You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Isle of Wight might not be a millennial’s cup of tea, let alone their soy latte. According to the recently released results of the 2021 census, the island had the fastest-growing population of over-65s in England and Wales (fossils have been found). It has just one nightclub. But, as I discovered last week, it also has more for those in the 20-40 age bracket than you can shake a selfie stick at. I’m just back from a few days on the Island (as the locals call it), and I’m somewhat smitten. Here’s how it went.
Arrive in frankly unpatriotic sunshine at Cowes, off the half-hour ferry from Southampton. Am met by a small town of quaint period buildings, a heavy nautical vibe — and a trendy restaurant! After a few small plates at Smoking Lobster — local lobster and monkfish stylishly injected with Asian flavours (mains from £19; smokinglobstercowes.co.uk) — I pick up my e-bike. OK, not a millennial-appropriate fixie, but it’ll get me further (three days’ hire from £120; wightcycle hire.co.uk). I zip off southwest along the coastal path towards my digs for the night: a hammock in the ancient woods at Camp Wight (hammocks £15; campwight.co.uk).
Even youngsters appreciate good service, and one of the bosses here not only shows me the solar-powered showers and compostable loos, he also gets a fire going for me in a recycled washing machine drum and insists on finding me a glow-worm (which are actually beetles and are also solar-powered). After a fruitless hunt that takes in the entirety of the site, we finally spot one in the very place we set off from — it reminds me of those lines of TS Eliot about exploration allowing one to return to the beginning and see it for the first time.
Ben Aitken tries his hand at coasteering
No dawdling over cups of tea in the morning. I bike south to Freshwater Bay to try some coasteering (like mountaineering but in a wetsuit; two hours from £35; fbciow.com). Our group of about a dozen ranges in age from 12 to 58. Our instructors — Izzy, Basil and Louis — have the manner of jovial head teachers; stern but affable.
One safety briefing later, we wade, swim and scramble westward along the shoreline, watching for limpets, anemones and dinosaur footprints as we go. A stretch of refreshing front crawl leads us to the final challenge: to scale the cliff face, then jump from one of its natural platforms. I’m not much of a climber; I have about as much upper- body strength as an ironing board. But buoyed by a heady mix of nature, exertion and Basil’s encouragement, I reach the highest ledge.
Crouched in a small alcove not designed for the purpose, I prepare for my plummet — which essentially involves panicking. Realising that there’s only one way out, I leap — somehow managing to tilt on my way down and land on my bum.
I feel a rush of pride and a pang of happiness, the likes of which you’re unlikely to get from a game of bingo. Back on dry land, and helping me out of my rubbers, Basil reveals his two claims to fame: that he taught Benedict Cumberbatch to surf (BC lives up the road) and that he is acquainted with the drummer of Wet Leg, the local indie-pop band who’ve just played Glastonbury.
From here I’m back in the saddle and up to Newtown National Nature Reserve, where a Geordie called Dave Fairlamb shows me what’s what. A winning combo of Ant, Dec and a Hairy Biker, Dave moved to the island three years ago, which means he’s an “overner”, rather than a mere “grockle” like me. A nature nut, Dave runs Natural Links, which aims to connect people to the natural world via courses and guided walks (two hours from £12pp; natural-links.co.uk).
Dave can’t walk a metre before pointing something out: a Glanville fritillary; the sound of grasshoppers; the spectre of a buzzard; a red squirrel. (The Isle of Wight has a ton of the last, Dave explains, so there’s one population of greys that’s not booming here.)
The setting is beautiful: salt marshland, the Solent, distant rolling hills. And above it all, the kind of sheer, brilliant blue sky I associate with other places. Dave tells me that if I turn my binoculars around I’ll stand a better chance of admiring the Canada geese — touché.
All that remains of the day is to make a beeline for Tapnell Farm. No hammocks here, alas. Instead, a safari tent that Queen Victoria, a previous island resident, couldn’t grumble at. It’s so on-trend for a tent to come with a hot shower, vast comfortable bed and wood-burning stove (tents for eight from £200 per night; tapnellfarm.com).
Jet skiing in Cowes Harbour
Tapnell Farm doesn’t only have tents and alpacas. It also has an aqua park. Doing my “when in Rome” bit, I don a buoyancy aid and some special socks, then spend a surreal half-hour falling off various inflatables. Definitely one for the youth.
Next up is the Mountain Bike Centre near Carisbrooke, where I swap one bike for another and try my best to enjoy feeling petrified while descending a tortuous gravelly trail called Twisted Wizard. The centre is definitely on the up, investing wisely and sustainably in its foreseeable future (as is every other business on the island, from what I can tell). I’m probably a touch lily-livered to fully appreciate what the centre offers, but it’s plainly a terrific addition to the island’s menu of high-octane diversions — chapeau! (bike hire from £35; isleofwight mountainbikecentre.com).
Late for lunch, I bomb west along Military Road — believe me, scenic doesn’t get close to it — to Colwell Bay, home of a popular bar-cum-restaurant called the Hut, which is trying its best to break Instagram.
On the front terrace, I embark on the leisurely consumption of the fine vista (primary-coloured beach huts, sailboats bobbing in the water, the sun descending towards Bournemouth) and a starter of torched mackerel (on fashionable soused cucumber, naturally) followed by a buttery lemon sole (mains from £35; thehutcolwell.co.uk).
There’s just enough time before my ferry crossing to visit the former home of Alfred Lord Tennyson, very much the Stormzy of his day. Farringford is an attractive gothic job positioned above Freshwater Bay. Touring the house is as much fun, in its own way, as zooming downhill or plunging into the Channel (adult £13.50, child £6; farringford.co.uk).
In the former poet laureate’s library, where he’d come to smoke his pipe and set down his lines, there’s a chaise longue. The sight of it brings to mind the Wet Leg song named after the piece of furniture. That association wouldn’t have occurred to me a few days ago. Curious — and brilliant — how meaning shifts, significance alters, things such as perception and reputation can exist as tidally as the sea.
I used to sit on the beach at Southsea and look across to the Island, and the only thing that would come to mind was my Auntie Pat playing bowls. Now I’ll look across and remember the time I went over with low expectations and hazy preconceptions, and had both smashed out of the park.
Ben Aitken was a guest of Visit Isle of Wight (visitisleofwight.co.uk)
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