The Pepperpot - or St. Catherine's Oratory - is on several of our days out guides, because not only is it a bit quirky, it is also free and historic. If I’d seen a stray cow grazing up there I’d have added it to the list of animal attractions.
We decided to pay it a visit recently for the first time in about a decade. Needless to say, it hadn't changed (much like most of the Isle of Wight) but it is well worth a repeat visit if you are passing.
The best (and only) place to park nearby is the Blackgang Chine viewpoint car park. You'll pass it if you are driving along the military road between the West Wight and the South Wight. At the moment it is free, which will hopefully remain the case indefinitely. I can't really imagine it is economical to employ a parking attended to drive to a remote spot on the South Wight to check half a dozen tickets (a number of Isle of Wight car parks which used to be free are now charged. Incidentally, there's one in Totland which now charges, meaning that everyone just parks on the road instead - great success!).
Anyway, the car park itself is an attraction with views out towards the West Wight (see our guide to car park viewpoints) and there is one of the 'Walking with Dinosaurs' plastic boulders where you can download an app and then see Pterodactyls squawking around the skies on your smartphone. Well why not?
We briefly headed out towards the cliff edge overlooking Blackgang Chine and had the predictable conversation about how the theme park is a lot smaller than we remembered, and about which bits had fallen over the cliff this week.
After our brief walk (I do mean brief, it was only about 200 metres) we doubled back on ourselves, crossed the road and started climbing up to the Pepperpot.
Even for a lazy walker like myself, it’s only a short way, although it would be hard work with a pushchair (it's pretty steep, and there's also a stile). About half way up, the Pepperpot’s hat appeared and I suddenly realised what a marathon runner feels like when they see the finish line.
For a lighthouse, the Pepperpot is decidedly inland, particularly when you consider that the sea beneath it would have been a fair bit further away before the last 700 years of erosion. I'm no expert on lighthouses, but isn't the idea that they sit on the water's edge so that boats know where not to aim for?
Perhaps the builders just liked the view from the Pepperpot's location, which is one of my favourites on the Island. We spent a good few minutes peering in every direction, before stepping inside the building itself for a good gawp.
In a previous blog I reported with triumph that Bembridge's famous phonebox doesn't smell of wee. I'm delighted to add the Pepperpot to the list of Wee-Free Historic Sites on the Isle of Wight.
Hey, that sounds like a good title for a new top 10 attractions guide don't you think?
**Updated December 2022 with brief section about water cleanliness**
I had a heated debate recently with a fellow Wightophile about the best Isle of Wight beach for swimming. Voices were raised slightly, fists were gently thumped onto a table and there may have been some finger wagging. I exaggerate only slightly.
The best beach for swimming may not be the best for other reasons - such as the practicality of clambering down a hundred steps with a pushchair. No, an ideal beach for swimming needs to have water which is the right depth, smooth sand underfoot and a lack of suspicious floating things.
There are lots of lovely Isle of Wight beaches that are just too shallow for a proper swim. I once walked out for a swim at Priory Bay (Seaview) at low tide and ended up in Gunwharf Quays Shopping Centre in Portsmouth with my trunks still dry. I've had similar problems at St. Helen's and at various other popular spots around the east Wight (Appley at Ryde and Bembridge can be like this at low tide).
There are other beaches which are just too stony underfoot, so without wetsuit boots on it can be like walking across a landfill site.
For example, Hanover Point is perhaps my favourite spot in the whole world but there is a huge stretch of rockbed, which has the cheek to remain hidden at high tide. Many visitors happily run into the sea from the golden sands and stub their toe a few seconds later. If you listen carefully you can hear expletives echoing around the bay.
The rocks also have peaks and troughs so even with wetsuit boots on you find yourself up to your neck one minute and then up to your knees the next.
Totland is another stony beach - the outlook is gorgeous and it tends to be quiet, but it is hard work with great big pebbles rolling around beneath your feet. Freshwater Bay is pretty rocky too, although it does have a really interesting and varied landscape. At high tide, the gradient of Freshwater Bay means that it gets deep very quickly which is fine for confident swimmers but scary for wobbly ones.
Steephill Cove near Ventnor tends not to be very stony but sometimes has so much seaweed that you feel you are wading through tickly purple treacle. When the tide is low, I like a quick dip in Gurnard, but it can be a bit stony too.
My experience with suspicious floating items in the seas around the Isle of Wight has thankfully been scant, although I've heard some tales, usually recounted by toothless barflies with beards and eye patches. ("Yarrr, twas as big a turd as I ever did see in me life, and twas coming roit for me.")
However, we can get some clues from which beaches get Blue Flags, which at the time of writing are Sandown, Colwell, Ventnor and Yaverland. Incidentally, wouldn't it be better if the blue flags were actually pictures of turds with a line through them to indicate the cleanliness of the water? Anyway, I digress.
I enjoy swimming at Yaverland and I'd certainly recommend Colwell (at low tide ideally as there is very little beach for skilfully getting into your trunks without mooning onlookers otherwise) and Sandown. Shanklin is very similar to Sandown as is the stretch of beach in between the two, which is called Dunroamin Beach. They tend to be a good consistent depth so you can actually swim and there aren't usually many waves.
Whitecliff Bay is another good option as it is nice and sandy, although getting there is difficult as you have to walk through a holiday park and then down a hill so steep that it almost requires crampons.
However, my vote goes to none of the above. For me, Compton Bay is the best beach for swimming on the Isle of Wight. In my view, sea swimming is most fun when the waves are choppy. You rarely hear anyone overwhelmed with hilarity on an entirely flat sea. You also tend to warm up much quicker because standing still isn’t an option when there’s a wave coming.
As I said earlier, Hanover Point is rocky, but if you walk towards the Compton Bay end of the beach it is much sandier and there are frequently big waves. It might not be ideal for training for a swimming competition, and it doesn't ever have lifeguards so you do need to be a bit cautious, but it is unbeatable for some traditional seaside larking.
For more on beaches, see our snazzy interactive map. Needless to say, it is well worth reading the information boards at beaches and understanding the tides, unless you want to end up heading for France on a lilo.
Update 2018: since we wrote this guide, the Isle of Wight Council have taken the decision not to apply for Blue Flags. However, we have discovered this great map from Surfers Against Sewage which gives regular update on water cleanliness.
Another update - December 2022: the issue of water cleanliness around the UK's coastline has been in the news a lot recently. This isn't just an Isle of Wight problem, so it shouldn't put you off visiting but I'd like to reiterate the value of checking the latest data on water quality. I haven't done a full comparison, but there seems to be regular water quality issues around the Isle of Wight in winter.
You might also like to write to your MP...
My brother and I used to recite a saying which went “Can you canoe? I can canoe? Can you?”. Thankfully such things aren’t necessary when you are kayaking, which is what a chum and I decided to give a go recently with Isle of Wight Adventure Activities.
After squeezing our way into slightly damp wetsuits and doing some silly exercises on the beach we clambered into our kayaks and into the chilly waters around Freshwater Bay.
The first challenge with kayaking is getting past the breaking waves, which is rather reminiscent of Tom Hanks attempting to get his homemade craft out onto the open waters in Castaway.
Thankfully I didn’t lose my volleyball-with-a-face-on-it and we headed right, out round Fort Redoubt. I’m sure nautical people would say West or "Portwards m'laddy" or something similar but you know what I mean.
The coastline is somewhat eerie around this section, as it is only accessible by water or by abseiling down from the cliffs above. There are no amusement arcades, cafes selling teacakes or minigolf courses here.
We tentatively approached one huge cave, although our guide advised that we couldn’t go right in because there were too many rocks which routinely appeared in the water with the waves like Whack A Moles. Our guides seemed to know what they were talking about and I guess being impaled on a rock wouldn't have been good for tourism.
A bit further along was a smaller cave, which we could go inside for a proper nosey around. The cave had a tiny little beach of its own at low tide where stones were dragged up and down with the waves, making a fantastic echoey noise which drowned out my ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ noises.
At this stage, I was loving it and was beginning to question our excellent guides about the benefits of kayak ownership. I even prepared a plan in my head for where it would live (in my mother's garage, whether she liked it or not), and how I would attach it onto the roof of the car (roof bars and those stretchy bungee clips).
As we left the cave, things suddenly took a bit of a turn for the worse. You see, over the last few years I have developed an annoying inclination for motion sickness. I had assumed that no-one gets motion sickness on a kayak but it seems I do. It wasn’t as if the waters were rough or anything – a slight bobbing had been enough to set me off.
I stared at the horizon, breathed deeply and tried every other technique I could think of. My mind went back to the Round the Island Yacht Race from 10 years ago when I emptied my stomach into the Solent several times over an eight hour race.
Thankfully, our guides suggested that we stop on Watcombe Bay – the small beach that is only accessible from the water (see our guide to Isle of Wight beaches). I raced for the beach, probably beating a few Kayak sprint world records, and clambered onto the beach much like a man who had been at sea for 40 days rather than 40 minutes.
On precious terra firma we had a wander along the beach and into another cave. Once again, my ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ were drowned out by the sound of large pebbles being dragged by the tide. Watcombe Bay is not an idyllic sandy beach, but it does feel pretty special simply because so few people get to step onto it.
Those few minutes on the bay were just enough for my stomach to settle to a reasonable level and we headed back out into the water for one last paddle back to Freshwater Bay.
In conclusion, I learnt two things from my kayaking adventure.
1) Caves are fantastic
2) My stomach is not
Isle of Wight Guru's Blog