“About 40% of the current trail isn’t by the sea,” David Howarth tells me the next day as we stride westwards from Yarmouth. David is former chair of the Isle of Wight Ramblers and helped ensure the island was incorporated in the England Coast Path, the 2,795-mile trail due to fully open later this year. The island wasn’t considered a priority for the project but passionate campaigning secured its inclusion and a Natural England report proposing a new round-island route is expected next month.
Our route from Yarmouth to Freshwater Bay illustrates the good and bad. We’re obliged to road-walk around a holiday park, which David doubts will change – but at the Needles a tweak to the path is expected, offering the best view of the chalk stacks and the historic New Battery rocket test site. The following stretch across Tennyson Down doesn’t need alteration: it’s already brilliantly big-viewed and bracing, even in wintry mizzle.
I could have walked on to Ventnor, past 18 miles of cliffs, sandy beaches and steep chines (coastal gorges) but instead I use buses to reach the town on the island’s south-east with its own microclimate – on average it’s 5C warmer than mainland Britain.
The next day I walk west, heading out of town along the esplanade, via a clifftop park and the slope-tumbling cottages of Steephill Cove, to Ventnor Botanic Garden. It displays a range of ecosystems as they would grow in the wild, and curator Chris Kidd tries to garden as little as possible.
“We’re fairly hands-off,” he tells me as we amble from South African fynbos to Australian eucalyptus. “It makes the garden different and dynamic. The plants don’t obey the rules.” They do, however, provide environmental commentary. “Plants are showing the state of the planet more clearly than statistics. For instance, half-hardy plants we used to bring inside for winter can now stay out year-round.”
Then there are the cycads. Fossils show these primitive plants grew here 280 million years ago, when CO2 levels were naturally high. For all human history, they haven’t grown outside in the UK – until now. And they’re not only growing but potentially procreating. Chris peels back the petals of the female flower – it’s like a furry, football-size artichoke – to reveal seeds clustered inside. “You’re one of the first to see this in this country for 200 million years.” I didn’t expect to have my mind blown by a botanical garden.
I’m still thinking about this as I refuel in Cantina on Ventnor’s High Street, with its onsite bakery and all-day brunch menu (there are plenty of options to eat in winter in the bigger towns, though some cafes close). I take the bus to Sandown – where I chat about marine diversity, Unesco celebrations and the future of the bay’s National Poo Museum (hopefully reopening this year) with Arc and Artecology, two businesses passionate about social and natural regeneration – then continue on the train to Ryde.
I have time for one last walk, so I follow the coast trail from Ryde along un-coastal paths to reach Quarr Abbey’s medieval ruins and the 20th-century red-brick replacement. David told me he’d love the new round-island trail to run through the abbey’s grounds but the Benedictine residents aren’t keen, insisting the land remain off-limits to allow them their quiet contemplation. Monks versus ramblers – it’s a very Isle of Wight type of fight.