The 2005 Isle of Wight Walking Festival

The 7th Isle of Wight walking festival starts on the 7th May and lasts until the 22nd May and will once again prove to be the UK's largest walking festival. In 2004 over 10,000 walkers took part in a range of walks from a gruelling 72 mile, 24 hour circumnavigation to gentle 4 mile strolls along quiet lanes.

The visitor numbers may sound large but you can easily spend days walking on the Isle of Wight and only see a few people. The island has over 500 miles of well marked footpaths, add on bridleways and other quiet tracks and you can soon lose yourself on this beautiful island.

The guidebook for the festival has details of 180 themed and organised walks and gives a great insight into what is here to enjoy. The handbook is free and contains tips and contacts plus a short description of each walk listed. A small map helps the reader to use the guidebook and shows where most of the walks take place.

The themed walks encompass town and village trails, photgraphic excursions and some fabulous coastal walks. Other walks offer navigation training and a historical view of the island, even 'Ghost Walks' for those with the nerve!

The Isle of Wight is a small island, 23 miles long and only 13 miles wide. Inside this small diamond of land lies a fantastic choice of landscapes. The high moorland is reminicent of the Pennines but with sea views. The rolling interior is like the best of the Cotwolds and always the sea is never far away. The island is a haven for wildlife and is famous as a stronghold of our native red squirels. Parkhurst Forest is a great place to view the 'reds' and to enjoy miles of quiet woodland walks.

Many of the walks offered during the festival are aimed at families and the dogs can come too. The free guidebook describes each walk with a key that shows the level of difficulty, the type of footwear that is required, whether to bring cameras and binoculars and if you can bring the dog along too.

To get a feel for the island we made the trek south to have three days exploring the different facets of the island. Basing ourselves in Gurnard just outside Cowes we used the festival guidebook to choose three areas. The first choice was Newtown where the creeks and marshes mingle with the land.

The nature reserve at Newtown was one of the first to be established in the late 40's and the area is managed by English Nature and the National Trust. Parking near the old town hall in the NT visitor centre gives you access to all the pathways that extend through the marshland and along the estuary. The visitor centre is open most days and has a collection of prehistoric remains including Bison skulls and bones. Most of the wildlife today is of the feathered variety so bring your binoculars along.

Choice Number 2 was across to the East of the island and the quirky bay at Bembridge. This is home to a collection of fantastic houseboats some of which are for rent during the season and at least one is a B and B complete with two lifesize pirates at the gangplank.

No two houseboats are the same and the styles range from very chic to wildly eccentric. Bembridge is also home to boat yards and chandlers and a lovely beach. The famous 'Redwings', beautifully styled racing yachts are also to be seen during the racing season. Walk 49 in the festival guidebook takes you to Culver Down, inland to Centurions Copse and then back to Bembridge for a pleasant 6 mile outing.

Back to the West for our third choice and to the most famous view of the islands coast. The white sparkle of chalk cliffs near Freshwater are world famous and are one of the key sights of the island. We took the coastal path and climbed along the unprotected tops to get the image here.

Walk 2 in the guidebook is a curcular walk from Freshwater Bay along the coastal cliff trail taking in Brighstone village and the Barrow downs before turning back to Freshwater. The veiw of the needles lighthouse is from the Barrow downs section of the coastal path.

Just to round things off we managed to get a few hours walking the tracks in Parhurst Forest. Once the centre of the hunting forest that the Royals used for amusement the area now provides a vital habitat for the British Red Squirel. Such is the care that is taken by the wardens to keep the Grey Squirel out that they once stoped a ferry from sailing to the island because a Grey had been spotted on the boat.

A short 3 day trip is simply not long enough to fully enjoy the walking pleasures that the Isle of Wight has to offer visitors. The weather is generally better than the forecasts, the accommodation on offer is wide ranging and offers great choice, food is always good regardless of it being from a 4 star hotel or a beach front cafe and the locals are always ready to stop for a chat.

Put this on your 'to do' list and then come and do it!

Landranger 196 is fine for the well marked paths on the island