The magnificent sands of Sandown Bay dominate the east coast of the Isle of Wight. This is where you will find the epicentre of the Island’s traditional, bucket and spade tourism industry.
The appeal of the beaches here is enduring and with good reason. The permanent population of 23,000 residents swells over the summer to almost 500,000 when you include the day trippers. Yet how many people know there is more to the beach than deckchairs and ice-creams?
Peer beyond the crowds and you will discover that wildlife is fighting its corner in this part of the Wight. You can find out more about the guided environmental activities along the beach at the Facebook page ‘Shaping the Bay’. This somewhat hidden side of Sandown Bay is just one of the reasons it was crowned BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards 2019 ‘Beach of the Year‘.
Rail: Island Line to Sandown and Shanklin
Ferries: Wightlink to Ryde
Routefifty7 hires out bicycles for use across the Island but also encourages visitors to use them to ‘promenade’ up and down the bay.
The Willow Walk
Points of Interest
Dinosaur fossils, rockpools, vertipools, Luccombe Bay, five miles of beach (!)
Browns Cafe, Sandown Community Orchard (scrumping!)
At low tide, the sea retreats to expose the sand all the way from Culver Down at the north end to Knock Point at the southern tip. That’s five miles of beach for you to barefoot along.
‘How many other five-mile beaches are there in Britain? Can anyone name more than five? We’ve got one of them here.’ asks Ian Boyd of Arc Consulting. ‘Look along the beach and you are looking at 100 million years of geology.’
Officially, just the one beach runs between the two headlands but the groynes that protrude into the water divide the sands into 52 distinct beaches, with two wilder stretches to be found at either end.
If you think fossil hunting stopped at the shoreline of Dorset’s coast, think again. Stare for long enough at a map of the Isle of Wight – with a ridge through the middle and gently tapering east-west points – and it can come to resemble a large slice of vertebra from a fossilised backbone.
That may be no coincidence. The Island’s primordial soup was perfect: lots of exposed, sweaty plains for animals to die on, and swampy water and flash floods to quickly envelope them and begin the process of fossilisation.
Dinosaur Isle must be one of the UK’s most underrated visitor attractions. It’s a bizarre gem: for the most part it’s all about impressively sized dinosaur mannequins shoehorned into a large hall and a mesmerising fossil collection.
Giant vertebra and casts of Jurassic Park-style footprints share display cabinet space with tiny fossils of large winged termites and water spiders that resemble the smeared imprint of flies on your car windscreen.
In all, the museum’s catalogue extends to more than 40,000 fossils gathered from right across the Island. Several knowledgeable palaeontologists, some amateur, some professional, are on hand to shed light on the displays.
Captions display a candour that is absent from more pompous and self-important establishments and regularly include statements that effectively shrug a shoulder and admit: “we don’t know” or “we’re not sure”.
Walk for some 80 meters north of Yaverland car park at the north end of the beach and you will soon leave the crowds behind and have the extraordinary geology of Yaverland’s cliffs and sands to yourself.
‘You’re staring at 100 ft of sea cliffs where peregrines roost while around you are great bush crickets, says Ian Boyd of Arc Consulting. ‘The north end of the bay is absolutely packed with fossils,’ says Ian. ‘One of the unexpected things about the Isle of Wight is that it is the dinosaur capital of Britain and amongst the richest localities in the world for its Cretaceous fossils.’
While the fold of Brading Downs were created 300 million years ago, a little later – around 125 million years ago to be precise – the Island was located where North Africa is today. Attached to mainland Europe it would have been a generally a hot, sultry place. In fact, everything was in place for a prehistoric timeshare salesman to enjoy a lucrative career, as conditions for a guaranteed holiday in the sun have rarely been bettered.
There would have been the occasional drawback: one of the Island’s three native dinosaurs, the Yaverlandia, a small, waist-high yapping thing, would have kept stealing up behind you and grabbing your ice cream; the other two native species, the altogether more substantial and determinedly carnivorous Neovenator and the Eotryrannosaurus – a relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex – would have grabbed you as well as the ice cream.
The beauty of wandering around the coast is that anyone can uncover a genuine find. In 2012 a Danish girl on holiday came across a second fossil scrap of a Yaverlandia – while it may not be a missing link, it got scientists scurrying to write up papers on its importance.
Some fossil hunters are more passionate than others, and when the winter gales kick in and wash away the clay face of the cliffs across the road from the museum, experts fly in on private light aircraft, perhaps imagining themselves fleetingly as Indiana Jones, to inspect the newly exposed fossils.
Just behind the golf course towards the north end of the beach, the Willow Walk meanders through a willow wood linking two reedbeds. As well as grey willow, the woods comprise alder, some oak and some large white poplars.
As you walk between the shore and the woods from the shore you are also walking across the ‘Lost Duver’ (the word rhymes with ‘cover’ and is an Island dialect word for a shingle spit and sand dunes), of Sandown. Over the centuries the duver has been churned and overwhelmed by everything from fierce storms to flooding by the West Yar.
Recent moves to restore the sandy landscape have involved the planting of flora that is well adapted to the harsh conditions on sand and by the sea: thrift, sea campion, vipers bugloss, white stonecrop, birdsfoot trefoil, mouse-ear hawkweed, and lady’s bedstraw.
We know there was once a more substantial duver here thanks to the artist Richard Livesay, the drawing master at Portsmouth Naval College. Livesay had a reputation for realistic and factual painting and depicted the Bay in 1800.
Don’t be deterred by the weather-battered exterior of Brown’s Clubhouse Café, for inside awaits a welcoming and really rather excellent cafe. Like the Tardis it seems to grow in space. Fresh and homemade food (with gluten, dairy free and vegan options) is the order of the day including rolls, cakes and proper coffee. Recommended.
As you walk along the beach you will see, here and there, what could pass for over-sized washbasins attached to the concrete. These are in fact an ingenious wildlife-friendly response to climate change and the accompanying rising sea levels.
Climate change is affecting the Isle of Wight and shoreline marine creature are bearing the brunt of things. ‘The sea level may only rise very slowly, by a millimetre or two,’ says Ian Boyd. ‘But as it does, the tidal range gets smaller, low tide becomes higher up the beach.’
This has profound implications for rockpools, who communities of marine creatures require the twice-daily ebb and flow of the tides for their existence. ‘If the rockpools are permanently flooded by higher tides,’ says Ian, ‘they have nowhere to go.’
Vertipools can offer these creatures a new home. Built with industrial and sculpting techniques, they can hold up to 10 litres of water and are designed to resemble the distinctive rockpools that nature has carved out of the soft chalk and sandstone rocks on the shore.
Vertipools have deeply textured surfaces, providing a wealth of nooks and crannies where a world of small creatures can be found: crabs and prawns, shrimps and barnacles; periwinkles, limpets and top shells; even sponges sea spiders, sea squirts and an impressive rockpool fish called the shanny.
If you follow the tide out at the far south of Sandown Bay, you will just have time to walk around Knock Point into Luccombe Bay, which is otherwise inaccessible.
Look out here for the waterfall, one of just three on the Island. The beach is covered in stones that are coated in iron; if your venture to the bay coincides with sunshine these rocks are transformed, the mineralised iron pebbles glistening and shimmering in the bright light.
Sandown Bay receives sediment from onshore drift that comes from the south, along the back of the Island, soft cliff sediments that work their way around and collect in the bay.
This is of course variable: a big winter storm can strip it down 4 feet to bedrock (that’s when the fossil hunters and dino footprint enthusiasts head out) and then bring it all back again on the next tide.
‘There is a current strategy for maintenance works at some of the more vulnerable spots such as the north end which tends to get the major battering when the wind is from the south and east,’ says Ian Boyd of Arc Consulting. The good news is that, this is a fairly stable system and Sandown will be a reliable beach for the summer for many years to come.
This little gem is located just west of Sandown. As well as hosting a delightful orchard, much of the site is wetland where you have a good chance of seeing kingfishers, dragonflies and damselflies. You’ll find it at Longwood Lane, right on the Red Squirrel Trail. It’s a short walk from Sandown train station.
Originally Sandown Community Orchard was part of the cottage gardens for those employed at the nearby waterworks. These were first built in 1861 as Sandown emerged as a town and there was a keen desire to avoid the Victorian horrors of cholera.
The last person to live in the waterworks cottage, in the 1950s, and tend the orchard was Harold ‘Sandy’ Thomas. Sandy’s family have worked with Gift to Nature to restore this orchard. Today, you are welcome to help yourself to the apples, cherries and plums that grow here, including the Alverstone variety of Apple and Adgestone Blue plum. Get scrumping!