‘Have you by any chance seen any elderflowers out?’ briskly enquired the elderly gentleman we met on the road under Bembridge Down.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
‘I just need another twenty-six, you see,’ he said, as though that explained everything. Twenty-six? For what? Elderflower wine, a witchcraft potion, a very precise table decoration? All seemed possible on this afternoon of wonders in the Isle of Wight, with superannuated London tube trains clacking through the fields on the island’s beautiful old railway network, seldom-seen Cetti’s warblers shouting from the bushes on Brading Marshes, and botanical rarities jewelling the slopes of Bembridge Down.
Those bee orchids! How many had I seen in my life – half a dozen at the most? And here they were by the hundred in small selective patches, their prominent sepals like lipstick-pink propeller blades, their lower lips stamped with the semblance of a bumblebee’s large round bottom. We walked the secret valley below the down, reciting the flowers we saw like a litany: eyebright and yellow-wort, field madder and lady’s bedstraw, bird’s-foot trefoil and salad burnet – tiny blooms as striking to the eye as their names fell sweetly on the ear.
Up on top of the down the flint-and-brick stronghold of Bembridge Fort crouched low and hunchbacked behind grassy ramparts that might have been those of an Iron Age hill fort. Like the blocky grey gun emplacements out at sea in the Solent, the fort was one of ‘Palmerston’s Follies’, constructed at gigantic expense in the 1860s to deter the French from an invasion they never seriously intended to mount.
We strolled the cliff path among white campion flowers at the brink of Culver Cliff, taking in the view west over the sprawl of Sandown and the varicoloured crumbling cliffs beyond. Then it was down to the flint-speckled beach of Whitecliff Bay to explore the rock pools under tottering cliffs so unstable they seemed half molten.
High above Bembridge we passed an old windmill standing foursquare, sails to the wind, under its weather-boarded cap. Then the homeward path towards nightfall across the lagoon-streaked flatlands of Brading Marshes, where buttercups in their millions gilded the meadows and a sweetly whistling blackcap sanctified the willows of Centurion’s Copse as beautifully as any vespers ever sung.
Start: Brading station, Isle of Wight, PO36 0EB (OS ref SZ 609869)
Getting there: Red Funnel Ferry (0844-844-9988; redfunnel.co.uk), Southampton-Cowes. Rail or Buses (Routes 2, 3) to Brading station
Road: Station is signed off A3055 Ryde-Sandown road in Brading. Car park £1.50 all day.
Walk (7½ miles, easy, OS Explorer OL29): Back up road; in 50m, right (fingerpost/FP, ‘B1’). Through guardrails; in 50m, right (FP ‘B36’) to cross railway (610870). Ahead across Brading Marsh RSPB Reserve. In 300m, left (613868) along River Yar. Right across footbridge (616870). In 200m, right at T-junction of paths (615869), through kissing gate/KG and bear left along hedge. In 400m, at end of field, through KG; ahead to cross B3395 (616862; take great care! – bend!). Follow path (FPJ ‘BB44-Bembridge Down’) along valley, with fence on your right. In 700m, fence turns right (622859); keep ahead, and in 150m, bear left through bushes and up to Bembridge Fort.
Cross road (624860); walk circuit of fort ramparts; return down slope and bear left to cliff fence. Left along coast path to reach Yarborough Monument (633857 – Culver Haven Inn is adjacent). Follow Coast Path, keeping left of NT ‘Culver Down’ gate and notice, downhill and along Whitecliff Bay cliffs past chalet park. In 500m, turn right down steep access road (640863) to explore beach and rock pools and visit Tuppenny Café.
Back on Coast Path, continue for 300m; turn left inland (642865, FP) past Bembridge School info board. Follow yellow arrows/YAs and FP to Hillway Road (641868). Left; in 100m, right (FP ‘BB22’, ‘Bembridge Windmill’). In 300m, cross B3395 (639871, FP); keep ahead. In 150m, right at T-junction of paths, uphill to pass Bembridge Windmill (640875). In 30m, left through gate (FP ‘BB21, Brading’). Follow path west (stiles, YAs) for 1½ miles. In Centurion’s Copse, at 620869, follow main, well-trodden track as it turns right between old wooden gateposts and in 100m, turn right at ‘Woodland Secrets’ signboard (FP ‘BB23, Brading’ on your left). Cross River Yar footbridge (616870); retrace steps to Brading station.
Lunch: Culver Haven Inn, Culver Down (01983-406107); Tuppenny Café, Whitecliff Bay
Accommodation: Crab & Lobster Inn, 32 Forelands Field Road, Bembridge PO35 5TR (01983-872244, crabandlobsterinn.co.uk) – popular, lively, bustling place.