Starting mileage: 15250 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 21:00
On our final day on the Isle we first drove into Newport, the administrative capital of the county and its largest settlement. The area around the city centre has a distinct medieval feel to it, with narrow streets winding around St Thomas’s church, and a tiny market square beside the church walls, where, as it happened, we managed to pick up some fruit&veg on the weekly farmer’s market. We met a Polish girl who had escaped to Wight from the hubbub of London to sell the famous local tomatoes, and chatted for a bit about the wonders of Borough Market.
After some more shopping we paid a visit to another remnant of the ancient Italian presence. Of the seven known Roman villas on the island, two are open to the public. The one in Brading is bigger, butthe one in Newport is easier to get to, and it’s got a particularly well preserved set of baths, from the cold frigidarium to the hot caldarium; the floor mosaics and the tesellated tiles are still clearly visible. And to think a lot people in the UK these days are quite happy with just a shower!
Our next stop was the Needles – that world-famous (no exaggeration here – there were coach-loads of Chinese tourists on site) chain of snow-white rocks protruding from the sea like the spine of some sea monster. The first Needles Lighthouse was build in 1786 and later replaced by another building in 1859. There are few shipwrecks around The Needles, one of them Greek steamer Varvassi can be still visible during low tide. Having been here before, we skipped parts of the otherwise obligatory tour of the artillery batteries and rocket testing site; in the last moments of sunny weather we made some photos of the Alum Bay and its 21-coloured sands and headed for one last stop on the Wight itinerary.
High above the cliffs of Freshwater Bay and the mermaid rock rises Afton Down: the site of the original Isle of Wight Festival, which in 1970 brought up to 700,000 people to see The Who, Jimi Hendrix and dozens of other stars of the 60s perform some of the most famous sets of their respective careers. Apart from that, and the sweeping views across the bay, the Afton Down is also notable for a range of 24 bronze age burial mounds, some of which are incorporated into modern golf field as obstacles.
We finished our adventure with Isle of Wight in Yarmouth, waiting for the ferry back to the mainland. The town, like many we’ve seen so far, had grown slightly richer than we had last seen it some five years ago. There seem to be more cafes and small restaurants; a large Tudor building beside Henry VIII’s gun emplacement (proudly and misleadingly named “Yarmouth Castle“) now sports an Indian Tapas Bar.
A final note: the entrance into Lymington harbour is a wide river mouth, which in low tide is a haven for hundreds of birds; dozens of terns accompany each ferry, hoping for some by-catch.
The New Forest campsites are immense, each able to accommodate up to 600 happy campers, but they don’t seem crowded at all. We chose Roundhill because it is one of the few to have proper toilet and shower blocks, and because of the ponies roaming freely among the tents – more on that tomorrow.