IoW postcard: Ticket to Ryde
There are several ways to get to get to the Isle of Wight from the mainland - there need to be. Five ferry services shuttle back and forth across the Solent to England's largest island, for the benefit of residents trying to get off and tourists trying to get on. Most of these depart from Portsmouth, which is convenient if you're coming from London, and two of them head for Ryde. This is the northeasternmost town on the island, and the only place in the country where you can board a tube train, a hovercraft or a catamaran. What more reason do you need?
The hovercraft is the quickest way across, not surprisingly, assuming you're not totally amazed that a regular hovercraft service exists in this day and age. Unfortunately for inbound rail passengers it departs from the beach at Southsea, so any time benefit is lost in trekking down the seafront, which is why I took the catamaran instead. This leaves from the jetty alongside Portsmouth Harbour, so is a doddle to get to, and the sailings are timed to connect with the trains. On a Saturday morning the top deck is full of Wightventurers, many of them in lycra with their bikes docked down below. More regular travellers sit in the saloon because there are more seats and because they've seen it all before. Towering over the departure point is the Spinnaker Tower, now bedecked in its full Emirates branding, although the red stickering would have gone all the way to top had the airline's original plans been accepted. The sights keep coming, from Victory's masts to Gosport's tower blocks, then recede as the ferry heads out into open water.
Hampshire's maritime folk love their watersports, so you'll likely see several out and about on the water. I spotted a flurry of colourful yachts a-regatting off the harbour at Cowes, and a solo sail tacking past a distant seafort. At one point the hovercraft sped by on a parallel path, as if scheduled to depart later and arrive earlier to make a point. It sped on to land on the shore of the approaching town, skirt billowing, while we (after twenty minutes or so) sidled up to the end of the pier. This is a rusty construction, with seawater sploshing in the gaps between the girders, which is perhaps not surprising on the world's oldest seaside pier. Now over 200 years old (201 this week to be precise) it consists of three parallel structures. The first is a promenade now used by pedestrians (for free) and cars (for a toll of £1), while the second is a disused tramway sealed off and gaping deep. And the third is for tube trains, by golly yes, and this obviously was the way to go.
You board your 1938 stock at an almost normal platform, apart from the fact it's above the sea with water visible beneath the planks. A couple of minutes of potential hovercraft-spotting takes you to the town's main station, ooh how exciting, and then there's an actual tunnel (whose dimensions are the main reason these old trains are still used). Ryde St Johns is the railway's hub with its sidings of stock, some of the carriages in far better shape than others. And then the line heads out across open fields, the landscape of inner Wight being particularly attractive, to reach the resorts of Sandown and Shanklin. Saturday morning's service was quite busy, more with tattooed locals than daytrippers, and only the one obviously agitated trainspotter. But the line through the chalk to Ventnor has been closed for almost 50 years, so at Shanklin those going all the way have to transfer to the bus. Assuming they can bear to alight, that is - I was always going to be the last passenger out. [12 photos]
IoW postcard: Ventnor
The sunniest town in Britain sprawls across a long clay cliff overlooking the English Channel, its houses laid out in south-facing rows like the banked seats in a theatre. I was immediately won over as the bus switchbacked over tumbling sea-view fields, then descended sharply to the main town at almost sea level. With only half an hour between buses there wasn't time to fully explore, so I did the next best thing and popped into the Ventnor Heritage Museum . This is a proper local honeypot which attempts to tell the diverse history of the town rather than simply shoving some fossils in a case. I enjoyed reading the print-based ephemera on a series of display stands, and scoured the list of famous residents to discover that Brian Murphy of George and Mildred fame was born in Pier Street, whereas Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens's soujourns were merely temporary. Special thanks to the volunteers who keep the museum open almost daily, in the face of visitor numbers that rarely reach double figures, and who were more than keen to highlight points of interest and to get the train set working. By the end of my visit I was more than convinced that I absolutely definitely have to come back and visit this amazing little town properly, and rest assured I will. [2 photos]
IoW postcard: Newport
One impressive thing about the Isle of Wight is how good its bus service is. Having planned a ridiculously jam-packed day out, reliant on several connections, not once did the buses let me down. After a series of rides via Shanklin, Godshill, Ventnor and Blackgang, eventually the number 6 deposited me bang on time in the centre of the island at Newport bus station. Newport's not especially lovely, or at least none of the corners I identified during my short stay. The Guildhall broods sub-gothically, and there's a sweet narrow lane curving close by, but the quayside overlooking the River Medina was dominated by a concrete overpass, and the backs of pubs populated by cussing drunkards. Much like any town really, but on Wight it disappoints. [2 photos]
IoW postcard: Isle of Wight Steam Railway
If the island you're visiting is holding a real ale evening on a steam railway the day you visit, obviously you go. It packs even more into the day, offers a meal into the bargain, and delivers a ride through remote countryside (ah bugger, taxi required). The Isle of Wight Steam Railway runs services only along the central miles of the former link from Newport to Ryde, serving a population of almost nil, which is both fabulous and means you don't come to a real ale evening without a designated driver. It's a bargain too, offering two end-to-end services and a first free pint for under a tenner, and after that go buy some plastic tokens from the cheery lady over there.
Just before six the blue engine at Haven Street puffs back and up and back, attaching itself to the carriages before a far smaller crowd than usual because on this occasion beer is more enticing than steam. For reasons of beer and steam I'm also one of the youngest here, although there is a defiantly youthful contingent from abroad soaking up what being British is probably all about. A total of three stations have barrels in place, the idea being to sample a variety of ales and chestnut porters while the train pauses up and down the line. The Men Who Play At Trains wear their smartest uniforms to check the tickets, while paying punters attempt to find a narrow third class compartment whose padded bench seating is as yet unoccupied. Nobody seems to mind that eventually-drunk people are taking plastic cups of liquid aboard heritage rolling stock, nor to have sorted out an efficient queueing system at the first station we reach. Years of practice on the Central line enable me to grab my glass of Scrumdiggity before most have even left the train.
There's bangers and mash back at Haven Street, a tasty platter but served so slowly that the back of the queue has to gulp it down fast before the train proceeds. The fields before Ashey are alive with rabbits, bounding from the undergrowth and disappearing down their burrows as we approach. It's a delight to be out here on a summer's evening, inhaling the occasional sooty speck, although had the sun come out it'd have been even better. Most of the passengers alight at the penultimate station, the 4.3% Wight Squirrel proving too tempting, but I'm intent on reaching teetotal Smallbrook Junction at the end of the line. This unusual station has no exit and exists only to transfer passengers to the Island Line. Alas the timetable doesn't permit connections this evening so I have to watch a tube train speed by - it'll be at Ryde Pier Head an hour before me, from which I'll start my journey home. But when the alternative is beer and steam and more rabbits, extending your Isle of Wight meander is clearly a winner. [6 photos]