An inscription used historically by nautical cartographers to indicate a space of uncharted water. If the mapmakers had no information as to what might be in an area of map, they filled it with monsters; ship-devouring kraken; huge whales with sharp teeth, Neptune on the warpath, or viciously gigantic mermaids. This practice suggests that the unknown place is both somewhere to be terrified of and also may be filled with the fantastic.
I don’t suppose any ancient maps of the Isle of Wight had the ‘here be monsters’ tag which is a shame. In fact in geological terms the Isle was linked to mainland Britain – from the Needles to Old Harry’s Rocks in Dorset – only yesterday. About 10,000 years ago sea levels started rising as the great ice sheets of the last Ice Age melted and as sea level rose higher, the Isle of Wight became separated from the mainland about 7,000 years ago. Sticking with the geological theme the Isle of Wight is made up of a wide variety of different rock types ranging from Early Cretaceous times (around 127 million years ago) to the middle of the Palaeogene (around 30 million years ago). The northern half of island is mainly made up of Tertiary clays, with the southern half formed of Cretaceous rocks (the chalk that forms the central east-west downs, as well as Upper and Lower Greensands and Wealden strata). Cretaceous rocks on the island, usually red, show that the climate was previously hot and dry.
All this adds up to a remarkably diverse landscape which often leads this diamond shaped island to be described as England in miniature. It’s one of the few places in England where the red squirrel is still flourishing and it’s certainly a wonderful place to go walking – particularly the 92 km of coastline. Well when I say 92 km you can’t actually walk all the way round the island on the coast and frankly this is both surprising and disappointing. David Howarth goes as far to say that: “Over half of our so-called coastal path doesn’t even follow the shore”. And he should know ‘cos he’s chair of the Isle of Wight Ramblers. They really seem to value their footpaths on the island – there’s plenty of ‘em, they’re well sign posted and we didn’t come across any obstructions. The main part of the coast that is restricted is around Osborne House.
Even more surprising and disappointing is that the Isle of Wight was excluded from the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act. I’m certainly in the Stuart Maconie camp of believing that: “The roots of the Ramblers are not in cream teas and stiles, but in dissent and protest”. (Just to make it clear I haven’t got anything against cream teas and stiles and am I the only one who thinks Stuart Maconie would make a great pantomime dame? – please insert your own ‘oh no he wouldn’t’ gag here.) So to add your voice of protest please join the Ramblers in their English Coastal Path campaign and contact them to find ways you can help.
Notwithstanding this we set out from Shanklin and walked west past Ventnor until we got to St Lawrence. Then we cut inland and headed for St Boniface Down, which is, of course, a Marilyn. A Marilyn is a mountain or hill in the UK, Republic of Ireland or Isle of man with a relative height of at least 150 metres , regardless of absolute height or other merit. The name was coined as a punning contrast to the designation Munro, used of a Scottish mountain with a height of more than 3,000 feet (914.4 m), which is homophonous with (Marilyn) Monroe. It also offers glorious sea views.
Later on in the week we popped along to the Shanklin Theatre to see Rick Wakeman. These days he seems to be famous for being a contestant on Just a Minute, a Grumpy Old Man and Countdown. But old prog-rockers know him as a member of Yes and I like him for his work as session musician where he played keyboards on tracks as various as Life on Mars, Morning has Broken and Grandad (well aboy’s gotta make a living). He also recorded an album entitled The Six Wives of Henry VIII and in a case of art imitating life I think he’s up to number four himself.
The island is also famous for Victorians. The eponymous queen lived at Osborne House after Albert’s death, Dickens holidayed at Bonchurch and Alfred, Lord Tennyson lived on the west tip near the Needles. I can highly recommend another great Isle of Wight walk starting on Tennyson Down. The wind was blowing hard and the rain was sleeting down as we trudged up the down and it all added to the atmosphere. I know these days the poet is probably famous for The Charge of the Light Brigade but I always remember him for the line from In Memoriam – ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. Then we walked to the Needles followed by a swift visit to Alum Chine – you know where all that coloured sand comes packaged in glass bells, cats and lighthouses. We took a slight diversion to nearby Warren Farm for some tea and cake and then pushed on for Headon Hill. A bit more coastal walking followed before we cut in country and back to Freshwater Bay. The evening was made complete with a few pints of local brewers Goddards Scrumdiggity.
It’s a shame about the coastal path but it’s hard not to warm to the Isle of Wight. There’s an understated solidity about the place. These days our monsters seem to be climatic and financial rather than kraken and Neptune but it’s not hard to imagine the Wighters facing these perils with a collective shrug of their shoulders, briefly stopping their DIY or temporarily ceasing to tend their gardens, stoically lacing up their boots, resignedly filling their rucksacks and staring them down armed with only a Mars bar. Not so much England in miniature but the spirit of England writ large if you ask me. Ah I can hear that Tennyson bloke again: ‘Was there a man (or woman) dismayed?’
Support the work of the Ramblers – sponsor me here
OS Map used – Outdoor Leisure 29 Isle of Wight. Pay less when you order this map here.