I never meant to end up on the Isle ofWight - I was planning on spending Bank Holiday Monday in Portsmouth instead. But the weather was steadfastly overcast, wrecking the view from the top of the Spinnaker Tower, so I was easily diverted. And when I saw a sign for the Isle of Wight Ferry at the end of the station platform, sailing in 10 minutes, I thought what the hell. The IoW's diamond-shaped, you know, so it seemed more than appropriate to pay a visit. So I purchased my ticket to Ryde, and hopped onto a big yellow catamaran for the short trip across the Solent. I had nothing pre-planned, just a whistlestop tour down the east coast of England's largest island. By tube train...
Ryde Pier Head: The Fast Cat pulled in at the end of the pier, with the town of Ryde still about half a mile away across the water. The pier's the earliest (and fourth-longest) in the country, built to save ferrygoers a long trudge over wet sand to reach the coast. A brief trudge through the pavilion and I arrived almost immediately at the pier-head station, its central platform wide enough to hold an entire boatful of Victorian luggage. And yes, this might have been 70 miles from London, but that was indeed a genuine 1938-stock two-carriage tube train waiting to depart [station photo]. One short 8-mile stretch of the island's railway network managed to survive Beeching's axe in the 1960s, and tube trains are the only practical stock that can still negotiate the Ryde Tunnel. Each Island Line train still boasts its own guard who operates the doors manually, using big buttons at the end of the carriage, just like it used to be. And the doors still close with a slow satisfying mechanical clunk - there are no health and safety beeps here. Clunk. The train trundled off slowly along the rickety-lookingwooden pier, the sea sploshing away beneath, and with passing traffic visible through the side windows along a parallel roadway. And you don't get that on the Bakerloo line.
Ryde Esplanade: On dry land at last, the train pulled in at a less than glorious single platform beside the hovercraft terminal [station photo]. A surprising number of people got off, given how short a distance we'd come, but a lot of them had suitcases. Ryde's the largest town on the island, no doubt because it's the most accessible from the mainland. Outside on the Esplanade I discovered a group of scooterriders showing off their beloved two-wheelers, here on the IoW for Ryde's annual bank holiday Scooter Rally. I think I missed the main event, but the town's pubs and cafes were still relatively full of parkas and helmets. I chose to explore the rising High Street rather than the windswept sandy beachfront, maybe a sightseeing error, but it gave me a flavour of what it's like to live here through a grockle-free winter (yeah, retail-ly bearable).
Ryde St John's Road: As the train rattled through a 400m tunnel beneath the town, it was easy to believe that the next station might be Swiss Cottage or St John's Wood. But no, this was St John's Road - the Island Line's depot station where locogeeks can hop out and peer at the spare trains. The fleet of six are brightly painted, some even bedecked with dinosaurs(!), but there are plans afoot to recoat them all in London Underground heritage red.
Smallbrook Junction: A part-time halt in the middle of the countryside, completely inaccessible by road, at the point where the line to Newport used to branch off [station photo]. Now it's the eastern terminus of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, an august body which runs steam locos over the four miles between here and Wootton. Utterly useless for commuting, but quite charming to ride. None of the carriages they use was built more recently than 1924, so the travelling experience had a particularly authentic feel. On the up train I had the pleasure of sharing a compartment with a bouncy toddler urinating into a juice bottle, and on the down train I was trapped up against the window by a slobbering St Bernard too huge to turn itself around without assistance. A memorable trip, then. It being Bank Holiday weekend the IoW Steam Festival was in full flow beside the engine sheds at Havenstreet [station photo]. What a pleasure it was to stand in a drizzly field watching vintage traction engines, old green buses and damp families eating hotdogs. Well, it could have been, given better weather. Instead I queued for the ride back to Smallbrook and awaited the next tube train south. [more tomorrow]