With its scenic coastal paths, good-value property and sandy beaches, the Isle of Wight’s largest town is great for sailing enthusiasts and families alike. Words Lesley Gillilan.
Visitors to the Isle of Wight often make a beeline for Cowes on the Solent or the old-fashioned seaside resorts – Sandown and Shanklin – on the south coast, but those who plan to stay for good, tend to head for East Wight. Here, on the starboard side of the island, a little corner of off-shore Hampshire offers a great mix of town life, pretty, very-English villages, quiet beaches and boaty marinas.
At the region’s heart is Ryde, the island’s largest town, which gazes across to Portsmouth Harbour from rows of handsome Georgian houses on wide, leafy streets that slope down to the sea. Next door is Seaview, a charming beachfront community which lives up to its name. And, around the corner, on the island’s most easterly point, Bembridge combines a harbour and a mini high street in one of England’s largest villages.
‘Bembridge has got everything you could possibly need,’ says resident Holly Maslen. ‘From butcher and baker to beaches.’ The area also has the benefit of the island’s only commuter railway. Typical of old-fashioned Isle of Wight, the eight-mile line (which runs from Ryde to Shanklin) uses vintage London Underground rolling stock.
Holly Maslen grew up in London, but was educated at an Isle of Wight boarding school. She has fond memories of idyllic summers on the beaches of Bembridge and Whitecliff Bay. And, after her two sons
were born, she decided to make a permanent move to the island. ‘For kids, it’s like a big playground,’ she says. ‘There is lots of space, but it’s very safe and self-contained.’
Holly is an artist and designer, but like many Wight residents, she turns her hand to other things – like the pop-up restaurant, the Dome, she started in her Bembridge garden. ‘Word quickly got around,’ she says. ‘Everyone knows everyone else on the island.’
WHERE TO BUY
The posh addresses are Seaview and Bembridge – particularly the seafront houses on Seaview’s Pier Road, many of which have direct access to the village’s boaty strip of Solent Beach (prices start at around £800,000). Bembridge is a tad more expensive, though good buys include period properties close to the village High Street (two bedrooms at £220,000) or roomy houseboats on the marina (around £350,000).
Ryde has a few millionaire houses, too, but generally it is better value (sometimes offering twice the house at nearly half the price). Typically, a five-bedroom period house in central Ryde can be bought for around £330,000 – for a little more, around £400,000, you’ll get a sea view, too.
Sailing is one of the island’s big draws and though East Wight is not as famous as north-coast Cowes, it has great facilities and equally good access to the Solent (Bembridge Sailing Club is one of the oldest in the country). With over 500 miles of footpaths, and 60 miles of coastline, the island is great for walkers, too – the Walking Festival in May is the biggest event of its kind in the UK. The best beaches include Ryde’s Appley Beach, Seaview’s Seagrove, St Helen’s at Bembridge and the wide strip of sand that runs from Sandown down to Shanklin. Good local eateries include Lockslane in Bembridge, the restaurant and bar at the Seaview Hotel and the Three Buoys at Appley. For more information see visitisleofwight.co.uk.
JOBS AND COMMUTING
The island’s fortunes depend largely on tourism and agriculture (notably salad crops, garlic and vines); and there are jobs in the public sector – including the prison service (HMP Isle of Wight, formerly Parkhurst, is in nearby Newport). Commuters can use the Island Line railway which travels from Shanklin to Ryde Pier Head where a catamaran service whizzes foot passengers over to Portsmouth Harbour Station. The journey from Ryde to Waterloo takes around two hours. Motorists can be on the mainland in 40 minutes via a Wightlink ferry (wightlink.co.uk) from Fishbourne to Portsmouth. The nearest international airport is at Southampton.
East Wight secondary schools include academies in Ryde and Sandown, but state education is not the island’s strong point (it is one of two local authorities which faced recent Ofsted improvement inspections). An alternative is fee-paying Ryde School – rated as ‘outstanding’.
A downside, for Holly, is the high cost of getting to the mainland – particularly by car – though she makes regular trips to London by train. Some might find the island’s low season a little too quiet; others may despair of the island’s country roads and its time-warped shops – but for those searching for a slow pace of life, these are benefits.
The east side of the island doesn’t do much in the way of new buildings, but all that could change if the proposed Pennyfeathers scheme gets the go-ahead. A contentious plan to build a community of 900 homes on a 130-acre site on the outskirts of Ryde, could become the island’s largest ever housing scheme.
CAN YOU AFFORD IT?
Isle of Wight: £210,843
Average house prices: [November 2013].Source: Zoopla
PAY A VISIT
Seaview Hotel seaviewhotel.co.uk
In this classic Victorian hotel, the rooms range from the traditional (some do, indeed, have sea views) to the contemporary (think televisions in the bathrooms and Niagara showers). Also on offer is a collection of family-size suites in a converted bank next door, a friendly ship-shape bar decked out with nautical antiques and memorabilia, a swish restaurant (run by chef Alan Staley, it has an AA rosette) and a sun-trap terrace. Doubles start from £105 per night.
WHAT HOLLY LIKES ABOUT RYDE…
The Isle of Wight Zoo in Sandown isleofwightzoo.com for which Holly has recently painted a set of jungle-themed murals. ‘It’s right by the sea, the animals include jaguars, tigers and lions and the gardens are beautifully kept – which makes it a peaceful environment to walk around in.’
Olivo, the Italian-Mediterranean restaurant on Union Street in Ryde. ‘Because I cook myself, I’m very fussy about where I eat, but the service is fantastic and the food is consistently good.’
The drama of Whitecliff Bay. ‘When the tide’s out the beach is huge and the water is nice to swim in. I love the energy of the place, with its high sheltering cliffs, and the fact that you can’t see Portsmouth – the view here is just open sea.’