Splash splosh around the Isle of Wight
contained all the various landscapes of the well-known children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, encouraging them to strike a deal with Walker Books and team up with the National Trust to create an inspirational leaflet highlighting places on the island where you can recreate scenes from the book. (Spoiler alert: this does not involve hunting down real bears!) The locations are free to visit and make beautiful natural playgrounds: Newtown Creek for walking through mud, Freshwater Bay for searching in caves, Borthwood Copse for stumbling through forest.
That the Isle of Wight contains so many varying landscapes within a relatively short distance of each other (you can drive from the sailing town of Cowes in the north to the Victorian resort of Ventnor in the south in fewer than 40 minutes) is what makes the island the ideal location for a family holiday with small children. No cries of “are we there yet”, no accidental naps in the car at 5pm, no time to get bored.
On a fossil walk at Brook Chine, run by volunteers from Dinosaur Expeditions (read: crazily knowledgeable enthusiasts), we found a piece of dinosaur bone to take home with us (and no doubt my son will demand to take it school to wow the teachers). We also found well-preserved casts of dinosaur footprints just lying in the sand alongside boulders and pebbles for anyone in the know to marvel at. The rock along this piece of coastline is 125million years old and is full of prehistoric fossils. During our twohour walk we also collected fossilised sponge, mussel shells and ancient timber. My older two were enthralled, my two-year-old followed behind, pausing intermittently to dig in the sand and occasionally delivering up stones for our expert to examine.
We have been coming to the Isle of Wight for the past three years. The ferry crossing gives the children the sense that they are going on holiday, but is not long enough for anyone to get sick. We have discovered an exceptional cottage to rent right on the beach at Steephill Cove, aptly named Beachside Cottage. In front is the Beach Shack, where my husband and I drink coffee while the children engage in castle competitions on the sand below.
When we are not hunting for bears Wightlink (wight link.co.uk) sails from Lymington to Yarmouth or Portsmouth to Fishbourne. Red Funnel (red funnel.co.uk) sails between Southampton and Cowes. or bones, we are pursuing Enid Blyton-style childhood activities: rockpooling for crabs, paddling and exploring. The children run from the house to the beach and back again and it all feels incredibly safe, like a piece of the 20th century has been preserved unchanged. After dinner we open a bottle of red as the children run back to the beach to dejewel their enemy’s castle.
Much as I would like these activities to keep the children entertained throughout an entire holiday, there is still the demand for outings. And the island delivers handsomely on this front, too. The Isle of Wight contains Britain’s oldest amusement park, Blackgang Chine, which this year celebrates its 175th birthday. It is a wonderland for imaginative play; in the space of three hours my children become cowboys, pirates, princesses Beachside Cottage, Steephill Cove; sleeps six, from £901 a week (mulberry cottages.com) The National and fairies as they explore the different worlds within the park, a much more enriching experience then going on ride after ride in a modern theme park. The same people run Robin Hill park, a large, landscaped area scattered with lakes, playgrounds, treetop walks and grassy areas to run around and picnic on.
Days can be spent at Tapnell Farm Park, which has an enormous indoor hay barn to roll around in as well as a traditional soft play area, and you can join staff as they feed wallabies, goats and pigs, or pet rabbits, guinea pigs and baby chicks. If you want to stay, they have got some great glamping tents, lodges and huts with uninterrupted views across the downs. Other outings with an animal theme include trips to Amazon World for anteaters and tapirs, Monkey Haven for primates, Isle of Wight Zoo for big cats, a donkey sanctuary and an alpaca farm. A nice alternative is the Model Village in Godshill.
On our visit to the Needles, the famous chalk stacks on the west of the island, my six-year-old holds my hand on the chairlift down from Alum Bay cliffs to the sand below as I confess to finding the sheer drop a little frightening. “We’re not scared,” she chants, the bear hunt obviously still on her mind. Trust (nationaltrust. org.uk) is running official Bear Hunt weekends on July 14-15 and September 8-9 at St Helens Duver with activities including wild art, mini-beast adventures, butterfly catching and bird spotting.
Visitors can download a bear hunt leaflet for a self-guided tour of the island at visitisleof wight.co.uk.
The Isle of Wight has wildlife parks, below; and lots of beaches, left