Last week, the boy, Anna and I took our annual summer holiday – on the Isle of Wight – and a good week we had too.
I could talk (or write) for hours about the Isle of Wight now (it was our first visit but is a small island and we pretty-well covered it all during our seven days there), but this is meant to be a wildlife blog, so I’ll try to concentrate on subjects relating to wildlife. Please forgive me though if I occasionally stray!
On the 11th August, after what felt like five weeks of continuous rain over East Berkshire, we boarded a ferry by the name of “Red Osprey” at Southampton ferry terminal, at about ten minutes to eleven o’clock on a bright Friday morning.
An hour later (after we'd recovered from hearing what my car's sat-nav had said to us - see the video above!) as we’d sailed up the Medina (now you understand the title of this blog?) estuary, we drove off the ferry at East Cowes and headed Southwest for about thirty minutes (pretty-well as far Southwest as one can drive from Cowes) into rural Southwest Isle of Wight (a mile or two south of Shorwell – for those that know the island well).
We were holidaying at a place called “The Little Barn”, a delightful, relatively-modern barn conversion on the Atherfield-Shorwell road with a HUGE, private superb wildlife wetland area to explore, right alongside the barn.
As we started to unpack the car we noticed a great green bush cricket crawling up the barn’s black timber exterior and we decided to photograph and video it for posterity.
Please note in the video below, shot on arrival at The Little Barn, I refer to the cricket as “him” but it is of course, clearly a big female, looking at her MAHUSIVE ovipositor.
Great green bush crickets are the UK’s largest crickets – this one was indeed a big, BIG female. They are only found primarily in south England but also sometimes in South Wales. You’re supposed NOT to handle them as they can (allegedly) give you a nasty nip, but what the hell… I don’t remember ever seeing such a large cricket in the UK before (apart from perhaps a Roesel’s bush cricket I once found in Reading), so I had to pick this one up!
You’ll know when great green bush crickets are around if you are near meadows in the South of England in the summer, as you’ll hear what sounds like old Singer sewing machines working away all night in the vegetation – these crickets are LOUD!
The Little Barn was very remote (well, apart from the owners’ (Richard and Susan Perkes) thatched house (itself perhaps a larger barn conversion?) a hundred yards or so away, so we did hear these crickets all night – and NOTHING ELSE. Bliss!
Our first afternoon was spent watching the swallows fly around both The Little Barn and the owners’ house in the sun (and wind – it was windy most of the week, but thankfully dry and sunny too) and the kestrels hovering over the nearby fields.
A little about The Little Barn.
This delightful holiday rental can be found on the web HERE and on Dungewood Lane, off the Atherfield-Shorwell road in Southwest Isle of Wight.
The owners are both very friendly but also leave you to enjoy your holiday in peace, which we greatly-appreciated.
The property itself is really quite large (not so “Little Barn” at all!) and is fully furnished, clean, tidy, modern and completely painted white inside, so very light and airy (lots of windows, patio doors and skylights complete that effect).
Sure, if you’re well over six feet like me, you’ll spend your time ducking from the low beams (EVERYWHERE) in the barn, or like me, smacking your head on the low beams when you forget, but it is a barn conversion after all -the beams are either painted white or honey-coloured wood, so not dark and oppressive like some low beams are in pokey little places.
Everything is provided, from towels to a washing machine, all crockery and cutlery, saucepans etc and even SKY TV in the sitting room, Freeview in the master bedroom and free Wi-Fi throughout (although that stopped for some reason after the second night, so we assume is metered).
There is a large decked area outside the property and a brick barbecue if that’s your sort-of-thing and also that wonderfully-huge and varied wetland wildlife are to the west of the barn which I videoed below.
The wildlife wetland area is huge and is bordered by brooks, which badgers cross each night to forage in the garden. There is a large pond (lake almost) in the garden, home to a family of very skittish moorhens and half-a-dozen mallard ducks and drakes which fly in at dusk each night to roost (leaving again each dawn to feed elsewhere I presume).
Susan and Richard (again, the owners) have clearly succeeded in making this area very wildlife-friendly – it is COVERED in a riot of many types of wild flower, from coltsfoot to vetch to ox-eye daisies, to purple loosestrife, gorse, all manner of umbellifers, yellow corydalis – everything you can think of. Although most of the flowers were over when we visited last week in mid-August, I can imagine it would have looked incredible in June.
Susan and Richard also keep bees at the northern point of the wildlife area – in five hives, which I took the boy to see once or twice. Wonderful!
The owners did tell us that kestrels have nested their before (and they were a constant presence around the area all week, along with the handful of swallows) and it was apparent that there has been a visiting barn owl in the wildlife area in years gone by (I gleaned this information by looking in the visitors book) but although I heard barn owl(s) calling in the fields surrounding the Little Barn and its wildlife area each night, I never saw them – a real shame.
The wildlife area (just the size of it, the privacy of it and the quietness of it!) was a real plus to our holiday at The Little Barn although to be honest, the weather was so good during our week, that I spent little time in the wildlife area itself, instead exploring the rest of the island it seemed.
I did hear shrews and stoats in the wildlife area (and as described above, barn owls from the wildlife area), did see rabbits, pheasants, moorhens, mallards, butterflies (mainly whites and small tortoiseshells), four bats every evening (probably pipistrelles) and a single dragonfly (a common darter) in the wildlife area, together with the bees and crickets of course and I did see clear evidence of the badgers (a territorial-edge latrine and path to the latrine) but other-than-that just didn’t give myself enough time to do a proper full-on bio blitz! Another time maybe?!
The most time I spent in the wildlife area it seemed was after dark when I became painfully-aware that this was a part of the UK and indeed part of the island with particularly dark skies – so I was photographing the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy (see below) from the very dark garden, surrounded by those singing crickets and squeaking shrews – my kind of heaven!
Whilst I got a few good dark sky photos (see below) again I regard my time at The Little Barn to be a bit of a missed opportunity to be honest.
I was working like a dawg up to my holiday and had no time to research the Isle of Wight before setting off, let alone what I could expect to see or do on this part of the island. If I had, I’d have realised that this was the BEST part of the island for dark skies (perhaps the best part of the UK – see maps below) at the best time of year (summer – with clear skies AND the Perseid meteor shower peaking on a clear night during our holiday week).
I’d have bought a proper astrophotography lens with my full frame 6D camera and really gone to town on the night sky photography. But I didn’t – I didn’t bring any bigger aperture lens than my f4 lens so had to make do with that - and unfortunately didn’t even realise we had the meteor shower peak whilst we were there (during one of three cloudless nights!) until the night after! D’oh!
All a real shame – but even so, I did get a few half-decent photos (below) – and I’ll just have to wonder what my photos would have been like with a proper astrophotography lens and a bit more time spent researching all this beforehand. Please note my website has "shrunk" my Milky Way photos below - they are in fact HYOWGE with hundreds of thysands of stars visible on both. I'll perhaps write a separate blog on photographing the Milky Way on this website.
Other than spending time photographing stars and wandering around the wildlife area, what else did I see on the island?
Well… we tried….in vain I’m afraid…. to see red squirrels. I’m fortunate I suppose in that I’ve seen plenty of red squirrels in Scotland, but Anna and the boy haven’t seen any - so the Isle of Wight (a haven for reds and no greys) is a good place to see them – and nearer than Scotland of course.
We only spent about an hour looking for red squirrels (in Borthwood copse near Sandown) but to be honest, with a wood full of dog walkers, mountain bikers and us with a bored, noisy four-year-old – we really didn’t stand a chance (I’d say we would have certainly seen red squirrels if we’d have been on our own – in fact I’d have bet on myself and Anna doing so ahead of anyone I know) – so we quickly gave up and went to the beach instead (when in Rome).
The only other wildlife of note I think would be the buzzards (everywhere), the rabbits (ditto) the single (young, non-breeding) Sandwich tern which fished in front of me both days at Shanklin beach, the seventy or so black-tailed godwits at Yarmouth (see photo below), the big, bold, cronking raven at Alum Bay and last but certainly not at all least), the beautiful sight of two peregrines over the needles which displayed and even stooped over our heads as we climbed to the viewing point.
So, even though last week was far from a wildlife trip – I most certainly got my wildlife fix as such – with the highlight almost certainly being the peregrine pair at the needles in glorious sunshine (and a gale of a see breeze!)
Other than wildlife and The Little Barn, what else did I (we) make of the Isle of Wight.
In short, I loved it – but…. It does have its drawbacks.
We were staying at quite clearly the quiet part of the island, surrounded by farms (of sweetcorn it seemed and very little else!) and we only saw two cars on the nearby road (the road from Atherfield to Shorwell) all week – absolute heaven!
The island has a population of c.140,000 people – about the same as Blackpool then but in an area about eleven times the size of Blackpool. That doesn’t really do those figures justice though – outside Cowes, Newport, Ryde, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor I suppose (so think the 6 largest coastal towns from North on the island to Southeast), there’s no-one it seems – the island seems empty. It’s GLORIOUS!
The roads in general are awful and often single track (at least fun!), there is barely any public transport and it seems like most of the islanders are either farmers (outside the holiday towns) or retired.
Something like 45% of ALL islanders not only own their own homes but have no mortgage, which does indeed suggest that in common with many other seaside areas, the Isle of Wight is a bit like “God’s waiting room” in parts – at least it does feel like that.
Most working people it seems on the island own a pick-up – almost invariably a Toyota, whereas most other islanders (the retired?) own little city cars (Honda Jazz etc) which you need to watch out for. I lost track of the number of pensioners with their noses pressed to their Honda’s windscreens and their eyes screwed up behind their thick glasses, I had to avoid as they strayed onto my side of the road or nearly scraped my car on single track roads even though I’d basically pulled into a hedge for them!
I suspect the IoW has definitely had its heyday as far as tourism is concerned. Who, these days, wants to spend £200 on an 8 mile in total (return) ferry ride to the island (that's the full price red funnel will charge you if you DON'T book via a holiday operator like we did) when you can fly to the Med for that price and guarantee yourself a sunny week? There doesn't seem to have been much money put into the island and for tourism in particular, for years - perhaps decades dare I say?
But the scenery is wonderful – and away from the hustle and bustle of the east coast’s holiday resorts, I found the island delightfully-quiet. Perfect for us. Perfect for me.
I’d recommend Yarmouth to anyone – a lovely harbour full of interesting boats (including a nice big orange lifeboat for the kids) and spider crabs! Good pubs (DO go to the Wheatsheaf, not the Bugle) with REALLY nice seafood. Lovely tea rooms (who doesn’t like a cream tea every now and then?) and some interesting wading birds in the marshes if you’re into your wildlife.
I’d also recommend Shanklin – especially for kids – with a gently-sloping sandy beach, crystal clear seawater (quite warm water for the UK too!) and all the facilities you’ll ever need along the beachside esplanade (which you can park at too – a real bonus!). Just don’t visit the public lavs at Shanklin. Trust me. Don’t!
Finally, I’d recommend The Crown Inn at Shorwell. SUPERB food and a crystal-clear trout stream to gaze at in the beer garden, with WHOPPER rainbow trout on view all the time. (I guess it helped that I remarked that I enjoyed this to the landlady and she gave the boy and I some pellets to feed the trout from our beer garden table – the stream boiled for a while I can tell you!)
The photos below (in no particular order are of the Ferry at East Cowes (with my car at the bow), Shanklin beach (with my car parked on the Esplanade), Alum Bay, the Owl and Falconry Centre at Appuldurcombe House, "The Hearse" (my car) outside The Little Barn and the hearse parked next to a MkII RS2000 (just because I haven't seen an RS2000 since I owned a toy one when I was about 8 years old?! and the owner of this one allowed me a peer under the bonnet when I asked - a very nice bloke!)
Will we be back to the Isle of Wight?
In a word… Probably.
In more words… I hope so. I really do. It's so close to us at present and it's lovely.
We were very-luckily blessed with very sunny (if windy) weather during the days (I type this with a peeling nose as evidence!) and we chose wisely in terms of renting a remote property on the quiet, dark side of the island. We got lucky with our local pub (the Crown at Shorwell, 2 miles away) being great -we ate there on all but one evening. We loved Yarmouth, liked Shanklin for the boy (and for us I suppose), liked the incredibly picturesque owl and falconry centre at Appuldurcome House, enjoyed The Needles (very much) …. but…. We need to return to see the red squirrels at the very least and return with a proper astrophotography set up at the very most.
So, we’ll be back for sure I think.
Thanks for now, Isle of Wight.
See you again soon I hope.