Newport, Isle of Wight, a Second Look

On the green in the middle of the town stands a memorial to the last little chimney sweep to die here, and just a few miles away a lovely old pub is the site of the last hanging to take place.  I’m in Newport, the main town on the Isle of Wight, sometimes referred to as the capital.

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The Island is well known as a favourite holiday resort for walkers, cyclists and families with young children, but Newport itself is often dismissed as merely a shopping area.  Yet Newport was the hub of the Island’s rail network until the Beeching cuts of 1996 closed its railway along with many more on the island.  This was a cut too far as the roads can barely cope with the increased traffic that was the result of such drastic pruning.

The only remaining train line runs from the ferry terminal at Ryde to the resort town of Shanklin with stops at Sandown, Brading and Smallbrook (for the Steam Railway), and the hub of the transport network is now the bus station in Newport where routes from across the Island terminate.

A quick visit to the town and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a town of chain stores from the ubiquitous M & S to H & M and Primark, but this historic town centres on two elegant squares surrounded by Georgian and Victorian architecture, and the town’s quay from which goods from all over the world were shipped along the Medina River from the port at Cowes, is just a short walk away.

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Riverside Pub in Newport, The Bargeman’s Rest

Swans float serenely on the river ignoring the canoes and kayaks, the sailing boats and the odd small yacht or two that are on the water, and on the terrace of the Quay Arts Centre people relax with coffee and cakes, tea and crumpets or lunch.  Inside the Arts Centre is a constantly changing art exhibition, dance classes, open mic occasions and an upmarket shop selling exquisitely crafted goods in silk, silver, ceramic, pottery and paper.

There was an extensive Roman settlement on the island and there remain two Roman villas, one of which is open to the public and whose remains provide a fascinating insight into country life in 3rd century Britain.  Discovered in 1926 when foundations were being dug for a garage, subsequent excavations revealed the remains of a late Roman farmhouse built around 280 AD with a superb bath suite, underfloor heating and remnants of mosaic floors.  You can peep into a Roman kitchen and see a slave preparing a Roman feast and there is a hands-on activity room where you can make a mosaic, repair a broken pot or weave a blanket.  Outside, the plants Romans would have used are grown in the beautiful herb garden.

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Carisbrooke Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Newport is probably more famous for the nearby castle of Carisbrooke in the village of the same name, but although there have been fortifications on the Carisbrooke site since Roman times, what one sees today dates largely from the 12th to the 15th century.

Carisbrooke Castle Copyright David Hill (Flickr)
Carisbrook Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Carisbrooke Castle is most famous as the place where Charles I was held prior to his removal to London and his execution by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. The castle is said to be haunted by the King’s young daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who died during her incarceration in the Castle.

The donkeys of Carisbrook Castle are very popular with children of all ages.  In previous centuries, water for the castle’s occupants was drawn from the 150 foot deep well by two donkeys powering a draw-wheel, walking approximately 270 metres to raise one bucket of water.  When the castle lost its defensive role this practice stopped.

When the castle was restored in the 19th century, the equipment was renewed and the donkeys have been raising the water for the benefit of watching visitors ever since then. English Heritage is keen to say that the donkeys enjoy the exercise and are never over-worked.

Nearby Parkhurst Forest is home to two prisons which together make up the largest prison in the UK: it was once among the few top-security prisons in the United Kingdom. Their names, Parkhurst and Albany, were once synonymous with the major criminals who were housed there, it being presumed that any escapee would have a problem getting off the Island (as indeed it proved on the few occasions when a breakout occurred).

Crowds enjoy the music festival ©VisitIsleofWight.com

The famous Pop Festival shows no signs of losing popularity despite competition from other towns and cities across the country.  Seaclose Park on the east bank of the River Medina has been the location for the revived Isle of Wight Music Festival since 2002 and it is one of the key events in Newport’s events calendar!

So if Newport, Isle of Wight is on your itinerary, please wander around its streets and alleyways, look at the façades of the houses and try and guess in what century it was erected.  Find the row of old Alms Houses and if time permits, take a walk along the banks of the Medina River and try and visualise the days when sailing ships sailed up here from Cowes carrying a cargo of rice from Carolina.  And when it comes to time to eat, whether your taste runs to Mac & Cheese, Burgers, or Fine Dining, Newport can supply you with the best, with the Golden Arches for fast food and Hewitts and Michelin-starred Thompsons for truly superb food.

The Guildhall, Newport.jpg ©VisitIsleofWight.com

 

COWES WEEK – The Regatta

It’s called a Regatta, but that’s an understatement if ever there was one, for this yachtfest is Cowes Week, the time of year when the inhabitants of the English town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight, rent out their houses, kennel the dogs and cats, and disappear. The ‘yachties’ are about to descend on the Island for what the glossy magazines call ‘the week of the year in the sailing calendar.’  

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Cowes Town

Although the town will never again play host to the reigning monarchs of four countries as they did in 1909 when King Edward VII of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, the Tsar of Russia and the King of Spain visited with their yachts, there is consolation in the whiff of serious money that comes with today’s royally rich. Oil barons and City whizz kids crowd the pavements of the narrow streets and swig vintage champagne from bottles as they stagger from one party to the next. Old salts and wannabe ‘yachties’ dressed with impeccable regatta cred. stroll the narrow streets with polished brass telescopes under their arms, as the bemused local population looks on in wonderment. Cowes6

During the Regatta, over 800 boats and around 9,000 crew members will descend on this small town in the south of England. Cowes is not just for international yachtsmen, however. Non-sailors also flock to the island to enjoy the atmosphere, to sit on the beach and gaze at the coloured spinnakers that dance on the waters, to join the pleasure boats that sail around the competitors, and to gawp at the great, glossy yachts of the world’s billionaires, anchored offshore. Nor is boating on the stretch of water that separates the Island from mainland England, the Solent, confined to just these few highlighted days in the year: the number of sailing clubs tucked away in every harbour and cove has led to the south coast being dubbed Marinaland.

Boats at Seaview
Boats at Seaview

For the visitors who decide to join in the spirit of Cowes Week, dressing to look the part is easy. Stalls line the pedestrianised streets during the eight days of the Regatta and are on hand to sell overpriced tee-shirts, navy sweaters sporting capstans and anchors, and peaked caps festooned with enough braid to satisfy a Ruritanian General. Blue and white are still the colours of choice, but wannabe sailors should beware of the striped matelot look much favoured by minor celebs.

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The genuine articles are available in the somewhat old-fashioned local shops that make no effort to look stylish or enticing, favouring instead a turn of the century faux ‘ships chandlers on the quayside’ look as befits Queen Victoria’s island.

Boats on the Sea, People on the Beach
Boats at Sea, People on Beach

But Cowes Week is about more than dressing up. It is an exhilarating mix of world-class sailing, jazz, rock n’roll, and brass bands, clowns, unicyclists, and street theatre. For the people who want to take a break from watching the more than 200 races during the Regatta, there is constant entertainment in the Yacht Haven where there are food stalls, a huge beer tent, and music from live bands that play day and night.

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‘The diamond in the Solent’ is how this 23×13-mile island has been described, not only because of its shape but because of its safe, sandy beaches, great pubs and restaurants and a range of resorts to beat anything Continental Europe has to offer. And with an excellent transport system, everything is within easy reach.

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Sandown, Pier and Beach from Cliff Top

The beauty of the Island as a venue for sailing events is that there is so much to see and do away from the coast. There are a wealth of activities on offer and whether by car, bike, public transport or on foot over the miles of bridle paths and downland walks, the island is easy to explore.  With ultra-fast catamarans and jet-propelled boats making the crossing to the mainland in 10 and 25 minutes respectively, if the need for a faster pace should arise, day trips can easily be made to places like Portsmouth, Brighton and the great cathedral cities of Winchester and Salisbury.Cowes11

Away from the main yachting town, messing about in boats is best indulged on the six-mile stretch of sands at Ryde or the glorious crescent of golden beach between Sandown and Shanklin. In the classic villages of Bembridge and Seaview you will still see and hear the sights and sounds of long-forgotten English summers as children play cricket, tennis and deck quoits, for this is an island where families with children feel comfortable, where the swimming is safe and the beaches are clean.  It boasts not one, but two, dinosaur museums (it’s not called Dinosaur Island for nothing and fossil hunts are a regular occurrence), Blackgang Chine claims to be the oldest theme park in the country, and there is a wonderful zoo at Sandown where rare tigers are bred and the cubs are a great hit with children.Isle of Wight from the Sea

The Island from the Sea at Sunset

The Isle of Wight has now firmly established its reputation as the venue for the premier pop Festival which takes place in June. It was the venue in 1970 for the first major pop festival in Europe when, for a few days, 600,000 young people with bells around their necks and flowers in their hair lived the dream of the dawning of Aquarius. They had dance-ins and love-ins to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, The Doors and just about every other rock and folk musician who could get to the Island. It is said that this was the final break with the influence of Queen Victoria who spent a large part of her life on the Island at her Osborne House home, from 1851 until she died in 1901.

Modernity is found in the indoor and outdoor swimming pools, fitness centres, surfing, canoeing and body-boarding at many beach venues. For the adventurous, there are hang-gliding schools, bungee jumping and flights in small ‘planes around the island. Half the island is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty and its 80 miles of trails and 60 miles of coastal paths are perfectly laid out for walkers. There are forests, downlands, medieval villages, valleys and shady creeks, and enough museums, Roman villas, castles and manor houses to keep culture vultures happy for weeks.

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Red Funnel Ferry Southampton – Cowes

But if you come for the sailing and to mix with the ‘yachties’, if you want to be considered one of the sailing fraternity you should be wearing a team shirt – preferably one of last year’s. So, if you are thinking of coming back for the celebrations in 2019, make sure that you get hold of one of this year’s shirts.

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Cowes Fireworks: Copyright Isle of Wight Tourist Board

And if you manage it right this week, if you manage to look the part, to walk the walk and talk the talk, you might get invited to one of the yacht clubs to watch the fireworks on the last night. But if not, you can watch them from the beach with the rest of the happy holidaymakers, join in the last night celebrations which may go on until the wee small hours or just sit it out in one of the great eateries on the Island. For despite its social cachet, this yearly celebration of England’s sea-faring heritage is for everyone.

 

Lendy Cowes Week 2018:  August 4th – 11th.   Official website: www.lendycowesweek.co.uk/

Information:  https://www.visitisleofwight.co.uk/whats-on/lendy-cowes-week-p1464171

 

A Sunday Lunch Time Walk

Looking-down-to-Beach-from-Cliff-Path.-SandownI thought I’d time my walk today for lunchtime and, as I thought, I had the place to myself.  Being Sunday, I presume most people are eating out or at home tucking into ‘le rosbif’ or even pasta or pizza.

So this is Sandown, Isle of Wight, on a beautiful sunny day in April, looking down from the Cliff Path that runs between this town and the next town, Shanklin, then down a steep path on to the beach.   I walked through to the Cliff Path from the main road, it looks quite woody and yes, it is, with hidden niches, wild flowers, primroses and bluebells sheltering under gnarled old trees, and the inevitable folly.

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By now, the beach will be full of walkers, the ice-cream kiosks will be doing a roaring trade, and the Pier will be packed with children on the bouncy castle and various other amusements.

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The tables that were empty at lunch-time will be occupied with people drinking teas and coffees, snacking on home-made cakes, and perhaps sitting back reading the Sunday papers.  Soon-to-be-filled-with-happy-eaters!

Culver Cliff, the massive white chalk cliff that curves around the edge of Sandown, hiding Whitecliff Bay and Bembridge, catches the light when the sun shines, and out on the horizon are cruise liners and cargo ships bound inward for Southampton, or outward for foreign parts.

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Some have been here with me before, but the beaches around the island never fail to please me, and walking on the sands, or on the revetment that runs under the cliff, or even on the pavement where convenient benches make stopping to take in the view even more of a pleasure, makes this my favourite walk – always.

 

 

 

 

Sunday Walk on Isle of Wight

A walk along the seafront at Sandown, Isle of Wight, with my friend Steve from London, a brilliant photographer who has brought his camera with him, produced some great images that I’d like to share with you.  Sandown shares with Shanklin, the next town, a marvellous crescent of golden beach, perfect for safe swimming –  one of the reasons why both towns attract families with young children.

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Sandown also has the Dinosaur Museum, this being Dinosaur Island, and Shanklin has a wonderful Chine that leads from the centre of the old town, down through ferny green walks, to the beach and the sea.

But Sandown has something more frivolous – beach huts that make one smile, because the custom here is to give them all peculiar, funny names, a play on the word ‘hut’ more than ‘funny’, clever, quirky, and guaranteed to make one smile.

Steve took these photos for me.   I hope you like them too.  You may have to click on the images to enlarge the name plaques.

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So there you have it, Sandown Esplanade beneath the Cliff Path and along the beach on a delightful walk that leads to Shanklin (well lit during the evening as well) with cafes, life-guards, invigorating breezes and views of giant ships leaving Portsmouth and Southampton for foreign ports, as you walk along.

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And for the last photo, well, it speaks for itself.

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WEEKLY PHOTO CHALLENGE: LOCAL

“Any place I hang my hat is home”, or so the old song goes and this is almost true for me.  I seem to be able to settle in any location and feel instantly at home – even on holiday.  Feet under the table, a few friends around, some olives and some wine to keep the conversation flowing, and I’m happy.

That’s not to say, however, that certain places don’t take precedence, one of which is my permanent home now and has been for many years, the Isle of Wight, and the other is my childhood home in Northern Ireland.  These definitely represent home to me.

Starting from childhood:

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Scene just outside my birth town – Photo Mari Nicholson

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Growing up I may have spent too much time in this pub, for the craic and the wild music – Photo Mari Nicholson

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Another favourite pub in Belfast – Kelly’s Cellars – famous for its Guinness.                        Photo Mari Nicholson

Now I live near the sea, in this town, a favourite of many people many of whom visited it for the first time on a school trip.  The weather is usually good, we seldom see snow, the beaches are clean and safe, and the walking is superb.

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My Home Town

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View to my beach from just outside the town – Photo Mari Nicholson

It’s a place of thatched cottages, thatched pubs and even a thatched church                   Photos Mari Nicholson