Trip 31 -- Isle of Wight Walk
Day 1: West Cowes to Ryde via Newport
Tuesday, May 10, 2022
Today: 32261 steps/27.03 km/16.80 mi/4h 21m
"Money!" I shouted at my door before heading out to rehearsal.
I have a drawer of little envelopes bearing the names of countries, each containing currency left over from a previous trip. I'd almost forgotten to check my United Kingdom stash.
It was thicker than I remembered. There was about £110 in there, not counting a few Scottish banknotes that no one on the island would want anything to do with and a few coins from the 1980s that say "new pence" and "two shillings" and are now mere souvenirs.
I took what was useful and made my way to rehearsal. Why had I kept so much? It must have been that trip in 2018 when I'd changed my direct flight from Hong Kong to New York in order to swing by the U.K. and play a concert of light opera in connection with the annual Gilbert & Sullivan festival in Harrogate.
I'd spent one night in London, staying at the Intercontinental on the same type of certificate that afforded me such a fun time in Ramsey a couple of weeks ago. My room hadn't been ready despite my arriving around 10 p.m., and by way of apology they'd plied me with 25,000 IHG points and a few drinks in the lobby as I observed the motley lot from all over Europe and India and Saudi Arabia. I don't remember the food portion of the night, but a good part of it was spent at the nearby casino at a low-stakes blackjack table, where -- yes, it's coming back to me -- I'd played just a few hands and won them all, or very nearly them all, despite doing something incredibly stupid like doubling down on a 12. Hence the stack of £20s.
The rehearsal ended a minute early, at 8:59; New Jersey Transit took me to the airport at its customary nonchalant pace, and by 9:47 I was in the United Club to shovel down a snack before it closed at ten. This is not a great lounge: premade tiny wraps barely filled with anything, prepackaged couscous, soup (which had been taken away by now), and salad that's impossible to compile on the minuscule plates, which are indistinguishable in size from drink coasters.
"Take as much as you want," they said just before they cleared the sandwich tray. I loaded up with three, just in case.
United's flight 146 to London Heathrow has a poor recent track record. It's been canceled thrice and delayed most other times in the past two weeks. As the boarding time arrived, they mentioned something about a supply issue, but at least there was a plane at the gate and they would let us on shortly.
It wasn't so much that they let us on as led us on. The departure time got moved from 11:00 to 11:30 and then to 11:45 and 12:15. They're just cleaning the plane, they said. About another ten to 15 minutes.
How long does it take to clean a plane? It shouldn't be more than an hour.
What happened, someone said when finally pressed for useful information, was that the cleaning crew had left a bunch of garbage in the back of the plane. It was really a very unusual amount, he said, so much that they had to call a truck to haul it away. And this truck, which usually comes in a couple of minutes, took an unusually long time. That's it. Garbage on the plane. Left by the cleaning crew.
I could have gone home for an hour after rehearsal, I thought. Or made the 10:00 flight, which itself was delayed by an hour and a half.
Now I'd be cutting it close. The scheduled arrival time was 11:05 a.m. I'd booked the 12:45 National Express bus to Southampton, from where I hoped to make the 3:00 ferry to West Cowes on the Isle of Wight. From there, starting at about 3:30, I'd have a five-hour walk around the River Medina and to Ryde in the northeast, arriving just before sunset.
We boarded faster than I've ever seen Americans board. The flight time would be six hours and 25 minutes. If we got off the ground by 12:45 -- 5:45 a.m. in London -- there was hope. If I didn't make it, all was not lost; the next Southampton bus was the 2:30, connecting, hopefully, to the 4:45 ferry. But that would mean walking the last hour in the dark.
I was seated way in the back, because on this version of the Boeing 767-300 United insists on making almost all the seats on the sides chargeable as extra-legroom, with just seven normal window seats. I'd selected one months ago, and then gotten booted out of it, and then called and gotten it fixed, and then been moved up to the last row of the extra-legroom seats anyway. My seatmate had arrived from Indianapolis and was on the way to London and then Plymouth with her family. We talked about islands; she asked my advice about Iceland, and I explained my predicament regarding our arrival.
Takeoff was just after 1 a.m. This wasn't promising. They came by with Indian butter chicken for dinner, which I held against the tray table as we hit a packet of turbulence.
"Would you like a drink?" the next attendant asked.
"Do you have red wine that's sealed?" I didn't want a full open cup while we were bouncing around.
"Yeah, we've got red wine," he said, taking out a bottle and preparing to pour.
I stopped him. "Let's not bother right now." He moved on to the next row and then the one after that, by which point the journey was calm again.
I slept well, waking up for the breakfast of vanilla yogurt and a cinnamon-streusel biscotto, served with a full packaged set containing a fork, knife, and spoon. Now I'm sure my rants against the proliferation of plastic-bag bans (I got in at Uncle Giuseppe's in Ramsey just in time -- New Jersey's started last week) would pique some environmentalists. But I could not see any use for the little plastic fork and knife. Why not give out just a spoon? I kept the rest of my set for the remains of the couscous salad from the United Club.
We pulled into the gate at 12:37.
"Are you going to make a run for it?" my seatmate asked.
"I'm going to try!"
She kindly let me out, and the other passengers were generous in making way for those of us with tight connections. Heathrow now has electronic immigration gates, but there was a sizable queue even there, they kept shutting down five of them, and the machine told me to see an officer anyway. It was about 12:55 when I found the exit to the buses. Maybe National Express would be late.
There were 20 numbered platforms but no indication which ones served which buses. I wandered randomly among platforms and roadways (this is the technique by which I find the 62 at Newark Penn, you may recall) and only by catching an electronic sign at the right part of its phase did I see "National destinations -- Coaches -- All services -- Follow signs for the Central Bus Station."
Such signs, of course, were nowhere obvious. (This is also true at Newark airport if you want to get the 62 in the other direction.) I eventually saw one above an elevator and discovered that the buses were in fact one level below me, a few steps onward, and then back up to the level I was on. The signage encouraged me to do all of this by waiting for two elevators rather than using the much more convenient and faster stairs.
I had long missed the Southampton bus. Rather than pace agitatedly for an hour, I took the Heathrow Express to terminal 5 and back, finding calmness by being on a train, seeing the fountain at terminal 5, and riding up and down the serenely austere escalator series.
The driver of the 2:30 needed to make sure there was space before letting me on, but at least he didn't make me buy another ticket. The bus arrived early, the crossing on the Red Jet high-speed passenger ferry was smooth, and at 5:20 I alighted at the terminal in West Cowes, the remains of the food from the United Club having made a satisfactory snack.
A pub called the Red Duster, which featured in "Rosie," was mere steps away. But there was no time to lose. I hastened out of the attractive seaside town and soon found myself on the Red Squirrel Trail, which ran parallel to the River Medina but was usually out of its view. Joggers, walkers, bikers, and dogs shared the trail, and the temperature was perfect for walking, around 60. Birds were singing, and MapMyWalk had rehired the voice I call Katie, the perkier of the narrators. A sign for the Pinkmead Vineyard reminded me of a news story a few months ago: Globally rising temperatures have made it possible to produce decent wine in England. Beyond the vineyard, the trail followed the route of the old railway, which ran from 1862 to 1966. Nearby cement production made for a smelly ride.
At the edge of Newport the path went under the road bridge, and I turned left and left again to continue back up the other side. The path was narrower here, and less pronounced, going past the river's estuary and through fields and winding its way through canopies. It often ran along the river's edge, and the pungent scent of salt permeated the air. Near the Folly Inn had been factories for aircraft building, and Europe flew its first amphibious airplane close by in 1913.
The path veered away from the river and, after a brief stretch along a road, through a woodsy area and then across a field and over a couple of fences (at least I believe that where I was supposed to go) past Whippingham Church. Then I descended to East Cowes. I'd walked 13 kilometers in two hours, all but about two minutes of which had been on delightful footpaths and bike trails -- ones that were useful as routes to a destination, not merely recreational paths. And Upper Saddle River had patted itself on the back for building 300 meters of sidewalk almost a decade ago.
At East Cowes I watched the chain ferry -- almost like a cable car in the water -- cross the mouth of the Medina from West Cowes. Had I taken it back, I'd have been where I started, near the ferry landing from Southampton. Had tomorrow's evening walk not been canceled, I'd have spent the night here.
But fate had made this merely the halfway point. From here my route was easy, as signs labeled "Coastal Path" show the best walking route around the island. It went east and inland for a while, around Osborne House (Queen Victoria's estate), which had closed to visitors by now. Then it took me along a rural road, where I passed a path heading back to Whippingham Church and a field of brilliant yellow flowers under the soon-to-set sun.
"Every bit of this walk has been delightful," I said into the wind. No wonder the queen had settled here. I kept a brisk pace, the songbirds and Katie cheering me along.
I crossed Wootton Bridge and walked through Fishbourne. By now it was dark, but the main road had a sidewalk and was lit. An hour later I entered Ryde, where the friendly Aaron welcomed me into the Marine Hotel about 40 minutes earlier than I'd estimated my arrival. This was some of my fastest sustained walking yet, 27.03 kilometers (16.80 miles) in four hours and 21 minutes, or an average of 9:40 per kilometer or 15.56 minutes per mile (3.86 miles an hour).
Katie had announced the end of my 25th kilometer at exactly the four-hour mark, to the second. Could I walk 100 kilometers in 16 hours? Perhaps I'd like to find out, but I'd prefer to do it voluntarily and not because of garbage on a plane.
Go on to day 2