05.08.2010 - 07.08.2010
The Isle of Wight is a small Island. It has a population of around 140,000, which swells in the summer months as tourism is one of the Island’s key industries. So as “overners” fill the ferries from Portsmouth, Southampton and Lymington in search of sandy beaches and a sunnier climate, few know about the darker and more interesting underside of the rock the Romans knew as Vectis.
The Island abounds with ghost stories, and one Island author alone has written at least seven books on the subject. Some friends of mine love the idea of this “ghost island” and at their request I take them on an alternative tour of the Isle of Wight. We visit Brading, for example. A small town which hosts a number of old buildings and one, the early 16th Century building Rectory Mansion, which is reportedly home to a resident French ghost.
Leaving the stocks and old Town Hall behind we visit other notorious places, such as Michal Morey’s Hump, in Downend near Arreton. A Bronze Age barrow, the site is also where Michal was strung up in a gibbet for the gruesome murder of his grandson in 1736. One of the beams is said to be part of the structure of the Hare and Hounds pub that is situated opposite.
There is also the hugely popular Carisbrooke Castle, over 800 years old, where Elizabeth Ruffin tragically drowned in the well. Rumour has it that her face has been seen, at various times, staring up from the water.
One of the Island’s best loved stories originates in the isolated hamlet known as Knighton (pronounced Kay-nighton by locals to avoid confusion with the town of Niton). It is here that there once stood the great manor of Knighton Gorges. All that remains is part of the magnificent gateway and the remnants of a wall. Or is it? Knighton Gorges is the single most haunted and notorious area of the Isle of Wight. People gather here every New Years Eve in hope to see the house reappear, as the legend goes. The house is said to have been the site of a curse, beginning with the original owner and assassin of Thomas Beckett, Hugh de Morville. Following this the manor had witnessed disease, and mental depression leading to suicide in the lake. The last owner, Maurice Bisset, was ostracised from society for sleeping with Sir Richard Worsley’s wife. That’s not the only reward Bisset got as he also gained a venereal disease which drove him to madness. He demanded the building was demolished stone by stone, and he went to live in the gardener’s cottage and died, a lonely man, taking the house with him.
There are many such stories which trace a web all over the Island. Tales of smugglers walking through walls are tied up with some of the Island’s best pubs, such as the Buddle Inn, situated in the small and remote town of Niton and overlooking the sea beneath St. Catherine’s Lighthouse. Ghosts are not all this area has to offer however. Close to here, at the end of Sandrock Road, is a small and largely overlooked National Trust car park. Leave the car behind and take one of the paths ahead to enter a completely different and striking world. You could be in another time as you clamber through dense wooded areas, following in the footsteps of smugglers down to a rocky and wild cove. One must stare in awe at the immense power of the sea whipped up by the wind and drizzle in the air. On a wet day people are rarely to be seen and the silence can hardly be broken by weak voices lost in the atmosphere.
Incredible landscapes decorate this Southerly side of the Island, such as the old smuggler’s trail through the Devil’s Chimney between Shanklin Old Village and Ventnor, located on the A3055, under the conveniently placed Smugglers Haven Tea Room. Squeezing through this fissure in the cliff will take you on a walk into the unknown. This timelessness is one of the enduring features which continue to attract visitors to the Island. Head to the isolated Atherfield Beach on a wet evening, for example, and you could quite easily find yourself the only person standing there on the stones below the ancient and immensely long Military Road. You may soon be joined by the smugglers and Roman soldiers that haunt it of course.
Take time to buy local produce on the Island and you will be suitably rewarded. Many of the great pubs stock very good local ales for example and the wide variety make for a fun ale testing weekend. Garlic beer, however, may appeal to those with a more particular taste. You can try your luck with a bottle from the Garlic Farm shop in Newchurch, which not only stocks a huge range of garlic, but also garlic related produce such as chillies and pasta sauces. You can also try the superb Minghella ice cream.
Another stop to make is the Ventnor Botanic Gardens. These gardens, originally the site of the world famous Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, is now home to a wide variety of plants and flowers from all over the world. When the sun is shining you will most likely get a view of the small wall lizards that also inhabit the place.
So if you’re thinking of taking a trip to the Isle of Wight this year, try and head to a few places off the beaten track. Lift up the sheets a little and you can find a different side to the Isle of Wight, and one which is not just cramped beaches or coloured sand sold in jars.