Well folks, after many months of head scratching and wistful chin stroking I have worked out why some people still haven't visited the Isle of Wight. Brace yourselves. On paper, the Isle of Wight should be wiping the floor of destinations like Cornwall and Devon. For most of the UK, the Isle of Wight is easier to get to than Cornwall, which requires a 13 hour drive just to get from one end of the county to the other. Both have got lovely coastlines, but the Isle of Wight has a much better variety of beaches and you can see a dozen different beaches in a week without a great deal of effort.
OK, so I am a little biased, but I do think something is putting off visitors. Is it the ferry (see our guide for how to get the best price)? Is it the old fashioned view that the Isle of Wight is a bit tacky and outdated (bits of it are, but there are bucket loads of posh, quirky, interesting, modern places to stay and things to do)?
Nope, the answer is in fact...doughnuts.
The Isle of Wight is missing out because it doesn't have one food item which is strongly associated with it. Yes, there are loads of places selling seafood and there is a place in Ventnor which does Crab on Chips, but it doesn't compare to the Cornish Pasty or the Devon Cream Tea in terms of recognition.
As an example, take the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. The town of Melton Mowbray is pretty bland - just a selection of charity shops and a Wetherspoons (and an ex girlfriend which might explain my dislike for it) but people still cough up for the overpriced genuine pork pies from a shop in the town centre.
Food culture can't just be created, but it can be developed from a series of old stories, rumours and traditions which may or may not be true. The Isle of Wight’s Grace's Bakery had a good go at looking into the question of whether the Isle of Wight actually invented the doughnut and concluded that (SPOILER ALERT) no-one knows for sure.
The key with this sort of thing isn’t to worry about the robustness of the story but to use phrases like ‘according to local legend’ which allow you to turn a vague story into a rich history. Devon and Cornwall are still arguing over who invented the pasty, but it hasn’t stopped it becoming a big industry.
If you visit Cornwall and don’t eat a pasty, you haven’t really done Cornwall. The Isle of Wight needs the same deal.
So here’s my plan:
OK, I can smell a whiff of scepticism. Give it five years though and there’ll be a strong stench of doughnut coming from every corner of the Isle of Wight…maybe.
The Isle of Wight likes to market itself as a dinosaur destination. I'm not exactly sure that many tourists plan their trips around extinct animals but it does look good on the posters if nothing else.
Some fossil finds look pretty indistinct from stones unless you know what you are looking for but there are some (alleged) dinosaur footprints at Brook Chine which I'd been told by my mother were more dramatic and worth seeking out.
On a glorious sunny day at low tide I headed for the headland where Hanover Point meets Brook Chine, as instructed by my mother. After a fairly long time photographing any vaguely foot shaped rock I decided to phone home for further advice.
"Head for a jaggedy bit, then a flat bit and then there's a big bit missing where someone has taken an angle grinder to one of the fossils" I was told.
An angle grinder! Seriously, why does anyone feel they could possibly get away with stealing a huge fossil embedded in the earth?
Honestly, such thieves (sorry, 'collectors') should be chained to the seabed themselves to replace the attraction they've taken away. Why not knick Stonehenge, or redirect Niagara Falls so that it goes past your window? In fact, if we can start stealing national treasures, why not get the Queen to come and live in your lounge and serve you vol-au-vents?
Anyway, as usual I digress.
My search continued, until I found something much closer to the shore which seemed to resemble a photo I had seen some time ago. I called over some chums I was on the beach with and began the discussion of whether it was a footprint or just a rock that was sort of shaped like a foot.
Half way through the discussion with my sceptical audience, an older gentlemen stopped and started looking at the same rock. I did what my mother would do, and started talking to a complete stranger.
"Is this a dinosaur footprint?" I asked.
"Yes of course, and there are many more on the beach" he replied.
We questioned the evidence, as he was clearly a bit of an enthusiast, to which he replied that it was "accepted knowledge" that these were indeed dinosaur footprints. He also attempted an explanation of how they had formed, which was a little vague and would be even vaguer if I attemped to repeat it.
I then asked him about people stealing such things by taking an angle grinder to a national treasure. He looked a little shifty and asked if I knew who had done it, to which I said I didn't know, before casually saying that he knew someone who had one of these in his private collection.
If I'd been sitting on a chair I'd have fallen off it. After two minutes detective work I had a lead in my search for the thieving culprits. This could be the beginnings of a career in coastal crime detection, or more likely the makings of an ITV daytime police drama called Inspector Cliff Shaw.
I decided not to pin down the elderly gentleman and scream "give me a name!". Instead I made some nice small talk about the weather.
I returned home and showed off my slideshow of 'dinosaur footprints' to my mother.
"Those aren't the dinosaur footprints, those are just rocks that are shaped a bit like feet" she told me confidently.
My excited little face fell. Had I seen the footprints or just a big rock?
Back to the beach then Inspector Shaw.
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?
The Isle of Wight holds several records for the smallest, largest and fattest things. Well, perhaps not the fattest but it does have the UK’s oldest pier (Ryde) and the largest constituency (for now at least) amongst other things.
One of my favourites is the UK’s oldest phonebox in Bembridge, which I had peered at on Google Streetview but hadn’t actually seen in person.
On the way to the seaside at Bembridge we stopped to try out the K1 phonebox, which is next to the fishmongers in the High Street (PO35 5SD if you are looking for it).
Despite the odd looks from Bembridge’s tweed wearing shoppers we began snapping away at the Grade 2 listed ‘attraction’. Presumably they thought we were just phonebox enthusiasts who were touring the country photographing phoneboxes. Little did they know that we were carrying out an important piece of research for Isle of Wight Guru.
The first observation to report is that Bembridge’s phonebox doesn’t smell of wee – quite an achievement really based on my previous experiences of such things. Admittedly, there is a smell of fish, but you can’t really complain when you are outside a fishmongers.
It’s now owned and looked after by the Parish Council and they look to be doing a terrific job. There’s even a small notice explaining why the box is significant, which will hopefully put off the little turds who vandalised the box in 2011.
I gave the handset a quick rub against my jumper (my mother taught me to do this for hygiene reasons) and I was delighted to hear a dial tone, so it was still connected at least.
For those of you that haven’t used a phonebox since 2004, you might be surprised to learn that the minimum charge is now 60p (remember the fuss when it went from 10p to 20p?) so we spent a fair amount of time rummaging around looking for small change.
Not only do you have to find 60p, but it also has to be a certain combination of coins – you can’t just fill it with 10p coins. If I was cynical I would say that trebling the price and making them harder to use led to less people using them, which helped BT’s justification for closing them. I’m sure that definitely absolutely completely wasn’t the case.
Next I needed to decide who to call. Was this the time for a prank call? Perhaps I could call Moe’s Tavern and ask for Hugh Jars or Amanda Huggenkiss? Or relive my youth and play Arnie clips down the phone to a schoolfriend for 5 hilarious seconds before they hung up?
No, I decided to call my mum. I imagined it would be like the guy who used his phone a friend on Who Wants to be a Millionaire to phone his mum and say that he knew the answer to the last question. Perhaps not quite as momentous, but up there.
I put the first coin in.
My 20p went straight through and came back out into the coin return section, which BT designed to be unnecessarily fiddly to get your own money back.
Coin number 2.
The second coin got stuck. I pressed the ‘coin return’ button.
Coin number 3.
Nope, no luck. My fellow explorers handing me three more 20p coins. One suggested I use a shilling.
“Clunk…ching. Clunk…ching. Clunk…cling”
Oh dear, none of the my six 20p coins were accepted.
At this point we gave up as we had run out of coins and didn’t much fancy registering a credit card for a 60p call.
So, we failed but I am pleased to report that the phone box is most definitely there, and you can always use it to shelter inside and use your mobile if it won’t take your coins.
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