THE FRESHWATER WAY: Yarmouth to Yarmouth
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
The Freshwater Way is a short six-kilometre coast-to-coast walk across the western quarter of the Isle of Wight from the Saxon town of Yarmouth on the north coast to Freshwater Bay on the south-west coast, with two alternative routes for the second half of the walk. However, by using some of the other footpaths in the area, one can easily make a more substantial circular walk that still leaves enough time to explore both Yarmouth and Freshwater Bay.
Yarmouth is a small town on the eastern side of the mouth of the Western Yar River (not to be confused with the East Yar River, which I encountered on the other end of the island while walking the Nunwell Trail). The town has a population of just under 900 people, but a long history, going back to at least 991AD, and perhaps earlier. These days the town has a busy harbour in the estuary and a small ferry terminal linking the town with Lymington on the edge of the New Forest, a short journey across the Solent.
After alighting at the bus station by the harbour on a sunny morning, I headed along Quay Street and then Pier Street to the town's pier, at 186 metres, the longest wooden pier in England (picture 1). The pier was built in 1876 and restored in 1994, with each plank now marked with the names of the many supporters who funded the restoration. A 50p toll helps to pay for the upkeep and I happily made my contribution and went for a stroll out to the far end.
The pier gives the best views of the stout walls of Yarmouth Castle (picture 2), built in 1547 for Henry VIII to defend the town against repeated attacks from the French that had occurred throughout the middle-ages. Rather than wait for the castle to open, I decided to head off on the walk, as the weather forecast suggested that the sunny weather wasn't going to last. I did however return to Yarmouth a couple of days later to visit the castle.
Back down Pier Street is The Square (picture 3), with the Bugle Coaching Inn on the left, the small two-storey Town Hall on the right, built in 1764, the square tower of the 17th-century Church of St James at the far end and the spire of the town's Methodist church in the background.
From the bottom of the square I turned right along Bridge Street, passing the Wheatsheaf pub before skirting a roundabout and carrying on past the bus station to the near end of the swing bridge that takes Bridge Street across the River Yar. By the end of the bridge a tarmac path, Public Footpath Y1, turns down past the Yarmouth Sailing Club to follow the river's edge alongside a large square green that was being temporarily occupied by a large travelling funfair. On the river, all manner of small yachts were moored just upstream from the swing bridge (picture 4)
Beyond the green, the path swings to the left around a large carpark and then back to the right in front of houses to cross Thorley Brook, which empties into the Yar beside a five-storey brick building that was once a tide-mill. In front of the mill a small group of swans were foraging in the shallow water (picture 5).
A little further along the riverbank, Footpath Y1 merges into Bridleway Y19, the former trackbed of the Freshwater, Yarmouth and Newport Railway, which carried its last passengers in 1953, after 65 years of operation. The trackbed is now a cycleway and footpath, following the riverbank beside tidal marshes for a while before eventually heading into a pleasant stretch of woodland walking (picture 6), with only occasional glimpses of the river (picture 7).
The quiet path emerges from the woods a couple of hundred metres before The Causeway (picture 8), a road that crosses the river at the upper limit of the wide and shallow tidal estuary. Beyond this point the river narrows to a more well-defined channel, just a few metres wide.
Now on the official route of the Freshwater Way, I turned left along The Causeway, heading away from the river as I followed the road for about 600 metres to reach the B3399 Newport Road just after a right-hand bend. About 40 metres to the left, the route crosses over the main road to take the unsealed Manor Road for 50 metres to a metal gate on the left, where the Freshwater Way turns onto Bridleway F31, a grassy path between paddocks and fields, heading for the ridge of Afton Down (picture 9).
On the side of Afton Down, the path reaches a junction with Bridleway F32, bending right on an uphill chalky track past a large metal shed before turning sharp left on Bridleway F54. The track now heads eastwards across the Freshwater Bay Golf Course, climbing away from the coastal village of Freshwater Bay and the inland town of Freshwater behind it (picture 10).
As the track climbs higher it passes several Bronze-Age burial mounds, while off to the left there are far-reaching views across the fields to Yarmouth, the Solent and the New Forest (pictures 11 and 12).
Nearing the high point of the downs, the track bends to the right to reach a junction with the Tennyson Trail, turning right again for a long westward descent across the golf course to the A3055 Military Road on the edge of Freshwater Bay. The road is then followed down to a picnic area next to the beachside Albion Hotel.
Opposite the Hotel, the Freshwater Way turns right up Coastguard Lane, but with some dark clouds approaching I decided to pause the walk and explore around the bay (picture 14) while I waited to see what the weather would do. In the end there were just a couple of light showers before the sky brightened and within an hour I was heading up Coastguard Lane for the return leg of the walk.
In about 200 metres the lane becomes the narrow and fairly enclosed Footpath F36 (picture 15), winding its way through the Afton Marsh Nature Reserve near the upper reaches of the River Yar for about 500 metres, exiting the reserve via a driveway to meet Blackbridge Road opposite a playing field in the town of Freshwater. One hundred metres to the left is a crossroads where the Freshwater Way turns right along Easton Lane, which is followed past homes for another 300 metres to bear slightly right through a wooden gate onto Footpath F37 (picture 16) just before the lane bends left.
The path runs behind a series of back fences and gardens, briefly making contact with the Yar once more before the river bends away and the path carries on ahead past more backyards to arrive at Stroud Road opposite the large expanse of the Stroud Playing Fields. A signpost across the road shows the Freshwater Way turning right along the road, soon crossing an intersection with the busy A3055 and continuing a short way up Hooke Hill to take the first right turn into The Crundles.
About fifty metres along the street, the rather overgrown Footpath F58 follows a wooden fence through a patch of scrub to the right of the road, soon emerging into a large marshy area beside the Yar where the rushes had grown to a little more than head height. Fortunately it wasn't too difficult to follow the route that snakes its way across the marsh for 400 metres to reach The Causeway for the second time, now finally able to see what I had been walking through (picture 17).
The return leg of the Freshwater Way crosses The Causeway (picture 18) to the western side of the Yar's tidal estuary (picture 19). Standing guard over the far end of The Causeway is a Second World War pillbox, the first one I remember seeing on the Isle of Wight.
The road briefly climbs away from the estuary, bending right then left to reach the Red Lion pub and the neighbouring Parish Church of All Saints (picture 20) on the edge of Freshwater. It's quite unusual to see a church and a pub so close together.
The Freshwater Way takes the narrow Footpath F1 northwards between the pub and the church, following the stone wall of the heavily wooded churchyard (picture 21) and then carrying on between two fields to meet a quiet track, still signposted as Footpath F1. The path continues northwards, separated from the River Yar by large fields (picture 22).
Shortly after passing between a holiday cottage and a campsite, the Way bears left off the track just before the entrance of Kings Manor Farm. The path follows the right-hand field edge past a large metal barn and then runs through a small copse to join a chalky vehicle track.
About 500 metres along the track a pair of gates is reached on the edge of another small copse, the track going left while the Freshwater Way takes a bridlegate on the right and a short path through the copse. After following the left edge of a field and the right edge of the next, the path heads through the more substantial Saltern Wood (picture 23), arriving at a bend in the unsealed Gas Works Lane after about 200 metres.
The lane is followed straight ahead for 400 metres to the A3054 and another 400 metres to the right along the road the Freshwater Way crosses the swing bridge over the River Yar to return to the starting point by Yarmouth Harbour (picture 24), completing an 11.9 kilometre circular walk.
It was still only mid-afternoon, so I backtracked along the A3054, to a bend just beyond the turn into Gas Works Lane. Here a path leads down onto the Norton Spit, a grassy sandbank on the western side of Yarmouth Harbour.
Turning westwards, I followed a path along the shore to Sconce Point, where the two seaward-facing sides of the triangular Fort Victoria remain (pictures 25 and 26). The fort was one of three built in the 1850s to defend the shipping lane through the narrowest part of the Solent and remained in use by the military until 1962. The building now houses a planetarium, model railway and an aquarium.
Facing Fort Victoria across the water is Hurst Castle, standing next to a lighthouse on the end of the two kilometre long Hurst Spit (picture 27), which extends out from the mainland and is on the route of the Solent Way. The third of the fortresses is Fort Albert, on the next point about a kilometre south-west of Fort Victoria.
The 20 hectares of coastal woodland backing Fort Victoria and Fort Albert now form the Fort Victoria Country Park and several paths through the woods, including a section of the Isle of Wight Coastal Path, made for a nice circular walk (picture 28) before I retraced my steps back to Yarmouth.