Day 5 - Alum Bay
Trip Start Sep 22, 2009
13Trip End Sep 27, 2009
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The route took us over Headon Warren, an open heathland once used as a
warren, where rabbits were farmed for food and fur. Before then, around
5,000 years ago, the resident Neolithic people deforested the area and
used it as grazing land for their cattle. Now, the area is still the
domain of the rabbit; although we never actually saw any (all probably
hiding from the dogs that were being walked on this gloriously sunny
morning) the carpeting of droppings informed us of their presence.
The weather was stunning and the light threw everything into sharp
focus. I wished I could paint as watercolour would have been the
perfect way to capture the beauty of the day. As we reached the highest
point of Headon Warren, we looked down over The Solent and suddenly
realised how short a distance it is between the mainland and West
Wight. I checked Google Maps on my mobile phone and saw that the
Milford-on-Sea, on the mainland, is but a stone's throw from West Wight
and we continued our way rather shamefaced that we had never realised
We dropped down through gorse and bramble and stopped by an old ruined
Battery, a fortification built as a lookout to defend The Solent from
enemy invaders. The ramparts featured the circular structures of
lookouts and gun emplacements.
We moved on down through Alum Chine and arrived on the beach.
As we arrived on the beach, we heard a call from the captain of a
pleasure cruiser informing folk that it was the last call for the boat
trip around the bay and to The Needles. What a stroke of luck! We made
our way onto the boat and chugged off. The coloured sands of the bay
seemed to glow in the September sunshine and contrasted with the
gleaming white of the iconic chalk cliffs the sands give way to. We
paused by The Needles so everyone could take photographs before heading
back to the beach.
In 1929, the 12 year-old Doris Mankerts visited Alum Bay on her
All-Around-The-Island Day. She wrote: “Then came the climb down into
Alum Bay and the exploration of its coloured sands. We filled our
bottles with strata and some of us found cuttle-fish while the sun
shone gloriously. Those of us who walked as near to the “Needles” felt
pygmies as we stood at the foot of the giant cliffs that refuse to
submit to the forces of the waves.”
The cliffs of Alum Bay may have refused to submit to the forces of the
waves but there is evidence that all may not be well at Alum Bay.
Yellow tape printed 'Danger! Do Not Cross' cordon off areas of the
cliffs like Police crime scenes. There are large fissures and evidence
of sands freshly slumped on to the beach. The weathering process seems
to be taking its toll.
It is also worth bearing in mind that my grandmother filled up her
bottle with coloured sand and people have been doing that before her
and have done since. Of course, modern Health and Safety Regulations
and the desire to make a fast buck means that visitors are no longer
able to collect sand directly from the cliffs. There's a building up at
the Alum Bay Theme Park (a horrible, horrible place) where you can now
I wonder how many people own phials of coloured sand. I know both Jean
and I have done this as youngsters and have them on display at home. I
am surprised that there are still cliffs to be seen. The cynic in me
awoke from its slumber and wondered if the coloured sands available for
the purpose of tourist trinkets is now, in fact, from Alum Bay. We're
through the looking glass here, ladies and gentlemen...Sand-gate!
We walked along the beach and then decided to make some art. Admiration
for the work of artists-in-nature like Andy Goldsworthy and the
brilliant Richard Long inspired us to make our own stone sculpture
which we photographed and left for people to admire or destroy.
We took the chairlift from the beach to the top of the cliff and
hot-footed it through the depressing Theme Park area with its Glass
Factory, Sweet Manufactury, Jurassic Golf and Teacup Rides. I was
reminded of Kenneth Williams' description of Blackpool as being a
'cultural Siberia' and felt his pain.
We hot-footed it through this forbidden zone and headed off to the Old
Battery. This National Trust site has been a fort since 1863 to protect
The Solent from French invasion.. The Battery was used through both
World Wars but its guns were never used in anger. Its research and
development work, however proved fascinating. I was particularly
intrigued with the searchlight experiment which involved large fixed
lights placed at sea level and smaller mobile lights which were used to
track any vessels which broke the large beams. The mobile lights are
situated at the end of long tunnels carved through the chalk. They now
serve a different purpose as these tunnels lead us to spectacular views
of The Needles.
Moving on from the Old Battery, we climbed higher and arrived at the
New Battery. This was a Top Secret research establishment in the
paranoid Cold War years of the 1950's with a specialism in the testing
of guided weapons, or rockets as we prefer to know them. The Highdown
establishment tested rockets throughout three decades, culminating in
the successful launch of the Black Knight, the rocket which was
transported to Australia and used to launch Britain's first satellite
into orbit, As soon as its objective was achieved, the funding was cut
and the site was closed down. The Battery was forgotten until the
National Trust bought the site and restored some honour to a
fascinating slice of Britain's secret history. I love these tales and
the proud testimonies of the researchers, science boffins and
technological wizards in the accompanying introductory video
installation showed that Britain, in it's own eccentric way has people
possessing, as Tom Wolfe said, 'The Right Stuff'.
To round the day off in style, we took an open-top bus back from the New Battery to Totland.
On the walk from the bus to the Bed and Breakfast we noticed that a
local nursing home was having a fête. Filled with goodwill following a
lovely day we went in, bought some raffle tickets, won a prize on the
tombola and bought a home-made cake for our hosts at the B&B. We
waited for the raffle to be announced, clasping our tickets, quietly
confident that our luck was in and we were about to walk off with a
prize. Admittedly, the prizes were tat but, let's face it, a raffle is
all about the winning. What is won is largely insignificant. You may go
home with something that you don't want but it's worth it to be able to
say “Yes! I am a winner!” It's success through the back-door. Triumph
without effort. A bit like sitting modern-day 'A' Levels.
The Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced 'Bouquet') lookalike in charge of the
raffle started drawing the numbers and the prizes were slowly passed on
to the winners. I was surprised that we hadn't won but while there were
prizes on the groaning trestle table, I felt we were in with a chance.
Like one of those trick beer mugs which never empty, numbers kept being
drawn and we weren't even close.
Disillusioned, we decided to bale out before the raffle concluded. I
found the littlest old lady I could find and handed our tickets to her.
“You can take care of these. Good luck to you, love” I said and we
walked out. As we headed out the gate and turned for home, we heard
over the PA system “Pink ticket, number three-one-three.” One of our
tickets. How we laughed!