Sunday 15 August 2021

Always More To Do on the Isle of Wight

 Isle of Wight and Chichester by Train

Last year's intended return to Yarmouth and West Wight had to be postponed  because of travel uncertainty, and so we did it this year, followed as usual by a few days in Chichester to visit of friends holidaying at nearby East Wittering. Unlike last year, train services were almost back to normal this summer, with Covid-19 restrictions being lifted following the effective NHS vaccination programme, and it was much easier to book travel, although I booked the hotels way back at the height of the pandemic, ensuring that free cancellation was available, anticipating that demand for UK holidays might be high this summer with foreign travel being difficult. We opted for four nights on the Isle of Wight and three nights in Chichester, our friends having kindly booked theatre tickets for one of those evenings!

It had been a while since I had arranged a trip which included more than one destination and involved several activities, and I have to confess that I was quite nervous about it. This was probably partly because the long gap enforced by the pandemic meant that I was out of practice and the confidence gradually built up by experience had waned somewhat, but possibly more due to the additional complexities wrought by pandemic precautions still being taken by many organisations - the need to book in advance for many more activities than normal, and the reduced capacity of, for example, restaurants, meaning that advance booking was almost essential. As restaurants etc vary in the way they take bookings, an evening was largely taken up in the week before departure with online and telephone bookings to ensure that we should not go hungry during our holiday.

Then there was the weather ... we had had some glorious sunshine and hot, even very hot, weather before we went, but the poorer weather started on the day we left, with the forecast looking even worse for the four days we were due to be on the Isle of Wight, although rather better for Chichester. Packing required layers: I took sandals but wore shoes for travel. I took all short-sleeved shirts but packed a jumper as well. I took shorts but wore jeans, and so on: an unlined, light jacket but also a water and wind-proof jacket with hood. Jumper and both jackets could be used all together if the worst happened temperature-wise, but in August if the sun shines, even if the air temperature is low for the time of year, it still feels hot, so we did not anticipate too bad a time provided that, and it was quite a provision, the rain was not too persistent!

Even for a whole week's holiday we still managed to pack everything in one small case each (the sort that air travellers call "carry-on") together with a small backpack each. I included a fresh shirt for each day as well as spare shoes and sandals. Off we went on a sunny Thursday morning to catch the 10:57 train from Stamford station. As I crossed the meadows I overheard a young child asking her father, "Why does everyone have a suitcase?"! The train, on time, took us to Peterborough where we had just a few moments before the 11:29 to London Kings Cross, on which we travelled in First Class on cheap Advance tickets. We were plied with coffee and with food, so an early lunch was therefore taken.

In London we took a bus to Waterloo for the next stage of the journey. I had allowed lots of time in London in order that there would be no difficulty in the event of travel disruption in case railway staff had to take time off for self-isolation etc, but in fact everything went smoothly and on time at every stage and we therefore had a leisurely journey with plenty of breaks! Bus travel if not the quickest way from Kings Cross to Waterloo, but it did not have to be ... and with the departure point for the service having moved (unknown to us) from St Pancras to Euston we had a longer-than-expected walk to board the bus in the first place - all good for the exercise we needed following the laziness of lockdown.

We sat on the concourse at Waterloo, with takeaway coffee, waiting for our train to be announced, the 14:35 to Poole, and fell into conversation with a lady also travelling to the Isle of Wight for a holiday. Soon the platform was indicated for our train and we boarded the nearest coach and chose our seats. The First Class sections of these trains are less spacious than they used to be but the seats are still very comfortable and there is plenty of legroom, big tables and a decent view from the windows. Luggage space is not as good as one would like for a holiday train, but not too bad and we easily managed with our cases between seat-backs and backpacks overhead. The train was very fast, whisking us through south London without stopping and on though Surrey and Hampshire with just a few brief halts. The stretch through Southampton and the New Forest was the same way we went last year on our way to our family holiday in Dorset, but this time we changed trains at Brockenhurst for the shuttle to Lymington Pier. Another passenger from our part of the train was taking this route for the first time and was asking our advice: she, too, was on her way to the Isle of Wight for her holiday. It all felt very old-fashioned and traditional, although no-one was carrying a bucket and spade. We had only been that way once before ourselves but the connection is very simple, across the platform and wait just a few moments for the four-coach electric train that runs the few miles via Lymington Town to Lymington Pier. Again I had arranged plenty of time before the next ferry departure and we sat and enjoyed a cup of tea at the terminal before boarding. 

The rain started just before we boarded the ferry and continued all the way across the Solent, giving the distant view of the Isle of Wight through the ship's windows an oil-painting quality as we approached the terminal at Yarmouth, but as we disembarked the rain stopped and sun shone as if to greet us as we stepped onto the island! We checked in at The George hotel and unpacked in our room on the top floor overlooking the harbour then went for a short stroll around the town. Dinner was booked at the hotel the first evening and was wonderful, with plenty of local produce.

When planning the itinerary with the help of the National Trust and English Heritage iPhone apps I came across one place we had never been and looked like it merited a summertime visit, Mottistone Manor Garden (National Trust), between Freshwater and Newport. It is on bus route 12 which is one of those half-a-dozen services per day bus routes so the visit had to be carefully scheduled, and we went on the Friday, the first full day on the island, taking the regular bus (number 7) to Freshwater and changing there, after a short walk around and our morning coffee break, to the number 12 for Mottistone. 

Above: "The Shack," the architects' office and
rural retreat of Lord Mottistone, now displayed at
Mottistone Manor Gardens
The gardens were stunning and well worth seeing, and the short history of the manor was interesting, too, the 2nd Lord Mottistone having been an architect (responsible for the 20th century restoration and conversion of Eltham Palace for the Courtauld family). We had lunch in the tea garden and enjoyed the views over Freshwater Bay from the higher parts of the gardens then caught the bus back. The bus ride (top deck, of course) there and back were an important part of the enjoyment of the day, with spectacular coastal views - so much so that I'd recommend taking a ride on the number 12 even if you don't visit anywhere. 

Left: a small part of the front, lower, garden. This has to be seen to be believed

We rode back to Totland on the bus and then walked down to the beach and walked all the way to Yarmouth along the beach and then the coastal path, pausing for a cup of tea at the Fort Victoria Country Park. It had been a great day so far and we had walked many miles and seen a lot of sea, fairly rough sea for there was a brisk wind but even though temperatures were quite low for the time of year we were kept warm by the fairly constant sunshine.

Friday was the only day for which we had not made a booking for dinner, wanting to be flexible so that we could perhaps go somewhere in Freshwater or Totland ... bad idea in 2021. After washing and changing following the day's exertions we returned to Totland by bus to see if either of the seafront restaurants we had seen there earlier had a table free for dinner. Neither did, so, becoming rather hungry by now, we returned to Yarmouth ... None of this was costing us anything in bus fares because I travel free anyway on my pensioner's pass and my wife was using the Southern Vectis bus company's new "tap in, tap out" system which capped her fare at the Day Rover rate, reached while travelling back from Mottistone earlier in the day. Walking towards the town centre from the bus station, the first restaurant we saw was The Terrace which had some indoor seating (all taken) and a lot of outdoor seating (almost all available) overlooking the harbour at first-floor level, over the ferry terminal building. It would have been an idyllic spot (and probably packed out) were it not for the aforementioned brisk wind, now a very strong wind. We were offered blankets and promised swift service and that they would do their best to make it as good as possible, and they did. We had a great time, paper menu weighted down (just!) by water and beer bottles. It was great fun, and the food and drink were good, too. I don't think I've ever dined out wearing a coat before, not even in Switzerland.

Cocktails at Off The Rails

The weather forecast for Saturday was not good: the wind was expected to be much the same but there was expected to be rather less sun and some rain from time to time. Undaunted we set off for an expedition to Osborne House (English Heritage), for which I had already booked tickets in advance: these were free of charge to us as English Heritage members but required to ensure that there was no bunching of arrivals. We travelled on bus route 7 in the other direction to Newport and changed there for route 5 to Osborne. Many of the island's bus services go to and from Newport bus station, so a change there will reach almost any destination (we could even have come to Mottistone this way but the idea had been to see Freshwater and the coastline). We have been to Osborne several times before and did not need all day there, but it was great to see Queen Victoria's beach again and to take a lengthy walk around the extensive grounds. We visited the house itself briefly and paid special attention to the little exhibition about the way Victoria and Albert celebrated their birthdays at Osborne, which was new to us. We did get caught in some of the expected rain, but we also got caught in more than expected of the sunshine which coincided nicely with our time at the beach. And so back to Yarmouth via Newport to get ready for dinner at Off The Rails, a quirky restaurant in Yarmouth's former railway station. Through the week Off The Rails does not open in the evenings and only offers dinner on Saturdays, so I had booked Saturday dinner there well in advance to ensure that we could eat there: we sat on former railway carriage seats, next to a pile of suitcases and surrounded by vintage and quasi-vintage railway signage. I ordered the "Firebox," which was smoked mackerel with toast and salad (we discovered the Isle of Wight tomato on this holiday - how have I avoided them before?).

Sunday's outing, which had also had to be booked in advance, was to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway which we had last visited about four years previously. Partly because of coronavirus fears and partly because of the current temporary closure of the Network Rail Island Line for track improvements the timetable and ticketing on the Steam Railway have been simplified for this year and based on the assumption that everyone would start from their main station at Havenstreet (to where a shuttle bus operates from Ryde and where there is a car park. But we had to start at Wootton, the only station served by bus, so I had had to make the advance arrangements by telephone in combination with the website - quite a palaver but it worked. Again we left Yarmouth on a bus to Newport and changed there for a Ryde-bound bus as far as Wootton Station. We had left plenty of time in case of delays but there was no hold-up and we had time for a stroll into Wootton before returning to await our train. I had to speak to the guard to be let into a First Class compartment because although our online booking included travel from Wootton to Havenstreet the reserved space on a specific train was for the 14:33 from Havenstreet, for which I had to obtain our tickets at the the Havenstreet ticket office, that at Wootton being closed.

The First Class compartment in the vintage coach was just wonderful, with deep upholstery and splendid moquette, slam doors with droplights held by leather straps. We were taken to Havenstreet in luxury and then I made my way to the ticket office and became a real ticket-holding passenger (!) and then we had our lunch at the station refreshment room before exploring the Train Story museum, right up-to-date with the recently-withdrawn 1938 tube train which had been in service on the Island Line until January this year. These were to be replaced by new trains made from old District Line coaches this spring after some track and platform alterations had been completed but there has been considerable delay in getting the new trains into service and the Island Line remains closed which among other inconveniences has removed the rail connection to the Steam Railway at Smallbrook Junction. We were able to board the 1938 unit no 007, on which we had ridden several times while in service on the island, and watch a video about the new trains which are, eventually, to replace it.

Soon the time came to board our vintage steam train at Havenstreet for the round trip which would get us back to Wootton for the end of our outing. With all the vintage sounds of guard's whistle, slamming doors, locomotive whistle and hissing steam, we set off towards Smallbrook Junction in our beautifully restored First Class compartment. At Smallbrook the locomotive was detached and ran round to rake us in the other direction, non-stop through Havenstreet to Wootton. For most people their round trip would include the ride back to Havenstreet, but we had already done that part and so, after a pleasant ride through the countryside to the traditional steam railway sounds, we left the railway and waited for our bus back to Newport where we explored the town centre for a while before taking the next bus to Yarmouth.

Dinner that night was very special, at a restaurant called "On The Rocks" (not to be confused with Off The Rails). The menu was very simple, a big piece of meat, fish or halloumi served uncooked on a hot stone, with unlimited salad and fries and a wide choice of drinks. The meat, fish or halloumi cooks on the table and is eaten straight from the hot stone and if the salad or fries run out, the staff bring more. A great experience and thoroughly recommended. Very popular and again was booked before we left home. And so to bed on our last night at Yarmouth ready for moving on the following morning for our annual visit to Chichester.

On Monday morning we took the now-familiar bus number 7 to Newport and changed there for the bus to Ryde Esplanade from where we walked to the pier head for our catamaran to Portsmouth. There the usual waiting space and cafeteria were closed and being used simply as queueing space once boarding began: we all had to hang around the concourse with simply a coffee machine for refreshment. It is a good thing that we had not relied on taking lunch here, as we had considered. I did not understand why Wightlink and Costa could not get these facilities back to something like normal, especially as passenger numbers were still not back to normal levels. There was also a short panic when I saw a notice that space on the catamaran had to be reserved in advance, but although I telephoned the number given for this and was sent an email confirmation of our spaces on the next departure, when I showed the train tickets at the barrier the inspector did not ask to see the reservation - we had through Day Anytime rail tickets from Ryde to Chichester which stated on them that we could travel on any service that day; clearly Wightlink did not take through rail passengers into account when devising their policy on reservations.

The crossing went smoothly and on time, and the on-board system for disembarking passengers without undue crowding was very good. We then had about twenty minutes to wait at Portsmouth Harbour for our Southern train to Chichester, which departed a couple of minutes late but encountered no further problems and arrived on time. After checking in (a little early) at the Chichester Harbour Hotel and unpacking we met our friends for a drink at the excellent Park Tavern just around the corner from our hotel. Bath and bed and ready for another day.

On the Tuesday morning we contacted some other friends who now live in Chichester and went to join them at their home for morning coffee, then we went our separate ways until later afternoon. Tuesday evening was the theatre booking, and four of us met for a very early dinner (5.30pm!) at The Bell Inn and then joined two others for the well-reviewed performance of South Pacific at the Chichester Festival Theatre - the fourth time we have been to the summer musical at this superb venue. It was great to be in a theatre again: to my surprise all the seats were taken although mask-wearing was urged and most people complied.

Wednesday was our day at the seaside at East Wittering and we travelled there as usual by the local bus service, and as usual were delayed in the dreadful Chichester traffic but arrived eventually and after coffee and a brief visit to the beach had lunch together before a walk towards Bosham, taking the ferry from Itchenor across a part of the enormous (but scenically and naturally splendid) sprawl of Chichester Harbour. Good exercise and lovely countryside before a pint of local ale at the pub in Itchenor before returning to our hosts' holiday home at East Wittering for an evening together with dinner.

Our train home was booked for Thursday afternoon so after checking out we left our luggage at the hotel and visited the Novium museum to read about Roman Chichester and North Bersted Man, the most elaborate Iron Age warrior burial ever found in Britain. We then bought provisions and sat in the Priory Park for a picnic lunch in the pleasant summer sun before collecting our cases and taking the train home via London after a great week's holiday. 

Again we had allowed plenty of time in London before taking our LNER train from Kings Cross, and we crossed London by bus and bought some tea in Fortnum & Mason at St Pancras before going to wait in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross until our train was announced. The new "Deli" menu, with beer, made a good light supper on the way to Peterborough where we had a little while to wait for the train to Stamford. Having spent the week largely avoiding showers we were disappointed that as we approached Stamford the rain started; by the time we had sheltered under the canopy at the station to put on our jackets and put up the umbrella, though, the rain had stopped and the jackets just made us rather hot as we walked up the hill out of the town centre to our home! It had been a brilliant week, sometimes because of the weather but often in spite of it, and we are already looking forward to the next couple of trips and hoping that the Italian and German ones booked in autumn and winter can take place.

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