Isle of Wight: A walk through fossil country

By Mark Rowe

The cliffs at Yaverland on the Isle of Wight are packed with fossils. Photo / Creative Commons image by Simon Haytack
The cliffs at Yaverland on the Isle of Wight are packed with fossils. Photo / Creative Commons image by Simon Haytack

As any budding palaeontologist knows, a bucket and spade are handy for more than just building sandcastles on the Isle of Wight, which sits just off England's south coast. They are also useful for rooting around in the sand along the base of the cliffs at Yaverland, where every rock you pick up seems to contain a fossil.

When I visited, the autumnal gales had kicked in, hurling spray and waves at the battered cliffs, loosening the soil and releasing more fossils for hardy amateur collectors.

I'd dropped down to Yaverland beach, north of Sandown, as part of a walk that takes in the rich wildlife and history of a strangely enigmatic easterly point of the island.

Starting in Brading, south of Ryde, I was immediately struck by how diligently the island waymarks its paths.

Almost all footpath signs come with a number as well as the destination. And so, I dutifully took footpath number SS44 through the Brading Marshes nature reserve.

The landscape is being restored and already teal and widgeon are among the ducks returning, while the rarer snipe - twitchy, mottled brown, long bill - may flutter around in the ditches, and flocks of lapwing should by now have arrived for the winter.

The area feels like an island within an island, which until a few hundred years ago was the case, when the Isle of Bembridge was separated from the main island by a tidal channel that now forms the course of the River Yar.

After collecting several modest fossils - 65 million-year-old oyster shells, according to Alex, a passionately knowledgeable guide at the nearby Dinosaur Isle museum - I clambered up the heathland that runs above the beach.

Cattle graze randomly here and vigorous clumps of gorse still in flower had colonised the narrow, fractured valleys that lead down to the sea. Out on the Channel, tankers were queuing up to dock at south-coast ports, while windsurfers scuttled along the water in a stiffening breeze.

The top of the climb is marked by Culver Down and the Yarborough Monument, which you could argue form something of an imposition, because on either side there are superb views in all directions - south back towards the hills above Shanklin, the fetching rolling hills of the hinterland, and northwards to Bembridge and Ryde.

I made for the coast path and Bembridge, with useful information boards filling me in on the age and character of the sandstone and chalk cliffs I walked upon. Many of the fossils are freshwater, and date back to a time when the Isle of Wight was closer to modern-day North Africa.

Just out to sea, was Bembridge ledge, at low tide its exposed skerries and rock pools resembling a reef. Elsewhere, the sea has taken sizeable chunks out of the cliffs.

The coastline around Bembridge - the pebbles make for a rather painstaking plod on the beach - is attractive, too, with woodland groves, now bare of their leaves, acting as a scaffold through which to view the sea.

Beyond Bembridge, striking out into the interior of the island, the landscape changes yet again in the form of Brading Marshes, a silent, open expanse of land that has a touch of a magic about it.

Above the marshes stands a lonely 17th-century windmill, the last remaining windmill on the island, but the land then tumbles away to become spirit-level flat, with paths threading through reedbeds and clumps of woodland thick with old oak, ash and hazel and home to buzzards, yellowhammers, red squirrels and the embattled green woodpecker.

Gazing down on this enchanting landscape is the chalk edifice of Bembridge Down and the Victorian era Palmerston fort.

Arriving back in Brading, I had time to visit the truly excellent remains of the Roman villa - one of the best, when it comes to interpretation, in the UK. The Romans, I learnt, favoured the east of the island for its more sheltered climate, fertile lands and easy access to the continent.

I was particularly struck by a map of the Roman perspective from Wight - the east, and the Isle of Bembridge, are positioned north, and the direction and flow of trade to London, France, the Low Countries and, via the Rhine, to the heartland of Germany - and then Italy - was obvious.

Whether it is fossils, Romans, wildlife or, indeed, the prevailing 1970s bucket-and-spade charm that draws you here, the Isle of Wight is a walking destination for all seasons.

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