Race you to the end!” shouted Ro, tapping me on the shoulder as he set off along the wooden boardwalk, and was soon several paces ahead of me.
There’s something about a seaside pier that brings out the inner child in us all and I couldn’t help but chase after him, laughing breathlessly as I was unable to catch up before he reached the end of the pier – and the English Channel.
At 870ft, Sandown’s pier might not be the longest in the world, but it’s quite long enough for an out-of-shape runner like me – I bet the Victorian ladies who came here to promenade and enjoy the bracing sea air were far more decorous!
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Heading to the Pier
They started arriving as soon as the pier opened, in 1879, enjoying its pavilion and taking paddleboat trips from the landing stage. The area was so popular, no fewer than four European monarchs stayed there.
In 2021, we found ourselves following in their footsteps and enjoying some good old-fashioned English seaside fun.
Sandown is on the southern coast of the Isle of Wight, with long stretches of beach just perfect for sandcastle construction (winning BBC Countryfile Beach of the Year in 2019), a traditional promenade, and of course, that rather fine pier.
Adgestone Camping and Caravanning Club Site, an easy 30-minute stroll from the beach, was our base for the week.
There are a couple of other campsites nearby, including a Parkdean resort with all the facilities you could wish for, again around a 30-minute walk away. Take a look at our best seaside caravan park guide if you’re after a site by the coast tool
But back to our afternoon in Sandown – after all of that exercise on the pier, we treated ourselves to ice cream, sank into a couple of deckchairs and took in the view over the Solent. Looking left past the pier, the panorama opens out onto the cliffs of Shanklin, and we decided that walking there would make an excellent day out later in the week.
Today, though, ice creams devoured, we took a relaxing stroll along the beach, past the Dinosaur Isle museum, which organises guided fossil-hunting sessions (the Isle of Wight has one of the highest concentrations of dinosaur fossils in the world), and onwards to Yaverland.
The sea here is popular with watersports enthusiasts, but my earlier run was quite enough activity for one day! We ended our day with a meal at Sandown Boulevard, a quirky little bar on the beach which has several pop-up street food vendors.
Next morning found us on the road in search of more history. Carisbrooke Castle, in the heart of the island, dates from the 12th century, although a fort has stood here since at least the time of Edward the Confessor, 100 years earlier.
Since then, it has served as a garrison, a royal residence and a prison – Charles I was jailed here in 1648 and today, you can see the bed he slept in. I wouldn’t recommend trying to copy his attempt to escape by climbing out of the bedroom window, mind you – he got himself stuck between the bars and had to be rescued by his guards!
Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest child, became Governor of the Isle of Wight in 1896, and lived in Carisbrooke until her death in 1944, when the castle was acquired by English Heritage. Her influence can be seen in the wall panelling, window seats, and the bathroom she added to ‘modernise’ the castle, among other improvements.
We walked a complete circuit of the walls, admiring far-reaching views over the countryside, before snacking on tea and cake from the café.
Then there was just time to visit the famous castle donkeys, who put on daily demonstrations working the treadwheel (but have a much happier life, I suspect, than their 16th-century ancestors).
We had spotted a craft centre and farm shop on our way to the castle and were keen to visit on our way back, to pick up some supplies for our evening barbecue.
Arreton Barns Craft Village also has a Shipwreck Centre & Maritime Museum, as well as a pub, the Dairyman’s Daughter, if you fancy a pleasant pit-stop.
We contented ourselves with ambling around the bustling shops and watching some of the artisans at work, before making a quick visit to the fine old parish church, St George’s, and then returning to the campsite with our goodies to cook up that barbecue in the early evening sunshine.
Stepping further back in time the next day, we found ourselves at the site of a Neolithic burial chamber near Mottistone, on the island’s south-west coast.
An easy uphill walk through woodland, which gave way to heather and gorse, took us to two standing stones, once marking the entrance to the ancient burial ground. As with all such places, there is a legend surrounding these stones.
It seems St Catherine had a wager with the devil for control of the island, which involved throwing some huge boulders. Her larger stone won out against his smaller effort and remained as a symbol of the triumph of good over evil.
I couldn’t resist resting my hands on said stones, but alas, no bolts of wisdom or flashes of insight were to be had!
There is a walk from here to the National Trust’s Mottistone Gardens (five minutes by car), but we were keen to continue along the coast, past Blackgang Chine, the oldest amusement park in the UK, to one of the highest points on the island.
Here you can see St Catherine’s Oratory, known locally as the Pepperpot. From the car park, it is a relatively short, but steep, climb up the grassy hillside to reach the structure, but the views are well worth it. The Pepperpot was built in 1328 by a local landowner, as penance for stealing wine from a ship that ran aground at Chale Bay, on its way to a French monastery.
It was intended as a lighthouse and an oratory, where a local priest could pray for the souls of those lost at sea. Today, the building is a shell, but on a clear day, you have a panoramic view of the southern coast of the Isle of Wight and over to the South Downs on the mainland.
Having walked up an appetite, we were soon back at the campsite, tucking into another barbecue – you do have to make the most of the sunny days in Britain!
Waking bright and early next morning, we took a bus ride around part of the island, starting at the traditional seaside town of Ventnor. It has a sand and shingle beach, which is ideal for entertaining the little ones, or just relaxing.
Those Victorian visitors came here in their droves, travelling by steam packet from the mainland, to experience the mild, health-giving climate.
After a short stroll along the sea wall towards the little village of Bonchurch, we enjoyed lunch on the beach at the lively Spyglass Inn, before hopping on another bus for the 30-minute journey to Ryde.
Beach and esplanade
Here, there is another pier to walk (and yes, I did just walk this one – after all, it is about three times longer than Sandown Pier!), more fine Victorian architecture and miles of gorgeous sandy beach.
There is also a rather eclectic mix of shops to explore – even an all-year-round Christmas shop – as well as some enticing cafés. Having eaten in Ventnor, we resisted their temptations, although we did indulge in an excellent cocktail at the Pavilion Bar & Grill, on the bustling esplanade – having the perfect excuse of needing to kill some time before our bus back.
With yet more sunshine greeting us the following morning, we decided to continue in the footsteps of our Victorian friends and walk to Shanklin and its chine.
This turned out to be an easy 1.5-mile stroll along the esplanade, or on the beach, passing beach huts and cafés if you fancy sitting and watching the world go by.
We dined al fresco at the Waterfront Inn before exploring the rest of Shanklin. From the beach, it is a fairly steep climb to the Old Village. We chose the easier, more interesting, route through the Chine.
The island’s oldest tourist attraction, Shanklin Chine is actually a natural ravine and waterfall carved out over thousands of years. Today’s stunning tree-lined path was excavated in 1817 and soon found its way onto every Victorian’s bucket list.
Less salubriously, it was also a handy route for smugglers, offering them passage via a tunnel up to the Old Village. More recent history saw Royal Marine Commandos training here for D-Day in World War II.
The Chine is also home to a great variety of wildlife, including red squirrels (a live webcam on their feeder can be viewed at the nature hide), foxes and birds.
As night falls, the chine becomes even more spectacular, with illuminated streams, paths and waterfalls from May to October.
We had a restaurant booked for dinner, so didn’t stay to experience this. Instead, at the Old Village, after more exploring, we found a handy bus service to Sandown, to save our weary feet.
Gin at the inn
That evening, a five-minute taxi ride took us to The Yarbridge Inn for a very enjoyable dinner. Chatting to our waiter – a member of the family that owns the pub – we found out the building has an interesting history, and was once a train station.
I for one heartily approve of today’s incarnation, especially as they serve the delicious local Mermaid Gin!
Our final day was one of quiet relaxation in the fresh air – those Victorians were onto something, you know. Stretched out in a deckchair on the beach, eyes closed, sun on my face, anticipating fish and chips later, and maybe a glass of something cold, I felt a gentle nudge. I found Ro looking at me with an eyebrow raised. “Rematch race on the pier?” Uh-oh, not on your life!
You can also see how Peter Baber got on when he went to the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island.
When to go to the Isle of Wight
When we visited during summer 2021, this very popular destination was bustling with visitors, but the shoulder seasons are lovely here, too, and would be less crowded.
Way to go to the Isle of Wight
We took the Portsmouth to Fishbourne ferry crossing.
Where we stayed in the Isle of Wight
Lower Road, Brading, Sandown PO36 0HL
Food and drink in the Isle of Wight
- Sandown Boulevard
- The Spyglass Inn
- Pavilion Bar & Grill
- Waterfront Inn
- The Yarbridge Inn
- The Isle of Wight Distillery
Find out more
Information on towns, villages and attractions
- Southern Vectis bus services
- Carisbrooke Castle
- Arreton Barns
- Mottistone Gardens
- St Catherine’s Oratory
Lead image: Sue Taylor
Head to our Best of British: Touring Adventures section for more inspiration for your next trip.
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