Wednesday, 8 November 2017

A lump in my throat at Newtown Quay

One week ago I visited the Isle of Wight for the day, using the Wightlink car ferry from Lymington Pier to Yarmouth. I was staying at the Club site at Black Knowl, on the west edge of Brockenhurst, right in the New Forest. This trip was one of the things I'd set my heart on doing while in the area. It would be the first time ever that I'd taken Fiona off the mainland and onto an island. It was about time that my faithful car experienced a voyage. After all, she had nearly 110,000 miles under her belt. Already middle-aged, and never been to sea! (She passed that exact mileage landmark while on the island, driving north towards Newport on the A3020, between Godshill and Rookley. Well done, Fiona!)

It was however a spur-of-the moment decision to take my car. I'd already half-resigned myself to not affording it. But I asked at the Wightlink office at Lymington Pier what it would cost. I was able to quote Fiona's dimensions from notes on my phone. Hmm! It was only £55.25 if I went on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. I was enquiring about it on the Tuesday, and it was already nearly midday: too late to make a trip worthwhile. On Thursday I'd need to be back for the Slimming World group meeting at 5.30pm in Lymington. So it had to be Wednesday, the following day. I booked a place on the 10.00am ferry from Lymington Pier, returning on the 9.50pm ferry from Yarmouth, so that I wouldn't need to hurry the pub meal I was going to treat myself to.

Going as a foot passenger would have worked out at around £35. The parking charge for Fiona at Lymington, and a return ticket as a foot passenger, would together have come to about £25. Then perhaps another £10 for bus fares while on the island, to take me to Totland, Alum Bay, Freshwater and Freshwater Bay, and then back again. I would have had to stay in the far western end of the island. Buses are slow, and the winter timetable was in force. So paying £55 to have the speed and go-anywhere convenience of Fiona was almost a no-brainer.

Wednesday opened with sunshine. A perfect morning for a late-autumn trip to the south coast's most exotic destination. I got into my particular boarding lane at 9.30am, just as requested the previous day, and it was a pleasure to wait.

I felt pretty excited. I hadn't visited the Island for some years, and that had been only to Ryde at the eastern end. I hadn't seen the western end since 2000. M--- and I holidayed on the Island twice in 1997, and once in 2000. We'd got around extensively in my car. Scarcely a place on the Island hadn't been seen on at least one of those holidays. That meant bitter-sweet memories. I had personal ghosts to lay. I therefore had to go back alone. I intended to overlay the sadness of those old memories with a fresh visit. I'd make a start with Newtown Quay, as one of the saddest locations in my mind. Not that our 1997 and 2000 visits there had been in any way stressful. Not at all. We'd both enjoyed them very much. But the pleasure felt on those past visits had gradually changed to a wistful melancholy. That ache had to be purged.

In my mind's eye I could see M--- ahead of me, on the long narrow footbridge that led out to the Quay. The very scene had been preserved in a photo I took on 22nd September 2000, on our last visit.

That was M---, in the red jacket. She always went first. She always strode ahead, leaving me behind. Well, I was going to go there on my own this time, and reclaim the place. Not in triumph; just to quietly consign the sadness to history, and make it easy go there again at some future time.

A few maps now. This is the Isle of Wight, a diamond-shaped place off the coast of southern Hampshire (taken off my laptop Verity).

Its area is 148 square miles (so rather smaller than the Isle of Man's 221 square miles; but then again, a lot of the Isle of Man is mountainous moorland), and it divides into a busy, rather urban-feeling eastern half where most of the visitors go to, and an emptier, much more rural western half. If you like, the east is for day-trippers and ordinary holidaymakers looking for ice cream and a fun time for the children; the west is for serious walkers and cyclists, and the kind of visitor chiefly wanting peace and quiet. But really both halves offer nice countryside and plenty of historical things to see. It's a cliché, but almost completely true, that the Isle of Wight offers all the history and scenery of mainland England in a small offshore island. So much, that you can't see it all in a day. You need to go back, again and again.

Zooming into the western half, you can see the ferry link between Lymington and Yarmouth.

The red flag on the north-west side of Brockenhurst was the Club site. My caravan was pitched there. It was a twenty-minute run to Lymington Pier, and the ferry took thirty-five minutes. Arriving just after 10.30am, I would hve six hours of daylight to play with. With Fiona to drive, I expected to get around most of the western half of the Island in that time. My first destination, Newtown Quay, is where the other red flag is, lower right of centre. Here's a larger-scale map of the Newtown area.

And here is a 1:25,000 scale map of the village centre and the Quay (taken off my phone Tigerlily).

Let's begin with the voyage. Wightlink provide a proper modern ship, in this case the Wight Sun. This was my boarding pass.

And this was my return ticket.

Although it was midweek on the 1st November, quite a lot of people wanted to catch that 10.00am sailing!

 We were soon being signalled to drive forward and board. Here we go.

I headed up to the sun deck first, to get the view and watch the ferry depart. There was little breeze, and it was really unusually mild for early November. The sunshine was dazzling.

We were passing Lymington Marina and the Royal Lymington Yacht Club. Smart boats everywhere.

In the far distance, The Needles. I tried a 'digital zoom' shot, but it wasn't more than moderately successful.

I lingered on deck for a bit, to get a couple more 'into-the-sun' shots...

...then went below, to check out the passenger facilities. They seemed a whole lot nicer than I remembered had been the case in 1997, although those seats were firmer than you'd suppose. Wightlink charged a lot, but they did at least give you a decent place to while away the short voyage.

Even the loos were good.

Restless, I went up on deck again. And I stayed there till the uttermost moment, keen as I was to see the approach to Yarmouth, after a long wait of twenty years.

Welcome to the Isle of Wight, Fiona!

Driving off the ferry, I decided to see Newtown first, then cut back to Yarmouth for lunch. So I took the Shalfleet road, and turned off that into a maze of narrow but almost traffic-free lanes. In late autumn it seemed very rural, very secluded.

The road twisted and turned, and then we were at Newtown. The present-day village is a shadow of its important medieval self, when it was a thriving port, a newly-founded town laid out on a grid pattern. Most of the streets have now become green lanes and footpaths, or have disappeared altogether, as have most of the old buildings. You can try comparing Newtown with Winchelsea in East Sussex, another planned medieval new town that was once an important port. But there is so much left to Winchelsea - lots of houses and several very old buildings - and most of the old roads are still very much in use. Not so in Newtown, which is now hardly more than a hamlet with widely-spaced dwellings.

Almost the only very old building left is the Old Town Hall.

Oops. A bad case of subsidence, methinks! It dates from 1699, and until electoral reform in 1832 would have been the venue for local parliamentary elections, Newtown (though already a hamlet) being a 'Rotten Borough' and returning two Members of Parliament, no doubt voted in by just a tipsy handful of bought men. You can imagine the new MPs, cynically smirking, as they stood on those steps. Here's me, smiling rather than smirking. I was so pleased to be here on such a fine day.

The route to the Quay took me through the village. I passed some cars, each with the HW registration that is reserved for the Isle of Wight.

The road petered out, and then it was a choice of footpaths. The one I took went first to a large bird hide, closed now for the winter. I wondered why. Surely a lot of birds would be here during the winter, and a lot of people like to go bird-watching (though not me). Perhaps they opened it on weekends.

Now for the Quay. Already I was wondering about how I would feel about being here again. I could almost see M--- in front of me. The scene was much the same, although the footbridge was now wide enough for people to pass, and had a safety rail on both sides.

I was definitely not so jolly now. But I persevered. The Quay was essentially a little island amid tidal mudbanks and marshes, with a slipway, moorings for a few little boats, and a large hut full of boaty stuff. I could have been on the north-west coast of Norfolk, at some such place as Thornham.

The sun had become hazy. But it remained bright and very peaceful. Indeed, I had the place entirely to myself and felt very much alone. Just me, and the plovers calling to each other, and muted sounds from the odd far-off boat sailing into the estuary. But I felt my mood going downhill, getting sadder by the minute. I tried to be upbeat, but it was a struggle. The visit hadn't worked. I couldn't lay the ghost. 

Time to go. The footbridge back to the village stretched out ahead. It was hard not to see a figure in a red jacket on it.

I found that my heart was heavy, and I had a lump in my throat, and tears were not far away - just like now, as I write this. 

I took a picture of myself, wanting to record how I was feeling. Then another: but I haven't kept it. It captured my face working, as I strove to keep my emotions under control. I'm all for raw truth, but that shot was too much. 

Tears did not trickle down my face. I fought them off. I regained my composure. Nobody in the the village (there were now signs of life) would have guessed that I'd been upset by a memory. M--- would have cried her heart out if she had thought fit, and perhaps I should have done the same, back at the Quay. But the moment had passed, and that was that. 

I was sorry that the visit had not achieved what I had hoped for it. This failure to put a particularly poignant memory to bed, to turn it into a half-forgotten moment in history, was surely proof that, despite our very unhappy and rather bitter parting, my affection for M--- had endured and had not been quenched by time or by 'moving on'. And perhaps this was reasonable, that a great regard between two people creates a bond that even the hardest of words, or the most excoriating of exchanges, cannot break. I had better accept that I will vividly remember M--- to the day I die. And will never be able to snap that link. I shall never be free. 

I think that, in part, my mood at Newtown Quay was triggered, or at least influenced, by watching the last-ever episode of BBC's Inspector George Gently on 30th October, two days earlier. That's the one in which they kill him off. He dies on a beach, with an image of his murdered wife in his mind's eye, and 'Isabella' on his lips. It's inexpressibly sad. I can't help feeling that this will be my death scene too. 

But not yet. Not for a very, very long time. Still, this confirms in my mind that although she may revile me still, M--- is clearly irreplaceable and will forever have a grip on my heart.


  1. Darn emotions do sneak up and grab you!

  2. Genius Loci should be a good spirit but is not always so.


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