Day 5 - Alum Bay - The Needles - Old Battery - Rocket Men

We left the car behind today and took the coastal footpath to Alum Bay. 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 this before.

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 do this.

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!

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