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Ian Dickens favourite walks on the Isle of Wight

Ian Dickens wrote this piece for the Isle of Wight Walking Festival 2024

Walking on the Wight:

Ian Dickens, Writer, Artist and...

Great Great Grandson of Charles Dickens.

My earliest memory of the Isle of Wight was seeing it from the bridge of HMS Thames, a Royal Navy minesweeper. My father was a Lt. Commander in the RNVR and I joined the ship for a family day in around 1961 (when I would have been six years old) and we cruised around the Solent for several hours. The ship was based in HMS Vernon (now Gunwharf Quays) and nearly 40 years later, my 11 month long, 36,000 mile adventure racing around the world in The Times Clipper 2000 Round the World Yacht Race came to an end at almost exactly the same spot. The Island marked our departure from UK shores in October 2000 and the light at St. Catherine’s Point was the first sight of home again on a blustery September morning in 2001. My book Sea Change describing the adventure was recently featured in Yachting World magazine.

My wife and I now live in Gurnard. It’s a wonderful, friendly community and has everything we need. Our local pub, The Woodvale, has stunning views across the Solent and the coastal path is right outside our door. A walk into Cowes is always different thanks to the tides, sea state and activity out on the water and it’s a path we tread at least three times a week.

My favourite long walk on the Island is anything that gets us high up! Once the lockdown rules had eased, we walked almost every day across 2020/21 and delighted in discovering viewing the Island from a whole array of locations.

One memorable walk started in Shorwell (surely a contender for the Island’s prettiest village). It was a perfect Spring Day and we walked through the churchyard towards Chillerton Down before heading back towards New Barn Farm then up the hill to Lorden Copse. The views north towards Carisbrooke Castle are stunning and worth stopping to appreciate the folds of Bowcombe Valley. When the wild garlic is in bloom, the woods around Shorwell are breath-taking and are a treat for both eyes and nose.

After crossing the B3323 road and walking up the steady incline of Fore Down, then Limerstone Down there is a great lookout spot with a stone marker highlighting what can be seen in every direction. Heading home, the path winds under the southern edge of the Downs, giving fabulous views along the back of the Wight towards Blackgang Chine and St. Catherine’s Down. After walking through fields of new born lambs, the path – rather conveniently – arrives back in to Shorwell close to The Crown Inn. Any walk that ends in a pub gets a big tick from me!

I reckon we have now walked 43 separate Downs on the Island and I think that’s all of them. Just like walkers in the Highlands of Scotland like to ‘bag a Munro’, it’s a fun challenge for visitors to the Island. And a reason to return in order to ‘bag’ a few more between Apse and Wroxall, Cheverton and Idlecombe or Mottistone and St. Boniface.

When we first came to the Island, I bought an Ordnance Survey map and after every walk, I have added a red marker line to show the paths taken. There are not many parts of the Island that we haven’t now covered!

In the summertime walking along the beach at Yaverland, at low tide, takes some beating. It’s only a couple of miles to the end and back but an evening walk in the sun, barefoot on warm sand along the waters edge, is very good for the soul. Likewise, taking the coastal path from our house towards Thorness Bay on the longest day of the year is pretty special. Sitting on a spot high above Gurnard Ledge, the sun sets behind the New Forest and with the Solent turning golden, it delivers an almost etherial beauty.

An out of season beach walk, especially if it’s windy and the seas are crashing, is good for the soul and walking on Yaverland at the height of summer and the depth of winter delivers rich contrasts. Another favourite has been the climb up to St. Catherine’s Oratory (known locally as ‘the pepperpot’) and then along the ridge to the Hoy Monument. The first year we did that, the Island had been dusted by snow and most of the Downs were glistening white. Thawing out in front of a roaring log fire in The Buddle Inn at Niton made it all worthwhile!

As for a favourite view … we work as volunteers at Adgestone Vineyard and the view from the top of their south facing chalk slopes is pretty perfect. The vines are heavy with red and white grapes, across the fields is the Roman villa at Brading, Sandown bay stretches away in front of you and the Downs of St. Martin, Appuldurcombe and beyond that, St Catherine’s, complete the vista. Walking up and down the lines of vines is a good workout and in the summer, their live music and simple food offerings makes it a great spot for walkers to visit.

Charles Dickens Summer Holiday in Bonchurch 1849, 175 Years Ago

For the Walking Festival Spring event we are hosting a special walk to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Dickens spending three months on the Island. While in Bonchurch, he was writing chapters of David Copperfield, his most autobiographical of novels.

In the preface, he wrote “Of all my books. I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield”

It was 1849 when Dickens visited the Island with a friend in late spring, to find a house he could rent for the summer. When he was shown Winterbourne House, tucked away in Bonchurch overlooking the sea, he wrote excitedly back to his wife in London saying: “I have taken a most delightful and beautiful house belonging to White, at Bonchurch – cool, airy, private bathing, everything delicious – I think it is the prettiest place I ever saw in my life, at home or abroad”. The family arrived a few weeks later on a ferry from Portsmouth to Ryde, the youngest of which was 6 months old. His name was Henry – my great grandfather.

Charles and his wife Catherine had visited once before, in the late summer of 1838. His first book, The Pickwick Papers, was becoming a publishing phenomenon and they escaped to the island for a ten-day break. They stayed firstly in a hotel overlooking Alum Bay before spending a second week in Ventnor (at what is now The Royal Hotel). He was already working on his next two books – Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby – and when he returned to the Island 11 years later, he had become a global superstar.

The anniversary year is being marked in a number of ways with events across the year. The Dickens Walk will allow participants to join in the fun and actually walk in the great mans footsteps. Visiting the Island to join in the celebrations will never be easier, thanks to a special excursion being laid on by HoverTravel.

I am greatly looking forward to meeting Dickens lovers as we are whisked across the Solent from Southsea in just 10 minutes, before boarding a vintage bus in Ryde and enjoying the drive towards Bonchurch – the village with strong Dickens connections.

Sue Lowday, a brilliant local historian, will meet the walkers and she and I will spend several hours leading the party around the village explaining more about its extraordinary history – there are Island connections to David Copperfield, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. A guided map is being produced for those who wish to explore on their own, and at their own pace. The Bonchurch Inn will be open for refreshments and the bus will then take walkers back to their waiting hovercraft for the return trip to Portsmouth – the birthplace of Charles Dickens.

Dickens loved to walk. He once said “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I would explode and perish”. Most mornings, he would head to the beach for a sea swim and then take a freshwater shower under a waterfall that tumbled over the cliff from the grounds of Winterbourne House. He had a carpenter adapt the flow, so the water channelled down a wooden Rill into a galvanised bath full of holes, thereby creating a perpetual shower bath.

He relished climbing to the top of St. Boniface Down (which from Bonchurch is an exceptionally steep climb) and commented about the Island that “the variety of walks are extraordinary”.

There is a famous cartoon drawn by John Leech (the illustrator of A Christmas Carol, who was also staying in Bonchurch) depicting a large family picnic on Shanklin Down. There is Dickens with his family and friends, but rather alarmingly brandishing a knife in an attempt to see off a large wasp interrupting their feast!

Ian and Sue’s special Dickens Walk will be live and bookable from Thursday 7 March.

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