chew the cud while the woodland behind the house has been thinned and planted with primroses which are thought to have been a favourite of Tennyson’s.

A huge cedar of Lebanon, once sketched by Edward Lear, continues to stand proud outside the rear windows of the house while the conspicuous, scarlet-flowered rhododendron is thought to have been planted by Tennyson shortly after he moved in.

Access: bus routes: 7 & 12, FYT bus, Island Coaster

If you’ve had a bracing walk across Tennyson or Compton Down there is nothing better than diving into The Freshwater Coffee House. Good coffee is almost taken for granted nowadays but Stefan Powell and his small team make excellent coffee – extra hot if you wish – and offer a good deal more as well.

The coffee is excellent; the food too at the Freshwater Coffee House. Breakfasts include freshly baked croissants, herby mushrooms and smoky beans on toast, while a little later in the day you can tuck into paninis or a pancake stack with apples, chocolate and whipped cream.

Very quickly this café – which opened in early 2018 – has become part of the community; this is due in no small part to the ‘extra-curricular’ effort Stefan puts in.

Events include activities that range from story-telling to Lego swaps and open mic nights when anyone can sing a song. Once a month Stefan hosts a themed Mexican, Italian or Spanish evening meal. If you’re not from the Island, you can still get a stamp on a loyalty card and, should you wish, Stefan will collect them to offer a free coffee to Island people and visitors who deserve them or would benefit from them – including the local Freshwater Independent Lifeboat, firefighters and those who struggle with their mental health or anxiety. 

The venture also represents something of a handbrake turn in Stefan’s career. A former executive coach – ‘I helped senior executives gain skills and improve their leadership’ – Stefan and his wife Becky decided they had simply had enough of life in the fast lane and wanted to bring up their young family on an island ‘where there is every imaginable kind of beach.

‘We had been coming to the Island on holiday for years and we decided to move here. Then we asked ourselves what it was we had always wanted to do – and that was run a coffee house,’ he says.

The Isle of Wight has proved ideal for their venture. ‘I don’t think we could have done this anywhere else,’ says Stefan. ‘People have been so supportive and willing us to do well. There’s an interaction with people that makes us feel like we are part of a community.’

Access, bus route: Needles Breezer

The south-western corner of the Island is dominated by the stirring ski-jump contours of Tennyson Down. This is a superb place for a bracing walk.

Access: To reach Tennyson Down you can follow waymarkers from the bus stop by the Needles car park (a return walk of two miles, talking an hour), or approach from the east, from Freshwater Bay, again following waymarkers that lead you behind Farringford House (three-four miles, two hours).

The goal when walking Tennyson Down is to reach the Tennyson Monument and the walk there can feel like navigating the deck of a ship that is cresting a wave.  You can understand why John Betjeman, the late poet laureate, was moved to describe West Wight as ‘an earthquake poised in mid-explosion’.

Ravens lurch upwards, sideways in kite-like manoeuvres. Kestrels hover over the sheer cliffs. What, you wonder, are they hunting? Do voles abseil?

The Tennyson Monument, both a beacon for sailors and a tribute to the poet who made his home nearby for the best part of 40 years. Haunting lines from his elegiac poem, “Crossing The Bar” are etched on the plinth: “Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea.” One suspects his ghost still paces the cliffs, wrapped in his signature cape and sporting a broad-brimmed hat.

Near the eastern edge of the down, along the coast path, about 730 meters from Freshwater and just as the ascent stars to kick in, you can pick out some lumps and bumps that represent a long mortuary enclosure (grid reference:  SZ 336 855) that has survived well.

Long mortuary enclosures are very rare nationally. As the names suggests, the enclosure is associated with human burials, and has only been subjected to limited excavation and is both the only recorded example on the Isle of Wight and the most southerly recorded in Britain.

An oval earthwork, it is aligned east-west over an area of 24m2 and surrounded by a bank 5m wide and 25cm high. It is thought to date to 2800-2200BC, which places it in both the early and middle Neolithic periods.

The entrance is thought to be from the south – that is, from where the cliff edge is today but where the downs, at one time, would have extended further out into the sea. Just who was buried here is unclear but they would have been held in high esteem. Owen Cambridge, of the Archaeology Discovery Centre at Fort Victoria, believes that burials here would have demanded an audience and been deeply symbolic. ‘There may well have been an audience of hundreds, positioned down (at sea level) at Freshwater,’ he says. ‘The rising downs and chamber would have been out of sight, in the clouds.’

The Needles form the western tip of a band of chalk that crosses the centre of the Isle of Wight, stretching to Culver Cliff in the east. In their shadow you’ll find the Needles Landmark Attraction. In a typically Isle of Wight kind of way, the two rub along together perfectly well.

Access: bus no. 7, Island Coaster and Needles Breezer (check for dates)

One of the most striking features of the Isle of Wight is how magnificent landscapes stand cheek by jowl with popular and traditional seaside attractions. Nature meets Victoriana. This collision of two worlds is most forcibly felt in the southwest corner of the Island where the magnificent chalk pinnacles of the Needles are juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of the Needles Landmark Attraction.

Where else could you take in a superb coastal seascape, walk through time beneath cliffs that span 150m years of geology, then visit a sweet factory (itself a homage to the Victorian creations of candyfloss, marshmallows and liquorice allsorts) and take – the ultimate – memory maker – a chair lift down to Alum Bay?

The Needles form the western tip of a band of chalk that crosses the centre of the Isle of Wight, stretching to Culver Cliff in the east. This chalk ridge continues west under the sea to Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck and is believed to have been connected at one time to Old Harry Rocks, about 20 miles away to the west.

In 5,000BC this ridge was breached by the Solent River, creating the Isle of Wight with its jagged white rocks at the western tip. These unusually vertical rocks are a result of the heavy folding of chalk and the remaining stacks of hard chalk are extremely resistant to erosion.

Close by is Alum Bay, distinguished by its multi-coloured sand cliffs. The geology of Alum Bay’s cliffs has been twisted into what is known as a syncline and is more vertical than horizontal. The striations you see on the cliff face represent some 150 million years of geology.

In all, 21 different shades of colour can be found in Alum Bay’s sands. Why so? Approximately 70 million years ago, the sea bed rose, was eroded and then sank beneath the sea again. The new sea was shallow and it laid down a series of sands and clays. Some 10 million years later, movement in the bedrock caused these sediments to be pushed nearly vertically to form the multi-coloured cliffs that are visible today.

The sands are made of three minerals – quartz, felspar and mica. In their pure state they are white, with other colours produced through contamination by other minerals.

For generations – since at least the Victorian era – visitors have come and collected or bought different coloured sands in distinctive glass jars. Once upon a time you would have gathered the sands yourself; today, staff from the Needles Landmark Attraction, aware of the need for a more sustainable and environmental approach, scour the beach in the autumn to collect the sand that has been fallen from the cliffs in landslips.

The visitor attractions at the heart of the site are also moving with the times. Perhaps 20 years ago, the site was concrete dominated, certainly no thing of beauty; today Victorian touches are emerging in the form of lamps and décor.

You may bump into Mike Kullander, the Deputy General Manager of the Needles Landmark Attraction, who all but bursts with pride at his ‘office’. ‘We employ 35 full-time staff, of whom around 20 have been here more than 20 years. I’ve worked here since 1977,’ he says. ‘It’s a wonderful place to work. My first job of the day may be to walk down and check the beach and my footprints will be the first of the day there. I think of all those people travelling to work and stuck on motorways. I’m unlucky if I’m held up by a rabbit running in front of my car.’

Access: take the small lane immediately north of the Needles Landmark Attraction,

After 182 meters turn right through a gate following footpath T17.

In the shadow of the Needles theme park but little visited, Headon Warren offers arguably the best view of the Needles’ chalk pyramids of all. The warren is a combination of downs, heathland and a headland, protruding west into Alum Bay. The walk to its modest summit takes about 20 minutes.

The warren gets its name from the 15th century, when it was indeed a warren, where rabbits were farmed for food and fur.

Yet its history goes back much further, for at the top of the ridge you will find a huge and impressive earthwork, which represents the remains of a Bronze Age burial mound dating to 1500BC.

While clearly the burial place of an important local chieftain, the site has long been plundered; it was certainly excavated after Henry III issued a charter in 1237 that required such structures to be ransacked in search of treasure.

The sandy soils support gorse while the holes you see in the flanks of the warren have been dug out by insects including mining wasps and tiger beetles.

After returning to the access road to the warren, a short extension of 400 yds will give you a close up view of Alum Bay. Turn right down the paved path which descends gently beneath the chairlift (from this vantage point it resembles a nodding donkey from the pit head of a coal mine).

At the time of writing (February 2019) the wooden staircase that drops down to the shores of Alum Bay is unsafe, so do not go past the ‘no entry sign’.

From here, however, you can peer up and appreciate the vast, slitheringly steep chalk cliffs that make up the Needles.

The Bay Boutique Bed and Breakfast is run by the friendly and ever-helpful Paul Mocroft. Cosy, modern rooms with all mod cons and refurbished vintage furniture in a completely renovated Victorian building. Excellent breakfast includes vegan and vegetarian options with almost everything sourced from food grown on the Island. Paul hires out electric bikes, which are really recommended for getting you up the adjacent Compton Down and he will even offer you his own bespoke routes for exploration.

Paul is keen on recycling guest litter (as you would expect from a former recycling officer for Oxfordshire). Everything in the house is as environmentally sensitive as can be, including solar panels and heating boosted by biomass.