When is a walk not a walk? When it’s down to the local for a pint. A really good walk requires sturdy and comfortable footwear, perhaps a walking stick, varying levels of altitude, at least one flask of water and a lot of time. Usually, a good walk depends upon good planning with maps displaying the route and things to observe along the way. Long walks are a good way to notice the many splendoured things around us.
Spontaneous walks can be good too. Depends on geography and weather. Also depends on the condition of the walkers and, as always, the footwear involved. If, for example, you find yourself walking along cliff tops in slippery pumps and get vertigo when encountering heights, the walk may not be as pleasant as it could be.
And this is where we find ourselves on a lovely summer day. We had already gone over two monumental hurdles challenging my best friend’s comfort zones. An open chairlift from the top of the cliffs to the beach below. Then a boat trip in choppy, open, deep water to the Needles. So, a walk along the cliffs to the Needles, high above the Solent off Alum Bay was to be expected.
Not exactly expected. As we bobbed along the surface of the water toward the Needles, we saw people walking along the cliffs leading to the Needles. An uphill walk too. Should we try it? Maybe not. But then, we may never be this way again. Back up the chairlift, purchase a photo of us on the chairlift (as you do), buy a bottle of water for the walk, pick up our sun hats from the car and off we went.
Part way along, a bus passed us. A bus goes to the end of the cliffs? Seems so. A Doubledecker too. Up the slope it went, swaying from side to side. Meanwhile, we walked a narrow, uneven strip of chalk path above the road. No safety rails here. The land slopes toward the cliff’s edge. My best friend worried about my reputation, proven on more than one occasion, of being uncoordinated and not always spatially aware. Rock climbing is not for me.
I think she was thinking, ‘one slip and he’ll roll down the steep hill and into the sea’. Not to be, though she was anxious the whole way along. The view back toward the attractions area was spetacular. We were now high above our starting point, looking back to the Solent, the coloured sands cliff and the farm fields beyond. Magnificent.
Some way along, we noticed a steep path to the left, across the road, heading up to the summit. My best friend persuaded me to keep to the level and narrow. It was hot and I was in no mood or shape to argue with this logic. On we went to the end of the peninsula….which stops at an old barracks from the 19th century. It was built in response to the French launching their first ironclad warship, ‘La Colowe’. There are also cement gun emplacement platforms (minus the guns) and the old rocket launching sites on the cliffs beside the Needles.
You don’t usually equate Britain with rockets. But back in the late 1950s, the site was used to test a first stage rocket, The BLACK KNIGHT. Then in the 1960s they upped the ante with the Black Arrow, a multi-staged rocket. And finally, in the early 1970s, came the Prospero X3 satellite. Then, for economic reasons, the whole programme was scrapped and everything went to America….right.
Then it happened. Over the Solent flew a Supermarine Spitfire. Loops, glides and finally right over us and out toward France. Time stood still for a moment. Memories of my dad working on these iconic planes in the last world war and thankfulness for this machine that kept Britain away from Hitler’s grasp. It made my day.
We hung around the end of the peninsula for a while. My best friend stayed on the road travelled by the bus while I generally dare-devilled along cliff edges and took photos. She is the cautious one. The bus that passed us on the way up, came back and went off again. We were determined to walk the whole way back too.
But to take the winding road back down to the path along the cliffs that would get us back to base camp (the attractions centre, with rides, restaurants and boutiques) was the long way home. The pathway leading off the road looked to be the fastest way back.
My best friend said, “I think that’s the steep path we saw on the way up.” “Nope,” I said with a confidence I wasn’t too sure of, “This is that other path.” She of little faith said, “What other path? This looks like the steep one.” “Nope,” said I, “That was the other one that went off to the left. This is the low one that ran alongside the steep one.” “What other one?” said exasperated she. “I only saw one, leading high to the top.” “Trust me,” said I, “I would not lead you astray.” “You’d better not,” said she.
But I did….as usual. We were going along just fine until the path took a sudden dip that even had me a tad concerned. “What the hell!!” said she. “I’m not going that way in these shoes.” “Don’t worry,” I said, “Just take my hand, I’ll get you down safe.” “Don’t touch me, you liar. I’ll make my own way.”
My best friend did fine for the first 20 feet or so and then the bottom fell out of the world….or so it seemed. A plunge to the left. My best friend’s foot slipped and she grabbed a few tufts of grass just off the path and froze. “I hate you right now and I’m not enjoying this walk anymore. Why do I listen to you?” I had no response. All I knew was I had to get her safely to the road. “Please,” I pleaded, “Take my hand. I promise I’ll get you down safe. Please?” After another failed attempt on my best friend’s part to make any progress, she relented.
Painstakingly, step by step we made our way to the road. I was called many unflattering things….but I deserved it. When we got to the road, all was forgotten and apologies made on both sides. We even laughed about it. Arriving safely after a harrowing experience does that. We walked back to the car and headed back to the Air BnB. “Good day that,” I said. “Well, at least we’re still alive,” she said. More than ever I thought.