As you’re probably aware, if you read anything I write, I like a challenge. Running, hiking, swimming. Hell, I even used to like exams because I wanted to beat them – granted with minimal preparation. I do a lot of things where I can push myself and test out what my mind and body can do. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was basically a lazy kid that played computer games eight hours a day whilst eating crisps – until I became an adult, when I pretty played computer games whilst drinking San Miguel.
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The challenge mentality, especially where fitness is concerned, is pretty damn common these days. Races, ultra marathons, CrossFit games, The Turf Games, baking contests. There are challenges everywhere. Sure you can go for a 10k run on your own, but unless it’s a bon-a-fide race, that challenge element won’t kick in. It’s a tick in a box that fits into a nice clear achievement.
I love of bit of walking as well. Sometimes because I like to spend time in the outdoors and take some nice photos, but also because I like to walk for the challenge. A few years ago I got my first taste of walking as a fitness challenge. I took part in the Action Challenge London to Cambridge event. An all out 100km walk starting on a Saturday morning and ending whenever you’re finished the distance (you could do shorted distances as well). You can read about it here.
It was way tougher than I thought it would be. I was working on the idea that walking was easy. Since then I’ve spoken to various ultra runner mates who agree they’d rather run 100km than walk it. Not only do you get tired from the exertion, but you’re tired because you’re awake for so long. By the last 20km, wandering through country roads at 5am, the physical and mental effort were unbearable. I nearly didn’t finish it.
Walking challenges like those set up by Action Challenge are great, but they can be a bit pricey. Since then I’ve been trying to set my own walking challenges, which can actually be pretty tough. Firstly, you need to plan the whole thing yourself, which can be tricky when you’re going somewhere that needs an ordinance survey map, secondly, you don’t have any support. It’s basically just you (and maybe some friends) sorting out everything. No medical assistance, no guides, just a bag, your legs and a map.
Last year I walked across the Lake District for three days. From a fitness point of view it was pretty demanding, but the main issue was route finding. I’d massively underestimated how difficult it would be to find my way across the various field, hills and forests. I even ended up having to walk over a mountain to get back on track at one point.
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This year I decided to opt for something a bit simpler, the Idle of Wight coastal path. A famously beautiful coastal route that goes the whole way around the island. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years.
What is it?
The Isle of Wight, as you may be aware, is an island (and county) that sits about 2 miles off the coast of Hampshire. It’s the second most populated island in England (Portsea is the biggest). Aside from being a historically popular location for holidays, it was also home to Swinburne, Tennyson and to Queen Victoria. I used to go there on holiday as a kid, but since then I’ve been for a festival and a weekend break with my parents. Neither time did I get to explore the place.
The Isle of Wight Coastal path is exactly what the name suggests. A 70-ish mile path that circles the island via clearly marked signposts. The route is largely famous for the fact that it very closely, for the most part, follows the coastline. Which may seem obvious, but is actually not always the case in places where there are various estuaries or industrial locations.
Why did I decide to walk the IoW coastal path?
As I mentioned earlier, I like a challenge and I like walking. The beauty of walking the Isle of Wight coastal path is that it’s not only finite, but it’s the same for everyone. If you say you’ve walked across Snowdonia, the route you take could be completely different to someone else’s. Walking a pre-defined path that exists makes it an actual thing. If you speak to someone else who’s done it then the elements of the route are the same. It also makes it much easier to plan without the need of ordinance survey maps. As long as you can see the signs and know where the sea is, all you need to do is walk and enjoy the scenery. The coastline is also dotted with little seaside town that have a load of shops, so planning food and drink is pretty easy.
How to get there
I wanted to walk the path as cheaply as possible, whilst not actually having to stay in a tent. I got a coach from Victoria Coach Station for about £18 return with National Express; a journey that takes about two hours, then I got a 30 minute foot ferry from Portsmouth Harbour over to Ryde (About £30 return). Not bad for transport costs.
The route I planned was based largely on finding the cheapest places to stay that were roughly close to the path itself. I aimed to do about 25 miles a day over three days, so I looked up the various places to stay on the route and then eye-balled the distance to about a third of the path. Starting in Ryde, the first day took me to a place called Chale on the south coast, day two took me from there to Hamstead then the final day would take me back to Ryde. Simple.
Note: If you’re interested in giving the coastal path a try, then I’ll give you a bit of a photo overview of the route that I took. If you’re not interested in the route itself, this may be a bit of a dull and detailed account of my movements.
Day 1: Ryde to Chale
The first day of any long walk is always the most exciting. I didn’t know what to expect, I had no idea how long it would take and I was pretty pleased to see that, despite the dire weather reports I’d seen, that it was ridiculously sunny. I started off from a little B&B called the Abbingdon Guest Lodge, a perfectly nice little place that cost about £38 for the night, then headed down to the Pier at Ryde for about 7am.
The first part of the route is a lovely coastal walk that’s very flat. The bulk of the path follows the sea via little paths and occasional walks across the sand itself. It’s a beautiful route which lured me into a false sense of security about how easy the walk would be. It wasn’t until the later part of the day that I actually hit any cliffs, but then it started to get a fair bit tougher. As I found later the coastal path undulates massively for a large part of the South and West coastlines.
En route you’ve got a few places to stop off and grab some provisions. I nipped to Shanklin and picked up some bits from Sainsbury’s then sat on a bench at the sea front.
Once you get to Ventnor, it starts to get a bit trickier as there’s a couple of climbs then a really long green area called St Lawrence. Once you get past that you need to get up a cliff at Niton (I took a wrong turn and ended up below the cliff and had to go back on myself).
Once you’re up, the last bit takes you to Blackgang Chine, the oldest theme park in the UK (it’s been there since the 1840s), then over to Chale. I stayed at the Wight Mouse Inn there which is a really nice pub that has an enormous restaurant. The staff were also really friendly and made me a massive sausage sandwich as well as some cereal even though I was leaving well before breakfast was served at 8.30am.
The first day took me 10 hours to walk the route. Worth pointing out that I did this trip at the end of October, so I was fighting to finish each day before it got dark – I didn’t much fancy walking along a cliff in the night. I ended up doing about 25 miles on the first day.
Day 2: Chale to Hamstead
I was actually pretty tired by the time I got into my room on day one, mainly due to the various climbs in the latter part of the walk. Felt pretty good at the start of day two though and I’d learnt my lesson about underestimating the path so far.
I headed out from the pub at 7am, which takes you straight out to the coastal path again, and made my way towards the western side of the island. Unlike the previous day, the weather didn’t look quite so good so I was preparing for the worst.
The first chunk of the route follows the top of the cliffs for a good while. Unlike the first section, there aren’t many towns on the route, so might be worth picking up some snacks the day before.
The south-western coastline is a pretty straight line across the bottom of the island, so you can see for miles into the distance. The final part of the coastline being the Needles and Tennyson Down which are basically a massive white cliff far into the distance. It looks an unbelievably long way away and seems to take forever (it’s about 15 miles from Chale). It’s an absolutely beautifully rolling view though with some amazing scenery. Luckily about two hours in the impending rain clouds disappeared and it started to get really hot.
The first village you come to is Afton, not a massive place but it does have a nice little shop, although you do have to divert from the coastal path for a bit (Some Nik Naks and a Coke if you were wondering). There are various little coffee shops along the whole coastal path, but these are only open in the summer season. Very few places were open in late October/November.
The next bit is by far the hardest slog of the journey. It is also by far the most impressive. The climb from Afton up the cliffs is a relentless slog if you’ve already been walking all morning, the worst part being when you hit the memorial that appears to mark the end. When you get there you quickly realise the cliffs go up and down for at least a couple of miles further. From there you can see the Needles and access the battery, which gives you a nice view of it.
From that point the route takes you back round to the north side of the island again where you can see Alum bay in the distance, one of the Isle Of Wight’s main attractions. I remember it from when I visited as a kid as a place where you took a chairlift down to the beach as well as a gift shop at the top which sold pens with multicoloured sand in. I’d assumed that it must have been run down by now but it’s actually a massive tourist shopping spot with restaurants and gift shops dotted around. Really busy as well. Great Cornish pasties.
From there you head back up a cliff to Headon Warren; a National Trust site that has loads of interesting archeological earthworks and some amazing views. You can also pretty much see the end of the end of my coastal path route for day two as well, which helps to minimise the anguish from the tough miles before it.
Taking the coastal path down you head past Totland, Norton Green and Yarmouth, although you barely actually see any of these places unless you go of the trail and head inland. Once past these the last few miles are few the amazing woodlands around Cranmore that take you out onto a trail that skirts the tree-lined coast.
By 5pm it was getting dark and I hadn’t actually worked out where the place I was staying was. Oddly, as soon as I walked from the coastal path that covered a massive field and looked at my phone I realised I was stood outside it, the Newton Creek Retreat, a really nice cottage owned by a lovely couple that live there. You’re basically staying in a spare room of their house, but the bed was comfy as hell and the breakfast was amazing – and they got up at 6am to make it for me.
Day 3: Hamstead to Rye
The start of the third day was by far my favourite part of the whole trip. Heading out from the retreat the path leads through woodland and fields. The sun was rising and a mist was covering the distant grass and the sea into the distance. It was a photographer’s dream.
This part of the path seems completely different from anything else I’d seen, which is kind of the theme of the whole coastal path – every few miles it’s like you’re in a completely new place. This woodland section lasted for a few miles until you come to perhaps the worst part of the whole journey.
The norther part of the island has a series of small estuaries that lead out into the center. They’re known as the five fingers. Estuaries are, to the average walker, pretty annoying. They basically mean that you have to work you’re way around, which in this case means heading along the road for quite a long way. There are a lot of roads on the northern part of the coastal path.
You eventually end up back on the coast and make your way for what seems like ages around the coastline until you hit Cowes, a lovely town that’s a lot bigger than I imagined it would be. There’s a massive river called the Medina that runs from Cowes right into the center of the island, so you need to take the foot ferry across it. It costs £1.50 (pay at the machine) and takes about two minutes to get across. It’s pretty impressive.
Once across the route is fairly uneventful (more roads) until you wander past the very fantastic looking Osborn House (Queen Victoria’s pad). After that you go through Wooton bridge (there’s a Tesco there, but it’s slightly off the path) and then head past the really nice Quarr Abbey. A couple more miles and you’re back at Ryde. Job done. All you need to do now is relax or jump back on the ferry to Portsmouth.
How tough is it?
Walking the entire path over three days is completely manageable if you have a good level of fitness. it’s definitely not easy, and if 25 miles seems like a lot then you could split the route up into smaller sections. Also, if you’re doing it in the summer you’ll have a hell of a lot more time with daylight, so you can break the walk up every day. I pretty much just set off and kept walking for ten hours each day.
Is it worth it?
Definitely. I’d probably put it down as one of the most enjoyable walks I’ve ever done. It was such a varied series of locations, when you look at the photos afterwards it appears like you’ve been on a few trips. The placing of towns versus remote landscape is also pretty much perfect and the people there are ridiculously nice. I think everyone I saw said hello to me.
Any tips for people wanting to do it?
I’d underestimate the distance you can walk in a day. If you think you can do 20 miles, plan a route for 15 miles each day. It’s trickier than you think and I imagine if the weather is bad, some of the muddy areas are going to make it a hell of a lot tougher.
Also, although it didn’t rain a great deal when I went, that’s a rarity. I imagine my trip would have been a hell of a lot harder had it been done wet. As with any walking trip in the UK, good, light waterproof kit is an essential.
Oh yeah, if you’re doing it on your own, it’s an amazing chance to listen to some good audiobooks (30 hours in total is a lot of audiobook time). The fact that you don’t have to keep stopping to look at a map makes it perfect for zoning out for most of the day.
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