Isle of Wight walk with amazing views of the Needles and Alum Bay

Freshwater Bay beach and cliffs

Freshwater Bay beach and cliffs - Credit: Fiona Barltrop

Savour spectacular views of the Needles and Alum Bay and discover history tales on this invigorating walk on the Isle of Wight

No matter how many pictures you’ve seen of the iconic Needles chalk stacks and lighthouse, there’s nothing like viewing them with you own eyes. Adorning countless picture postcards, calendars and tea-towels, it’s a view that is synonymous with the Isle of Wight. Another very striking sight at this south-western tip of the Island is Alum Bay’s multi-coloured sand cliffs.

High up on the cliff top above Alum Bay is the Needles Old Battery, a Victorian fort in the care of the National Trust, which provides superb views of the Needles. It was built in the early 1860s as part of a protective chain of forts and batteries to protect the Solent and naval dockyards at Portsmouth from possible French invasion, and was occupied by soldiers until the end of the Second World War. It’s well worth exploring in order to learn more about its varied military history. The Old Battery is open from March until the end of October, but thereafter you can still enjoy the atmospheric 1940s tea room (open at weekends Nov/Dec). For those with children, perhaps visiting for half term this month, there are trail sheets and activities available.

Higher up the headland is the New Battery (also looked after by the National Trust and again open from March to the end of October), which was added in the 1890s to house larger guns. Between the 1950s and 1970s the rooms were used as the control centre for secret rocket tests carried out at the nearby static test site.

You can take in views of both the Needles and Alum Bay from an open-top bus ride, a cliff-hugging climb from Alum Bay to the Needles Battery, but, as ever, it’s much more satisfying to earn those views by arriving on foot, which is just what this walk does. Starting at the attractive cove of Freshwater Bay, the route takes you along the top of the chalk ridge of Tennyson Down, where the fresh air, declared Alfred Lord Tennyson, who lived nearby and walked here regularly, ‘is worth sixpence a pint’.

Even if you don’t visit the Old Battery, there’s an excellent Needles viewpoint on the cliff-top. Fine views of Alum Bay follow, with the option of walking down to the beach below the cliffs, before a return along the foot of the Downs.

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• Start/finish: Freshwater Bay car park (SZ346857); alternatively, free car park on the north side of A3055 east of Freshwater Bay (SZ351856).

• Map: OS Explorer OL29

• Distance: 6½ miles (10.5km) or 7¼ miles (11.5km) including extension to Alum Bay beach

• Terrain: Downland and cliff-top tracks and paths; short stretches along pavements

• Time: 3-3½ hours (allow extra time for visiting the Needles Batteries)

• Refreshments: Needles Old Battery tea room; refreshment kiosk at Needles New Battery. Other refreshments available at the Needles Park (amusement park) and Freshwater Bay, including Dimbola Tea Room (01983 756814)

• Public transport: Wightlink car ferries between Lymington & Yarmouth (closest crossing for this walk) and Portsmouth & Fishbourne; passenger catamaran from Portsmouth to Ryde, 0333 999 7333, Bus services 7 and 12; Island Coaster and Needles Breezer – March to Oct,

The route

1 (SZ346857) If starting from the main car park, cross the road and head right along the promenade towards the hotel, turning right in front of it, then left along the road a short distance. (If starting from the car park east of Freshwater Bay, you can pick up the coast path on the opposite side and follow that down to Freshwater Bay.) Turn left along the access road for Fort Redoubt. Very soon you come to a gate on your right and a Coastal Path sign - keep straight on. Where the drive to privately owned Fort Redoubt swings left, the Coastal Path goes right uphill. A brief detour up the edge of the grass beside the drive, along which public access has been granted, takes you to the entrance to Fort Redoubt and an information board about this 19th century fort. Head back down and follow the Coastal Path on up the grassy slopes of Tennyson Down, which, like West High Down further on, is cared for by the National Trust. Indeed, many of the Isle of Wight’s most iconic stretches of coastline and countryside are looked after by them. As you ascend, there are fine views back east along the coast while looking north you can see Yarmouth and the Solent. Ahead in the distance is Tennyson’s Monument.

2 (SZ324853) The monument, a Cornish granite cross, situated on the highest point of the down, was erected in Tennyson’s memory in 1897. The poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, lived at nearby Farringford from 1853 until his death in 1892. From the monument you can either continue westwards along the route marked on the OS map as the official Coastal Path descending gently along the broad grassy ridge or alternatively keep closer to the cliff-edge along Highdown Cliffs. (This is open access land so you don’t have to stick to any particular path.) Assuming the former you’ll soon reach a four-way junction.

3 (SZ318853) There’s a half-size replica here of what was called the Nodes Beacon that once stood on the spot where the Tennyson monument now is. Alongside it is all that remains of the original. Continuing along the Coastal Path, follow the direction for the Needles, as signed, heading gently up and along West High Down. Aim for the aerial in the distance. The roofs of the former Coastguard Cottages (now NT holiday lets) can be spotted ahead to the right. Pass the radio transmitters, then head downhill in a NW direction to a concrete road near the Needles NCI (National Coastwatch Institution) station. The rocket testing site (and information panel) is very close by, and, too, the signed Needles viewpoint above Scratchell’s Bay. From the viewpoint make your way back to the Coastwatch station and from the nearby New Battery follow the signed path down to the Old Battery.

4 (SZ296848) From the Old Battery continue alongside the road, then roadside path towards Alum Bay enjoying the fine views of the multicoloured sand cliffs.

5 (SZ307852) Where the road bends left to enter the Needles Park, the main route turns right up the steps along the footpath for the return leg. But if you’ve the time and inclination you might like to continue through the Needles Park, heading for the chairlift that descends to the beach at Alum Bay. Steps from the chairlift also lead down to the beach. Return to the path junction and follow the footpath to the junction at pt 3. From here bear left along the path signed for Freshwater. Maintain direction to reach a road, the picturesque thatched church of St Agnes on the left. Turn right back down to the start passing Dimbola Lodge, the former home of the Victorian pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. It is now a museum and gallery and has a tea room.


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