Sunday, June 8, 2008

Three Saints in One Day


It’s been a variegated Wightish weekend. Weekends being traditionally busy on the roads, as England and its over-speedy vehicles invade the island, Fred has been given a couple of days off, and when Saturday dawned fair but slightly biting, I gave myself the day off too, and devoted my time to the story of Mr Valentine Smith, tenor, instead of to walking and exploring.
However, Sunday it was less breezy, promised 25 degrees, and as soon as I’d devoured my smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, I strode into action. The key point of today’s walk was St Catherine’s Lighthouse, on the coast beyond Niton. I knew it was the latter day replacement for the ineffectual ‘pepperpot’, but I knew little else. I do know.
I tootled across the moors, and dove down Bury Lane. After five days with no rain, the grass and nettles were less aggressive and the underfoot less perilous, and I reached Niton in no time. Today being Sunday, the church was open, too, but folk were worshipping, so I tiptoed by and down the roads and paths to the coast. St Catherine’s is your ‘ideal lighthouse’. Spectacularly ur-lighthouseish and glistening white, with the glint of some devilishly modern instruments showing where a very different kind of light had been when it was built in ... I plumped architecturally for 1835, and I was only four years out. 1839. The old guidebooks say you used to be allowed up inside, but today there are ‘Keep Out’ signs on the gates. A shame. But the lighthouse and its support cottages are lovely to look at and also, I know now, possessed of a history as an important place in the development of lighthouses in general.

From St Catherine, I headed on towards two other saints. Lawrence and Radegonda. St Lawrence is a village on the ‘Undercliff’, St Radegonda’s was the way leading from there back towards the village of Whitwell and, ultimately, to my home downs. It looked a casual stroll on the map, but I hadn’t done my Wightish homework properly. I didn’t really know about the ‘Undercliff’. I do now. In person.
There was no way out from the lighthouse except back up the steepish route I had come down, to a spot half a mile inland where the ‘coastal path’ was signposted. Odd. Why was the coastal path half a mile from the coast? I know that a metre drops off the edge of the Isle of Wight each year, but surely this was counting for 800 years. A bit excessive?
The path, not wholly unexpectedly, rapidly shrank in size as it rose. It was a delicate walk rather than a stride out. And then something flashed past my right foot, way below. A car? I looked down. Oh mon Dieu! Below that right foot was nothing but a sheer cliff face … and that car was many, many metres down.
I am not good with that sort of heights. I am the man who had to be carried, catatonic, off the see-through floor in the Paris museum. I tried to concentrate on just going forward. What was this?
Well, what it is, I can now tell you, is the Undercliff, the biggest landslide in the world. The reason the coastal path is half a mile inland, at the top of a bloody precipice, is because this path is the original island and everything from there out to the sea is one great big world-famous slip .. eight miles long by half a mile wide!
According to my map, there was only one way off this terrestrial tightrope, down the track to St Lawrence, and I was mightily pleased when I came to a fork in the path and started down. Only there isn’t only one down-path and, instead of the big one, I’d taken a very minor, very steep, very crumbly, slippery, nettly goat-track. I was shamed out of my terror by a couple of elderly locals, cheerfully climbing upwards, but I was excessively glad when I reached the road by which I could tarmac into St Lawrence. Speeding Englishmen notwithstanding.
If St Lawrence has a village centre (and a pub), I missed it. Every step I took was further downwards, and I knew I’d just have to come back up, so I elected instead to take what the map called ‘St Rhadegund’s Path’ up to Whitwell. It turned out to be a wide farm road (which was once a mediaeval pilgrim’s trail), and it had a nice information board telling me all about this unfamiliar Saint.
Radegonda or Rhadegund (depending whose version you read) seems to have been a useful sort of saint. One who devoted herself to the poor and the sick (when she wasn’t saying hundreds of prayers) rather than merely getting herself flayed, boiled or eaten by lions as too many Christian saints seem to have done to gain their entry to sainthood. Anyway she was a sixth century German royal who became a nun in Poitiers and she’s in Whitwell because the old overlords here were Normans and they liked her.
Whitwell’s church is named for her (conjointly with the Virgin Mary) so I thought I should pay a visit. It was open, the lady organist made me welcome, and I was able to admire a charming little Norman-plus-C15th extensions church which, like the Brightstone one, is well alive and active today.
From Whitwell, I headed on to the very small village of Bierley, and then across the fields to Wydcombe, from where the Downcourt Lane trail leads up the downs to the Hermitage.
Well, I’m getting used to eccentricities in the Isle of Wight (don’t mistake me, I love them), and Wydcombe is certainly one. The main building, which is I believe ‘the Manor’, reminded me of Snow White’s castle in Disneyland with 1950s extensions. The large, unkempt cottage next door (which I don’t doubt was part of the same complex) had a more simple and sophisticated charm. I’d been sparing on photos today, so I snapped them both.

There has to be a story behind this place, and I shall find it out. (Good heavens, the web says it goes back to Domesday – not the house which starts only from 1697 – and that it was owned by the same Major Dawes who ‘revised’ the Hoy Monument!).

Up the downs, through thick green fields with thick white sheep, and four and a half hours after take off, I rolled into Hermitage Court Farm with its welcome shower and cold Guinness. A fascinating day …

Thought. Having got Radegonda in place, I’m wondering about St Catherine. There are an awful lot of St Catherines in the panoply, but I really only know about Joan of Arc’s one, the irritating virgin who got wheeled and beheaded in ancient Alexandria. What would she be doing in the Isle of Wight?

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