The Needles are threechalk stacks at the far western tip of the Isle of Wight. There used to be four, but the thin pillar which originally gave the feature its name crumbled into the sea during a storm in 1764. Long treacherous to shipping, in 1859 a lighthouse was built at the far end, which became one of the last such structures in the UK to be fully automated.
But how do you get to the Needles?
Unless you have a helicopter, the best way to see The Needles up close is to take a boat from Alum Bay. Pleasure boats run throughout the summer from a jetty on the beach, with a choice of fast/expensive/whizz or slower/cheaper/cruise. I plumped for the 20 minute option, the one you don't need to wear a lifejacket for, and hopped on deck in return for payment of six pounds. The crew delivered us out into the bay, along with a proper non-recorded commentary, then edged the boat up close-ish to the rocks as the wash rocked us around. The chalk looks very un-needle-like from the side, with only a single row of seabirds perched along the top as an indication of quite how thin each ridge is. Looking shoreward, the cliff face above Scratchell's Bay is exceedingly white, as if the outermost layer only recently slumped into the sea. A couple of small caves can be seen as the returning boat hugs the northern flank of the headland, weak points which will eventually lead to the creation of arches, then stacks, then nothing, as the inexorably slow cycle of coastal erosion continues. So that was fun.
But why go to Alum Bay?
The geology of the Isle of Wight is amazing. A chalk spine crosses the island from west to east, from the Needles to Culver Cliff, with less resistant rocks to either side. At Alum Bay the sedimentary strata are folded almost-vertical, exposing a sequence of soft sands and clays in a multiplicity of colours, each created by a subtly different combination of minerals. Most visitors don't give a stuff about the geology, they just think the cliffs are really pretty. Catch the right light and the rockface resembles a palette of autumnal shades, with the stripes more sharply slanted the further from the chalk they go. It used to be possible to collect fallen sand from below, but plastic tape now blocks footfall above the pebble beach to reduce the risk of landslides. Never mind, you can always sit uncomfortably on the stones and gaze out across the bay towards the Needles, or maybe hop into a boat to see them up close.
But how do you get to Alum Bay?
From the Needles Landmark Attraction you can walk down the cliff path and its multiplicity of steps. But how much more fun to take the transport option modern health and safety legislation forgot, the Needles Chairlift. I'm not saying it's unsafe, far from it, but no 21st century attraction would have been built with a drop-down bar you could wriggle out of above so deep a drop. It's fabulous. 50 double-seats swing round on a looped cable, a bit like a ski-lift, but here you head down rather than up. Wait your turn and sit back into the chair as it comes up behind, trying not to get caught up in the bar/footrest combo as an operative lowers it over your head, then take off into a wooded glade. So far so tame. But then the ground below falls away, as indeed it once literally did, and a vista opens up across the bay towards the Needles. At the cliff edge is one of those masts with rollerwheels to change the angle of travel, over which you pass, and then descendmuch more steeply above unstable sand towards beach level. If aerial suspension gives you the willies it's now too late to back out, but I felt unexpectedly calm as the dangleway descent continued. The ultimate landing spot is on a pontoon in the bay, where a large wheel rotates and passengers hop off... and another three quid saves you a walk back up the steps later.
But why go to the Needles Landmark Attraction?
Actually that's a good question. The collection of kiosks and amusements above Alum Bay has evolved over the years from a clifftop sideshow to a full-blown adventure park, a bit like the entertainment atrocity blighting Lands End, but not quite that bad. A "4-D cinema" is never a good sign, I find. As well as fairground rides and a dino-themed crazy golf course, visitors are also encouraged to pay to look round a glass-blowing workshop and a sweet manufactory, or insert their offspring into a plastic globe and watch them roll around on water. The unique attraction is the opportunity to make your own souvenir by filling a glass container with coloured sand. A vast array of potential shapes is available, from tubes to teddies and lighthouses to lightbulbs, into which you scoop your choice of shaded grains one layer at a time. It's a great way to take Alum Bay home with you, but only so long as nobody ever shakes your souvenir and mixes up the colours... a lesson I learned the hard way almost fifty years ago.
But how do you get to the Needles Landmark Attraction?
The Isle of Wight has an excellent bus network, plus a trio of open-topped sightseeing buses which run throughout the summer. The Island Coaster runs only once a day for most of the summer, which isn't terribly practical, plus the ride along the south coast between Alum Bay and Ryde takes almost three hours. More useful for Alum Bay purposes is the Needles Breezer, a half-hourly spin round the Freshwater Peninsula, starting and ending in Yarmouth. The route passes various spots of almost-interest, with a commentary provided by a disembodied voice which sometimes sounds like it's reading from Wikipedia. But you do get to see the field where the fabled Isle of Wight Festival took place, and the Tennyson Memorial high on the chalk downs, and the birthplace of Robert Hooke, and plenty of narrow lanes. The highlight (or the proper scary bit, depending) comes when the bus takes the clifftop road up from the Needles car park towards the Old Battery. For a couple of minutes it hangs just that little bit too close to a sheer drop before negotiating a further ascent up a hairpin bend, before turning back and doing the whole thing in reverse. The road is closed during force 8 gales, which is not usually an issue in summer.
But why go to Yarmouth?
It's the western gateway to the Isle of Wight, innit? An ancient market town with a Tudor castle and a Victorian pier - the latter the longest timber pier in the country still open to the public - and a harbour for people who like yachts and own one.
But how do you get to Yarmouth?
The Isle of Wight ferry from Lymington (or a bus from Newport)...
etc etc etc