Half a league, half a league, half a league onwards
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade
The Tennyson Trail is a 14-mile walk along the Isle of Wight's spine between the village of Carisbrooke near the middle of the Island, to Alum Bay and the Needles at the Island's westernmost point. Noted for its striking scenery, particularly along the last three miles at the Island's westernmost point, all of the walk is within part of the Isle of Wight's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The trail has been in existence for over 5,000 years as the ridgeway was the safest and driest route to and from the edge of the West Wight. It goes from Carisbrooke Castle and ends at the Needles Old Battery, passing forests, ancient burial sites and the Tennyson Monument.
The Tennyson Trail is easily followed and is well signed. When walking the Tennyson Trail it is recommended that you take a strong pair of boots or trainers and an up-to-date Ordnance Survey map with you1. The trail is a Bridleway rather than a footpath, so expect to encounter horses2. Most of the trail is part of the Chalk Ridge Extreme cycle route, aimed at cyclists who enjoy a challenging off-road experience. It can also be used as part of the E9 European Coastal Path3.
The stiles along the route have almost all been replaced by kissing gates that have been paid for as part of the Isle of Wight Ramblers' 'Donate a Gate' scheme. These gates commemorate the lives of loved ones now gone and should be treated with respect.
Every public right of way on the Isle of Wight, every footpath and bridleway, has its own number based on the parish in which it is located. There are 20 parishes, with each identified by its initials. The Tennyson Trail passes through the following parishes:
- BS – Brighstone
- F – Freshwater
- N – Newport
- S – Shalfleet
- T – Totland
Please note that all distances below are digitally-measured approximations, based on the Researcher's digits4. For areas in which the path has a lot of twists and turns, the distance has been calculated with a piece of string.
Carisbrooke to Brighstone Forest (4 miles)
Carisbrooke is a village 1¼ miles southwest of the town centre of Newport, the Island's capital. Overlooking the village is Carisbrooke Castle, famous for its donkey-powered well and for being King Charles I's prison in 1649. This is the natural starting point of the trail, although an alternative is to start at the nearby Church of St Mary the Virgin, a church mentioned in the Domesday Book. The building was originally part of a Benedictine Priory until it was supressed by Henry V for being an 'alien priory' (one whose mother-house was French) during the Hundred Years' War5. The castle has a large car park and is served by local buses.
From the car park's south-west corner, take footpath N88 downhill and southwest to a country lane called Clatterford Shute6. Continue north-west for 110 yards down Clatterford Shute to Lukely Brook's ford and unless you have particularly big wellies on, it is recommended you take the footbridge on the right of the road. After crossing and/or playing Pooh Sticks, head uphill on the other side of the river, passing the thatched cottage before reaching the B3323 Bowcombe Road. Cross this road and continue uphill along the quiet Nodgham Lane. Down Lane leading to footpath N123 will soon be on your left; take this track as it narrows into a banked path.
Head west up the footpath that ascends Bowcombe Down7 which initially is an ancient road with banks either side. When you reach higher up, take the time to admire the views of Carisbrooke Castle on your left. When you reach the gate where the N123 joins the chalk trail, continue along the Old Highway, Byway N128, towards Brighstone Forest. This, the flintiest part of the route, is where your route joins the Chalk Ridge Extreme cycle path. The path continues along with a hedge dominating your view on the left. Soon you will pass by your first Bronze Age barrow of many; this one was also used as an Anglo Saxon cemetery. 1½miles outside Carisbrooke the trail splits; follow the Old Highway Southwest along N136a. If you are fond of the sight of television transmitter masts, the path passes the Rowridge transmitting station quite close by, which has brought television to the Isle of Wight since 1954. Head uphill, ascending to Brighstone Down, and continue along the undulating bridleway along the edge of Brighstone Forest's beech plantation as the path becomes N139. Soon you will reach the gate where the path enters Brighstone Forest.
Brighstone Forest to Strawberry Lane (3 miles)
Brighstone Forest is a mixed (beech, ash, sycamore, conifer and oak) Forestry Commission plantation planted in the 1930s-50s and is the largest forest on the Isle of Wight. This is classed as a local Site of Importance for Nature Conservation and is home to animals such as red squirrels, foxes, bank voles, adders and speckled wood butterflies. There are also at least 20 round, bell, ditch and bowl Bronze Age barrows in the forest8. As you enter the forest you leave the parish of Newport behind and the path is now numbered BS4. You will walk for 1 1/3 miles beneath the tree canopy, which gives the light a strong green tint. The summit of Brighstone Down at 701-feet is the third highest on the Island, after St Boniface and St Catherine's Downs9. As you emerge from the wood you will come to a junction where the Tennyson Trail meets the Worsley Trail next to a covered reservoir. Turn right and continue along the path named BS10. Brighstone Forest will now be on your right as you descend to meet the country road next to where Strawberry Lane and Lynch Lane meet.
Strawberry Lane to Freshwater Bay (5 miles)
Next to Strawberry Lane and Lynch Lane's junction is the entrance to the National Trust's Jubilee Carpark – you will now be walking on National Trust land10. Head through the gate and follow the trail ascending up Mottistone Down along BS44 for about a mile. To reach the hill's summit (667 feet) you need to walk through a gate and leave National Trust land, and the top is marked by more Bronze Age barrows on your right11. At the next gate follow the path, which briefly strays into Shalfleet's parish and so becomes S26, northwest downhill down Pay Down towards the road, the B3399.
Cross the road into the National Trust land labelled 'Brook and Compton Down', following path BS53. The National Trust sign proudly proclaims,
Along with Afton and Compton Downs, Brook Down is also considered one of the best areas of chalk grassland in Britain because of the richness of its flowers and insect life…. On the top of the downs you will find Bronze Age burial mounds (tumuli) and banks marking ancient field systems, dating back 3,500 years. The downs are grazed by Galloway cattle, which are vital for maintaining the flower-rich grasslands, the home to many pairs of skylark.
The sign also recommends you look out for Adonis Blue, Chalkhill Blue and Clouded Yellow butterflies and such plants as Horseshoe Vetch, Carline Thistles and harebells. To your left you can make out the imposing sight of Brook Hill House, built in 1915 for Charles Seely, grandfather of Galloper Jack Seely and later home to novelist JB Priestley, while on your right there is a chalk pit. At the top of the hill you will pass close to the Five Barrows, this area's most prominent group of Bronze Age barrows12. You will now undulate across adjoining downs. At the far side of the field, near the summit of Wellow Down, there is a gate; go through this as the path becomes F33.
You are now walking on Compton Down, a Site of Special Scientific Interest for biological and geological features. The National Trust signs inform you that the top of this down has large areas of gorse due to the acid soil on the top of the ridge. They advise you to look out for skylarks, the dark-green fritillary butterfly, stonechats, linnets, kestrels, Dartford warbler, and state that the gorse is managed by controlled burning on an 8-year rotation. You will soon get to Afton Down, which in 1970 was crowded full of half a million music fans listening to Jimi Hendrix's last ever performance, given a short distance north at the bottom of the hill. The down's summit is 415 feet above sea level. Soon after you will reach the Freshwater Bay Golf Course; ensure you stay on the clearly visible trail as you descend to Freshwater Bay. You will cross the FS4 Freshwater Way trail as you continue to descend due west, soon reaching the A3055 Military Road. Although you can now follow the Military Road downhill to Freshwater Bay it is preferable to use the short and narrow Permissive Path over private land that is labelled 'footpath' on your left that links the Tennyson Trail to the Isle of Wight Coastal Path. At the end of this path take the wooden steps down to the shingle beach, turn right and head into Freshwater Bay. The nearby Freshwater Independent Lifeboat Shop sells snacks, souvenirs and beverages and the money goes to a good cause.
Freshwater Bay to The Needles (3 miles)
From Freshwater Bay's lifeboat shop, follow alongside Gate Lane heading west as it turns northwest. Take track F50 on your left next to the public toilets. This heads uphill, first to Freshwater Redoubt, a fort built to defend against a feared French Invasion. This track reaches National Trust land; head through the gate following the signs labelled F49 as you enter a field in which numerous cows often have a disconcerting habit of herding next to a sharp, vertical drop. Halfway across the field, where the trail is met by a footpath on your right, the trail becomes T25. Continue uphill heading towards the distinctive cross of the Tennyson Memorial at the top of what is now Tennyson Down13. This was erected in 1897 to commemorate the Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and is inscribed In memory of Alfred Lord Tennyson this Cross is raised as a beacon to sailors by the people of Freshwater and other friends in England and America. Tennyson had lived nearby in Farringford House and frequently informed visitors that the air on the Down was worth sixpence a pint. From here on a good day at least half the Island is visible, from Cowes to St Catherine's, as well as a lot of mainland. A plaque kindly informs you that you are 102 miles from the D-Day Beaches, 15 miles from Bournemouth, 273 miles from Dublin, 18 miles from Southampton, 21 from Portsmouth, 84 from London and 2,722 miles from the North Pole. This is located 482 feet above sea level.
Continue west along the path near the edge of the high chalk cliff a further 1½ miles to Scratchell's Bay. You will pass a replica wooden Invasion Beacon erected here in 1988 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Spanish Armada. Continue along T24 towards the New Needles Battery where the Isle of Wight's Black Knight, Black Arrow and Blue Streak rockets were tested in the 1950s14. Sadly when the National Trust bought the land in 1975, rather than preserve this historic site, the only rocket-testing facility in Great Britain, they decided to bulldoze and demolish everything, much to their later regret.
Continue to descend, noticing how the amount of land in front of you and to your left and your right is rapidly diminishing, and when you reach a radio aerial follow the path as it turns right, with the Needles Old Battery on your left. This is a National Trust owned fort constructed in 1863 and is the westernmost part of the Isle of Wight, with views overlooking The Needles, chalk stacks to the west of the Isle of Wight, with a lighthouse constructed in 1859 on the furthermost rock.
From the Needles Old Battery follow the path to the road downhill and cross the stile. Follow the path next to the road east as it heads to Alum Bay and the Needles Pleasure Park. Remember to keep on the path as otherwise you will experience a rather sheer drop. At Alum Bay you can enjoy the remarkable cliffs and the sand of 21 different shades and colour. You can return to Carisbrooke or Newport from here by catching a number 7 bus which run every half hour on weekends and in the summer – see the timetables posted on the Southern Vectis website for up-to-date travel information.