Sunday, 20 March 2011

Isle of the Needles

I knew very little about the Isle of Wight (IOW) other than my dad ran a marathon around it when I was small and he came back with a little medallion with an enamel map of the island on it. The shape of that map, for some reason has stayed with me for all those years.
A vague recollection of different coloured sands in glass jars and hovercraft are tagged IOW in those grey cells of mine. Another voyage of discovery was about to begin.

Wight is the bastardisation over time of the Old English word wiht – meaning a thing or sentient being. I had assumed it was something to do with the striking white chalk cliffs. The island is England's largest and provided us with a challenge as Liz, Mark, Graham and I were going to paddle around it.

This weekend is the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring and a rather special one as it is also a lunar perigee, that's to say that the full moon will be the closest it’s been to the earth for nearly 20 years. We’ll be riding the first spring spring tide. Boing, boing, so paddling would be a slight mis-description, more of a paddle and tidal conveyor belt ride – well that’s the plan.

All has a sense of magic about it
Launching from near the the small fishing port of Keyhaven we head out into the Hurst Spit protected salt marshes on mirror flat water. It's just gone 2115hrs and the full moon is giving us plenty of light. Still air, smooth waters. All is calm.

Rounding the shingle spit we enter the Solent proper as we pass Hurst Castle lighthouse located next to Hurst Castle . The castle was built by Henry VIII to defend the western approach to the Solent and was upgraded during the Napolionic war to take 38 ton guns. WWII saw it become a coastal battery with the addition of searchlights-not that we need any of those tonight as the moon is doing a spectacular job.

By the light of the moon . . . we nearly get trashed by a cargo tanker
With the coastal defenses behind us we cross over the Solent towards The Needles without much incident save a realistic night time running lights refresher as we put on a healthy burst of speed to get out of the way of a rather large container ship. It was good to know that he actually saw us given that he let loose a few blasts on his ships hooter.

We approach the Needles and pass through the small race between the stacks. Up until now we have been on the north side of the Isle of Wight and as such the cliffs have all been in the shadow of the moon. All has been dark and mysterious with cracking views of the stars on this clear night. As we turn the corner this all dramatically changes as the rays of the moon suddenly create an explosion of light as they find white chalk cliffs to reflect from. The contrast is quite overwhelming. Paddling in awe struck silence we suck it all up. The only sound above the gentle waves lapping the feet of these sheer cliffs is the bird life flying above, woken I assume by our strange passage. They appear and disappear in flashes of moonlight caught on their white plumage like shooting stars as they fly up beyond the cliff top and disappear into the night sky.

Night paddling at its best.

We were lucky to have a perfectly cloudless night, goes some way to convey the mood
Postcard from a great collection of old Isle of Wight postcards
The temperature has been dropping by the time we arrive at midnight at the beach of Freshwater Bay and there is frost in the air. Landing on steep shingle we haul our kit up to the cliff tops, eat some grub and curl up in our tents to sleep on top of already frozen ground. Winter is holding on to the very last.

Just before sunrise on the last day of winter
Overnight temperatures were due to drop to about -3˚C, it was not to much of a shock to wake up with frozen tents in the morning, but it didn't take long for the sun to rise and give us the promise of a fair day ahead.
The first rays of light reflect from the chalk cliffs looking towards the Needles
We decide to have a wander about in wait for our 1400hrs afternoon launch. There was plenty to go have a look at. There is an interesting thatched church, St Agnes, in Freshwater.

Church of St Agnes, Freshwater Bay 
A brisk walk out onto the cliff tops we head out to the Needles proper and take in the iconic view of the light house and stacks that we paddled through last night.

The Needles
Arriving at the headland you find the remains of the Needles Battery. Built at the end of the 19th century to defend us from the threat of froggy invaders. The biggest surprise for me was to find that this was also the location of the British aerospace secret rocket testing site back in the 50s-70s. At a time when Britain was ahead of American and Soviet rocket propulsion systems, they were secretly testing right here. 

Space race at the High Down Rocket Test Site, IOW

The naturally curved shaped bay, facing south out into the sea meant that nobody on the mainland or on the IOW could hear the propulsion system being test fired. All the sound was reflected out to sea, which the Royal Navy had cleared of all shipping prior to ignition.

Kitting up ready for the off from Freshwater Bay
Before we know it it's time to get back on the water as the tide is calling. A bit of a headwind slows us down together with initial adverse flow made getting to St Catherine's Point a bit of a slog.

Liz pondering the answers to brain teasers posed to keep us sane
After 3 and a half hours we finally pick up speed and shoot through the big overfalls at the islands most southerly point.

St. Catherine's Point lighthouse
We sit and watch the sun go down on our approach to Ventnor Bay, and in awe as the moon begins to rise above the horizon ready to illuminate our second night time section. 

Tonights Super Moon was the last of the winter sunlight
as tomorrow is the beginning of Spring
1830hrs has us landing at sandy Ventnor Bay for the addition of a layer ready for the late evening section. We top up with some jammy doughnuts in lieu of fish and chips.

Moon Rise
After a further 3 hours of paddling under a slightly cloudier moonlit night we arrive at Bembridge for a nice gentle surf to our evenings camping ground.

Shangri la on the English riviera - Mark enjoys a morning cuppa before the off
Next morning we are on the water early in the day for a change and head up north into the Solant passing the all-weather RNLI station at Bembridge which houses a Tamar Class lifeboat.

The new lifeboat house at the eastern entrance to the Solent
We aim up and out towards No Mans Land Fort which was recently up for sale complete with revolving bed. The video is worth a watch. It is one of the Palmerston Forts built between 1867 and 1880 by the then British Prime Minister to protect Britain from French invasion. I've seen many examples now of his follies as they are sometimes called. Some are closer to home on Flatholm but he seems to have really gone to town around the Portsmouth/Solent area with his forts.

No Mans Land Fort
Turning west at this point, I encounter one of the largest boils I have ever seen, just after the two eddy lines joined behind the fort - it must have been a good 3-4 boat lengths across.

"OK! I admit it. My position is unknown at this time."
We catch the flow and now enjoy a pleasurable afternoon paddling down the centre of the Solent with another headwind to contend with. We stop briefly in at Cowes for a lunch stop before continuing back toward the salt marshes from whence we started Friday evening, catching the last of the first spring sunlight before it sets. 45km in total today, 41km yesterday and 16km Friday night.

Graham passing behind the gravel spit with Hurst Castle lighthouse in the background
Rear of Hurst Castle, entering the salt marshes
My own medallion
101km circumnavigation, great company, fantastic adventure, wonderful memories - not a bad weekend all considered.

I only touched the surface (or rather skirted the circumference) of what this island has to unveil. There are many other interesting things to find out about it. I think, to coin the phrase of the sentient or wight of a mechanical nature, no doubt I’ll be back.