‘It can feel hard to escape…’ – the merits and de-merits of island life, Yarmouth.
We awake in Ricardo’s room in Bournemouth. As couchsurfing places go, it’s a little cosy, but after two days crammed into a one-person tent with my sister, the floor-space is vast and luxurious. You can even stretch your arms out, and turn over! Life in a tent has few perks, as one can imagine.
Last night we’d stayed up til really late, all of us talking, and the next morning we all sleep over our alarms. Ricardo flies out at ten am to start work on a regular Sunday Lunch at the carehome. He had a very funny take on what he saw as the typically English narrow food tastes of the residents (who are, all things considered, a mixture of ages and backgrounds). When he started work, he was outraged at the unhealthy and unimaginative processed slop that was served with punctual frequency. Each day, the same dish. So with the passion of a modern-day missionary (cue Jamie Oliver…?) he devised a new menu, filled with healthy meals, fresh ingredients and inventive combinations. Lo, the residents complained heartily about the unusual nature of the food. Of the new dishes, those that received approval happened to be either heavily fried or full of cheese. In the end, our crestfallen chef abandoned his campaign to reform the palates of the punters, and of England more broadly. ‘How can people eat roast dinners all year round?’, he asked us. My sister and I just looked at each other blankly.
We take our time getting up, making breakfast and chatting. The room is filled with peculiar treasures, like a large colourful tapestry that takes up most of a wall, and an old telescope which has clearly given its owner much delight. I’m glad to have met another fascinating individual on the road.
It’s very sunny and hot today in Bournemouth, and the September weather is unseasonably seasonably hot. We walk down towards the town, which is even more affluent in appearance in the daylight and without the shouty drunk lads. It has a massive town hall and Victorian gardens which are both large and opulent without conceding anything to the ‘majesty’ or ‘grace’ of the people, workers, citizens, or what have you, the kind of dedication one might find on a municipal building of similar ambition in South Wales or Glasgow. People play tennis in proper whites (I know! We laugh to each other, not like our local park…), and with a degree of competitive seriousness, whilst others loll about on the grasses of thin parks beneath vanity clocktowers straight out of the fairy tales of 19th century gentry. Its shopping precinct is neither fussy nor selective, nor struggling with poundshops, charity shops and to lets, at least that we see, and there’s a number of well-to-do restaurants and bars that reinforce the moneyed feel to the place. In the Tesco, where I pick up food supplies for this day and the next, I’m told by one local that the town is a nice place to live, ‘easy to get by’ in. It depends on tourism, and so winters can be a little tough, but there seems to be substance to its affluence.
Like other seaside resorts, there’s little history to the place. It was established as a business venture at the beginning of the 19th century, following the new health craze for sea-bathing. Like most other British seaside resorts, its success was based on the railways, but unlike the resorts of the north or south-east, it doesn’t seem to have hit a slump. It has been repurposed as a university town, a hub-town for the region, absorbing Poole and Christchurch on either side, and as a centre for corporate and political conferences. The town regularly returns Conservative MPs, and was the first town centre in the country to feature CCTV cameras (though also, in fairness, the first town to build a municipal beach-house!). One might add, ‘despite the low crime rate’, but as I’ve found across these islands, the fear of crime often seems to increase in proportion to the affluence of an area.
We wander under a random and regrettable ugly concrete underpass that cuts directly between the town’s square and its seafront, and head towards the beach, a white open space-void with large tourist businesses like Aruba and a pier competing for attention. The sands are golden and filled with holidaymakers, and the beach is full. Today would be a fine day to just stop here, and sit on the beach. Alas, my sister’s heading back to London, and so am I, only my route will take about a week, and her’s about three hours. We say our goodbyes and move off, and after several days of companionship and adventures, I’m a little deflated to face the next stretch alone. But some extraordinary places lie ahead.
I cycle up through Southbourne, then out through Christchurch, following a busy A-road that consists mostly of petrol garages, car forecourts, Travelodges and massive supermarkets, occasionally interrupted by sweeping roundabout, like moreorless everywhere, distinctly indistinct, utterly modern. It’s also hectic with traffic, so I’m glad to eventually pull off in order to explore the New Forest.
Aah! Back among the blessed groves, the narrow lines with tall hedgerows, fresh-tilled fields and golden hay curled in great wheels. I hear a distance pip pop! of clay pigeon shooting as I ride deeper and deeper within, among clusters of woods that merge together and becomes the thick and verdant forest the name suggests. Foliage spills out over everything, green mosses concealing signs that once indicated villages. On one roadside, a large and inexplicable arrangement of standing stones. The only recent evidence of human life, aside from the occasional McDonalds paper-cup which seems to grace every obscure rural spot (is there some kind of social media photo-adventurer competition happening, I wonder?), are threatening warnings from the Hampshire police I later see on the Isle of Wight too, ‘you are being watched’. Even here, this lovely place, one cannot be free from this aggressive interference and imposed paranoia!
The thick hedgerows are only occasionally interrupted by large country homes. I ride through Wiverley Moor and then Hinchelsea Moor, vast and exposed expanses of heathland, punctuated with bracken and the occasional random rock flung about, with occasional groups of horses drifting across the road. It’s a chance to take one’s breath after the lush forests, but this point here, past Holmsley and close to Brockenhurst, is as breath-taking as the New Forest gets on this trip (which, what I mean is, it’s lovely, but after wondrous Dartmoor, it’s just lovely). I take a stop in Brockenhurst, a twee village where packs of donkeys freely roam around, or just stand still in, like the cheeky creatures idly loitering in the roads as cars queue. There’s a small parade of shops obviously catered to tourists, RSPB birthday cards and chintzy ornamentation on sale. It’s a Sunday, and there’s a number of cyclists resting their lubed and lycra’d buttocks against the wizened brick of a country boozer whilst chewing on a laboratory-designed protein bar, washed down with some kind of neon-coloured liquid. I regret having not met and spoken to more cyclists on my travels, but often I just don’t where to begin, and, as they eye up my gear or lack thereof, and assess the state of my ride, and its owner, nor do they. So we keep our distance, exchanging a polite nod as we pass.
I head into the Buttery Inn for some local mint ice-cream and a water refill. I’m served by a local girl still getting the hang of a job that doesn’t involve animals, and she happily tells me about the place. She loves the animals that rove around, and takes pleasure in wandering and exploring this large expanse that always seems to retain a bit of something unknown, somewhere that seemed to be familiar which then gives way to a strange and unusual location. Such is the stuff of adventure. It’s quiet by most standards, but she feels quickly linked to Southampton and to London. Whilst many businesses depend on tourists rather than local trade, she feels it possesses its own identity and ‘sureness’, one untroubled by social problems or grievances of any obvious kind.
Really? Apparently so. The Forest has been ‘new’ since about… the late 10th century, when William I evicted a few farmers and established the place into his own private deer-hunting playground. Almost all of the park is still owned by the Crown. Very few people live here, but many of those that do had roots with the area going back centuries. Unusually, the land is farmed here in commons, and so many commoners have allowed their creatures to graze here for centuries. Rising house prices and the higher incomes connected with tourism is diminishing that, but not substantially.
I ride out through the village of Boldre, heading back south after my detouring dalliance in the Forest, eventually reaching Lymington. It’s a small and dull-looking town, and much of it looks like a building site. Unlike most other islands, Wight has a very regular ferry service, about every hour or so, even on a Sunday. On Lewis there’d be violent uprisings… here, a queue of motor-homes and car-drivers, chins held up with clammy palms, children rapping, rattling and rattattatting in the backseats. Only a week! On the ferry over I’m suddenly gripped with the thoughts of all I’ll need to do when I get home. Can one really get away with ignoring emails and work assignments for four months? Yes, certainly, and it has been one of the greatest pleasures of this trip. But eventually things will have to be done, and after the New Forest, I don’t really have anywhere else ‘adventurous’ planned on this trip. The lack of exotica allows a somewhat hostile construction of reality to bleed back in. But don’t worry, there’s some pretty damn good adventures still ahead, just ones I hadn’t quite anticipated…
The ferry is a quick and pleasant ride over to Yarmouth, an old town on the north-western edge of Wight. Children play under the seats, ‘I’m a spy!’ one shouts, climbing under my seat, sending up all the crime warning signs all over the place. On the other side are assorted bands of cyclists, and I gather from two other riders on the boat that some kind of charity event is on, the main motivation for putting on a high-vis tabard and spandex knickerbockers. This little town looks lovely, with plenty of curious looking boozers to tempt the distracted cyclist. I head into the Kings Arms for a spot of the local Goddards bitter.
Conversation comes freely at the bar. I talk to Jenna, a young woman on the other side of the beer taps. Her air is friendly, animated, sincere yet gentle, and her face is a confusing jukebox of expressions that vary from happiness, to frustration, to disappointed hopes. ‘It’s a very small island. People do know each other!’ The price of the ferries is one prohibitive factor. But the smallness of island life is another concern. ‘You can’t just go down the street without people knowing you, or knowing your mother or father’. She’s half-French, and has lived off the island too, experiences she’s grateful for – and she adds the latter detail with the emphasis one would expect of a sophisticated university qualification or unusual life-event – but then again, the isolation and homesickness of being away, particularly with education, can drive one back home and then make it harder to leave. Such crises of confidence are difficult to recover from, particularly with the other emotive and reassuring benefits of island life. Islands may be too small, but their smallness can provide a great deal of comfort in difficult times, and those that complain about this smallness are often those who for one reason or another have found themselves returning, not quite ready to leave again.
As I’m waiting to be served, a gregarious but drunk local staggers up to the bar and addresses the staff in English then cod-French, a pile of crumbled peanuts in his hand. He asks them in theatrical manner what he should do with them. A little weary, they avoid adding any more fuel to the fire. I suggest dropping them on the floor. She finishes her shift and comes round the other side of the bar, and attempts to persuade him to leave some other locals alone, distracting him from his fixated subject of the Chelsea Bun. I wish her well and leave her behind.
Jenna’s given some good suggestions for the island, and I cycle down through Norton and Totfield, and out to Freshwater Bay, a wide expanse of beach and sea on the south-western edge of Wight. There’s some spectacular views of the crashing seas, and had I more time I’d explore Tennyson Down and the Needles on Wight’s furthest extreme, but from what I see, they are quite majestic. I park the bike besides the Albion Tavern, a name recurring with unusual regularity these last few days, and the following! I wander up a steep hill that overlooks the bay, then come back to the bike, to eat some improvised lunch outside whilst watching a couple of surfers brave the cool early evening waters. One eventually pulls himself out. His name is Jason, and between other things he is a painter and a photographer. ‘I came here for two weeks and here I am today’, he laughs. He knows the island very well, and points out a place called Blackgang Chine in the far horizon. ‘It’s wonderful’, great surfing, he assures me. ‘This is my favourite part of the island’, the rugged south, not so busy, unspoilt. He wishes me well, though doubts my ability to reach Ventnor, my self-set goal for the evening. I’m in no hurry, and with a stunning red sunset behind me, I push on.
I ride along the cliff, leaving Alum Bay and the red setting sun behind me and heading out east along the old military road. There are very few villages along this old southern road, and the place is ‘bleak’ I suppose, as Jenna described it, but I love its calmness and desertion, and these wide and thriving expanses of field and moor where one’s imagination can run untethered a little while. I pass Compton Bay and Beach, which by everyone’s suggestion is the best wild-camping spot in the island, but it’s not quite dark enough yet, so I carry on, through Brightstone, and along this deserted Sunday evening road.
Darkness is starting to set around 7ish now, enough to require switching on lights and riding that bit more carefully. I reach Chale, the first village in some time after that desolate stretch and occasional campsite. Jason had told me that there was an abandoned holiday park around here, but I fail to spot it. I see the spire of St. Andrews and a sign for a pub, the Wight Mouse Inn. I’m unsure whether to press on to Ventnor, which I’m told is a nice town but still seven or so miles away, and in the dusky twilight, or to stay here, take a chance on camping by the coastal path I make out signs for. After the last painful encounter with a car and the asphalt in the night-time, caution wins the day. There’s a nearby playing field and coastal path which seems a safe bet for wild-camping, and pleased with my decision, I head into the pub for a celebratory beer.
Inside the large and somewhat deserted pub, I drink pints of delicious Ringwood’s Old Thumper, Island Brewery’s Yachtsman and another pint of Goddards, and talk to the again animated, frustrated female barstaff as I sup. A similar story emerges. ‘It’s so small here’, one says. She’s from Ventnor, ‘two villages up from here’, but finds the island a little too self-contained. It’s a difficult place for young people: the tourist season is short, and most professional positions and further education must take place off the island. But Wight also has ‘a lot of older people’, many of which move here to retire. She’s glad she’s managed to get away, and now lives ‘most of the time in London’. I get the impression that this is a summer job and a means of saving money. Another girl nearby joins in, and I hear some more of the island’s good parts, with some tips in hand for tomorrow to explore, and I find that in all the complaints are loud and affectionate, and that the greatest secret, though they may be loathe to admit it, is that such an easy and tranquil life is actually quite nice. It wouldn’t be so for me, brought up in a busy city and easily distracted, but I can see the charms…
I find a place to sit and watch the dusky sea become a canvas of black, and listen to the background small-talk whilst I write. ‘I didn’t win the lottery, and then I did a scratch-card, and didn’t win that. My luck’s gone. … 69 million, I wouldn’t have to worry again. I’d buy you a house, and you’d be sorted. … And me, I’d get myself 400 cars.’ … After the cars, these would-be lottery winners talk about taking terminally ill kids on holiday on the island.
A wee bit later, I head out back towards the signpost for a coastal path, something the girl I’ve been talking to assures should be ok for camping. Instead I cycle through the village’s recreation ground and find a spot just outside the glare of the occasional passing car, and set up camp. Dinner is tortilla wraps, a tin of vegetable curry and a bit of spinach. With that, and my view of the stars, I’m satisfied, and fall asleep before I can even set an alarm.