Sunday 3 September 2017

The Traditional Route to the Isle of Wight

Our location on my iPhone screen
as the catamaran left Portsmouth
Harbour on our way to Ryde
We have had several holidays now on the Sussex coast, sometimes tripping out to Hampshire. We always stay in Chichester and spend at least a day with our friends who rent a bungalow at Bracklesham Bay. Two years ago we went to Portsmouth to visit the Mary Rose Museum and when we saw how easy it was to get across to the Isle of Wight we went back the following day and visited Osborne House - you can read all about it in A South Coast Adventure. Last year I had hoped to visit the Isle of Wight Steam Railway but the industrial troubles on Southern Railway made that impossible to do, so we put it off until this year and made our 2017 trip into a bit of a tour. I managed to plan the whole holiday to require only one journey to be made on Southern, and that could be replaced by a bus trip if the trains were not running! (But the industrial action was suspended and the trains were running with only the normal Southern cancellations.)

As usual we would go one way and come back another and the route fulfilled several objectives:

  • To use the traditional route all the way from London Waterloo to Shanklin with through First Class tickets
  • To be on the Island on a day when the Steam Railway was operating to full timetable
  • To travel back via Salisbury and the scenic route to Bath (we had come this way last year and I wanted to see it from the other direction)
  • To avoid reliance on the dispute-ridden Southern Railway
  • To provide enough time to relax and enjoy the journey
Booking was complex. I needed a hotel room for two nights at Shanklin, a Sunday on the Isle of Wight, a day in Portsmouth so that we could visit the Mary Rose Museum again now that the ship is fully preserved and can be seen properly,  and three nights in Chichester. Given the destination and the time of year I bagged the Shanklin hotel first, then one night in Portsmouth and three in Chichester; I came unstuck slightly in Chichester and we had to change rooms after the first night because three nights in one room were not available in the cathedral guest house where we wanted to stay: small price to pay for everything else falling into place!

Tickets ready at Waterloo.
First Class London to Shanklin:
through ticket just £17.35 each!
I booked the Mary Rose Museum in advance but the best deal for Steam Railway was an inclusive rover ticket which has to be bought from the station at Shanklin and covers the Steam Railway along with the Island Line (the national rail service on the island).

Train tickets for all the main legs of the journey were bought in advance as soon as the Advance First Class tickets went on sale, which in the case of the Waterloo-Shanklin leg was not until a fortnight before we left, a tad nail-biting but we got there. These tickets are very substantially cheaper than off-peak Standard Class ones bought on the day and gave us a much better experience, but because of all the work being done at Waterloo station the timetable was not fixed that weekend until very late and so they could not sell Advance tickets until then either, and when they did there were very few, but I got the two I needed.

And off we went.

The trip began as always with the stroll to Stamford station, on a Saturday morning because we wanted the middle day on the Isle of Wight to be Sunday. We left Stamford at 10:00 and were in Shanklin at tea time, a quick, smooth and simple trip. The usual change of train at Peterborough and then Virgin Trains East Coast, First Class, to London Kings Cross. In the past I've walked to Waterloo from Kings Cross but it's a bit of a trek with holiday luggage so we used the Underground, Northern Line to Bank then Waterloo & City Line to complete the trip. The transfer went so well that we had an hour to spare at Waterloo before our booked train and spent it choosing a packed lunch in the station shops and looking around at some of the other shops. We also had a quick look at the work beginning to open the former international platforms for local use as part of the work to expand the station.

First Class saloon on the main line to Portsmouth Harbour
Our train was announced in good time and we went to board it. Our tickets were valid only for the 13:05 departure but we had no specific seat reservations and went for the First Class section nearer the front of the train so as to be nearest the ferry at Portsmouth Harbour. The SouthWest Trains express train was very smart and comfortable inside and we were delighted with the accommodation. It was fast and smooth and whisked us rapidly through southwest London, stopping occasionally. There were no refreshments included in the fare (and as I had paid only £35 for both of us to travel in some luxury I could hardly complain!) but there was a retail trolley and we bought a half-bottle of wine and some fruit cake to round off our lunch brought with us from the station.

I know, I look more like I'm commuting to
work than going on holiday, but we like to
wear our best outfits for the journey so as not
to crush them in the suitcase. Anyway, it's all
part of the "updated retro" style of our holidays!
On the train to Portsmouth again.
Before long we had our first fleeting glimpse of the sea as the train crossed a creek onto Portsea Island and made its way along the final stretch all through Portsmouth and onto the pier at Portsmouth Harbour.

Walking along the platform the ramp down to the Isle of Wight catamaran was right in front of us and we strolled down: there was a short wait for the catamaran departure and a comfortable waiting area with a café bar where we had cup of tea before boarding. We showed our train tickets which included the crossing on the WightLink catamaran and sat down for the short trip across the Solent. The forecast rain began at this point and visibility became poor (but not unsafe!) and we waited under the canopy at Ryde Pier Head station for the little ex-Underground train that would take us the rest of the way to Shanklin. It soon came and with several other luggage-bearing holidaymakers we trundled our way down the east coast of the Isle of Wight, in our case to the current end of the line at Shanklin. Nothing much to see through the wet windows and we walked to the Channel View Hotel - only about a five-minute downhill walk - with hoods up. Not a good start, but this was the only bad weather we had on the Hampshire half of the holiday.

When we added it it all up we reckon we paid around £75 for the two of us to get to Shanklin from Stamford, and it took an effortless, unhurried seven hours from our door to the reception of the hotel. I reckon that compares pretty well to driving and queuing (and paying) for the car ferry. Standard Class travel would have cost even less, of course, but with First at those prices, why on earth would we go Standard? Or drive?

View from our window on arrival
View from our window next morning!

The weather on the
Isle of Wight!

Our room was not advertised as having a sea view (which costs extra, apparently), but I was quite happy with this view of the sea!

The rain subsided and we went for a walk along the seafront and then inland to the old village, where we had dinner at a restaurant chosen from Trip Advisor, and from reading the menu outside and made a mental note of another restaurant to use the following day. We did not get very wet although the rain came and went a bit, and our jackets dried out well enough in our lovely hotel room which actually had coat hooks, not that common a feature.

On the Sunday morning we were down to breakfast in good time, waited service here with some buffet items. Brilliant view out to sea from the breakfast room, but facing east on a bright, sunny morning meant we could not actually look out much because the sun was straight in our faces ...

Island Line train preparing to leave Shanklin for Ryde
Isle of Wight Steam Railway train at Smallbrook Junction
Off to Shanklin station to buy our Island Liner tickets which gave us the run of both island railways for the whole day. First off to Smallbrook Junction where the Steam Railway meets the electrified Island Line. The ride on the ex-Tube stock was a lot more interesting than on the gloomy afternoon the day before: we could see the sea in places, the countryside and towns in others. It was warm and sunny when we got off at Smallbrook and went over to the platform where a steam train already stood waiting. No queue for a ticket, we just showed our Island Liners and went to find a seat. The ancient suburban coaches (also from London but much older than the 1938 Tube stock we'd just used!) had separate compartments with a door each, and finding a compartment to ourselves proved impossible, but two seats together was easy enough. This train took us straight to  Wootton at the other end of the line. Had we chosen, it would have been possible from here to catch a bus to East Cowes or to Newport, but although there would have been time for a little wondering we decided just to go for a brief walk and catch the next train back, thus we would have ridden behind both the locomotives in steam that day and on both sets of vintage coaches. The dark green Southern Railway livery looked really great on a sunny day and the whole railway was full of atmosphere.

Between trains at Havenstreet - you'd also be between trains
if the trains were both here
We got off the next train at Havenstreet (or Haven Street as its station name boards read) which is the main station on the line where the preservation work is done and the visitor facilities are. We had a glass of beer and watched the trains for a bit, avoiding the "Railway Folk" who were there to add a bit of extra entertainment for children, but it is a long time since we last needed that facility (although the time will come again when the grandchildren are not much older!). We then visited the museum, the carriage works and the gift shop (gifts for the aforesaid grandchildren) and had coffee and cake - there was an ice-cream in there somewhere, too, but I can't remember when we had that - and caught a train back to Smallbrook Junction. Everything at Havenstreet and throughout the day was of the highest quality and I cannot recommend the Isle of Wight Steam Railway highly enough: it is one of those good days out that will stay with me for a long time.

At Smallbrook we went back to the Island Line and could have used it for the rest of the day to
explore the east side of the island, but there is more to life than squeezing every last penny out of a rover ticket and we just travelled as far as Sandown and walked to the seafront there, from where we could see Shanklin along the bay. We decided to walk along the promenade which was well-maintained all the way along the beach to Shanklin, joining where we had walked the previous evening. The tide was well is, so walking on the actual beach was out of the question, and even with a calm sea we did have to dodge the spray in places!

We made our way back to our hotel and enjoyed a swim in its small swimming pool, and then went out for dinner at the restaurant we had identified the night before in the old village, telephoning first to reserve a table, which turned out to have been wise as it was very busy (this is a Sunday!) and some people did have to be turned away.

There was no planned agenda for the Monday provided that we ended up at Portsmouth by bedtime, so we had a leisurely breakfast and checked out. The hotel kept our luggage for us and we took the bus to Ventnor, which had been the next station along the line before it was truncated at Shanklin.

At Ventnor we first visited its small heritage museum where we discovered that this had been a small, poor, fishing village before it became a health resort for those suffering from the respiratory diseases of the industrial era, and then the railway came and became a more general holiday resort. The railway has since gone and town has suffered somewhat from the shrinkage of its tourist business, like so many other English resorts, but it is picking up again now. We had a fantastic ice-cream at a place called Crave a few doors down from the museum and after a walk along the seafront, coffee at the art deco Winter Gardens pavilion then caught our bus back to the hotel.

Reunited with our luggage we now walked to the station for the last time on this trip and bought two single tickets to Portsmouth Harbour for the next exciting stage of our holiday.