Monday, June 30, 2008

Au revoir to the Isle of Wight


Well, the month has been and flown.

My bags are packed, and I’m about to plunge into my big, soft Wightish bed for the last time. Tomorrow, after lunch, I head to Shanklin to deliver the faithful Red Fred back to his rightful owners, take the little train back to Ryde pierhead and head for Portsmouth and the night ferry to St Malo.

France. It’s just as well it’s France, because there aren’t many place in the world I’d leave this one for.

My last days here have been a little less gallivanting. First of all, we had a bit of grey and a bit of drizzle, so outdoors didn’t look so inviting and Victorian Vocalists found all its old charms. But then, when the sun came out, the end was in sight, so it seemed best just to go round all my favourite bits from the other weeks and sort of say ‘goodbye’. The downs, Niton, Brightstone, Shalfleet and so forth. I took a few unfamilar ‘less than 4 metres’ roads, joining up the dots between places where I’d already been, I rolled through a few new villages, passed by a lot of fresh, pleasant, green countryside and clocked up the regulation amount of old churches and fine old houses … and simply confirmed that wherever you go here, it's grand.

Tonight, we have had a ‘farewell’ dinner -- Jayne, Chris, Jack, Charlie and Kurt – and I took the chance to line up my Wightish ‘family’ for a last-night snap. Thank you the Holmes family, thank you Hermitage Court Farm, thank you Wight.

I’ll be back, of course. (I promise I will, Charlie). But who knows when….

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Three 'A's in one day

A shiningly summery morning. No question of lolling around writing up Miss Florence de Courcy for Victorian Vocalists. Today had to be a jaunt with Red Fred. But where to? Perhaps Seaview, at last? Or maybe I should really try one or two of the ex-grand houses which, research had revealed, have now been converted to ‘other uses’. A hurried glimpse at the Internet, and I was no nearer solving my trilemma until I hit and found there some pictures of Quarr Abbey. An abbey? Oh, a ruined abbey, and a 20th century replacement. Errrr. Well, nothing else appealed, so why not.
And thus it was that I headed back up the roads I’d covered yesterday, towards Osborne, through a Wootton Bridge which has obviously grown a heap since my map was printed and – thanks to some elegant golden signposts which glinted so much in the sun you couldn’t read them – wiggled my way without error into the Abbey carpark.

Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t have staged it better. You follow the golden directions on foot from the carpark and, coming round the corner, there it is. A startling, splendid, amazing edifice that – for all that it is a Catholic Benedictine Abbey -- definitely has some airs of the Alhambra about it. Great stuff. Grand stuff. But … could one go inside? I tried the door and found a notice about taking confession. Oh heavens, that much time I didn’t have. And then someone opened the door from the inside. Tourists, like me. I slid quietly in and … well, I crumbled.
What absolute, stunning, heart-halting beauty.
I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of churches, of all shapes, sizes and ages, during my half a century of travels round the world. But I can honestly say I’ve never seen one more beautiful, more awe-inspiring, more .. well, somehow more Godly, than this twentieth-century one. I’m not even going to attempt to describe it, because I – would you believe it – just don’t have the words. Go and see for yourself.
I was almost ashamed to take a photo, but I did. And here it is. It doesn’t do the place justice. Nothing could.

I wanted so much to see someone .. one of the brothers, perhaps .. with whom I could share my wonderment but, alas, there was no-one around. And, then, aren’t the Benedictines a silent order? Oh, dear, they wouldn’t think much of me! Anyway, I salved my greed by babbling on, instead, to the two other Tourists, as we headed off together to look at the ruins of this abbey’s predecessor. And then, by babbling, all over again, to the occupant of the 18th century house built next those ruins. Poor man, he was trying to read his book in peace..
Back in the car, I soused down half a litre of mineral water and, duly cooled in throat and brain, revved up. Where to? What could possibly follow that? Seaview would have to await another day.
I turned Fred homewards. But a little mis-mapreading (or overconfidence) led me where I had not intended to go. For the umpteenth time, I came upon the sign for Arreton Manor, and then that for Appledurcombe House. Two of the places I had crossed off my shopping list as being undoubtedly ‘not my scene’. So I decided to ‘do’ them both, and be done with it.
The two houses, or properties, are actually very different, the one to the other, and very differently run.

Arreton Manor (above, and with a capital M) is, like so many old buildings, a hotch-potch house including some bits of certain degrees of antiquity and others which I suspect are C19th alterations masquerading as something earlier. It’s owned privately, and the owner is making great and decidedly attractive attempts to recreate a multi-tiered C17th garden of some considerable envergure. For your five pounds you get to walk through his gardens-in-progress, and then ‘take a tour’ of the house. Of five rooms of the house, to be exact.
I knew I was in trouble when the guide turned up in fancy dress. Fifty minutes of approximate history, wishful architecture and iffy stories, whilst standing dumbly in each of the five rooms in turn, and I was ready to scream. Oh, the reason we saw only five rooms is – as we were forcefully reminded several times -- that the rest of the place is being run as a B&B. Carry me back to Hermitage Court Farm.

Appledurcombe (above) has also gone in for accommodation. More, it features an owl and falcon sanctuary, giving exhibitions by birds of prey, and it hosts ‘events’. It is also under the wing of English Heritage. And, my goodness, did the difference show. The accommodation was in a park down the road. The falconry, too, was in a field apart (and very well patronised). Thus, Appledurcombe House, magnificent amid its neatly mowed green lawns, was there to be enjoyed unalloyed (three pounds fifty, guide, optional … phew!).
The big difference, however, which I had not pre-realised, was that Appledurcombe House is uninhabited. In fact, it is a ruin. And its story is a tragic one of real estate greed.

A splendid small exhibit tells you the story of the Worsley family (them, again!) who built the place, of its heydays and of its decline and fall, after their time, into latter day use as a school and .. good heavens, this is where the monks of Quarr Abbey first came, in 1901, when they quit France for England! Those Benedictines are following me around! I’m glad they left, or we would not have had Quarr Abbey, but this must have been a beautiful house in its prime and even in their day. Why did they leave? Lousy landlord, it appears. Wouldn’t fix the roof, and so forth. What an idiot. Why buy a beautiful house and let it die? Surely it could have made an Edwardian B&B!
(I take that back).

So, a day of ‘A’s. Abbey, Arreton and Appledurcombe. But in my book the ‘A’ grade goes by a million miles to Quarr Abbey. An absolute ‘must’ for anyone coming to the Isle of Wight who has a heart and a soul with which to wonder.
Goodness me, after Carisbrooke Priory and now Quarr Abbey, is this heathen old reprobate starting to find himself altogether too susceptible to the earthly manifestations of the Christian church?
I think not. I think, perhaps, it is just that goodness shines from stones and bricks as well as from hearts and faces. As it certainly did, for me, today.

Monday, June 23, 2008

"I've been up to Osborne..."


“I’ve been up to Osborne, to look at the Queen …”

I don’t quite know why it has taken me three weeks to get myself up to Osborne House. You’ld expect someone with my preoccupation with all things Victorian to have headed up there, to wallow in the atmosphere of Queen Victoria’s ‘holiday home’, on day one. Perhaps it was just that, on the map, it looks such a long way away. Right on the other side of the island from the Hermitage. I have to keep reminding myself that you can, for heaven’s sake, walk a centimetre of the ordnance surveymap in 10 minutes, so on wheels … well, let’s just say that there’s not much in the Isle of Wight that’s more than half-an-hour’s drive from here.

So, this morning I set out in breezeless sunshine, via large roads and small, towards Wootton and East Cowes, and, in 25 minutes, I was in the carpark at Osborne House. I negotiated the vast shop, paid my eight pounds (senior citizen discount is rather meagre) and sallied forth.

I don’t know quite what I’d expected, but what I got wasn’t quite it. I suppose one expects a Queen to live in a palace, even when she’s having a weekender, and Osborne House is not a palace. On the outside it’s a rather plain building. It has a couple of towers and a bit of a portico, and a very jolly hog and hound (above) guarding the entrance I went in, but mostly it’s like a nice, unpretentious (though decidedly large) gentleman’s country mansion. Which, I suppose, is exactly what it was. Anyway, perched up there above its pretty, unextravagant gardens and its wide prairies, it has very appealing no-royal-nonsense air.

Inside is something different. Inside is a sort of a mish-mash. A number of key rooms – such as the surprisingly small personal royal chambers, the nurseries, and the dining and adjourning rooms – have been preserved more or less as they might have been in Victoria’s days, but a considerable part of the part which visitors are allowed to see seems to consist of corridors and virtually wasted spaces, areas which have little or none of the atmosphere of what appears to be the small percentage of the house-space in which Victoria, Albert and their children actually and actively lived.

Most of these ‘other’ spaces are crammed full of art: paintings and statuary, which I gather belong to the house, and nowadays are the property of the present Queen. I would suggest, ma’am, that you investigate the uses of ebay.  There are endless truly poor pictures by what must have been exceptionally minor German artists, some betterish ones by undoubtedly minor British artists, plus a whole gallery of mediocre portraits of Indian dignitaries .. it was quite a relief to come upon a Winterthaler, even if it was only a copy. The statuary was less awful, but – oh, dear! -- there was so much of it! Laocoon shouldering out Silenus and an amazingly twee version of Albert (I assume) pretending to be an ancient Greek warrior. Try ‘Cash in the Attic’, ma’am. Do!

But it’s not just the artwork. I suppose being royal doesn’t give you automatic good taste. Prince Albert seems to have recognised that, and he took advice on the interiors of the ‘public’ rooms of the house. Unfortunately, no-one seems to have advised him from whom best to take advice. The fussy design of his German decorator is all at odds with the place’s staunch exterior. And what to say about the ‘Durbar Room’, an Indianish monstrosity added in later days? … who could ever feel ‘at home’ in that?

You can’t take photos inside (perhaps just as well), so I shall put up here instead a picture of the terrace gardens, taken from the upstairs window.

Just as the personal rooms of the house give you that ‘real’ feeling that these others do not, so too does the ‘Swiss Cottage’ which is … wait for it! … a reproduction chalet, fretwork and all, set in the trees at the far end of the property. This was built originally for the royal children to play ‘escape to the country’ in, but eventually it became a sort of Petit Trianon for the whole family. It has quite the air of a mountain hut to it, although, of course, it’s been reorganised for modern consumption (room had to be made for a tearoom, after all). It also has a splendid vegetable garden, and round the corner you can gaze at (outside only) the Queen’s bathing machine, and the princelings’ toy battleground.

I walked round each part of the grounds, marvelling that they felt so natural. No topiary, no Greek nudes gazing from niches, the grounds of Osborne – outside the delightful and tasteful house gardens -- are simple and genuine ‘country’. There are man-made things of interest to see, though. A splendid example of an 1850s icehouse (no refrigerators, and the Queen had her ice imported from America), and a walled garden, left over from Osborne House’s predecessor but, alas, shorn of its ancient glasshouses (demolished in the 1970s!). Rather less agreeably, I came upon two unhappy white horses in a paddock. Healthy and fully-shod, I imagine they are understudies to those who pull the trap which ferries visitors (at 2.50 a head) the few hundred metres from the car-park to the house. Alas, in a building where there seem to be as many indoor and outdoor staff today as there must have been servants in Victoria’s day, no-one seemed to be deputed to look after these poor fellows who were suffering horribly from flies and quivering with distress.

Altogether, I spent over two hours around Albert and Victoria’s house and gardens. And, driving home, I thought about what I had seen. And I decided they were right and I was wrong. It was their house, and they loved it. It was full of their things (so full, indeed, with the collections of nine children, that a museum chalet had to be built!) and they were happy amongst them. And that’s what you go to Osborne to see. Not a copperplate perfect-taste Palaces-and-Gardens set-up. But a home, on which real and interesting people’s personalities have rubbed off.

So, I mightn’t have seen the Queen, but I saw a little reflection of her. She and her husband creep up in front of you, here, as human beings rather than monarchs.
And I’m sure that, had she been around today, she’d have had something done about the white horses.

Friday, June 20, 2008


It’s a funny old game, horse racing. Sometimes you can win races on the trot – I remember a period when my horses were averaging a win a week! – and then you can have long, long periods where you simply can’t (if you can even get one to the races in one piece) get them first across the line.
Well, since Gerolstein came into being, we and our little team have had both the faste periods and the foul. The lucky and the horribly unlucky. Most recently, alas, the latter. A whole year of drought since dear old Gipsy Moth won at Rangiora. But as of today the drought is over. We have a winner! Darling little ‘Dobby’ took out the third race at Addington tonight in really fine style.

We almost missed out on Dobby. In late 2005 a small horse, by In the Pocket out of Never Easy, arrived at Gerolstein to be broken-in and thereafter go into Wendy’s training. But Wendy had not long begun to work with the little feller when we got an alarmed call. We had a changeling. Someone had fouled up and this was not the horse we were supposed to have! So our small horse was packed off elsewhere and in exchange we got … a very much smaller one! Look, this is him, in December 2005, saying ‘are you my mummy?’ to a normal sized (male) horse!

But if ‘Dobby’ was small, and kind of babyish, he was also pretty sane and sensible, he learned his lessons well, and he showed, on his first trip to the trials, that he had the stuff of a racehorse in him. It was a qualifier at Addington. The inexperienced field went away unevenly and, on the first turn, one of them got his hoofs tangled up and fell, bringing down a couple of others. Dobby squirmed free of the fracas, but in the squirm he lost his driver. Did he stop? No fear. Dragging an empty, buckled cart, he chased, caught the field, zoomed up the inside rail to the front and raced them all the way until the last furlongs. Unfortunately, he could not count as ‘qualified’, because you do have to pass the post with a driver on.
Needless to say, he qualified in relaxed style next time out, and this season he began to race. After a couple of feet-finders, he racked up two second places, which is probably why, in a rather good-looking Addington maiden field, he went out second favourite tonight at 5-1.
It would be a fib to say that everything went right -- he put in some very messy strides at the beginning of the race, and lost the lead -- but Dex Dunn got him into a perfect place as the race wound up into the swirling fog at the straight entrance, and the wee feller accelerated splendidly in the final hundred metres to go on and win very nicely indeed.
Bravo, Dobby!
Gerolstein is proud of you!

Oh, the changeling? Yep. He’s turned out OK, too. His name is ‘West Coast Anvil’ and he won this year’s Waikato Guineas. But me, I wouldn’t swap our wee Dobby for Phar Lap.

Old friends and new

A few more colourful days in wonderful Wight.

On 17th, Andrew and Wendy Lamb, who introduced me to the island with our daytrip together last year, came down to see how I was getting on ... and found me, of course, fallen on my feet in the Most Beautiful B&B in Britain.
We strolled up on the downs in the sunshine, and I introduced them to Mr Hoy’s Folly and the ‘pepperpot’, we dined sumptuously ‘at home’ gazing out sybaritically over the glorious ‘nearly-longest-day’ evening view, down over the rolling fields to the sea, and in the morning we headed down to renew acquaintance with Ventnor. We ended up promenading in ancient Bonchurch, once a village near the town, and now apparently its most classy suburb. Such wonderful houses … little plaques tell us that the poet Swinburne and Lord Macaculey (and a couple of other folk I’d not heard of) lived there, and one can see why. A grand spot. And Swinburne and Macauley wouldn’t have had to worry about the parking…

After Bonchurch, we headed off on my favourite drive, to Shalfleet, partook of a walk down Newtown Estuary, the whole execrcise ending, naturally, at the New Inn, Shalfleet, for lunch. Not overcrowded today, and I sampled their local sausages on mustard mash. Oh, yes!
After lunch, there was just time enough left to nip across to Newtown where the Old Town Hall was just opening. I think Andrew was as much taken by its charm and its tale as I.
And then, after what had been an all too brief rendez-vous, the Lambs headed off to Cowes and I ‘home’, to Hermitage Court Farm.

Today, 20 June, at Hermitage Court Farm is a special day. For today, here, we have not one but two birthdays! Papa Chris and son number two, Charlie. Charlie is seven, Chris is classified. Charlie has just been unwrapping his birthday gifts over breakfast, so I grabbed a moment to snap him with his new scooter. And I promised him he’d be on the blog by the time he gets home from school. So here goes

Monday, June 16, 2008

The sunniest day so far

That's what it is.

And I thought I'd spend it at the most beautiful, scenic place on the island that I know of.

So here I am, at home, sunning myself on the lawn at Hermitage Court Farm.

I took a morning stroll over the downs and down to Niton, to visit the village post-office, the village store, the village pharmacy, and the village doctor who stuck a needle in my rump .. my first anti-hayfever jab since New Zealand, and as of this moment a necessity!

When all that visiting was done, it was 12.30pm, so it seemed logical to visit the village pub. The White Lion is the sort of cheerful village pub I'd been bemoaning -- and here it is, right on my downs-step. The blackboard advertises steak and stilton pudding and there's a five-pounds senior citizens' full lunch available, but I settled for a cold Guinness (of course) and a chicken sandwich. I got a bulging, man-sized 'sarnie' -- what we used to call a doorstep -- butchly squeezing man-sized chunks of lettuce and tomato all but off the plate. The contrast with yesterday's elegant little black-pudding salad was total. And the price only a little more. I sat in the beer garden in the sunshine, and did justice to plate and glass.

Then it was up Bury Lane (now all nice and dry, but still nettly), a quick snap of 'home' across the bright and bristling downs (if you look hard you can just see Red Fred, tanning his bumpers in the farm's carpark) and the day's exercise was all done. From here on in, its all leisure.

Chrissie-mas in June!

Well, I was in Nelson one meeting too soon..

This week was the second Nelson meet of the year, Jan and 'Chrissie' (Konni Kase) lined up once again, and this time... a victory!

Congratulations, Jan, and well done Chrissie!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The right way to travel


There’s only one way, really, to travel. I suppose I always really knew it, but only now am I starting to put it into practice, for it’s a way that Travel Professionals, the airlines and hotels of the world at their head, do their very best to prevent us from using.
My answer will be that I will rarely use them.
For the only real way to travel is at leisure. Without constraint. As slowly and freely as one likes. When I think of the angst I suffered chasing that airplane schedule at East Midlands Airport … and now ... as I lounge in leisurely fashion round Wight ... what a joy!
What brought this bit of serious contemplation upon me was my day out today. A gentle, thoroughly enjoyable day, during which I didn’t really go anywhere I hadn’t been before. Red Fred’s rubber didn’t touch a patch of road that he hasn’t gone over at least once already. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I truly enjoy the nicest places – as I did in Jersey – more the second time around. I mean, the first time, just getting there is almost the main thing, the second time getting there is second nature, and exploring and/or enjoying the destination takes over.
Today we went on my favourite route. Hermitage-Dolcoppice Lane-Chale Green-Shorcross-Brightstone-Calbourne-Shalfleet-Newtown. And back exactly the same way. At Shalfleet, my mission was to lunch at the New Inn. At Newtown, to visit the interior of the Old Town Hall. But, good heavens, Fred takes that road with his headlamps shut now, and in little over half an hour there I was at Shalfleet. This time I parked in the hard-to-find parking lot (hardly anyone else did, they used the roadside!) and decided on a stroll before lunch. So I headed past the National Trust sign, down the dirt road that leads into the Nature Reserve, and finally came upon Shalfleet Quay. It’s a quay with a history. Like so many things on this island, it had mediaeval beginnings, as a commercial and warring anchorage. Now it’s a little pleasure port, full of protected birds and wildlife. And apparently those steaming chimneys in the distance … they are on the other side of the water, on the mainland! That’s how close we are.

After the quay, I explored the old mill. Like the Brightstone one, its now a wheel-less house, but this one was imaginatively adapted. I liked it. Shalfleet has a great inn, and a grand church, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a village. It looks as if it were originally just a grandiose manor house and handful of rather impressive farms, whose large farmhouses seem now to be large houses mostly without farms.
I lunched at the New Inn on a most delicious warm black-pudding salad and a bottle of their superior ginger beer. I can still taste it! Notice, I’m working my way up. Last time it was a sandwich. But now I am tempted to a full meal. Mind you, I was lucky. The place was so heavily booked that, while I ate my salad, something like forty people had to be turned away. So note, New Inn, Shalfleet, definitely recommended, but book.
I felt, given the throng, that I’d better move on swiftly from my barstool, so I arrived early at Newtown, and waited on the grass till the kind lady at the Town Hall let me in, a bit before the hour. I had plenty of leisure to investigate the Hall, and I found that the story I’d got last time wasn’t quite right. People did come to Newtown, and it flourished briefly. But, in the 14th century (I think), the Danes and the French ransacked it, and it was only after that that it got underpopular and underpopulated and shrivelled away. I also found I’d photographed the Town Hall -- which is a defiant statement from Newtown's underpopular 17th century -- from the backside. So here is the frontside. A little wonky, but solid.

Inside, the Hall is a wee treat. Upstairs, just the council chamber, a garderobe and a little parlour for the mayor to wash and brush-up in. In true National Trust style, it’s all beautifully restored, furnished and maintained, and it has a kind of warm, living feeling about it. Downstairs, in a corner of what must have been the ‘offices’ of the place, is a tiny exhibition of locally important documents (repro) and a little bit – not enough for me! -- about the Ferguson Gang. As in Carisbrooke, I felt some of it was aimed a tad too ‘young’, but in those few square metres, upstairs and down, I spent a full 25 minutes and felt my two pounds well spent.

On the way back, I thought I would try, on my fourth time through, to see what Calbourne was all about. If I could find somewhere to park. As I arrived in its vicinity, however, I had hurriedly to throw out anchor. The entire road was blocked by a tour bus. RT Tours of Deal, Kent, if you want to bring folk to Wight, bring them in a vehicle suitable to the island’s roads.
My sudden halt, however, was a godsend. Since I could go no further, I simply 'parked' where I was, at the side of the road, and walked down the hill. The tour-bussers had come here to look at Winkle Street. What is Winkle Street? Well, it’s a row of jigsawpuzzle-box thatched cottages the charm of which rests in that they front onto a little, stone-bridged stream and green meadows. It has an information board which insists on its possible connections (“Queen Elizabeth slept here badly’ sort of stuff) with Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett, some royal or other and … I forget. When Scenic Attractions have to lean on ‘famous name associations’ for their appeal, they lose me. If I was under-impressed with Winkle Street, however, I was much impressed by the village’s grand church, its vast and luxurious Rectory, and Westover Hall, opposite the church, gated and fenced, once the home, apparently, of some of the Moulton-Barrett family, but more importantly of the Worsleys. On a lake amid its lawns, a little boy and his father were feeding the ducks. We’ve had enough churches, so they are going to be my picture of Calbourne.

Fred squeezed past Mister RT Tours (still there!) and on to our favourite road, and we tootled merrily back to Hermitage Court Farm in time for afternoon tea, the end of the Dauphiné Libéré (I gave those blokes a second chance, but they were masticatng again, so I zapped them), a blog, and … ah, it’s 6pm. I think after coffee for breakfast, ginger beer for lunch and tea for .. well, tea .. its time for a Guinness. For pleasure.

Yes, this is the way to travel!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

One more Saint to my tally ...


In spite of its being Saturday, and in spite of this weekend being that of the Isle of Wight pop festival in Newport, I decided to take Fred on a little jaunt today.
My last feeble hope of finding a photographable gravestone (with birthdate, please) for one of my Vocalists in Wight resided in St Helen’s churchyard, in the village of St Helen’s, out on the eastish coast between Ryde and Bembridge. Thus it was that St Helen’s got the nod.
Getting there was a little trickier than it looked on the map. In fact, I must say that Fred made more directional mistakes today than in all the other days put together: his great failing is that he cannot read road signs. Mine is that I misinterpret them.
Still, we safely negotiated Beacon Alley -- whose slim bit no longer seems a kilometre long, just a couple of hundred metres – found our way to the almost-village of Merstone, and then up on to the decidedly popular orange road across the tops to Brading Downs. Nice views, when you can take your eyes off the traffic. Then, steeply, down into the village of Brading. Fred made a real hash of this bit, but I wasn’t tempted to stop in Brading. It seemed a plain, tidy village, off-puttingly overloaded with Tourist Attractions. Even a substantial bit of a Roman Villa (housed, we are proudly told, in 3 million pounds' worth of complex) couldn’t tempt me. I headed firmly on to St Helen’s, past its supersized village green, and down to my targeted carpark at the Duver (a sometime golf-course) by the seaside.

St Helen’s beach is a charming, uncluttered beach, featuring a bundle of characterful bathing sheds, a trio of staunch houses, a fun-looking café and ice-cream stall with traditional tables and umbrellas, and a nicely interesting bit of a ruin which is designated not as a ‘landmark’ but a ‘seamark’. It is, in fact, the ruined remnant of the original local church (part of an C11th priory) which suffered from the gradual encroachment of the sea until, in 1720, it was simply knocked down by a wave. Probably more than one wave, but you get the idea. The story goes that the stones of the broken building, being sandstone, were subsequently used by seamen to scrub the decks of their ships, and thus was born the expression ‘holystoning’. Hmmm.

From the car-park, I took a stroll along the National Trusted beach till it ran out, then clambered up through the trees to a track allegedly leading to Seaview. It led me to the quiet and decidedly sweet-beachy Priory Bay, after which I decided that it was too muddy, brambly, nettly and root-strewn (a hazard which means you end up, for your view, seeing nothing but your feet) to go further and retraced my steps. Just before I got back to Fred, I encountered a really pretty sight: a group of little children mounted on everything from ponies to a small shire-horse, setting out for their Saturday supervised ride.

After a ‘Mister Mikie’ at the café (it’s a milky ice on a stick), I headed back to the town green, and made a visit to the Mother Goose second-hand bookshop (I don’t buy anymore, but I love to look) where I got directions to the church and churchyard which have replaced the washed out one. They don’t intend to be washed out again: St Helen’s Church Mark II is well up above the sea and right out beyond the actual village. Its graveyard is considerable and, although mowing has begun, largely waist-deep in grass. So Maria B Merest didn’t get her resting place found and photographed. End of mission.
Fred accomplished a nifty U turn in the little lane, ducked into a momentary gap in the streaming traffic, and we cruised home over the downs without taking a single wrong turning.

So now I’m back at Hermitage Court Farm, feet up, watching the Dauphiné Libéré cycling on Eurosport. This used to be one of my favourite races of the year, but – for political reasons – in 2008 they excluded the best Frenchmen, so this time it’s only of moderate interest. By the way, I say I’m ‘watching’. Yes, I switched the sound off, because the appallingly incompetent English commentators were so wrapped up in their own fluffy-navel voices that they chatted for the first ¾ hour about anything but the race in progress. It took them half an hour to tell us who was leading. Now I’m managing contentedly with the French subtitles. Someone should tell that vain pair how dull they are, and that a ‘commentator’ is supposed to comment the images on screen, not bore us to death with superflia.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The finest folly in Wight

Not unexpectedly it rained last (Thursday) night, so that put walking off the programme for the day .. why get soggy ankles and ruin the Hannah’s of Rangiora boaties when one has a car?
So Fred and I headed out for a wee explore in places slightly further afield.
Travel here is slightly limited at the moment (a) because the road to Rookley is up and the alternative is too much Beacon Lane and (b) this weekend is the Isle of Wight’s annual pop festival, and Newport and environs are already, shall we say, humming. So westward, away from these two phenomena, seemed good sense.
I have been moaning about the lack, here, of the kind of nice comfy country pub where one can lazily devour a lunchtime shandy and sandwich, so Jayne pointed me towards the New Inn at Shalfleet. And Chris suggested the nearby Nature Reserve at Newtown. Since the way to these places is via those lovely roads through Brightstone et al, I thought this sounded an excellent idea, and off we set.

The New Inn at Shalfleet is a grand pub, with a bulging menu, and awards pinned all over it. It’s not too large, it’s not thatched (although the old photos show it once was), it’s nicely modernised in its working parts (a slight extension to the gents’ loo would be good, it’s a little too like the island’s roads .. one at a time!), folk are friendly, customers are plentiful, even at 12.01pm, and I enjoyed my excellent organic ginger beer shandy and ham sandwich, which were a much better seven quid’s worth than their Gorey equivalent.

However, Newtown was the day’s success. I pulled in at the National Trust barn and read the ‘what’s to do’. Lots of walks through wet shrubbery. A bird hide. A chalk board with the currently visible flora. Hmmm. And, what was this? ‘The Old Town Hall’. ‘The Town Hall with no town’. And, yes, there it was, just outside, a quaint 300 year-old edifice at the side of the road. Open three days a week and this was not one. And then I read the wonderful story of the place. The island’s ‘folly par excellence’! It had been erected as part of a plan to build a ‘new town’ at this place, all those years ago. But folk couldn’t be persuaded to come and live there, the laid out allotments went without takers, and the borough lost its ‘rotten’ MPs, then its borough status, and the Town Hall was never anything but a white elephant. So there it sat, going through a variety of uses until the early 20th century, when it became derelict and, in the 1930s, a target for the beneficence of ‘the Ferguson Gang’. These were a group of lively (and well-off) young conservationists who, masked and successfully anonymous in their time, descended upon various buildings and natural features in need of saving, and supplied both publicity for the cause and hard cash, as a gift to the National Trust, for their conservation. Splendid stuff. And there’s an exhibition on them in the building: I may have to go back next opening day. For the moment, all I could do was photograph the now restored building.

Newtown didn’t remain wholly unloved as a place to live. There are a number of charming cottages, a fine C19th church in a heavy state of refurbishment, and somebody is actually building a nice house right next the church. There are heaps of walks, and if you look out over the nature reserve and the water to some unartistic, but I suppose necessary, smoking industrial chimneys, well, nothing’s perfect. I think those folk who didn’t come to Newtown made a mistake.

I made my way home through Yarmouth (lots of yachts, a ferry station and a confusing system of lanes which made me miss the castle) and Freshwater, which didn’t cry out to me to stop, until I saw a sign for Calbourne. So, instead of heading for the Military Road, along the coast back to Niton, I nipped inland and found myself at Mottistone Manor. More National Trust. Sigh, I had to pay 20 pence for a pee at Newtown, here it was 3.35 to look at a herbaceous border. Bring back the Ferguson Gang.
The Manor is very nice, but seemingly lived in and thus closed, the gardens were nice but I think Wendy does just as well at Gerolstein. But I was told the herbaceous border was the thing, so I duly photographed it.
I think my ham sandwich at the New Inn was a more satisfying three quid’s worth.

The rain came then, like a reminder that enough was enough for one day, and so I wended home via Brightstone and Chale Green and via Shorwell, where I spotted ‘my’ house, and on the ‘when in Rome’ principle, stopped Red Fred on the corner and got out to photograph it. And then I saw the pile of builder’s sand. The beautiful house has been gutted, and is to have 21st century innards. Oh, well, its on a corner, and right on the road, I wouldn't have liked that much ... now, if it had been in a situation like that of Hermitage Court Farm, nothing could have stopped me reaching for my wallet. Chuckle.

And now, I’m cosily back at that most desirable dwelling-cum-B&B, for a snooze, a blog, and an evening with the next of my Victorian Vocalists. A little culture, a little learning, a little laugh, a little lunch, a herbaceous border, a few hundred thousand quid saved, a little ziz and, now a little creative activity. Not bad all in one day.

PS Much has been made of the fact that all but one of the Ferguson Gang went to their graves without being unmasked. However, I suspect this is not true, especially as photographs survive. If there hasn’t been a book there could and should be.

I'm just popping across the downs


I’m just popping across the downs to get my hair cut…

A good throwaway line, don’t you think?

It was a day which looked as if it might do anything, so I decided that I’d keep it easy. A nice stroll over the downs, down Bury Lane (which is now bursting into purple flower) and into Niton to visit Steve, the local hairdresser, for a quick shear. The sky refused to turn blue, but I snapped Hermitage Court Farm from the top of the lane anway.

Back at base, familiar things had been happening. Chris had a split tractor hose. I know all about those. But, soon after my return, all was repaired, and as Chris and tractor rolled back into the gate, number two son Charlie climbed up alongside, and I snapped the event.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008



One of my ‘must do’s for my time in Wight was, as in Jersey, to check out the encyclopaedic facts and figures on those of my Victorian Vocalists who were born, lived and/or died on the Island. Last year, I made a tentative stab at a cemetery or two, with limited success, but I did establish that such records as existed would be found not locally but in the island’s Record Office … in Newport. Red Fred was going to have to brave the streets of ‘the big city’. As it turned out, the ‘big city’ was a doddle compared to getting there. Road works having closed our usual route, we were obliged to take ‘Beacon Alley’ to access the main road. Beacon Alley is a Wightish road (?) which actually admits to be single lane. Single lane, that is, to be shared by cars going both ways. Which doesn’t stop trucks using it. You have to glue yourself to the downhill bank while uphill traffic squeezes through. Which we did. I really think that, after that, I deserved to negotiate almost successfully the hazards of the Newport one-way system (choose your lane and hope for the best!) and to find a large empty parking space just a few yards from my goal!
After a sticky start in the Records Office, I managed to find every fact that I was after (and one was in Latin: my ancient M.A. (Hons) at last came in handy!), and so I turned my attentions to Greg’s forebears, the Jupe family of Gunville, Carisbrooke. There, too, success smiled. Jupes flowed from all corners, and I even came upon a partial family tree made by a modern day owner of the name.

In view of all this success (and of the fact that there were, in the end, no Wightish VicVoc graves for me to visit), I decided that my next mission had better be to Gunville. Perhaps a 19th century cottage might have survived at 34 Gunville Lane, the ancient seat of the prolific Jupe family.
So Fred had to earn his living a second day in a row.
It was a very pleasant drive from Hermitage Court Farm to Chale Green, then, on a new piece of road (for us), up to Billingham and the crazy village of Chillerton. It’s rightly named. Chillerton is a bunch of houses ribboned along a stretch of typical Wightsized road. You know, just big enough for two car-widths if you breathe in. So what do the locals do? Why they park along one side. Preferably on corners. So ‘Chillerton main street’ is no better than Beacon Alley. Worse, in fact, because where you can snuggle up to a bank you can’t to a vehicle!

Escaping Chillerton, we wended on to Whitcombe Cross and to a splendid Victorian pile designated Carisbrooke Priory. And a carpark. This being walking distance from Carisbrooke Castle and Gunville, I tied Fred up to a rail in the park, and tentatively poked my nose through first the Priory gates, and then its front door. The Priory was built in the early 1860s to house a coven of nuns, but the order proved not to be of the durable kind, and 15 years ago the property was sold to a Christian group which now runs the place as a Quiet House, a day centre where Christian societies can meet, and where folk can just come to relax (and take soup) in peaceful and lovely surroundings.
One of the ladies in charge gave me a guided tour. The whole place just reeked of calm and kindness and good things. I’m not a Christian, and I’m not into donating to charities, but this place and its people just touched my heart, and when I left I dropped into the donations box the largest amount of money I’ve ever donated to anything in my life.

Carisbrooke Castle is a nice castle and, having been lived in until only a few decades ago, is not just a series of old stones. One can see the room where Charles I was held until his execution. And the bowling green where he is said to have entertained himself until. Also the window he is supposed to have tried to escape from (although the bowling green looks really easy to get away from). One can see the rooms where the Princess Beatrice lived and, at the other end of time, the splendid Isabella de Fortibus. There is a recently restored chapel, plus a small and friendly museum whose displays are angled very firmly towards the under 12s … and therein lay the rub. I think most of the under 12s of the Island were there this morning. You don’t get to muse on Carisbrooke Castle. You need earplugs. And when I dared the steep climb to the top of the keep, my unsteady steps were dogged by juvenile rockets flying up and down the vertiginous stairs. I got there, glanced woefully over the panorama, took a photo (see below) of Carisbrooke and Gunville, but as soon as I saw ten metres of childfree space on the stairs, I hurried down. And out. The Priory is much more my scene. And, after Mont Orgeuil, truthfully, other castles just seem tame.

From the castle, I scrambled down a muddy path to the brook and to what I assume is the oldest part of Carisbrooke, I passed by St Mary’s Church, where the odd Jupe had been christened or buried, also the ex-Primitive Methodist church where ditto (the family changed denomination frequently), and out to Gunville Road. Gunville Road (formerly Gunville Lane, but now a sizeable thoroughfare) nowadays has, alas, no early C19th features. I suspect the agricultural labourer’s cottages of that era were not built to last. Now, its mostly red-brick railwayclerk semis or ‘villas’, with the odd more recent ‘Summerville stone’ bungalow. Alas, no 34 was one of those.

Still, I’d been there. And I posted Greg the partial family tree I’d dug up at the Records Office from Carisbrooke Post Office (which is part of the co-op). Gunville doesn’t have one.

So, maybe this was not one of my more romantic or picturesque excursions, but it was interesting enough. And what I shall retain from the day is, of course, the Priory and the good, kind, Christian people therein.

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?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Brightstone and Mottistone

In one way, today’s outing was less successful than those of the previous days. For I didn’t accomplish what I had set out to do.
I had decided to drive to the Brightstone Forest, and then take the rather unnecessarily christened ‘Tennyson Trail’ from the country carpark, through the trees, some 10 km on foot to Carisbrook. Carisbrook, of course, has a famous castle which needs to be seen, and also I wanted to haunt the churchyards and see if I could find any trace of the Jupe family, the ancestors of Greg, partner to brother John.
I didn’t get there. I marched for 5km along vast wide tracks (bigger than many of the island’s roads) with only occasionally lovely sylvan views of overhanging trees and beds of ferns, which truthfully couldn’t excite someone brought up around the fabulous forests of New Zealand, until the track suddenly died. A signpost saying Carisbrook 3 miles pointed directly at a quagmire. How long is a quagmire? I suppose I could have clambered up the hill through the trees to see if, a few hundred metres further on, things got better, but what if it all got worse again in the next 5km? Irritated, I aborted and returned to the car park.
However, if the Tennyson Trail was a first class failure, the rest of the day was anything but. The drive to the forest via Chale Green and the really delightful villages of Shorwell and Brightstone was without a doubt the prettiest ‘inhabited’ drive I’ve done here yet. Glorious countryside, truly beautiful buildings including a heap of non-threatening thatch .. look at this little wee feller in Brightstone!

But my favourite building was a fine elderly bourgeois mansion (?) in Shorwell. It was on a corner, so I didn’t get a proper look and, as ever in Wight, there was nowhere to pull in and stop (though the locals do, simply reducing the barely 2-way highway to a one-way street), so I planned to snap it on the way back. Alas, concentrating on the road, on the way back I missed it, so I will have to go there again.

In Brightstone I did find a place to stop. A little municipal carpark (free!). So I found Fred a spot, and I spent a good hour in this most charming of villages. To start with I visited its delicious old (thatched) post-office. Not only was it there and open, it had a red King George postbox that worked and it was manned by a delightful elderly gent who sold me a postcard of … Newport. There aren’t any, apparently, of Brightstone, which is crazy. I posted my cheque and Gerry’s card in the robust red box with a feeling of great satisfaction.

Brightstone also has a fine church, St Mary’s, with a surprisingly large graveyard. And, guess what, it was open. God lives on in Brightstone, even if He has fled some other places. It’s a splendid church, basically Norman with the usual accretions of later ages and it is also very much in use today. I took a photo of its nave and some of the fine stained glass, and the plaque to its famous rectors, including a son of William Wilberforce who became a Bishop, but alas it didn’t come out very well.
The graveyard was explained when I visited the little (thatched) town museum (free!), next to the post office. Brightstone has a considerable history, not least as a lifeboat station.

I glanced self-abnegatingly at a fine, cheerful pub and a busy tearoom-cum-B&B-cum-all sorts, but forewent them in favour of following the local heritage trail to an old mill. What purports to be the mill has been converted into natty lodgings, but the walk back along the mill stream (why is the race so far from the alleged mill?) was pleasant.
So is Brightstone. Thoroughly pleasant, thoroughly pretty, and thoroughly lively. My last glimpse, as Fred rolled out of town, was of the local schoolchildren playing shriekingly twenty-first century games on the green. Brightstone is a thoroughly living village.

If, from the country carpark, you walk in the opposite direction to the muddy Trail, you climb Mottistone Downs. Well, I’m game for anything downy, so up I went. Grand views, east back to whence I’d come (and my ‘pepperpot’ a speck on top of the hills), or west, where the cliffs of the Needles shine whitely through the intermittently cloudy air.

I scaled the downs to their peak, cast a brief eye at some bronze age tumuli (I’m sorry, tumuli are just like Pacific islands races to me: they all look the same), another at some jolly if baleful highland cattle who didn't seem at all fazed by me nor by the many folk walking their dogs, then plunged down the other side, turned off through the forest and returned by a leafier route.
And then, having nibbled my bread and cheese in the carpark, I wended homeward.
Carisbrook will be for another day. Of today, I have Brightstone and Shorwell and the Mottistone Downs to remember.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Up, then down...

I could see from my bed, at 5am, that it was going to be another sunny day, so I leaned over and grabbed the ordnance survey map and my glasses …

A walking day, not a driving day (lucky Fred), and something where I could do a circuit, not a there and back. So I decided on the village of Chale. Up to the downs, down to Chale Green, along to Chale, round the coast to Blackgang, up to the downs again and home. The bridle paths were clearly marked. No problem.
So, after a sumptuous breakfast, I hoisted on my new backpack and set off for Hoy monument. Having read up on Mr Hoy a bit last night (my goodness those British merchants made a mint in early C19th Russia!), I enjoyed his folly even more, but I paused only to photograph the lush lands I was about to descend to (these two pictures are a panorama, notice the same cows in each) and plunged on down the indicated bridle way.

Hmmmm. I'm beginning to get a theory about bridle ways, which anyway certainly couldn’t take a horse the size of my Elena. They exist in theory rather than in practice. I think perhaps I should be sticking to ‘public footpaths’ instead. This one was muddy, overgrown with bramble, nettle, grass and other unidentified flora, and one didn’t ‘walk’, as you can on the downs, but rather scrambled down it. Still, someone else must have been using the thing, for I found two gates left culpably open.
The descent was uncomfortable but uneventful. I got a fright when, stopping for a pee (which one can do on bridle paths), a pigeon flew out of the grass at my feet. The fright was a retrospective one. I remembered a similar occasion in Australia, a decade ago, when, stopped for similar reasons, I had for audience a kangaroo and two sidewinder snakes. Here (although one field I saw was labelled ‘beware of the adders’), the main hazard was flies, and I was jerked back into song when one flew into my left ear and another right down my throat. ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…’
What was a path, what public and what private, was almost impossible to tell. There was only one signpost in all the descent, so I was not surprised when I came upon a road which was not the one I’d been aiming for. I was at Upper Appleton Farm. Nice it is, too. But I was, for once, quite pleased to see tarmac.

The first event on the tarmac road was the village of Chale Green. Charming. Some nice houses, a pretty green, some thatch -- but this was non-threatening thatch that seemed intended as roofing not as a statement or an advertisement – but more stone and neat grey slate, and, heaven’s sake – a general store. I purchased a fresh bread roll and a bottle of Fanta, pulled out a box of Vache qui rit from my pack, and had a delicious morning tea on a bench by the green.

A mile and a half of delightful country road (a red road, but still not room for two cars and a pedestrian) and I arrived at Chale. This was supposed to be the scenic attraction of my walk – an old inn, a fine church, and (so the map said) a Post Office where I could post my ebay cheque to Brad and Beatriz, and buy a postcard for Gerry. I was disappointed. The hostelry is a vast and uncomfortably bitty affair rejoicing in the twee name of ‘The Wight Mouse’. And, guess what, it doesn’t serve food till midday. St Andrew’s church was fine indeed. From the outside. But it is Anglican, and thus it was closed. God, or his English representatives on earth, only receive the tired, the weary, the halt and the lame, by appointment on certain days of the week.
Still, from the comfy bench in the graveyard (dedicated to Florence Slater! No, not the Florrie Slater in my last book, but what a coincidence), I could see a lovely big red King George letter box. The post office! Strike three and out. The post office is gone, and the box’s mouth stuffed up with a piece of wood. Chale Green 2, Chale 0.

From Chale, I took the coastal path to Blackgang. Or tried to. Part of it was boarded out, and suddenly it came to a premature end. Road closed. The reason was obvious. The missing bit was in the sea. Goodness knows what went in with it, but the little group of very nearby houses looks in imminent danger. Several are abandoned, but the Merlin Tandoori Restaurant hangs grimly in, alongside lemon-walled Pixie Cottage and one other altogether-too-seaside house which has a notice up ‘For Sale’. You have to be kidding!

Avoiding the ‘Fantasy Theme Park’ at Blackgang Chine, I headed up the road in search of the footpath back up to the downs. It was a bridle path. It was also invisible. So I guessed. And, thus, followed a sheep track right up the hill and splat into a man mending fences. I didn’t offer to help (my experience is limited largely to watching Wendy do it), just mumbled ‘sheep track?’ and headed off across the hillside to a visible bit of official path. It ended, hurrah!, at St Catherine’s Oratory. And so I sat down on what the map tells me is a bronze age tumulus and lazily consumed the other half of my roll and cheese and the rest of my Fanta in blissful, carefree, sunwarmed peace.

The downs are definitely my favourite bit of Wight so far. I shall be up here most days. Amongst the gorse and bluebells, the tiny rabbits, the crows and the pheasants (and, alas, I saw one stoat/weasel/ferret), and the mad monuments.
Today, they gave me a picturesque finale. As I headed down the slope towards the plateau, from the bush round Hoy Monument a horse galloped forth, heading across the downs in my direction. Instead of grabbing for my camera, I just gaped in delight. What a wonderful sight. To make it perfect, of course, it should have been a fine stallion with a flowing mane mounted by a sexy cavalier in a mighty cape… when we met at the gate, I was introduced to a nice little mare ridden by a cheerful middle-aged lady. But never mind. It was still a grand sight.

So now I’m home, showered, foot-bathed and ready to spend the afternoon out on the lawn attacking my article on Victorian Vocalist number 150, Miss M S Edwin…

This is the life!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Up on the Downs

A brief pause for emails, tennis results, the sandwich the Spyglass couldn’t provide and a small Guinness, and I set out on part two of my day’s plan. A trip back up on to the downs to investigate the two ‘monuments’ which I’d spotted in the distance and the mist yesterday.
‘Follies’ might be a better word. For both of them are indeed weird objects.

The first is known as St Catherine’s Oratory. I’m not sure why, because it’s a small 13th century lighthouse. The story goes that a local lordling once plundered a shipwreck of wine intended for the Catholic Church and was condemned as popish penance to build the light to prevent further wrecks. It looks a funny wee ‘pepperpot’ now, up there on its mound, and a gentleman I met at the site wondered where the monk had lived who had to light the watchfire each night. I suggested he might have muled in at dusk, but I was wrong. Wikipedia says (not that I usually trust Wikipedia after reading its curious article on myself!) that the tower was only part of a larger building, so I guess that’s where the oratory bit comes from.
Anyway, it’s a fun object with a fun history, and you get splendid views from around it, around and across the island.

From the Oratory, it is only a kilometre or so across the downs to an even more curious object, exactly five hundred years younger. In 1814 (a good year), to celebrate the visit of the Czar Alexander of all the Russias, a local gentleman by name Michael Hoy saw fit to erect, on a prominent point, a tall stone pillar with a ball on top, the whole suitably inscribed and making mention of the happy times Mr Hoy had spent dwelling in his Czarship’s regions. Well, I guess it was his money to spend.
But it gets better.
Forty-some years later, as the Crimean War raged, Russia’s Czar was no longer a friend but an enemy. Fortunately, instead of knocking Mr Hoy’s folly down, Mr W H Dawes simply replaced the inscription, and the very visible pillar-and-ball affair became instead a monument to those soldiers killed fighting the Russian forces at Alma and Sebastopol.
Nowadays, the original inscription has been re-added on the verso, so this particular folly tells two stories with very different attitudes. A splendid bit of history which now, nearly 200 years down the line, has its humorous side.

Five o’clock draws near. The sun is still out, but it’s not so hot as before … I think the picnic on the lawn may end up being a picnic on my bed..

Gosh, I’d better uncork the Chateauneuf du Pape …