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Trip 31 -- Isle of Wight Walk

Day 3: Shanklin to Chale
Thursday, May 12, 2022

Today around the island: 24592 steps/17.24 km/10.71 mi/3h 50m
Today including group walk and access: 64323 steps/45.14 km/28.05 mi
Total around the island: 91808 steps/69.43 km/43.14 mi/12h 21m

"Aaah!" I said as I creaked out of bed. My quads were reminding me of yesterday's walking, and my belly had a small localized pain where the British plug (why are they so big?) in my jacket poked me when I fell. I steered myself into the shower with the care of a bus driver going through a curvy tunnel that's just wide enough, and I lowered my clean self down the two stories to the ground floor via a route that required six turns and three doors.

I turned up at breakfast at exactly eight. The cushion on my assigned chair at table 25 had a stain suggestive of a previous guest's incontinence. When the server wasn't looking, I checked the other chair: same thing. Call it art, I decided.

The speaker was playing a remix of the worst music ever written, Michael Jackson's song about Billie Jean. My full English breakfast and thimble-sized glass of apple juice arrived about 50 seconds after I placed my order, and eventually the song changed to "Celebration," which, although repetitive, at least doesn't bore the listener with details of a matter that should be settled privately and by a paternity test. The music segued into several more songs, all with the same canned drumbeat. Fortunately the breakfast was not too big.

All the buildings in the neighborhood seemed to be hotels whose structure and character were appealingly frayed. As I headed out of Shanklin, I noticed a red splotch on my Clothing Arts Pick-Pocket-Proof Convertible Travel Pants corresponding to the printing on whichever plastic bag they had rubbed against in my backpack.

Call it art, I decided.

It was garbage day in Shanklin, and the collector wished me a good morning as he carried a bin to the truck. I followed the main road south from Shanklin, climbing Cowleaze Hill and continuing toward Bonchurch. It was a warm, sunny morning.

Bonchurch, about 45 minutes from Shanklin, was where yesterday evening's canceled walk was supposed to have taken place. I'd have had to retrace my steps and then find dinner: Maybe things worked out for the better.

Bonchurch and Ventnor are attractive seaside towns, one with a crammed antique-clock store that would have pushed me to an unhealthy delay if it had been open this week. I stayed on the main road rather than the coastal path: There were good views of the two towns and all the way back to Culver Down, there was a sidewalk the entire stretch, and traffic was light. Signs kept pointing down to the coastal path, as if mocking me. "Don't you want to stay near the shore?" they seemed to ask. But I was close enough; it was nice to have the altitude for a change.

Past St. Lawrence, which has a 12th-century church, the road (Undercliff Drive) had been damaged by a landslide in 2014. They'd made it pretty again, but to avoid too much wear and tear they opened a short section of about 200 meters only to walkers and bikers (I suppose a horse could make it through as well). The through bus service was also severed. The area is residential, with houses called Peppercorns and Swallows Rest and The Retreat and the like; it must have been frustrating to see a ten-minute drive into Ventnor suddenly become subject to a 15-minute detour. There are continual discussions of reopening the road to cars, but as of now it remains a walker's bliss.

Today's group walk was a considerable distance inland, to the north, almost all the way to Newport. I'd spend twice as much time getting there and back to my own coastal route as on the group walk itself. With more time, I would have gone to St. Catherine's Point and the lighthouse in the extreme south, where the clashing tides make for some of the island's choppiest water. But instead I'll have to rely on Alan Titchmarsh's depiction of the place as "a majestic sight, irresistible to paint -- trying to catch the light on the spume as it was flung high into the air."

I found a northbound footpath through a couple of short tunnels and reached the junction at Niton. To the west was my lodging, the Wight Mouse Inn. To the north, by about two hours, was the Naturezones reserve, where I'd meet today's group.

The road north had no sidewalks; I was shocked. I felt betrayed; the island had been so responsible in this regard. Traffic was light, but the road was just wide enough for two cars, and sometimes not even that much. I walked on the right, against traffic, but crossed over when the road curved right, hiding the view of approaching vehicles.

Drivers were generally polite, and many even put on their right blinkers to indicate that they saw me and were moving over. If there was oncoming traffic, they'd stop until it was safe to proceed.

But one driver put on the left blinker instead and nudged closer to me. What lecture am I about to get? I wondered.

"Seth," the driver said.

It was Emma from yesterday's tour. "Oh, my God. This is hilarious."

"Well, you've saved me a trip to the Wight Mouse Inn. I was going to drop this off for you, a little souvenir of your time on the island."

The envelope obviously contained a book. "Is your information in there?" I asked. "Can we keep in touch?"

"Yes, I've given you my e-mail address. In case you want to borrow my power bank." I usually carry one to give my phone extra juice during the day, but somehow it didn't make it into my bag for this trip. On the way back into town after yesterday's tour, Emma had asked a few places where they sold them, but to no avail, and she had offered to lend me hers. "Did you find one?"

"Yes." The newsstand had had a small-capacity one. It wasn't nearly as powerful as mine, but for £5 it would give me peace of mind for the week.

Traffic approached behind her, and I didn't have time to linger. "I knew you'd be walking today," Emma said.

"Yes, I'm on my way to my walk at Naturezones. This is so funny. Thank you very much!"

I continued. North of Rookley the traffic became particularly nasty, copious and approaching highway speeds. I was glad to turn off onto a cycle lane and stroll into Naturezones at the stroke of 1:30.

There were only four of us on this tour. Our leader was Holly, who had been at Naturezones for ten years and also works as a singer and an actress; "My other job: I'm a Victorian housekeeper down in the basement teaching children how to become Victorian servants." She pretends the queen is coming and teaches the kids how to clean up and fetch the tea.

We headed out of Naturezones and were soon walking along the old railway route, now a cycling and pedestrian path. The platform and shelter still exist at Merstone station, in use from 1875 to 1956. We continued over an old railway bridge and came back along the other side, passing the remains of an 1848 chapel, an asparagus field, an early-17th-century brick house that formerly hosted wild parties, and the lake I'd seen from the main road -- only it wasn't a lake; it was a zillion solar panels that provide electricity to about 1300 homes in the area.

I had a long rest back at Naturezones and snacked on a molasses-and-rum square and ginger soda while talking with the rest of the group. A couple of them were frequent visitors from the mainland (or "north island"), and yesterday they walked from Bembridge to Sandown.

I did that walk last week, I thought.

No, it wasn't last week. It was yesterday morning. But it was four walks and about 30 walking miles ago. I've covered a lot of distance in my first two days on the island.

I opened Emma's package. It was the Slow Travel guide to the island she had suggested, signed by the author.

Holly brought out a detailed Ordnance Survey map of the island and gave me tips for getting to the Wight Mouse Inn. First of all, she pointed to the path along farmland that would eliminate that stretch of busy road. Second, she suggested I head straight for the inn's location in Chale (which rhymes with "jail"), but I wanted to make sure my perimeter walk wasn't broken. So she showed me a little shortcut west of Niton.

It was slow going back to Niton: my kilometers ran 12 to 14 minutes instead of my goal of 10. For a short distance a path ran next to the road; a sign said it was private property but people were welcome to use it considerately in order to avoid walking in traffic. The path was decent enough at the outset but soon became overgrown. I picked my way through and my legs brushed against stinging nettles. I was relieved to get back to the road.

After two hours, I reached the junction and sat opposite the White Lion pub. I didn't know exactly how far it was to the Wight Mouse Inn; I thought it might be another six or eight kilometers. I was scared it might be double digits.

So I was elated when I plugged in the place on Google Maps and the distance was calculated: 3.6 kilometers along the road. And I could take a shortcut.

I trudged out of Niton like a wind-up toy releasing its last gasps of motion. This road didn't have a sidewalk, either. I soon turned right onto the path.

It was after 7 p.m. The sun was thinking of setting, and swathes of clouds took turns obscuring it and almost letting it pierce through. The path was just wide enough for a person and was flanked by yellow and white wildflowers. It led gently uphill. Birds were singing their evening vespers. I was trudging along at half my usual speed. It felt like an ascent to the heavens.

I reached the road again. Opposite was a group with their motorcycles. They revved up and brought me back to earth.

I limped into the Wight Mouse Inn just after eight. Dinner in the pub was to end at nine. I flopped down on the bed.

"Aaaaaaaaaaah!" I moaned, its length being approximately that of a chorus of "God Save the Queen." Being supine never felt so good.

Considering the small entry door, I assumed the pub would be an intimate space, but it sprawled, with dozens of nooks and crannies each occupied by exactly one party. I wasn't sure whom to join. Picking a seat near any of them -- the kissing couple, the two young women, the group with the golden retriever -- seemed creepy. I went all the way to the end, by the window, opposite a man reading a newspaper, and enjoyed the last light, a pulled-lamb croquette, a pork chop, a jam sponge, and Wight Mouse Ale.

And now it is time to be supine in the dark.

Go on to day 4