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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.