Riding the Needles Breezer; an open top bus on the Isle of Wight

A couple of weekends ago we decided on an impromptu trip to the Isle of Wight. We belatedly realised that trying to book a late afternoon car ferry on a sunny Sunday just a few hours before travelling is rather expensive! Time for Plan B; travel as a foot passenger and use the island buses.

After our trip to Hurst Castle I was hesitant  to rely on buses but it turned out fine. The Isle of Wight has an excellent bus network with regular and tourist routes. We decided to ride the open top Needles Breezer which markets itself as one of the most spectacular bus rides in England.

Needles Breezer bus, Isle of Wight
Needles Breezer bus, Isle of Wight

The service starts in Yarmouth so after arriving in Cowes we caught a connecting service via Newport. Fortunately the bus services are joined up to each other and the Red Jet so we never had to wait long for a connection.

From Yarmouth the Needles Breezer covers a circular route, first heading to the south coast at Freshwater Bay before turning west towards Alum Bay and the Needles then back past Colwell Bay to its starting point. The big attraction is the open air seating up top, with all passengers making a beeline for these seats despite the risk of overhanging branches!

Open air seats on the Needles Breezer
Open air seats on the Needles Breezer

We spent the day travelling around this route, hopping off at points of interest. The Needles Breezer service runs between March and November and as there’s a bus every 30 minutes we were able to fit quite a lot into our day.

Yarmouth

If you like boats then Yarmouth is the place to be, with a chandlery, yachts, car ferry port and sailing school all just a few minutes walk from the bus stop. For us it was a convenient stopover with toilets and cafe high on our list.

Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
Yarmouth, Isle of Wight

Yarmouth also has the longest wooden pier in the UK and a castle, built by Henry VIII (an incredibly busy man), although we didn’t visit as we walked out through Fort Victoria Country Park instead.

Fort Victoria Country Park

This park is about 20 minutes walk from Yarmouth town centre. A former artillery fortification it now houses several small attractions (an aquarium, planetarium and model railway) but we just enjoyed a walk along the beach and back through the woods.

View of Hurst Castle from Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight
View of Hurst Castle from Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight

My main reason for visiting Fort Victoria was for the view of Hurst Castle on the mainland. We’d visited the castle a few days previously and wondered what it looked like from the island. As you can see from the above photo we now know!

Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight
Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight

Back in Yarmouth we boarded the bus, sitting up top of course, and enjoyed a ride through the Isle of Wight countryside. It is rather exciting and bumpy being  driven through the lanes at speed, sit on the left hand side if you enjoy encounters with branches!

The bus passed the site of the first Isle of Wight Festival (a field, no need to get off) and St Agnes thatched church which was rather pretty.

The Needles

The ride up to The Needles stop is the trip highlight. Sitting on top it felt like we were hugging the edge of the cliff as the bus climbed towards the Needles viewpoint. It’s quite safe though and there are spectacular views of the coloured cliffs at Alum Bay.

The Needles, Isle of Wight
The Needles, Isle of Wight

We’ve seen the Needles several times before but I always enjoy the view of the white rocks against a blue sea. In the past I’ve visited the Needles Old Battery, whose guns once defended the Solent. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never been before but we had plans for a walk so gave it a miss this time.

Tennyson Monument

Tennyson monument, Isle of Wight
Tennyson monument, Isle of Wight

From the Needles we enjoyed a great walk along Tennyson Down to Tennyson Monument. This was built to commemorate Lord Tennyson who lived nearby and walked on the down daily. It’s an easy and popular walk across the Downs, and as you get closer to the Monument there are great views along the south coast of the island.

With the benefit of hindsight we should have got off at the Tennyson Down bus stop, walked up to the Monument and then along to the Needles where we’d be able to rejoin the bus. Instead we had to backtrack and cover part of the route we’d already been on. On the plus side we got to ride up to the Needles again and as we managed to just miss one of the buses we were able to pop in for a quick drink in Highdown Inn.

Alum Bay

Alum Bay sands, Isle of Wight
Alum Bay sands, Isle of Wight

We didn’t get off at Alum Bay. Whilst I would have loved to take the kids down to the beach on the chairlift to see the coloured sands the rest of the site just didn’t appeal. Heaving with tourists, there are multiple ways to spend money ranging from a sweet factory demonstration to Jurassic Golf. From the looks of Trip Advisor some people love it, many don’t, but it’s just not our kind of place.

Colwell Bay

We were running out of time at this point so our last stop was a quick visit to Colwell Bay. From the bus stop it was a 5 minute walk down to the beach.

Looking out over Colwell Bay, Isle of Wight
Looking out over Colwell Bay, Isle of Wight

We’d managed to time our visit badly as the tide was in and there was no beach to be seen. Most people were sunbathing on concrete ledges so we bought some ice creams and sat in a shady spot to enjoy them.

The sea was pretty shallow and there were loads of families swimming and enjoying paddling. It was a hot day and the sea certainly looked as if it would be warm but after a quick check my son confirmed it was, as expected, freezing!

Ice creams finished we headed back to the bus stop for our final journey on the Needles Breezer back into Yarmouth. From Yarmouth we backtracked to Cowes and our short ferry crossing to Southampton. I had been a little unsure about relying on the buses to see the Isle of Wight but the Needles Breezer is a great service and one I’d recommend even if you do have the use of a car on the island.

More info:

  • We travelled on the Red Jet high speed ferry between Southampton and West Cowes. The crossing takes about 25 minutes and is for foot passengers only. There’s no need to book or check in before your journey, simply turn up, buy your ticket and travel. Our family day return cost £31.90 for 2 adults, 2 children.
  • Our family bus pass cost £25. This entitled us to ride on all Southern Vectis buses on the island for the day. Southern Vectis, the island bus company, offers a Downs Breezer and the Island Coaster hop on hop off services too. I had notionally thought of taking the Needles Breezer, then transferring to the other tourist services to see the whole island. Whilst this is possible in peak season it does mean you’d spend most of the day on the bus and I quickly decided to just focus on the western side of the island.

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My Travel Monkey

The ghost villages of Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

There aren’t many places in this country where you can visit two empty villages just a few miles from each other. Yet Salisbury Plain is home to two military training villages. Usually closed to the public we took advantage of an open day at Imber church and combined it with a walk across the Plain to a fake German village.

Imber village

Imber stands in the centre of Salisbury Plain, a huge expanse of grassland that the army uses as a military training area.

Until 1943 it was a small agricultural village. The MoD, which already owned the surrounding farmland, requisitioned Imber for military training and gave the villagers 47 days notice to evacuate. Most villagers agreed readily as they saw it as part of the war effort.  They always assumed they’d be able to return but the army eventually decided to keep the village for military use, despite the protests of locals. It’s still off limits to the public although the MoD allows access for a few days each year, usually around Christmas, Easter and August.

Salisbury Plain warning signs
Salisbury Plain warning signs

Driving along the A360 Salisbury to Devizes road we initially missed the turn off for Imber village, sidetracked by the excitement of seeing road signs with tank pictures on. The road to Imber, which is usually closed to civilian traffic, isn’t signposted but there are plenty of clues to let you know you’re driving in the right direction. These include warnings every few hundred metres about the danger of unexploded military debris if you leave the road.

Entering Imber we drove past the shells of buildings that stand either side of the road, punctuated by more warning signs. It’s only a small village and before long we’d driven out the other side. I turned the car around in the deserted road whilst the kids excitedly pointed out a rusting tank on the hillside above us.

Imber church
St Giles church, Imber

Heading back in we parked in the small field next to St Giles church. Unlike the rest of Imber the church remains outside of army ownership and is the main destination for visitors. Surrounded by high wire fencing and an out of bounds sign it’s maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Inside we read information boards about the eviction. Volunteers were providing  refreshments; the bottled water and camping stove a reminder that this is a village with no utilities or concessions to visitors.

Outside I took a walk around the graveyard. Much of it has been reclaimed by nature with huge thistles attracting lots of butterflies. Some of the headstones are dated after the 1943 evacuation, including that of the village blacksmith, Albert Nash. Albert’s wife believes he died of a broken heart just a few weeks after the eviction.

Imber village, Salisbury Plain
Imber village, Salisbury Plain

After visiting the church we walked along the main road to see the other buildings. In addition to the original village buildings, most of which are in a poor state of repair, there are a number of newer house type structures built in the 1970s. These were to help soldiers prepare for the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Despite the many warning signs telling the public to keep out I was surprised to see one man taking his young son up onto the first floor of the house shown above. The area is still used for live firing and it seemed mad to ignore the warnings.

Tilshead Down ,Salisbury Plain
Tilshead Down, Salisbury Plain

From Imber we drove a short distance to the nearby village of Tilshead. Imber isn’t the only ghost village on Salisbury Plain and we were about to discover another one, this time purpose built by the military.

We set off on the 6 mile walk across the Plain towards the village on Copehill Down. From Tilshead Down we followed a path through an avenue of trees. These are noted for their arborglyphs, or to give it a more obvious name, tree graffiti, carved by soldiers in the Second World War. The kids tried to decipher some of the initials but most were unreadable as the trunks have grown and morphed the shapes of the letters.

Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down
Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down

Just off of the avenue we came across a small clearing with a sign warning us not to dig. What was there? Prehistoric skeletons or landmines? I didn’t want to find out!

FIBUA (Fighting in a Built-Up area), Copehill Down village

Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

Our second empty village of the day lay ahead of us. This village was built as an MoD training facility in the 1980s at the end of the Cold War. Originally created as an East German village it has evidently been updated to include an Iraqi section but this wasn’t visible from the outside.

East German village, Salisbury Plain
East German village, Salisbury Plain

It’s not possible to enter the village but the track runs close to the entrances so it’s easy to look in at the houses and crashed cars. Although there weren’t any training activities taking place we spotted lots of empty blank cartridges strewn across the ground.

Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain
Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain

After leaving we walked up onto Copehill Down and followed a stretch of the Imber Range Perimeter Path, a 30 mile route which skirts the edge of the military training firing area.

Although used by the military Copehill Down is undeveloped and hasn’t been farmed in many years. This is great news for wildlife. Salisbury Plain is the largest area of chalk grassland in north west Europe and the whole area was full of flowers, insects, butterflies and birds. So different to intensively farmed fields.

Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

On the brow of the down my partner was incredibly excited to see a great bustard in the grasslands, a large bird reintroduced to Britain in 2004 after becoming nationally extinct in 1832. I had been looking in the opposite direction and, annoyingly, by the time I looked the bird had disappeared into the long grass.

Just outside of Tilshead we passed White Barrow, a Neolithic long barrow in National Trust ownership. It’s one of more than 2000 archaeological sites on Salisbury Plain, many of which lay within the military area. We didn’t visit as time was against us and we were keen to get started on our return journey. Although we did have to make time to pop into the garage for some much needed ice creams and drinks!

If you get a chance I highly recommend a visit to Imber and Copehill Down. The combination of military usage, environment and prehistoric sites makes for a unique day out.

More info:

  • St Giles church and Imber village can only be visited on specific open days. These usually occur at Christmas, Easter and mid-late August but check the website for up to date information. It is not possible or safe to travel to Imber outside of these dates as it is used for military operations.
  • We followed the Discovering Britain Military Environmentalism walk from Tilshead to visit the mock village on Copehill Down. This walk is always open, even when military exercises are happening in the village. There is no access to the village.
  • The St Giles church volunteers offer tea and coffee for £1, squash for 50p, both come with a biscuit. There are a couple of basic Portaloo type toilets in one of the car parking lay-bys.
  • There are no facilities or refreshment opportunities on the walk but the garage at Tilshead has a small mini-mart and toilets.
  • There is no mobile phone reception in Imber.

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A walk to Hurst castle, Hampshire

£9 for a 10 minute bus ride? I thought the driver had misheard me so I repeated our destination, Milford-on-Sea. Yes, the figure was correct; £2.50 per child and £4 per adult for a single fare.  It would have been cheaper to get a taxi, and quicker given the bus was running 25 minutes late. With gritted teeth I paid the fare and made a mental note to avoid buses in future.

Fortunately we’d had a better experience with the train. Taking advantage of our family railcard and off peak travel I’d planned a trip to Hurst Castle, a spectacularly located castle overlooking the Solent and Isle of Wight. The nearest railway station is at Lymington and whilst it’s possible to walk to Hurst Castle from the town I thought the short bus ride to Milford would allow a linear walk and reduce the mileage.

Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle
Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle

My mood lightened a little as we left Milford-on-Sea and attempted to run up and over the shingle bank which heads out to Hurst Castle. Easier said than done as the pebbles slipped away under our feet and the wind blew hair and sea spray across our faces. Across the Solent we could see The Needles, glistening white against the clouds.

It’s a 1.5 mile walk out along the shingle to Hurst Castle. It was surprisingly hard walking along the top of the spit, even with a stiff breeze blowing us along. After a few minutes we admitted defeat and dropped down to the sheltered side of the bank, away from the waves and wind. We walked beside the mud flats and salt marsh; they’re a haven for waders and wildfowl although the only bird I recognised was an egret.

The approach to Hurst Castle
The approach to Hurst Castle

As we walked Hurst Castle slowly came into focus. It’s a strange looking building, more of a fort really, with destructive gun batteries and protective lighthouses alongside each other.

The castle was built by Henry VIII to guard the western approach of the Solent and help protect the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. Despite the threat of invasion the castle saw little action for much of its early history although it was used to imprison Charles I in 1648. Significant renovations and the addition of armaments were completed during the Napoleonic Wars but life at the castle remained uneventful. Further modifications took place throughout the Victorian era and up to the end of the Second World War.

Hurst Castle
Hurst Castle

Entering via the guard room we first explored the early part of the castle. The Tudor tower housed the garrison and marks on the floor outline the living accommodation. The roof was used as a gun tower but nowadays is best for its great views across the marshes and the Solent.

The original Tudor castle sits between two large wing batteries which were added between 1861 and 1874. Later in the week we visited the Isle of Wight and it’s only after seeing the castle from the seaward side that you really appreciate the positioning and structure of the building.

Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle
Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle

We continued our explorations of the remainder of the castle, walking up and down stairs, searching in nooks and crannies and balancing along old railway tracks. The two lighthouses shown above no longer work, instead the Hurst Point lighthouse fulfils their role and there’s a small exhibition in the castle about them.

Before we left, and in the interest of research, we felt obliged to pop into the cafe for a drink; we’d already eaten our picnic but the food looked good and the cakes tempting.

Hurst Point Lighthouse
Hurst Point Lighthouse

I had planned to catch the ferry back from the castle through the marshes to Keyhaven but it was a busy summer day and the queue was long.  In case you’re wondering, the term ‘ferry’ is probably a little optimistic. Think small boat with room for about 10 people rather than Isle of Wight Red Funnel car ferry!

There also appeared to be a drama happening in one of the channels as the tide was low and another boat had got stuck in the mud. The boat we were waiting for was called into action to rescue the passengers and take them back to Keyhaven. At this point I decided it was quicker to walk back rather than wait another 20 minutes for the next ferry. Fortunately the wind had dropped a little since the morning, making it a slightly less arduous walk.

Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington
Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington

After leaving the shingle beach our walk back to Lymington took us past more mudflats, the boats of Keyhaven Yacht Club and clouds of butterflies which had come out to enjoy the sun. I’d under-estimated how long it would take us to walk this final stretch and we had to run to reach the railway station in time for our train. We arrived sweaty and hot with a couple of minutes to spare.

We really enjoyed Hurst Castle but if you plan to visit I would definitely suggest walking one way from Lymington or Keyhaven and using the ferry service as this looked like a fun way to travel.

More info:

  • Hurst Castle is open daily from the end of March to the end of October. Check the English Heritage website for exact dates and times. An adult ticket costs £4.40, a child ticket £2.80. English Heritage members have free access.
  • The ferry runs every 20 minutes between Keyhaven and Hurst Castle during castle opening times. A single ticket costs £3.50 for adults, £2 for children.

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Ideas for family days out in August 2015

The school holidays are in full swing and there are loads of events to keep the children busy. Read on to find out things to do with your family in August 2015.

1. Bristol Balloon Fiesta, Bristol

We visited the Fiesta last year and loved it; you can read about our day out here. This year the Bristol Balloon Fiesta is held from 6-9 August and is the largest of its kind in Europe. Balloon ascents are weather dependent and you’ll need to be there either at 6am or 6pm to watch take-offs. There are plenty of other attractions, including a large fairground, if the weather doesn’t play ball.

2. Cowes Week Family Day, Isle of Wight

Much of the excitement of Cowes Week takes place on the water but Sunday 9 August is the designated family day. Youngsters can enjoy a cardboard boat race, taster sailing sessions and pirate show. There’s an Ed Sheeran tribute show for the adults later in the evening. Full details here.

3. Superworm Trail, Forestry Commission sites, nationwide

If your children are 3-8 years old head along to a Superworm activity trail at your nearest participating Forestry Commission site. The trail is free although you’ll need to pay a parking charge and there’s an optional Superworm activity pack for £3.50. Most trails are open until the end of October but check the Forestry Commission website for full details of locations and timings.

4. Blackpool Air Show, Lancashire

Blackpool Air Show takes place on 9-10 August. The seafront show is free and features displays from, amongst others, the typhoon, vulcan and chinooks. I’m sure the Red Arrows display on Sunday will be a highlight (see some photos from the display we saw in Oxfordshire here). The full line up, with timings, is available here.

5. World Pipe Band championships, Glasgow

Glasgow’s World Pipe Band championships takes place on 14-15 August. In addition to the piping from over 200 bands there’s a kids’ zone, Highland Games, Highland dancing and a Scottish food village. Advance family tickets cost £10 for the Friday, £31 for the Saturday.

6. Weymouth Carnival, Dorset

On 19 August Weymouth will host the usual carnival mix of procession, fairground rides, stalls and beach events, all topped off with evening fireworks. And just in case you haven’t managed to see them this year the Red Arrows will be zooming in at 3pm.

7. Beaumaris Medieval Festival, Gwynedd

The Medieval festival takes place at Beaumaris Castle over the Bank Holiday weekend, 29-31 August. The weekend features interactive family entertainment including jesters, knights and falconry.  A family ticket costs £15.75; further details here.

8. Spark Festival, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Held on 30-31 August the free Spark Festival encompasses activities about the future and is led by UCL students. Kids can build a hovercraft, watch shaving foam expand in a vacuum and make mini rockets. Find out more details here.

9. Grasmere Sports & Show, Cumbria

We were in Grasmere a couple of years ago at the same time as this show but didn’t go. I only realised afterwards what we’d missed out on! Run in sprint and fell races, watch a ferret roadshow or take part in Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling. Book a family (2 adults, 3 children) ticket online for £22 otherwise it’s £10 for adults and £3 for children.

10. British Fireworks Championships, Plymouth, Devon

The Championships are held on 18-19 August and consist of 6 professional display companies competing to be the British Fireworks Champion. The displays start at 9.30pm so this is an event for older children. The Hoe is the main viewing area where you’ll also find a funfair and live music.

As always, if you have any further suggestions for days out in August please leave a comment.