Day 1 : Ryde to Gurnard : 12.7 miles (inc. detours for food and toilet stops)
On account of the fact that Portsmouth isn’t a horrific distance from where we live we figured we might as well get a train there to avoid driving round the city in increasing circles trying to find somewhere to leave the car that wouldn’t result in fines, clamps, towings or other general unpleasantness. We rolled into Portsmouth Harbour in time to shuffle through to the Wightlink ferry terminal to catch the 09:15 foot ferry to Ryde. Fucking boats. I do not like boats. My stomach contents prepared for immediate evacuation. It actually wasn’t that bad though, perhaps if the Solent was a bit choppier it would have been a little bit more traumatic for myself and anyone within projectile vomiting distance, but it was a smooth, 22 minute crossing on a lovely, stable catamaran and no one had to find out the hard way what I’d had for breakfast. Well, I say 22 minutes, that’s what the timetable says, I have no concept of time so feel free to completely disregard anything I say regarding timekeeping. Once you’re at Ryde you can either take the train down the pier to the esplanade or you can just walk it. We were on a walking holiday, so we did just that, but it’s really not that far to be fair.
Okay so. We had very deliberately not planned this walk. All we knew is that we were going to follow the 65 mile Isle of Wight Coastal Path anti-clockwise around the island, stocking up on food as we went so we’d landed with nothing but our water. We had no campsites planned because we’d be wild camping. We didn’t know where we’d be wild camping, we were going to work that out day to day and oh my god, guys, I am a massive control freak and quite frankly I was shitting myself, but that was sort of the point; to put us out of our comfort zone. When we’d done the Hadrian’s Wall Path last year everything was planned down to points of interest, distance walked and accommodation. I’d even booked our campsites and bunkhouses several months in advance, apart from one which insisted we didn’t need to resulting in me emailing them about three times in between pacing the room in tiny, erratic circles to confirm that we really didn’t need a reservation and could just rock up. I mean, it was September in the north of England, there is a very niche group of people that would consider ground based accommodation acceptable at that time of year, there was a very high chance of there being space for us. But I worry. Constantly. Panic is my default state. My brain is an exhausting place to be. But I digress.
Snacks were required so we stocked up on chocolate and Haribo at a little kiosk by the pier entrance. Not exactly protein filled nutritious hiking snacks but it’d stop me from trying to chew the limbs off passers-by if I got hungry. We didn’t want to buy all of our food until we passed through the last town because we had to carry all of that shit with us and it wouldn’t be delicious, calorie filled, lightweight, dehydrated backpacker meals, it would be whatever we could get from whatever shops were available. Right then. Day one. All we knew is that we needed to walk far enough to get through Cowes, and that was just over ten miles or so, and that was incredibly doable at a nice, chilled pace. So off we went. Today was mostly walking on tarmac through towns and it was distinctly un-coastlike. They were pretty towns to be fair, but they were towns nonetheless and pounding along roads with a 12.5 kg backpack on is hard on your feet. It was mostly flat though with just a few hills thrown in to remind you that you have calf muscles.
I guess one good thing about it being built up is the abundance of public toilets. I’m not adverse to popping into a bush to water the daisies but if you can pee in an actual loo then why the hell not? Plus when you’re walking through towns the residents might get a bit upset about you pissing all over their geraniums. It’s all about pros and cons I guess and the vast majority of roads were those lovely tree-lined rural ones where you live in constant fear of being mowed down by a Landrover on a blind corner. Eventually we strolled into East Cowes where there’s a Co-op and it was very definitely lunch time as my stomach was desperately trying to remind me so we figured we might as well stock up there.
Our plan was to check the map for the next town or village with a shop to see how much food we’d need and it looked like we’d only really need to carry enough for 24 hours before we came across another re-stock opportunity. That’d be fine. We decided to go for stuff like that golden vegetable packet rice, Mug Shots, scotch eggs, boiled eggs (yes, I know packaged boiled eggs aren’t ideal and just create plastic waste but eggs are a decent source of protein and I had no desire to see if a carton of six hen periods would survive in my pack), protein bars and flapjacks. As I scanned the shelves for filling for our lunchtime butties my gaze landed on a packet of frankfurters. Frankfurters! Fuck me, I’ve not had those in years! We could chop those into our random rehydrated carbs and almost call it a meal!
We split the food, scoffed a salami sandwich, asked a café if they would fill up our water bottles, then carried on to the little ferry that’d take us across the Medina River for the princely sum of one British Pound each. I sort of jest when I say “princely sum” but it’s a thirty second boat ride. When you consider the distance to cost ratio it’s probably the most expensive ferry ride in the country. But your only other options are to walk around or swim for it and neither of those are particularly appealing so we handed over the dollar and boarded the boat to Cowes. Tarrant liked Cowes. Cowes had a lot of bunting. Tarrant is really quite fond of bunting. It’s a really lovely little town and once you’re through it you’re actually walking by the sea which is great and takes your mind of the fact you’re still on paved surfaces and your feet hate you.
After Cowes comes the impossibly pretty Gurnard which had a metric shit tonne of sailboats bobbing around the water, performing manoeuvres that involved the whole thing tipping to the point I though it’d go over. It made me a little bit seasick just watching them. You walk down the esplanade, past the beach huts, then you climb over a stile and off the tarmac and suddenly your feet are a little less mutinous. There’s a bit of an incline here and you’re walking along a footpath with trees to the right of you so you can’t see the sea, then suddenly the trees stop and dear sweet lord, that view though! You feel like you’re right out of town despite only leaving civilisation like ten minutes ago or something, and the vista stretches out across the Solent, the coastline of the island curving round to form a vast bay. We decided to sit down and just enjoy this for a moment. We’d completed our agreed minimum distance, we were past Cowes, past the last village, and we intended to start looking for somewhere to camp.
There was a worn path right in front of us where we’d sat which looked like it went off the edge of a cliff. Now, I’m generally not much of a risk taker. I am scared of pretty much everything. I’ve no idea how I’ve made it to 39 without having a complete nervous breakdown, pretty much all of the things make me cry a little bit. But I had a feeling about this worn path, and figured that it probably wasn’t made by hoards of lemmings marching to their deaths, and I wanted to have a look at it, see if it lead to the beach perhaps? It ultimately did, but before the beach, after a couple of little slides on my arse because no, I can’t walk down hills either, I looked to the left and there was a perfect grassy ledge, all nice and flat, just begging for a tent to be pitched there.
I say ledge, I make it sound precarious, it’s not. I went over to have a closer look. It had obviously been used before as evidenced by foil food wrappers, an empty bottle and a tent peg, but it wasn’t a complete shit tip and we could tidy up and take this rubbish with us along with our own. It was a safe distance from anything resembling an edge and I thought this could quite easily be our home for the night. I scrambled back up to fetch Tarrant who’d decided that I’d probably broken a leg or something and was waiting for my tearful phone call demanding an air ambulance and she was just as happy as I was to stay here.
It was still a bit too early to pitch though according to the rules of Leave No Trace so we just chilled there, played a bit of cards, made dinner, kept half an eye out for angry locals or badgers or dragons. It was gorgeous. So peaceful. I thought I’d be terrified of wild camping, at least for the first night, but we’d found a spot that wasn’t visible from the path above or the beach below and I felt surprisingly relaxed. There was too much cloud cover to see anything resembling a fiery skyball but as it got darker we figured it would be fine to put our tent up and set up for the evening. I’m pretty used to getting early nights on account of being a postie, Tarrant tends to go to bed a bit later, but we both had no problems curling up and crashing out not too long after dark.
Day 2 : Gurnard to Fort Victoria : 16.8 miles (inc. a detour to the shop in Shalfleet, and the bit we managed to go completely the wrong way on an incredibly well signposted walk)
The alarm on my watch went off at 5.30am and I reached to switch it off. Yeah okay so I tried to switch it off but my right arm was completely non-functional on account of my habit of sleeping on one arm or the other when I’m in a sleeping bag. I can’t help it. I sleep on my front and my arms have to go somewhere and at least one of them will end up underneath my quite substantial bulk. My tits alone could cut off the circulation to half the population of Wales if I got sleepy around Abergavenny and lay down for a little nap. I waved the wrist housing my watch in the vague direction of Tarrant until she made it stop yelling at us. Shit, that was a good night’s sleep. I only woke up a few times and that was probably just because my inflatable pillow doesn’t absorb my drool and I nearly drowned in it. I’d have to wrap it in my snood in future if I didn’t want to wake up in pools of my own facehole fluids.
Anyway, we broke camp and by 6.30am we were sliding the rest of the way down the steep path to the beach where we figured we’d sit down and have breakfast. Usually I hate sand but the tide comes in right up to the cliffs here so it was nice and wet and didn’t have designs on getting into all my food and pockets and head holes. Breakfast was a Mug Shot with a frankfurter chopped into it followed by a scotch egg. Breakfast of champions. We’d decided not to bring tea and coffee in order to conserve water, not that this is particularly necessary here on account of there being plenty of places you can fill up your bottles.
I think Tarrant was starting to regret not bringing coffee though. The thing with coffee drinkers is that they’re fucking rabid before their first cup of the day, they can’t contemplate a morning without what Captain Janeway refers to as “the finest organic suspension ever devised”. She’s wrong of course. It’s tea. Tea is life, but us tea drinkers are an altogether more civilised breed and don’t have a tendency to foam at the facehole before we apply our chosen beverage to it. Unfortunately it also races through me faster than you can say “diuretic” so I’m experimenting with not drinking it by the usual bucket load as I’m quite sure that, unlike Tarrant with her socially acceptable drug addiction, I can function at a non-drooling level without it. I’m not twitching, YOU’RE twitching!
We walked along the beach towards Thorness Bay Holiday Park. The actual Coastal Path is on the cliff above but it does join the beach eventually and we thought it might be a bit nicer down here. We passed a spot which looked dry enough to camp on, like high tide didn’t reach that far, but this coast has four high tides in a 24 hour period because it’s greedy like that so you might need to know your tides to risk it. I think for my first not-actually-permitted wild camp I would have been happier out of sight where we were rather than slap bang on the beach.
Just before the holiday park we met three woman who had camped out on the sand and had a lovely fire going, cooking up bacon and sausages for breakfast. I had much envy, our adherence to the Leave No Trace ethos doesn’t permit fires above the high tide line, and we were too nervous about drawing attention to ourselves to have one below the high tide line. We got chatting to them and they’d had a lovely evening drinking wine. One of the woman lived locally, the other two were visiting, and they were just hanging out and living their best lives. I don’t know how old they were but I hope my future involves beach camping, woolly hats, and dead pig on the fire with my mates.
The trail takes you through the holiday park where you can sneak into the campsite and fill your water bottles at the tap, then it takes you inland and back onto a country road where you just have to keep walking and let the hordes of cyclists and the occasional motorist dodge you. Oh, and here’s a fun story about not putting random stuff you find on trees in your gob when you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing. This bush had berries that looked like blueberries so I shoved one into my chops. I very quickly realised that they weren’t blueberries at all when all the moisture was sucked from my mouth and I nearly broke a tooth on the stone. It took about five minutes of Googling and Tarrant using an app which identifies plants and trees to work out if I was going to die or not before we found out that they were blackthorn berries. You might know them as sloe berries. You use that shit for gin. I hate gin too. And therein lies the lesson, kids. Don’t pick random berries off trees and ingest them because they might not be as delicious as they look.
We walked through Newtown which has an old town hall but is more of a hamlet than a town, and there’s a National Trust car park with toilets where we stopped to attend to business. Which is a euphemism for having a poo. I simply cannot shit in a hole in the ground. It doesn’t matter how good the hole is. It could be exquisite. A work of art. A feat of woodland engineering. I could be utterly desperate, touching cloth, but as soon as my bowels realise what’s going on they’re like, nope! Bugger that! Find me a porcelain throne or you’re carrying this around with you aaaaaall day. Fortunately the coast of the Isle of Wight appears to be dotted with many facilities so this shouldn’t be an issue, but I’m not looking forward to finding out what’ll happen on a multi-day hike in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere.
So anyway, kids were dropped off at the pool and we continued on the path which took us around the sprawling estuaries of Newtown River. At least that’s what it looked like on the map. Fingers of river creep in from the sea, forcing the path around in a wide berth, crossing parts on boardwalks as the tide rushed in towards us. It was really beautiful, you half expect to see crocodiles. I mean, I’m really glad there aren’t crocodiles because I’m really quite fond of the current location of my limbs, but they’d probably look quite at home in the silt and vegetation. In fact a lot of today has been really quite lovely and coasty. Some of it has been so coasty I’m not entirely sure you’d be able to walk it at high tide, you find yourself shuffling along a narrow strip of shingle beach as the water laps closer to your feet. Some of it is so coasty it’s fallen into the actual sea. Part of the path appears to have crumbled into the Solent and there were many trees in distinctly un-treelike positions where the cliff they’d made their home had crashed into the sea below.
Not long after Newtown is the village of Shalfleet which has a shop. We swung by just to grab some processed dead animal to put on the bread rolls we had left over from yesterday, and something caffeinated to stop Tarrant from having a complete nervous breakdown. As soon as we sat down we were descended upon by a cat demanding belly rubs. As much as I adore cats, and I really really do, I’m always a bit suspicious of cats demanding belly rubs. They’re often just trying to lure you into a false sense of security so they can remove several layers of your flesh to display as a trophy or wear as a scarf or whatever it is the furry little psychopaths do once they’ve relieved you of your skin. This kitty though, it just wanted all of the fusses, and the locals that used the shop all knew her. She belongs to the farm and apparently she’s “always just been daft” according to one woman. It was a nice place to just chill for a short while, drink a Red Bull (stop judging us, that shit is the nectar of the gods), chat to the locals and pet their dogs before we carried on around the rest of the river where we sat down for lunch before the trail headed slightly inland again.
We were soon back on the tarmac to walk past Bouldnor through to Yarmouth which is a gorgeous little coastal town with a shop called Harvey’s and this is where we’d stock up on enough food to get us through the next 24 hours, and one thing we’d missed last night as we sat on the ledge was a couple of beers. We’d sort of said we wouldn’t really drink but ultimately, we like beer. It’s nice to have a beer with your lovely view. Obviously it’d mean we’d need to carry it and once I’d nipped over to a café called Jirah’s across the road from the shop to fill up our water bottles we really noticed the extra weight. Curse you, hops and barley. Why are you so delicious?
Going off the map we figured we’d need to get through Norton then we could start looking for a place to camp. If we went too far we’d end up walking through holiday parks and we’d probably have to commit to walking the extra four miles through Totland and, quite frankly, fuck that shit, especially given that we were now carrying a metric crap tonne of food, water and tasty alcoholic beverages. Once you’re past Fort Victoria you ascend into some woods with a well used path, but eventually you come to a trail off to the right with a sign warning you that due to erosion, this is a difficult way and you use it at your own risk. Oh good. A difficult trail might mean less humans. I left Tarrant with the bags on a bench at the top and wandered off into the woods with my amazing sense of direction.
I followed it to the beach but you could see that the tide really did come right up to the cliffs so that was out of the question, and everything else was just a massive landslip. Even if there were somewhere flat to pitch the tent it’d be far too close to the edge. Bugger. I started to make my way back up and came to a fork. I looked at the left fork. Then the right. Double bugger. I had no idea which direction I’d come from. Never mind, the lower “difficult” trail was marked on Maps.ME so I figured I’d just follow that to the end but it really wasn’t that difficult and I met two other couples walking their dogs.
Just as I got to the end which would let me re-join the main trail and double back to Tarrant I came into sort of a clearing full of eerie-looking trees with loads of places for a tent, the only trouble being it was right by the trail. Right, I’d go and fetch the mrs and we’d make the decision together, and once we were both stood there looking at it we realised there was a more sheltered spot about 20 metres from the edge, right in the woods where we could pitch, but until then we could chill on the clifftop and watch the fiery skyball do it’s nightly sinking thing. Anyway, it was unlikely that anyone would be using this lower trail once it got a bit darker.
The weather had been excellent for most of the day, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we settled down for dinner, and tonight we’d be afforded the most perfect view over Fort Albert and the Solent. I would cross continents for a view like this with dinner. I’d probably pay a small fortune for it too. Though dinner probably wouldn’t be rehydrated noodles with a frankfurter chopped into it.
Isle of Wight, England
Stayed at: Wild camp just outside of Gurnard on night one, and a wild camp in the woods on the cliffs above Fort Albert on night two.
Activity: Walking the Isle of Wight Coastal Path, anti-clockwise
Useful shit to know…
- The Wightlink FastCat from Portsmouth Harbour to Ryde Pier Head is currently running on a reduced timetable due to Covid-19 and seems to be pretty much once an hour at 15 minutes past the hour. You can buy your ticket online or from the machines there. We did the latter but if the boat you want is less than an hour away you can’t select that. The guy checking tickets assured us that we could buy a 10:15 sailing but still get on the 09:15. We looked at getting a return but you need to choose the day and time and we had no idea when we’d be back. The guy said you could call customer services and get it changed once you knew but we just went for singles in the end at £16.10 each. A period return would be £29.80. I think it’s cheaper to sail from Portsmouth to Fishbourne but you can find shit like that out on the Wightlink website.
- The little boat for foot passengers over the Medina River is running for £1 per person, but the floating bridge that takes vehicles over is currently out of action.
- There are loads of public toilets along this stretch of the trail and there’s a drinking water tap outside the ladies at the toilets in Cowes on Parade Path. There’s also another tap just after the beach huts in Gurnard. For day two there was a tap at Thorness Bay Holiday Park which we used. You have to detour off the path into the campsite so I’m not sure how permitted this is, but no one seemed to give a fuck.
- As well as the shop there is a public toilet in Yarmouth. I’m not sure if there’s a tap but you can download the Refill app to find out which venues are part of the scheme. They’ve agreed to fill up water bottles without any expectation of a purchase. Obviously it’s a bit different now we have a killer virus doing the rounds, but Jirah are part of the scheme and agreed to fill the bottles as long as I removed the cap.