All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
Things didn’t go according to plan. The South Western Railway train that we took from London Victoria to Portsmouth was stuck in Hilsea, less than two miles away from Portsmouth Harbour.
The train driver announced regrettably that there was a broken train on the line, ahead of three other trains in front of us. The typical summertime travel woe. Fortunately, we managed to Uber it to the harbour and caught our ferry to the island on time.
Shanklin Old Village
An hour later, we had lunch at Ryde and took a taxi to Shanklin Old Village at the east of the island. It’s a cute little town that looks like a watercolour sketch from Beatrice Potter’s books. The main road is lined with pastel coloured tearooms, pubs and shop buildings with thatched roofs. There are many, many tearooms on the Isle of Wight.
We stayed at the The Priory at Luccombe, a handsome cottage-style apartment on top of the hill at Luccombe Road. The building is a beautiful Victorian structure. The apartment has a nice spacious kitchen with massive loft windows that offer a stunning view of the Shanklin seafront below.
"We didn’t have a proper walking map on us, so I consulted Siri on our distance to the next town Ventnor. Siri told us it’s only 1.6 miles. Except it wasn’t. It was much further than that."
There is no Uber on the island. The best way to get around is either by car or by bus. You can try cycling if you are fit enough for the hilly rides. You can book a taxi too, but there is no guarantee that they would accept rides during quiet times. So we decided to explore the south part of the Luccombe coastlines on foot.
We didn’t have a proper walking map on us, so I consulted Siri on our distance to the next town Ventnor. Siri told us it’s only 1.6 miles. Except it wasn’t. It was much further than that. But we didn’t know that, so that took us to our trekking adventure to the south of the island.
Journey into the Middle Earth
We spotted a Coastal Path sign going uphill into the woods just outside of The Priory. We were in the middle of the July heatwave, so the view against the blue sky was breathtaking.
At the start of the journey, we were greeted by a tunnel of leafy countryside paths leading into the woods. Hey Siri, I asked, where are we? You are in Bonchurch, Siri replied. Before long we found ourselves negotiating a series of jumbled up paths and and steep steps in the heart of the Bonchurch Landslip. I was grateful that that we had our comfortable trainers on. We couldn’t have made the trek on flip flops.
"Throughout the walk my nose kept picking up a familiar fragrant smell. Later on when I went through my photographs, I realised that I was surrounded by wild camomile flowers."
The Bonchurch Landslip
Cycling isn’t allowed in this area because the terrain is too dangerous and could endanger the walkers. The landslip had a history of landslides and trees falling off the edge of the cliffs into the sea. That’s why I was surprised when we stumbled upon stunning cottages in the middle of the woods.
They are highly maintained, fairy tale-quality little houses on the steep hillside with a million dollar view of the English Channel. The gardening effort was nothing short of glorious. The colours sprung out of nowhere, mingling with the wild plants and creating a magical atmosphere about the place.
It’s the Middle Earth! My sister gasped, while capturing the gigantic hydrangeas surrounding the area on her iPhone. I’ve never seen a hydrangea plant in its natural habitat before. They were certainly larger than the Marks & Spencer’s potted variety.
It also stuck me that many of the wildflower plants I saw in the area are significantly larger than their mainland cousins. A thistle bloom could easily reach the size of my face. There were sub-tropical plant species like common and stag horn ferns along the dirt paths. It’s probably due to the unique microclimate of the area.
Throughout the walk my nose kept picking up a familiar fragrant smell. Later on when I went through my photographs, I realised that I was surrounded by wild camomile flowers.
Hitting the wall at Wheelers Bay
After the delightful Tolkienesque discovery, we crossed over to a more open space that overlooked a stunning pebbly beach and an angry looking sea. We have arrived to the Wheelers Bay. The temperature changed swiftly from tropical to chilly, caused by the strong wind from the sea.
At this point, we suddenly realised that we have ventured too far on foot and it was too late for us to turn back. So the only option was to negotiate another steep path down to the seafront. At the bottom, a flock of seagulls were waiting.
"After the delightful Tolkienesque discovery, we crossed over to a more open space that overlooked a stunning pebbly beach and an angry looking sea."
I felt an overwhelming urge for a cup of tea and scone. From the pebbled beach, we walked along the sea wall clutching at our hair and hats whilst the wind tore at them. I started to feel a mild headache due the sudden change of temperature.
Thank goodness for tea
Fortunately, we found The Seapot cafe, a wonderful tearoom by the seafront that had saved my mood and my stomach. We ordered a cinnamon bread and butter pudding, a pot of tea each, followed by two pounds of garlic mussels with bread. We polished them all.
"There are many, many tearooms on the Isle of Wight."
It turned out that we had reached Ventnor, which was five miles further than we anticipated. It was a four-hour hilly trek in total. At that point, I had no desire for further walking adventure. So we braved another 15-minutes of punishing wind on the seawall and scaled the hill to reach Ventnor High Street.
Ventnor is another charming little town with pretty little shops. We search for a taxi rank, but it was vacant. I called a local taxi number for a cab but I was told by an unenthusiastic voice that there is no driver available until 3pm, which was an hour wait. Apparently, the great documentary photographer Martin Parr had run a photography workshop here. I could see why. The place has its own flow that is very different from the mainland.
The winner in this story is the Isle of Wight local bus. It didn’t run on time as listed on the timetable but the wait was never long. A Number 3 arrived shortly and we were back to Luccombe half-an hour later.
I could see why the island was Queen Victoria’s favourite. It has an unbending side, but once you get to admire it closely, it will throw you delightful surprises. Give yourself time to wander around.
Photography and words by © Zarina Holmes.