Clare Balding's cycle journey around the Isle of Wight explores its unique sense of otherness, a strange power which helped to cure Dickens's writer's block.
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'Sixty years ago, an extraordinary man called Harold Briercliffe
'wrote a string of books about his great passion, cycling.
'Now largely forgotten, these overlooked gems were the culmination of a lifelong journey.
'His destination? The whole of Britain. On two wheels.
'Over half a century later, armed with one of his trusty cycling touring guides,
'and riding Harold's very own bicycle, a Dawes Super Galaxy - the touring cycle of its day -
'I'm re-tracing his tracks in search of the glorious landscape he loved.
'I'm going in search of Britain by Bike.'
Welcome to the Isle of Wight!
This is the Isle of Wight, just a few miles off the south coast of England.
It only takes 35 minutes to make that crossing from Portsmouth
but you arrive here and you're transported into another land.
It really does feel as if that little stretch of water takes you somewhere completely different.
Here, they simply call this place "The Island".
For centuries, writers, artists and revolutionary thinkers have been coming here to escape.
In the late 1940s, among them was fanatical cyclist and author Harold Briercliffe.
He loved this place and described it as beautiful and unique.
'Harold had his roots in Rochdale, but once he hopped on his saddle,
'he was always ready for new experiences.'
-MALE ROCHDALE ACCENT:
-"Novelty is the keynote of a cycling holiday in the Isle of Wight.
"Nowhere so near London can give such a changed atmosphere.
"The short journey across the Solent has a magical effect.
"Wight is another land.
"Distinct, fascinating and, on acquaintance, lovable."
'A firm favourite with the Victorians, who described it as a "pleasure island".
'The Isle of Wight has been a source of intellectual inspiration for its visitors for many years,
'from curing a tricky case of writer's block
'to providing a welcome respite from the bustle and grime of city life.
'The island has also had an important part to play in preventing
'more than one potential invasion, and I don't mean by cyclists!
'I'll be following sections of Harold's suggested route
'along the south coast of the island, beginning at Shanklin
'and ending at Tennyson Down at the western tip.
'It's an inspiring ride, through dramatic coastlines and atmospheric countryside.
'But before I can begin my journey by bike, I need to take advantage of a different form of transport.
'This rather special train, which has also made its escape from the mainland, is taking me to Shanklin.
'Using Harold's Touring Guide from 1948, I can now start my journey across Cycle Island.'
That was fun and it's quick - actually the quickest way
to get from Ryde on the northeast coast down to Shanklin on the south.
That's a 1930s northern line tube train and they've restored it,
and it's a bit of a tourist attraction but it serves a good purpose.
Harold said of the railway system, "It's a delightful relic of another
"day, although quite adequate for its purposes and efficiently run."
So efficiently run that, in fact, this railway service is the most punctual in the whole country.
"The descent into Shanklin is suburbanised but interesting.
"The traveller will be reminded of a vague similarity between this southern part of the Isle of Wight
"and the modern towns on the corniche routes of the south of France."
It's a funny contrast because this place is familiar, everything's in English they drive on the left,
obviously it's sterling and all of that, and largely British holiday makers, and yet it's so different.
Harold says in the book, you couldn't travel
such a short distance from London and get such a contrast.
And clearly in Victorian times it was massively popular, not just for people to come here to unwind
and shut their brains down, but to come here and think great thoughts and write great works.
Because in the 1850s, Charles Darwin came here to Shanklin and stayed over there, at Norfolk House.
He spent 18 months here, writing On The Origin Of Species, so although it was the exotic
wildlife of the Galapagos Islands that inspired the thought process behind the theory of evolution,
it was here, on the Isle of Wight, that he found the discipline to actually write the thing.
'Charles Darwin wasn't the only one to seek out the island as a retreat from the busy outside world.
'Queen Victoria set up a country residence here, at Osborne House.
'Where the Royals led, the great and the good followed.
'The island became a British Riviera.
'Alfred, Lord Tennyson set up an artistic and intellectual circle here, welcoming guests
'such as Lewis Carroll, and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who made her home on the island.
'And although the Victorians had a major impact on its character,
'they were keen to preserve that magical quality of "otherness"
'that Harold mentions and that I'm experiencing today.
'Leaving behind the beach and bathers at Shanklin, I'm heading
'down the coast, passing through Bonchurch on my way to Winterbourne.
'I've come here to visit a house where one of the greatest
'Victorian novelists sought inspiration.'
Wow! Oh, gorgeous smell of lavender!
Now, this place is a hidden gem
because it's called
Winterbourne Country House, it's now a five-star guest house.
But it was, I suppose, discovered by Charles Dickens who was writing
David Copperfield in London and he was a bit bogged down.
He'd written the first four chapters and then got stuck on the fifth chapter.
He thought, "I need a break, I need to go somewhere I'm going to get fresh air
"and a sense of perspective," so he came here and found this place.
-Hi, I'm Clare.
-Andy. Nice to meet you.
Andy, and Andrew. Easy to remember.
When did Dickens come here?
-It was 1849.
He was here in the summer for three months so he rented it off Reverend White as a getaway.
And, Andrew, is there any evidence of what he thought of the place?
Yes, we've got the letter, or the transcript from London, on the stairs here.
Erm, when he was writing back to Kate, his wife.
-Can I see that?
-You certainly can.
This is Dickens' own handwriting?
Yes, that's his handwriting and there's a transcript there.
"My dear Kate, I have not a moment.
"Just got back and the post going out.
"I've taken the 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.
"If I don't get back before John goes to bed, tell him to leave the iron gate open."
I love all these domestic details.
"The man with the postbag is swearing in the passage.
"Ever affectionately, CD."
There we are, this is the Copperfield suite.
Look at that view.
Is this the desk where he sat?
This is where we reckon he actually wrote Copperfield, got the inspiration.
Gosh, I want to sit at the desk,
and just keep glancing sideways.
Oh, it's fabulous.
His routine was, in the morning he wouldn't leave his room until 2pm.
He'd do his writing, he shut himself away from the family, and then after 2pm he'd join the family.
So from first thing in the morning until 2 o'clock, it was solid writing.
Do you get Dickens enthusiasts who want to come and stay in this room?
Yes, we get quite a few. They just want to stay where he stayed and just experience the Dickens effect really.
It makes you want to grab a pen and oh!
I think it's something to do with the contrast between the manicured garden, which is beautiful,
the lovely mown lawn and the flowers in full bloom, and then the sea.
It's not a particularly wild day today but equally it's not calm either. It's all of that movement.
You almost need to see movement, don't you, to keep your mind moving.
I can see why this would work.
-Thank you so much for letting me invade.
It's been really nice to meet you, Andy. Thank you, Andrew.
Where do you reckon I should go?
St Boniface Down, where Charles Dickens used to take his walk every day.
-Can I cycle it?
-Is it uphill?
This isn't going to be my finest hour, I can tell you that.
All the gear and no idea!
I'm never going to get up here! Ah!
-That's about as far as I can get.
I can't change gear on the gravel though.
This is the answer.
This is a tough old climb, but it's worth the effort because
this is the highest point on the island and you can actually see,
well, when the cloud lifts, you can see from one side to the other.
That's when you get that real sense of being on an island.
At least when you're riding them, they do all the work.
It makes a big difference.
'Although Harold Briercliffe enjoyed both the wonderful cycling and the splendid views up here,
'there was one blot on the landscape,
'some mysterious structures high above the town of Ventnor.'
"The huge hill to the south is called St Boniface Down,
"787ft above sea level, on which the most prominent
"modern erections are radar masts, nowadays an ugly disfigurement."
'Part of the Chain Home radar system, a top secret installation built to defend the British coast
'during the Second World War, the masts were reminders of that very recent and brutal conflict.
'Local historian Simon Perry is here to tell me more.'
Hello, how was the hill?
Just about all right, when I got it in a low enough gear.
Harold Briercliffe, who wrote the guide to the Isle of Wight,
he came up here and he was pretty damning actually about that.
Oh, that, yes, there were bigger ones actually.
There were eight built, originally. Four were metal ones, steel,
-350ft tall, which is roughly half the height of the dams again.
And then another four wooden ones which were the receivers.
The steel ones were the transmitters and the four wooden ones,
which were about 240ft tall, were the receivers.
So they would have been a blot on the landscape.
Massive. I don't know how tall that is, probably a couple of hundred feet maybe, at most, so even bigger.
But massive structures as well.
Some people have said that, without radar, the war would have been lost pretty much instantly.
Did that attract a bit more attention, in terms of bombs
being dropped here than it might otherwise have done?
Yes, I think the Germans suddenly went, "Ah, that's what those big things are up there!"
And then made it their mission, over August, to try and destroy them,
and they were successful in knocking them down.
But the town suffered quite substantial damage.
About 120 houses were completely destroyed or beyond repair.
Yes, it's quite a price, but worthwhile obviously.
'Destroyed five times by the Luftwaffe,
'the radar station was rebuilt and remained vital for wartime defences.
'Today's masts have a far less sinister purpose - they're mobile phone and communications masts,
'keeping the island in touch with the outside world.'
Are you ready for a ride?
I'm ready, definitely. I'll try and keep up with you.
Race you to the bottom, then.
So when did Ventnor really pick up and become
a big tourist destination?
Yeah, the Victorian period just completely exploded.
There was an article written about how lovely it was to live down there,
and people just went crazy for the place.
It was the micro-climate.
They were saying at that point, five or six degrees warmer than the rest of the UK.
So even in the winter, people were finding it a lovely place to be.
And a very different environment here, because presumably people
don't lock their cars, they don't necessarily lock their doors.
No, it's a very trusting place and everyone looks out for each other.
"The club man who doesn't mind steep hills and who seeks a centre which has a fine site,
"together with all the normal seaside attractions, would probably find that Ventnor
"makes the best seaside halt for a few days.
"The resort was once almost exclusive, but nowadays it is
"a go-ahead place, with plenty of accommodation, shops and cinemas."
'Harold visited Ventnor immediately after the war, and there's just a hint of criticism in that word
'"exclusive", as if he's suggesting that where pre-war Ventnor was rather snobbish,
'now it's a place that can't afford to turn up its nose at the paying guest.
'The late 1940s was a boom time for cycling, which offered cheap transport
'at a time when petrol was still rationed, and gave ordinary people the freedom to travel.
'Rene Stacey, now 92 years old, is the last surviving founder member
'of the Hitchin Nomads, Harold Briercliffe's cycling club.
'In her younger days, she was a keen touring cyclist.'
Nobody had ever been abroad in those days, only the very posh.
We decided to have a cheap holiday at the Isle of Wight.
So we hired, for I think it was maybe half a crown or something like that,
a Boy Scouts' bell tent. Two or three days before we were due to go off on our bike
we sent it down by rail to Wootton Creek on the Isle of Wight.
We had a wonderful week and it cost us about 10 shillings each for the hire of everything.
Coming back, none of us had Mum's good cooking all the week,
so a few of us, including me, got what we call "the bonk".
That's when you're worn out at cycling, you're nearly dead,
so we had to camp in a ditch halfway home, at night.
We didn't get home until the Sunday evening, instead of Saturday evening!
'In his touring guide, Harold Briercliffe is thoroughly appreciative of the efforts
'the post-war Isle of Wight makes to welcome "oveners" - the island name for those from the mainland.
'But, although Harold recommends Ventnor's "go-ahead" attitude,
'he still hopes it will retain the charm of a bygone era.'
"Because there are very few sites for new buildings available
"in the town proper, it wears a late Victorian look.
"A dignified, even refined appearance."
"In a word, it's a museum piece which has kept the atmosphere of
"the days of its creation, and for that deserves preservation further."
I don't think it looks like it's faded or crumbling, in fact I think
it's sort of rediscovered itself and people have rediscovered it.
After the '70s, '80s boom of package holidays and everyone going away
from holidaying on the Isle of Wight, they've come back again.
It feels sort of reborn.
'My journey continues out of Ventnor towards Niton, along the Undercliff,
'which runs down the southern edge of the island
'and was formed when an upper strata of chalk slipped over a band
'of softer clay, creating a tumbling landscape full of lush vegetation.
'In Harold's day, the abundant greenery and clean air was something
'of a break from the soot-clogged streets of the mainland.'
"The influence of the sea and a reputation for mildness
"and sunniness makes the Isle of Wight a favourite out-of-season touring ground for cyclists."
'Victorian physicians recommended the healthy climate, and that's another
'reason why Darwin and other great thinkers were drawn to the island.
'Karl Marx was sent here by his doctor three times!
'My next stop is prompted by Harold.
'He describes the Buddle Inn as "a sophisticated roadhouse",
'and it turns out that barmaid Tracy is even familiar with Harold's guide.'
-I read that book when I was in Cornwall visiting some friends of mine.
I haven't met anybody who has even seen the book or known what it is.
It's really old. It was just on a friend's shelf and I picked it up
and I read it when I was visiting them and it's really rare to see it.
Are you a local?
Yes, born and bred, unbelievably.
About five or six generations.
And is there something different about being a proper islander? Does it give you an added aura?
I think living on an island does make you slightly more different.
In what sense?
When I was younger you're more in touch with nature.
I noticed that moss was growing on certain sides of the trees because you notice things like that here.
The wind prevails in different directions
and other people don't tend to pick up on that kind of thing.
By the time you become a teenager I think most people are like, "I really need to move."
I worked away for 10 years but I always knew I would come back.
When you come across on the ferry, do you feel that lurch, that kind of...?
Relief? Yeah. It's fabulous if you time it right. It might be night time,
the sun setting and if it's winter the boat's like that.
It's part of the journey. You arrive in the Yarmouth and it's so quaint.
Once you're grounded, along the Military Road, home and it's lovely.
You read this book and Harold makes it clear it's a very cycle-friendly island.
If anything it's become more so.
Definitely. There's just one major hill through the middle of the island
The Downs, and then you step off the main road
and the whole island is full of tiny little bridle paths
and country lanes. For cycling, it's absolutely wonderful.
What a fabulous place to stop for a bit of rest and refreshment and great to meet a bona fide local.
'The Military Road runs east-west, from Chale to Freshwater.
'Unlike the rest of the island the road is busy
'with fast flowing traffic, and not as much fun for a cyclist.
'Due to its position in the English Channel, the Isle of Wight
'has always been the first line of defence for southern Britain.
'This coastline has been under attack for centuries and it still is today.'
Well, there's nothing like going to meet someone in a car park...
that's falling away! How you doing?
Welcome to the windy Isle of Wight today.
The coastline is so dramatic, but also so fragile.
So fragile indeed. Every year a bit slips away.
You can see the earth behind us here is very brown.
You can see where it has fallen away this winter.
The Tarmac we're standing on is quite unstable.
You can see generations of the car park.
One generation of Tarmac here, the next generation out and in the past,
another one. Gradually the whole car park is eroding back,
like the whole southern coast of the island.
Tell me about the military history of this island.
I was cycling along that very long, straight road.
Military Road was put in, specifically, so the troops could get
from one point on the southern coast to another point very quickly.
We've got great beaches here, so very easy for troops to land.
For that reason, people have always looked at the Isle of Wight,
if trying to invade, as a place to get a beachhead.
if from the mainland, that it must be protected.
You're always hearing that the last invasion was 1066.
Arrow through the eye, and all those tricks.
The real last invasion actually came here in 1545.
Again it was our neighbours the French.
One of the naval battles happened in the Solent and that's where the Mary Rose went down.
Everybody knows the story of the Mary Rose.
What they don't know is that the French invaded and they got on to the Isle of Wight.
They ransacked along the coast, but eventually, being British,
we managed to push them back and they went back across the water.
Fortunately during each of the wars, or even when there's a threat of war,
the island's been heavily fortified.
That has left us with a lot of wonderful sites,
a lot of visitor attractions to see, but also a feeling of independence for the people on the island.
We can't necessarily rely on the mainland to come to our defence all the time.
If there's a problem, we have got to be well prepared to stick it out.
'The island's history, geography and outlook all point to it being, as Harold described, "another land".
'And it's that sense of otherness that makes this place so compelling for "oveners" like me.
'The final leg of my tour of the Isle of Wight takes me to the Western end
'of the Military Road and up to the magnificent chalk cliffs above the village of Freshwater.
'This area is called Tennyson Down, named after the great Victorian poet,
'who sought tranquillity and inspiration here.
'For 40 years he lived at nearby Farringford House.
'It's now a five-star hotel, and I'm on my way there to catch up with an old friend,
'Elizabeth Hutchings, a lifelong adventurous cyclist and also an expert on Tennyson.'
There's somebody I have been excited about meeting ever since I realised
I was coming back to the Isle of Wight. A few years ago I went walking here, on Tennyson Down,
-with a woman called Elizabeth Hutchings and here she is.
-And here is the stick.
-How are you?
-That's the one.
-The same stick.
-Chung! Chung! Chung!
-And how are you?
-I'm fine. Welcome, this is absolutely wonderful.
Are you still swimming every day?
-Only four times a week.
-Only four times a week.
-I got your book. Thank you. Thank you for your letter.
-And this is Farringford House?
This is Farringford House, which was Tennyson's home from 1853.
When he wrote the poem Maud he was actually able to buy it.
Let's have a look inside.
-I'm not sure, did I come here before?
'Elizabeth came to the Isle of Wight during the war and lived here
'with her husband, Richard, for more than 30 years.
'Both keen cyclists they travelled the world together by bike.'
I remember you saying to me about Richard, and it has lived with me ever since, you said he would say
to me, "Let's do such and such..." and it would be some madcap idea. "...It might be an adventure."
It might be an adventure, there might be something interesting.
There always was. Our whole 42 years of life was not lying on the beach, but going to somewhere interesting.
-With your bicycle.
-With our bicycles.
Were they comfortable?
Oh, wonderful. We had panniers and a tent and a billycan.
'Around the time Harold wrote his guide to the island, Richard and Elizabeth
'were cycling all the way to New Zealand. Elizabeth kept a diary of their progress.'
-It took us eight-and-a-half months to get there. That's the very first day.
-You've very good handwriting.
It says nought, nought, nought, nought.
And then each day it says how many miles we went.
"Distance the day before. Nought."
How many miles did you do in the end?
I suppose we did about 4,000 in the end because obviously we didn't cycle across the Channel.
'Tennyson and his wife Emily moved to Farringford shortly after he was appointed poet laureate.
'His walks around Freshwater inspired him to write some of his most memorable poetry,
'including Maud and Idylls of the King as well as Crossing the Bar
'which follows the journey across the Solent.
'This was a place where ideas and creativity could flourish.
'With Tennyson as host, Farringford became a focal point.
'Charles Darwin, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron
'and even the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi all visited.'
Was Tennyson a disciplined writer?
-Would he sit for hours in that house and make sure...?
-No, I don't think he did.
Most of his poetry was written outside, walking on the Downs or in his mind.
-So he was quite quick?
-Then obviously he would then have to come in and write it down.
What always amazes me if you read the list of his visitors
how he ever had time to write any poetry.
Of course, at the moment there is this great controversy going on as to where he wrote Crossing the Bar.
We know it was here. We've got documentary evidence
that he wrote it on a piece of paper coming from Lymington to Yarmouth.
It has been quite a journey because I've seen the house that Dickens stayed in,
to write part of David Copperfield, beautifully restored.
The place where Darwin stayed in Shanklin which is now an inn.
And obviously Tennyson's house, which is now a very smart hotel.
You do think that the island must have something special.
It's got something in the air.
I think it has. It must have, mustn't it? Yes.
We're surrounded by the sea, of course. And let's face it, islands are special, aren't they?
Lovely to see you. Really lovely.
And my sister says I have got to tell you that your outfits, she
always watches, she always comments on them and says they're wonderful.
Do you know what? She might not think the same of this outfit and this hat.
Oh, she would. No, she might not.
I'm going to head off and take the ferry now.
I'll read some Tennyson on the way. I'd better read Crossing the Bar.
Yes, you must read Crossing the Bar where he actually wrote it.
Yes, quite. Lovely to see you. Bye-bye.
Lovely to see you again.
This is the crossing from Yarmouth to Lymington that everybody says is the prettiest.
It was on this crossing that Tennyson wrote Crossing the Bar,
the poem he said should always be the book end to any collection of Tennyson poems.
Just the short journey
away from the mainland
gives it such a special feel.
It's definitely got a magical quality, the island.
"Sunset and evening star and one clear call for me.
"And may there be no moaning of the bar when I put out to sea.
"But such a tide is moving, seems asleep, too full for sound and foam.
"When that which drew from out the boundless deep turns again home."
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Clare Balding sets out on a two-wheel odyssey to re-discover Britain from the saddle of a touring cycle.
In a six-part series, Clare follows the wheeltracks of compulsive cyclist and author Harold Briercliffe whose evocative guide books of the late 1940s lovingly describe by-passed Britain - a world of unspoiled villages, cycle touring clubs and sunny B roads.
Carrying a set of Harold's Cycling Touring Guides for company and riding his very own Dawes Super Galaxy bicycle, Clare goes in search of the world he described with such affection.
Her journey to the Isle of Wight explores its unique sense of otherness - a strange power which could cure Dickens's writer's block, repel the deadly attentions of the Luftwaffe and give Victorian poet laureate Tennyson a comforting sense of his own death.