An adventure in the Isle of Wight


The Isle of Wight and south Hants in June 1984, revised 2023

Patrick Roper, 20 June 1984.

I took the car by ferry from Portsmouth to Fishbourne then drove round  the back of Ryde to Bembridge, stopping on the way at a curious sandy peninsula of scrub owned by the National Trust and called The Duver on the north side of Brading Haven. It Looked worthy of brief exploration in the future, but I have never managed to return. The word ‘Duver’ is interesting and I have not found any explanation for it.  I wonder if it can come from the old Brittonic word for water, ‘dufer’ or similar.  I can’t help noticing that this old Celtic word for water also occurs near a places that were important in Roman times: Dover in Kent for example. The Duver at Bembridge is quite close to the Brading Roman villa which lies near the river Yar that runs into Bembridge Harbour.  The Romans could well have adopted a local term used by the natives. In Roman times Bembridge was an island and islands seem to have had a particular significance to the ancient Celtic-speaking cultures,  as Alice Albinia suggests in her book The Britannias (2023) an island off an island off an island like Bembridge may have been regarded as particularly special.

A short distance further on I walked on the beach at Foreland, the most easterly point of the Isle of Wight. Its name is just 'Foreland', not 'East Foreland'. A short distance to the north Tyne House stands on the East Cliff and a rocky shelf called Tyne Ledge extends out into the sea below it.  There has been some debate about the origin of the word Tyne elsewhere in England but some speculate that it might be Celtic or pre-Celtic.  On the other hand ‘Tyne’ may come from Old Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon. It is of quite old usage in Wight since it has been attested from the 14th C in Bembridge. Untroubled by these ruminations I spent a quiet and warm afternoon walking on the Foreland beach with its wave-smoothed sandy rocks velveted in bright green algae while not far beyond great ships sailed the English Channel to and from The Solent at Spithead.

I arrived at Culver Down two and a half miles further south at tea time.  ‘Culver’ is an old fashioned word for a pigeon, birds that no doubt were, and still are, resident on the local cliffs.  Culver is also the name of one of the white-tailed eagles introduced to the Isle of Wight as part of a rewilding programme.  These huge raptors were last seen at Culver Cliff in 1780 and have returned to this location as though they were never absent.  Reaching 311 feet above sea level much of the down is grade one chalk  grassland and it was studded with bright pink pyramidal orchids and afforded splendid views across the Channel and coast to Sandown and St. Boniface Down.  There are many barrows and hill forts in the area and I enjoyed reflecting on these ancient people on a limpidly lovely evening with its setting sun and a dead calm blue sea.

I was in the Isle of Wight for the British Resorts Association Conference in Shanklin, but I stayed overnight at the Royal Hotel, Ventnor. This is currently described, somewhat tautologically, as a top, premier, luxury hotel with a five star rating and “an irresistible destination for the discerning traveller for the past 180 years”.  I probably enjoyed my brief stay but I cannot say I have any memory of it at all. However, I did have time the following morning to explore the area in the positively Mediterranean ambience, the air perfumed by the sweetly brilliantine smell of the New Zealand cordyline flowers (also known as 'cabbage trees' or  tī kōuka in Maori), wafting through the sun-warmed air from their great fingered mops of leaves .  This smell is characteristic of many of Britain’s seaside resorts in summer and I am not really sure if I like it.

My early morning walk was westwards almost to St Lawrence along the Undercliff  and it brought my first encounter with white sea stocks and the Glanville fritillary, a small brown butterfly flying rapidly and low in a zigzag pattern over the sand of Castle Cove settling on bits of seaweed with open wings.  Very wary.  In some ways they were more like a day-flying moths.  Short, fast, powerful wing strokes blurring in the air.  Later, on the higher, grassy part of the Undercliff there were others, but none that I could get a close look at like the first.

The Glanville fritillary is named after Lady Eleanor Glanville (1654-1709) who found the butterfly, which used to be widespread, in Lincolnshire. It now occurs only on the southern coast of the Isle of Wight in Great Britain.  Its decline seems to be due mainly to change in land use. The frequent landslips on the IoW undercliffs constantly refresh the colonies of ribwort plantain on which the caterpillars feed and the population of the butterfly on the island is currently stable.  Richard South in his classic book Butterflies of the British Isles (1906) writes that Lady Glanville had her will contested on the grounds of her interest in butterflies “This fact will serve to show that entomology as a pursuit was not much in vogue at that time, and that those who collected butterflies, etc., were apt to be regarded by their friends as being – well ‘just a wee bit daft’.”

On this walk I made my second visit to the Ventnor Botanic Garden which I enjoyed  but it was much more crowded than the previous autumn with dozens of old ladies huddling into the rose garden.  Today it seems to be more of an entertainment hub with shops, wedding facilities, a restaurant wittily named Edulis and well-being weekends.  I hope they still care about the well-being of their wonderful collection of plants from the warmer parts of the world.

Before leaving Ventnor I went for a haircut amid all the nubile teeny boppers of a unisex hairdressers.  The very pleasant proprietor did me and we had a long chat about private v. public enterprise.  A permanent debate these days. Then  I drove to Shanklin and did some shopping.  Among other things I bought some Isle of Wight biscuits, made by a company still in business with a wide range of offerings. I probably ate them on the way home.  Shanklin must have made me in in a bad mood as I wrote in my notes “In many ways the island is excruciatingly dull without any definable character.” I made my scheduled appearance at Clifftops Hotel (where the conference was being held) to give a talk.  The hotel is now called Ocean View but has named its bistro/café Clifftops as a nod towards its former incarnation

After my talk I went to the ancient woodland of Borthwood Copse, a small National Trust property north of Apse Heath. Its oaken rustle and filtered shadows were refreshing though I failed to see any of the red squirrels or rare beetles that are supposed to make their homes there. In many places the main ground cover was climbing corydalis. with its scrambling green tendrils and small, pearly flowers.  I have never seen so much of it in one place.  Having exhausted the possibilities of the copse for the day I moved on to Brading Down.  More chalk grassland and extensive views and much archaeology including the sumptuous Roman villa in the valley.  When Bembridge was an island, some vessels must have been able to moor conveniently close by. On the grassland, as well as the butterflies and day-flying burnet moths there were lots of scrumpy little sweet briar bushes nothing like our twelve footer at home.

It was now time to leave the island, so I drove to Fishbourne and crossed back to Portsmouth on the ferry, then drove to Winchester to photograph the new and successful white and green fingerpost signs there.  A fair city with interesting corners and good shops.  I bought all sorts of Greek cheeses - soft goat, haloumi, anari (all made locally by a Greek in in Alderholt) and dined on brown bread, the anari, a whey cheese from Cyprus, and cherries.  Thus fortified I walked a circuit of Old Winchester Hill (11 miles from Winchester), a grade 1 nature conservation site famed for its sheep-grazed chalk grassland.  It was full of fragrant orchids and had the nearest thing to a downland juniper wood I had seen.


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