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An Alternative Guide to the Isle of Wight

all seasons in one day

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Posted by Craggy 08:31 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged foot Comments (2)

Lost in Lille

semi-overcast

It's only been a couple of months since my last weekend break but I was itching to get out of the country again. Due to struggling for work and often trading in silver for copper, I am currently limited to the odd short break after a period of strategic saving. Despite my cynical persona I often make the best out of tight situations and I am starting to realise the value of this as I get older, especially in the face of those who assume the fantasy life I seek to lead is unobtainable. Alas, it seemed a bit touch and go whether I could afford to get to Lille, but by the time I arrived I was in a strong position to do whatever I liked.

We'd booked our stay at the hotel Citea. It was cheap and had fairly decent reviews so it seemed like the best option. Upon our arrival we are not disappointed, and I woud certainly stay here again, ticking as it does, all the right boxes - clean, cheap and good location. We located it easily after a 15 minute walk, and after dumping our gear we decide to head out and envelope ourselves in Lille.

The Art Nouveau facade of La Maison Coilliot was something I wished to see. Not because I have a particular interest in Art Nouveau but because it was designed by Hector Guimard, who also designed the entrances to the Paris Metro which opened in 1900. It sits rather shyly on the small and quite insignificant Rue de Fleurus, shoulder to shoulder with it's neighbours as if being squeezed out of the ground, rising upwards to the light. This is the intended spectacle I'm sure.

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Something of the Art Nouveau is replicated on an indoor market (Marche De Wazemmes) situated in a square as we sit across from it having a drink outside the Bar de la Paix on Rue Leon Gambetta. I have a slight headache and it is good to relax. The area is nothing special but delivers a good dose of bustling life, and a drunk old man kindly called my girlfriend 'belle', which was nice.

After a long walk and a lot of deliberation, my stomach tells me it's late and we end up at Aux Moules, on Rue de Béthune. I hate mussels, and sea food in general for that matter but as usual feminine coercian is a powerful thing. Fair enough, mind, I enjoy a cracking pot of cheese known as a Welsh Complet. This is one hell of a dish and I highly recommend it. Aside from that, the restaurant is reasonbly priced and delivers a great, casual atmosphere.

It is the following morning and we take a walk into the old part of Lille, and in search for an andidote to my hangover we stop at Cafe aux Arts. Sitting outside, the sun finally begins to illuminate the Place du Concert, and suddenly my beer seems to liven up, and in turn I do also. This area seems like a quieter corner of the old town and it's nice to enjoy a drink here. As I am writing this however, the sun hides again, probably avoiding the bill.

We encounter a group of 'Grease' imitators gathered outside the Basilique-cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille de Lille. I suddenly become very self-conscious as I stand a little distance from them, clad as I am in my leather jacket and denim trousers and looking like some outcast from a French 'Grease' sequel. We beat a hasty retreat in case anybody thinks I am part of the gang - I only rock solo.

We go in search of a little respite and after some poor map-reading and walking in circles we find the Jardin des géants. It is a nice, if unnatural, space and appears to be a work in progress. The giant heads will, I assume, one day be covered in green, and there are other structures with the same intention. I'll be interested to go back at a later date. For now though, the garden is suddenly invaded by an army of menacing looking little children on push-scooters, clad in high-vis jackets led by what must be their teacher, or warrior-queen. Our gang doesn't stand a chance, and so, like the Michael Jackson video suggests, we 'beat it', looking for a different place of respite. The cemetery close by is more peaceful and is expansive and interesting. It lacks the edge of real beauty but the broken state of some of the tombs retains the power to silence, and would no doubt produce a different experience at a different time of the day.

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On our way back past the station we witness a clash of some size between what appears to be punks or rockers of some sort against kids from the town. There is a lot of running after each other and the swinging of sticks and chains but no blows are dealt from what we can tell, and very few people seem interested. We drag ourselves away and head back to the hotel to drink some 8% Hellemus beer, which beats Special Brew hands down.

So, it's our last night and we decide to go out in search of some laughter. We find it at a bar named le Balatum. We try out some cocktails and are much refreshed by them, and although not particularly cheap, they were very good, as was the service. Try the 'Barbara', a mix of Bourbon, triple sec, jus de citron and Grenadine. At this stage the music is pretty good too. We play some cards, drink some more and head out for some food. We stumble upon Quai du Wault, and this is by far the best food we've had in Lille. The atmosphere, service and food are superb, and the price is good too!

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After a quick hop back to le Balatum, we find ourselves back at the hotel. So, on the French telly is a woman who sings like Celine Dion (they're really pushing her in France, whoever she is), sat in front of an actor dressed in a disturbed manner, like a mentally ill man from the streets. I'm desperate to improve my French but I'm glad I can't understand what they are saying. Now I wish we had sat by the canal for awhile and enjoyed some silence and a drink. I can't pretend I'm not enjoying it here though, when I turn away from the telly. We're drunk and a new dance routine and card trick that my friend seems to have just created is a fitting spectacle for this little box in hotel Citea. The fact that the trick goes wrong completes the comedy, and the show is a resounding success. Now we're channel hopping French TV. We can't understand it but maybe we'll find out about the election back in Britain. It seems we'll end up Tory anyhow...

The next afternoon we arrive in England to find the country on the cusp of being choked by an uncomfortable cloud of yellow/blue. It seems it's something that no one wants but will happen anyway. If I close my eyes I can just taste a hint of maroilles with a dashing of the unknown. It's fading fast though...

Posted by Craggy 02:31 Archived in France Tagged foot Comments (0)

Waking in Dieppe

Some notes from France

semi-overcast

So 2010 has well and truly begun. I had decided that this year was going to be one where I would go in pursuit of some personal satisfactions. A friend had explained to me quite recently that "you are never satisfied". This may be true, but of course it means that I search all the harder for it. After quite a long and tough 2009, I wished to make the next year a more free-flowing and romantic year - a year governed by my inconsistencies, wherever they may lead. Some friends and I decided we'd book a trip early on, in order to start the year as we mean to go on. It would be an easily accessible trip in terms of money and time as we were all short of both. So welcome us Dieppe.

The four of us live close to Newhaven so the train journey was a short one, but long enough for us to enjoy a toast to begin our trip. Disembarking at Newhaven at 12am was a cold affair, but the station was close to the ferry. Luckily my partner had overheard somebody saying that you need to catch a train to Newhaven town - not the harbour - and despite concerns from our friends, this proved to be the case. We wouldn't be arriving in Dieppe until 6am French time, and as we were not in the mood for sleeping the only thing to do was drink and play cards. The ferry itself was comfortable, that was until about the last half an hour before arrival where we decided to try and get some sleep - apparently it might be a bad idea to arrive at 6 in the morning drunk and tired...

...And so it was. It was pitch black and pouring with rain. We followed what we thought was the only road out of the harbour for about ten minutes, we climbed up a muddy bank, walked through a ghost town and to cut a very long story short - spent about an hour following our blunt intuition helplessly towards Dieppe! We finally arrived at our destination, and with proud beaming smiles spun around on our wet feet to take in the sight of... the ferry, sat there in all it's glory a good ten minute walk from our current position. To me it didn't matter. It was a beautiful walk at personal time of the morning, and it gave us a common focus to laugh at.

As we couldn't check-in to the hotel until 12, we spent a morning in a half drunken delirium, in a bar called les Tribanaux, playing hangman with limited linguistic ability. Considering that my partner is a linguist there were plenty of over-tired giggles had by all. It was perfect. We struggled on until check-in and gained a couple of hours sleep, ready to discover Dieppe...

The name Dieppe may be most familiarly associated with the costly Dieppe Raid in 1942, when Canadian and British soldiers attempted an ill-fated occupation of the town. The town was eventually liberated in 1944.
Today however, that all seems so far away. The sacrifice is not forgotten however, and Canadian flags adorn various parts of the town and the country's presence is, visually at least, strong here.

What struck me first about Dieppe, apart from its cold sea air, was the accomodating nature of the people. They often seemed more than happy to encourage my bad French - although I must admit we all relied heavily on my partner's much better use of the language. Some places of note include the Sarajevo and Calvados, the latter having a particularly bright owner which pleased us greatly, and also seemingly himself.

As we drifted into darkness we sought the promise of good French food to begin our preamble into Dieppe's livlier side. Unfortunately we were disappointed by the Galion, facing invitingly onto the quayside. Despite the Aviva-like interior of Green and Yellow we were actually greeted with good friendly service. The food, however, was poor. My andouillette was nothing like one I remembered from a previous trip to Lyon - but then what did I expect? Unfortunately our friends had been drawn in to my andouillette sermon. I felt as embarrassed as my naked course-cut sausage looked. The dissapointment of our culinary encounter was soon forgotten, however, after we headed to the Cactus Bar. After rattling the door in frustration - only to realise we had to be buzzered in - we entered into yet another green and yellow themed room. This time however, it was decked out with sombreros and accompanied with reggae music - "Je suis African a Paris" will ever remain in my memory. At 7 or 8 pounds a cocktail this place saw to it that I went over my bank limit, but it was certainly cheerful and we enjoyed the sounds, the darkness and the vibe greatly. It was enough for us to stumble home happily high on self indulgence. I just about remember closing my eyes and feeling light-headed, the kind of feeling that only emerges when you can finally go to bed with a smile that lacks irony. The shores of the UK may as well have been a million miles away. For the first night in a long time I dreamed a good dream, and was not disappointed to be awoken in Dieppe.

The architecture in Dieppe is largely what you'd expect in northern France. It carries similarities to towns in the South but it is of a particularly northern style. The view of the seafront however, did remind me of a southern British town. Portsmouth came to my mind. I like Portsmouth but I didn't want to be there now so I wished to spend little time by the beach. Heading back into town the Church of St. Jacques seems to have suffered over the years since it's 15th Century reconstruction. A victim of a life on the coast and a veteran of war, the Church stands boldly against the empty Dieppe skyline but on closer inspection one bears witness to an aged fragility. Many of the impressive gargoyles have been weathered into faceless overarching forms, adding a dark depth to a gothic structure. The interior is beautifully sombre with a power to silence. It is only the chance of falling mortar, however, that will put the fear of God into you here, and a safety net is doing it's best to prevent that...

Keeping a watchful eye over the town - whilst also seemingly wanting to dive in the sea - is the Chateau de Dieppe. A 15th Century castle that appears to be built for aesthetics rather than defence. It is rather stunning - although more so in the evening when the brick work is less severe. I can't help but feel a little disappointed with my visit. After the initial walk up the hill and the pleasure of seeing the minarets come in to view, I soon see why the Castle is so desperate to struggle away from the town. Sick of it's own stagnation, this place is now more widely known as the Chateau-Musee. All the sign posts point to such a place and there is no indication of its worth as one of Dieppe's most impressive pieces of architecture. It has no connection to the town and seems of no use to the local community but a house of dusty, badly interpreted objects and average art pieces. However, the view of Dieppe from the grounds is worth pausing for.

Much more rewarding on a Saturday is a walk through the market. As 'Olivier', the cheese shop, was closed I made sure to stock up on some cheeses for later. The array of local cheeses and local ciders was impressive and we were all sucked in to the moment. It was interesting to stand aside and take account of the way Dieppe springs to life around this market. The town felt to me quite private and insular, maybe due to the time of year, but the market really explodes into a bustling life. Lives interweaving in and out of stall after stall. Every few moments somebody would march past with a baton or two in hand like they were on some culinary relay. We were more than happy to pass time in the market until it was pretty much over. Then Dieppe was left empty again for us to wander guiltily through it's vacant streets.

Luckily for us the day was beautiful - Dieppe was beautiful. It was a real surprise just how rewarding a trip to Dieppe was. After a long day, a good meal at Tout Va Bien and many more drinks in the Cactus Bar we made a late return to our hotel to continue drinking and eating. The equivalent of two bottles of wine for two quid was just the job. Sitting back and dipping out of the conversation for awhile I was able monitor with some pleasure the laughter we'd brought to the incredibly static, but clean and absolutely cheap, Etap hotel.

After a long pondering Sunday we headed back. After the sun had fallen by the wayside I took a moment by myself to stand on the rear deck and look into the darkness. The scene before me was one of absolute black. I felt as if I was in the belly of some fantastical whale and the sheer expanse of unknown enveloping me was sublime. In the distance I could see a dim green light of some fellow traveller lost in this black sea. There was no way to reach them now though so forever we must find our own paths. There was a glimmer of satisfaction out there beyond the past, but I couldn't help feel that had I left it in a town called Dieppe...

Posted by Craggy 09:26 Archived in France Tagged foot Comments (0)

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