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Landscape Walks: Freshwater, The Needles and Totland

8.2 mile trail near Freshwater, United Kingdom
Difficulty: Moderate
Length: 8.2 miles
Duration: Half day

Overview:  Landscape Walks: Freshwater, The Needles and Totland is about 8.2 miles long and located near Freshwater, United Kingdom. The trail ... more »

Landscape Walks

We start our walk from the Car Park in Freshwater Bay.  Cross over the road and make you way to the seafront.  This small seaside resort became very fashionable during the C19th and with a bohemian artistic community being attracted by the unspoilt beauty and tranquillity of the area, and no doubt also influenced by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s choice of Osborne near East Cowes as their home.  Victorian Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson had his Isle of Wight home at Farringford and the pioneering female photographer Julia Margaret Cameron lived close by at Dimbola.

Walk past the hotel and along Gate Lane.  Freshwater Bay was formerly known as Freshwater Gate in the C14th (from the Middle English gate meaning pass or gap).  This name referred to the fact that this area of shingle with sea to one side and marshland to the other was the only passing point to access the Freshwater Isle before the building of the Causeway further to the north.

Turn left by the public toilets and then right through the kissing gate to access Easton Field.  This large field was purchased by the National Trust in the early 2000s with the help of funding from the Countryside Agency.  Formerly used for growing arable crops, the National Trust started a programme of works to restore the area to grassland and to create a series of paths to access Tennyson Down and alleviate the pressure on the Coastal Path which was eroding badly close to the cliff edge.  This route, although fairly steep, is more gradual than the sharp incline of the Coastal Path and is now the preferred route for walkers.

At the top of the field pause to get your breath, to read the interpretation board and to look at the view back along the coast.  Go through the gate and enter the open chalk downland.  Originally called High Down this area was renamed Tennyson Down in honour of Alfred Lord Tennyson who would frequently walk from Farringford up onto the downs describing the air as ‘worth sixpence a pint’.

As you climb the slope there are good views back along the coastline and over to the north coast with the Western Yar Estuary cutting from Freshwater Bay to Yarmouth.  The chalk grassland in this area is very rich in flora and is internationally important being a Special Area of Conservation.  It is also part of the Isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Tennyson Heritage Coast.  The Early Gentian can be seen here and it is one of only a few places (on the Isle of Wight and in Dorset) where it occurs in the world.  

This open downland is ancient dating back to the Bronze Age (about 4300 years ago), when it was formed by the clearance of woodland for grazing.  There are many ancient archaeological sites along this stretch of downland through to the Needles dating from this time.  These include burial mounds and a Mortuary Enclosure (where bodies of the dead would have been exposed and then their bones collected and buried).

Carry on up the downland slope towards the Tennyson Monument.  This large imposing celtic cross with its inscription celebrating Tennyson replaced an older beacon which was sited here, (a replica of which can be seen later in the walk).  Totland Parish has a picture of this beacon in its crest and the name Totland means ‘the cultivated land or estate with a look-out place’.  A second beacon site is recorded on Headon Hill to the north as early as 1324.  Acting as an early warning system the beacons would be lit if invading forces were seen or if another beacon was seen alight and stretched right across the Isle of Wight which was also referred to as the ‘Eye of England’.  The strategic location of the Isle of Wight continued to see its use as a military stronghold with the building of medieval castles, Tudor castles, Victorian Forts and World War II Batteries. 

Continue on to the end of this promontory and the Needles.  Here there are some interesting structures.  The first is the Old Needles Battery built between 1861-63 and owned and run by the National Trust which you can pay to enter and provides some fantastic views of the Needles rocks and lighthouse.  The second is the New Needles Battery built in the 1890s.  Both sites were used during World War II and the New Battery site was used between 1955 and 1971 as a testing site for the British rocket programme with the ‘Black Knight’ and ‘Black Arrow’ both having their rocket propulsion tested on the cliff side.  There are some excellent film clips available online at the   British Pathe website showing this dramatic process.   Today you can visit the site of the testing for free (there is also a good viewing point here for the Needles rocks and lighthouse), and also a free exhibition in part of the New Battery buildings.

The trail now continues towards Alum Bay with its famous coloured sands.  Take the path alongside the road down the slope admiring the views of the bands of brightly coloured sand standing vertically in the cliffs.  Continue until you reach the car park of the Needles Pleasure Park.   

This popular visitor attraction has its roots in the popularity of the coloured sands on the cliffs with the Victorian tourists.  People would walk down through the Chine to the beach where they would collect from the cliffs a selection of different sands and place into an ornamental glass vials sometimes shaped into novelties.  Hotels were built to accommodate people wishing to stay in this beautiful area.  
Marconi carried out a series of radio/telegraph experiments from the Royal Needles Hotel in 1897 and there is a memorial close to the viewing platform celebrating the first successful communication.

The whole area was requisitioned during World War II and afterwards the site and hotels had fallen into decline, further exacerbated by fires which destroyed the hotel.  The site was then developed in the late 1950s and 1960s into the Pleasure Park.   Today you are no longer able to collect the sands directly from the cliffs but can still take home a memento by filling coloured sands at a shop in the Pleasure Park.  The beach is worth a visit and you can do this by walking through the site and taking the steps down by the chairlift and the path through the Chine to the beach or alternatively you can take a trip down and back on the chairlift which passes over the cliff edge and down to the beach.   There is also a viewing platform close to the cliff top in the Pleasure Park.

Leave the Pleasure Park on the road (or come back up from the beach by the Chine) and then follow the Coastal Path up onto Headon Warren.  This sandstone hill with its flinty peat caps is a large area of coastal lowland heathland with many heather species and Gorse bushes providing habitat for insects, birds and animals.  There are some fantastic views back to the chalk downs and across the Solent to the mainland.  At the top of the hill is a Bronze Age burial mound.  Follow the paths to the right of this feature and take the footpath back into the valley between the chalk and sandstone.  Pass by another burial mound fenced off from the rest of the field and head back to the road.  Turn left and take care as you walk along the verge at the road junction cross over and take the footpath by the cottages which will take you back towards the base of the chalk downs.  Turn left at the end of this path and follow the route along the base of the north face of the downs.  Go through the gate and on your left is the replica beacon which was mentioned earlier in the walk.  Here paths go in many directions we need to take the main path which runs along the base of the downs with the farmland on our left and woodland on our right.  As you walk along this route you will notice that the woodland becomes more and more dense.  Woods on the northern side of the chalk ridge are a feature along its entire length from Bembridge to Totland, this is because the slope is too steep to cultivated or graze.  Recently the National Trust has carried out some clearance to open up some glades to encourage habitats for butterflies and other species needing more sunlight.

Continue along the path to the car park at the end of High Down Lane.  Here there is a large old quarry site where chalk was taken for building materials and to be burnt to make quick lime for plaster and for spreading on the land to help to break up the heavier clay soils north of the chalk.  Cross over and continue on the path at the base of the downs.  At the next path junction continue straight ahead along the base of the downs.  At the next path junction turn left and go inland towards Farringford.  Look across the fields to the right and you can see where the edge of the field meets a small copse.  This was the site of Tennyson’s summer house built to face south to take advantage of the sun and views to Tennyson Down, and accessed from Farringford by a path over a footbridge (which we will see later).

Carry on straight ahead and at the next t junction of paths turn right towards Farringford Farm.  At the end you will see an ornate wall with a scalloped top.  This is the outside wall of the kitchen garden at Farringford.  Within the garden there was a gazebo which was sited to take advantage of views westward towards Moon’s Hill and Tennyson had the wall adapted with these swoops to allow for a better view from the seat in the gazebo.  Take the path to your right and keep the wall on your left.  This old bridleway runs beside the parkland of Farringford; notice the cobbled stones under your feet.   Originally, the route ran much closer to the house but in the mid C19th Tennyson successfully applied to have it diverted further south and to have it sunk down into the landscape, to allow for greater privacy for him and his family.  The new route of the path was built and a footbridge placed over the top to allow the Tennyson family to access ‘the Wilderness’ and the summerhouse built in the fields beyond.  Tennyson’s fame had led to many people trying to look into the grounds at Farringford and the diaries of his wife Emily Tennyson record many instances of people standing in the drive or waiting at the porch of Farringford with the hope of seeing or meeting the poet Laureate.  This level of attention was probably the cause of their reluctant decision to leave Farringford and settle at Aldworth on the Surrey/Sussex border.

Continue along this wide path under the bridge and straight on to join the road.  Turn right and walk past the small thatched church of St. Agnes and along the pavement past Dimbola (the home of Julia Margaret Cameron) and back to Freshwater Bay and the car park.

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Tips:  Please follow the Countryside Code.

Please take care near cliff edges.

... more »

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