How much of an island can you see in a day? This was my challenge as I headed over to the Isle of Wight, determined to cram in plenty of cultural sights and loads of postcard-worthy views during my trip ( thanks to Red Funnel ferries for getting me there!). Armed with a hit list of places to visit, and a car to get around, I had nine hours to spend soaking up the atmosphere.
I’ve been to the island a couple of times as a child, so it wasn’t totally new to me, and this did affect where I chose to spend time. Having ticked off Blackgang Chine, Shanklin, Godshill Model Village and Osborne House years ago, I had to be ruthless and cut them from my schedule, in favour of experiencing something a bit different. As I stepped ashore at 10am, I knew I wanted to see a mixture of nature, history and the arts, with a dose of island quirk.
Yarmouth’s Gribble Seat
Before I arrived in Yarmouth, I had never even heard of a gribble, let alone seen one. It was only after parking the car that I noticed some kind of statue beside the water which resembled a mutant sea slug, causing me to whip out my camera. It turns out that a gribble is a type of creature that wreaks havoc on wood, much like a termite, only it lives in the sea. If you want the scientific term, it’s a marine isopod crustacean, but that just sounds like a bit of a mouthful. Because of the damage done to Yarmouth Pier from pests like the gribble, restoration was on the cards, and the seat was designed as part of the project.
It was made from reclaimed materials, which is not surprising considering how eco-friendly the island is, with roadside stalls everywhere you look as you weave your way across the inland routes. You can hardly drive a mile without coming across eggs, honey or plants for sale; the Southern Vectis buses running here are often newer, greener models and are an easy way to get around; there are also plenty of vintage and second-hand clothing shops dotted around, offering a more sustainable way of getting your fashion fix.
Whilst the gribble itself causes an issue of sustainability, creating the seat offers locals and tourists the chance to understand more about the sea creature. There’s also a great photo of Alan Titchmarsh posing on the seat (this isn’t quite as random as it sounds – he helped with the fundraising). For me, the gribble seat was an unexpected focal point of Yarmouth.
Jutting out from the edge of Alum Bay, these spiky chalk formations are hard to miss and definitely count as icons of the island. Having parked up (£4), I walked the 3/4 of a mile trail to a viewpoint beside the New Battery, which sits beside a former rocket testing site. Below me stood the Old Battery, dating from the 1890s, and the Needles themselves.
It was a bit tricky finding the right angle to see them from, as the viewpoint was of the coast rather than Needles themselves – deceptive advertising, National Trust – but if you want to get up close then pay an additional £5.30 (adult fee) to get to the Old Battery. Wherever you choose to stand, catching a glimpse of the scene in reality is pretty cool.
If you’re travelling with someone who has difficulty walking, it may be better to get the Needles Tour Bus, which drives up to the site and cuts out the 1.5 mile journey there and back. However, the walk is definitely suitable for small children and pushchairs, so it’s worth attempting as you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the different layers of strata from the Alum Bay cliffs, and you can see across to the mainland easily as well.
The Orrery Cafe and the Donald McGill Museum
Nestled in Ryde’s Union Street, which leads down to the seafront, the Orrery Cafe is a real gem. Its Greek columns give passers by a hint of the quirkiness inside, but until I stepped over the threshold I wasn’t quite prepared for the incredible interiors found here. The walls and ceiling had been papered with images of the universe, using Alice in Wonderland characters to illustrate the constellations and bring them to life.
On the counter, which was salvaged from a chemist’s, there was a neat stack of globes, each one a little bit more unusual than the last. The reason for this? Globemakers Greaves and Thomas are based in the building; this display wasn’t simply a case of free advertising, but was a genuine appreciation for the craft of creating globes. Then there was the menu: good old fashioned pots of tea mingled alongside ‘really good Balkan chocolate’ and ‘3D drinks from Thailand’, whilst the hot food on offer was similarly eclectic and tempting.
At the back of the cafe stood the intriguing mirrored world of the Donald McGill Museum, dedicated to the king of the saucy seaside postcard and his legacy. The cafe and museum owner, James, kindly provided me with free entry (which would normally cost a very reasonable £3.50), and I was soon poring over the postcards on display, and the larger-than-life stick of rock on the ceiling. Stay tuned for my photo essay from the museum, where I’ll be looking in depth at the retro appeal of the saucy postcard.
Minghella’s Ice Cream
Being a slave to my sweet tooth, I’d already done my research and established that a cone of Minghella’s ice cream was the island souvenir that I just had to have. The Minghella family (yes, relations of film director Anthony) have been making their unique flavours here for years, racking up a whopping 170 flavours in their repertoire and always insisting on using local ingredients in the process.
I plumped for a double cone of vanilla bean and peaches & cream from a shop in Ryde, and I wasn’t disappointed. This was about as far from a Mr. Whippy cone as you could get without leaving the seaside, as vanilla pods gave this normally pretty average flavour a real bite, and the peach also packed a punch. I can safely say that foodies and ice cream connoisseurs will be in heaven when they order a scoop of Minghella’s, plus they’ll be supporting local businesses, so it’s a win-win situation.
To finish up the adventure, it was time to look around Cowes and see why this town is more than just a ferry point. Home to the annual Cowes Week which attracts sailing enthusiasts from around the world, it’s definitely something of a haven for all things nautical but nice, with boats lining the harbour (including a pirate ship!) and nods to maritime in the decor of the shops and houses.
Down by the slipway I spotted a BMX biker making use of a tactically positioned stunt ramp and I managed to snap him in the air before he plunged into the water. It seems that not having a boat is no deterrent here when it comes to making a splash.
Another example of nautical enthusiasm was the incredible mural painted onto boards at the front of an old pub in the main street. It was really expressive, with beautiful ultramarine colours. I loved that the pub’s signage still remained intact, and that the boards had been used to create appealing street art, giving the temporary wooden facade a positive spin.
As you can see, I packed a lot into my itinerary during the trip, and not all of it can be mentioned in one post. As well as taking a closer peek at the Donald McGill Museum in a future post, I’ll also be taking you through the exhibits at Dimbola House in Freshwater, which had so much to see that I can’t possibly summarise its appeal in a few short sentences. My island day trip really was eye-opening, giving me a whole new perspective on this unique place.
Disclaimer: I visited the Isle of Wight courtesy of Red Funnel ferries, travelling from Southampton to East Cowes. As ever, all views are my own.