15 – 19 May

Southampton and the Isle of Wight

Mid-May found us in Southampton, a stopping point before a much-anticipated visit to the Isle of Wight. It’s a port city and many people have, like me, stopped here by necessity before travelling onwards to their intended destinations. It has a very industrial feel, although the remnants of the (now crumbling) city wall and gateways add flavour to a city otherwise marred by shopping malls and rank alleyways. Back in its heyday it was (apparently) a bustling, gorgeous city and was actually the port from which the Titanic departed England. Lyndsay and I stayed at the “Juniper Berry” pub which was actually home to Jane Austen for a while – very cool.

Heading a little bit out of the city, we ventured to Winchester to explore Winchester Cathedral, which definitely redeemed the general Southampton area. We tagged along on a tour of the Tower, involving a climb through the ancient monks’ passageways and ascending the extremely dark and narrow helical staircase to the Belfry to walk above the central axis of the cathedral. We emerged at the very top with excellent 360 degree views of Winchester. Returning to the ground floor (slowly and carefully, as our guide has forgotten to turn on the light), there was even time to visit Jane Austen – she is interred in the crypt at Winchester.

Winchester Cathedral.
Altar at Winchester Cathedral.
Jane Austen’s memorial plaque in Winchester Cathedral. What a lady.

It was a gorgeous sunny day and the remainder of the afternoon was happily spent exploring the surrounding meadows, ruins of Wolvesey Castle, Hospital of St Cross and the shallow canals that criss-crossed the landscape. There was even a Robin Hood-style archery tourney in progress in one field. I can see why Jane Austen liked the place. Perhaps I had misjudged Southampton and surrounds.

Yet the Isle of Wight rose out of the mist hovering over the Solent, and its call could not be ignored. The obliging ferry whisked us over to England’s largest island for several days of sunshine and outdoor hijinks. Base camp was Totland, on the western side of the island. The major adventure was seven hours of exhilarating wilderness on a hike along the Tennyson Trail. Chalk cliffs, sparkling bays, glistening light-filled forests and swathes of green fields. Here’s a more detailed overview of the trail (which I hiked in the opposite direction). It was breathtakingly incredible.

http://www.visitisleofwight.co.uk/dbimgs/10.Tennyson%20Trail.pdf.

Alum Bay, Tennyson Trail, Isle of Wight.
The Needles, Tennyson Trail, Isle of Wight.
On top of the world! With the cows for company. Winning.

In addition to the natural beauty which the island has oodles of, the remains of Carisbrooke Castle are another stunning feature. Roughly in the centre of the island, the castle forms an impressive defensive fortress, although it never really came under siege. It is most memorable as the place of imprisonment and eventual execution of King Charles I, although I will always remember it as the castle that used donkeys to draw  water from the castle’s deep well. Yes, that’s right, three asses are always on rotation for well-duty. Historically, they always have names beginning with the letter ‘J’ and have been an integral part of the castle’s survival. At the moment, the resident donkeys are Jack, Jill and Jigsaw. I was lucky enough to see Jack in action on the circa. 16th century tread wheel. As he stepped onto the huge wheel, I was agape that this donkey would actually be able to a) turn the contraption and b) do so willingly. Our family donkey Mindy definitely wouldn’t commit to an activity she didn’t have an interest in doing, and I can hazard a guess that getting an extremely heavy wheel moving for no apparent reason would not be high on her priority list. Jack dutifully started the wheel going, much to my amazement, but then stopped mid-stride as he decided he didn’t  really feel like it after all, and could only be coerced when his handler also did some work. He was a gorgeous guy and was crooned over by the audience despite his half-assed wheel turning (no pun intended).

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