The island isn’t only for summer holidays: the colder months are perfect for birding and walks along trails that will form part of the England Coast Path
The Isle of Wight is having a moment. That’s what conservationist Dave Fairlamb tells me as we eat homemade cake on a silver-grey afternoon, watching meadow pipits above Newtown’s salt marshes.
“From a nature perspective,” he says, “everything’s converging.”
Dave has just launched Natural Links, offering birdwatching breaks and courses on the island, which has been focusing on its natural assets in the past year. Two Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust projects – the Wilder strategy and Secrets of the Solent – launched in 2019; Visit Isle of Wight published a Slow Travel Guide; and the whole island was awarded Unesco Biosphere status. Last summer also saw the start of a white-tailed eagle reintroduction project, with six birds released on the island’s north coast.
We see no eagles but as we stroll along the harbour we spot a swirl of dunlins – “about 600,” Dave estimates in an instant – and thrill to a fly-by of overwintering Brent geese, [ . . . ]
which purr softly as they pass. Winter is one of the best times for birding on the island, with large flocks of wildfowl and wading birds converging on the wetlands, and peak numbers of divers and grebes offshore.
It’s a suitably serene start to my slow, off-season exploration, which has proved remarkably easy. The island is served by a year-round hovercraft service, which crosses the Solent in 10 minutes. It’s also laced with cycle tracks and hiking trails; has a programme of public walks that runs through winter; and enjoys a useful bus network – some bridleways even have bus stops. Then there’s the island railway, limited in scope (one line, Shanklin to Ryde), but a paragon of recycling: it uses 1930s London Underground trains – the country’s oldest rolling stock in regular use – and although these will be retired from May, the “new” carriages will be converted 1970s tube trains.
I have been making the most of all of these services to put together a winter weekend. Having caught a bus to meet Dave in Newtown, I head onwards on foot, walking about six miles to Yarmouth via the coast path. It’s lovely in the winter light: I head down lanes of skeletal trees, then alongside streaks of wave-tickled shingle, the mainland visible across the water. I see few other people, though it’s not cold, and the bare trees make spotting birds – such as the finches and tits that throng together at this time of year – all the easier. I keep my eyes peeled for red squirrels, too.
The Isle of Wight has had a coast path since the 1970s but – like the train – it’s about to get an overhaul.
“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.
“We want the best coast path we can get,” says David. “It’s not just about seeing the sea but taking in other aspects. This could help regenerate the coast for a very small investment.”
The Isle of Wight Ramblers carried out its own survey, suggesting an ideal route that includes minimising road use, tracing the Medina estuary (“You could walk from the Cowes ferry to the Isle of Wight Festival”) and passing Queen Victoria’s beachside bolthole, Osborne House. With 4,500 landowners on the island, David is pragmatic: “We’ve looked at it from the perspective of the walker but we know we’re not going to get everything we want.”
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.
Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips
Source THE GUARDIAN: My eagle-eyed winter wander around the Isle of Wight