When you think of the Isle of Wight, the Needles, the Lighthouse and neighbouring Alum Bay with its colourful sands have to be some of the island’s most iconic images. I vaguely remember going on a boat trip around the lighthouse when I was there on a school trip when I was about 8 and I knew it was somewhere that we had to visit again when holidaying on the island as a family.
The Needles are right at the far west tip of the Isle of Wight and when you’re on the island you always seem to be seeing adverts featuring the Needles themselves, the famous lighthouse and also the cable cars that take visitors down to the bottom of the colourful Alum Bay sand cliffs. When you arrive though your first thought is that you’ve found your way to some sort of mega tourist hotspot. The road takes you straight into a massive car park next to a very twee area that is the Needles Landmark Attraction. There are lots of identikit buildings featuring the obligatory gift shops next to cafes, glass blowing, a sweet factory and even a cinema and outside are a variety of funfair rides. It’s the kind of place that my kids love, but Mr C and I aren’t so keen.
After paying £5 to park all day (don’t forget to get your discount leaflet when you pay as it is worthwhile) we actually turned our back on the main tourist attractions and instead followed the signs to the National Trust’s Needles Old Battery and New Battery. Being fully paid up members of the National Trust I’ve always got my nose in the guide book on holidays for places we can visit for free and I was intrigued to see the Needles listed. All the adverts I’d seen elsewhere had made me think that there was only really one attraction at the Needles, but oh no.
As you walk along the cliff road (3/4 of a mile) to towards the Needles themselves you soon leave behind all the commercialised tourist attractions and instead head towards what I think is one of the National Trust’s most interesting properties. Perched high above the Needles rocks the Old Battery was originally a Victorian Fort built in 1862, but actually the site was in use throughout both World Wars. The story of the Old Battery is told in a series of specially commissioned cartoons by the artist Geoff Campion and it’s fascinating to discover how much was going on there in relatively recent history.
Master C’s favourite part of the whole visit had to be the secret tunnel that takes you to the old searchlight emplacement which absolutely cracking views out to the Needles and the lighthouse.
And being a National Trust site any visit wouldn’t be complete without a cafe and the one here is worth special mention. The cliff top 1940s style tea room is now my absolute favourite spot for a National Trust cuppa. The views from the top room are spectacular and being me all the historical artefacts on the walls were fascinating.
Once you’ve seen everything at the Old Battery you can then walk further up to the New Battery. Just in case the history of the Old Battery wasn’t fascinating enough the New Battery brings things even closer to modern day with an exhibition telling the astonishing story of Britain’s Cold War “race for space” when British made rockets were tested here secretly. I had absolutely no idea that any of this had happened on the Isle of Wight. None at all.
The Needles Old and New Battery, and the surrounding headland, could have easily filled a full day out, but we were also determined to get a close up look Alum Bay and the colourful sands that the bay is famous for. Rather than walking back to where we had parked the car we instead hopped on the open topped Needles Breezer (runs from March – October, half price with a National Trust membership card) which Master C thought was incredibly exciting. The views back towards Alum Bay were simply stunning.
Back at the “landmark attraction” we couldn’t walk past without letting the kids have a go on a couple of the rides – and that’s where the discount vouchers we’d been given upon arrival helped cover the cost of the parking. We then had the option of taking the chairlift down to the bay, or walking. With a three year old who struggles to sit still we decided the chairlift may be a tad dangerous and instead headed off on foot down the cliff. It’s steps most of the way down, but decent ones with a good handrail which meant that it wasn’t actually too difficult at all, even for little legs.
Once down at the bay we quickly made our way over to where the boat was doing cruises out to the lighthouse. This 20 minute trip takes you in a circle round Alum Bay, taking in a close up of the lighthouse itself. I was actually amazed at just how close we were able to get (much closer than I remember from my school trip there) and it was also really interesting to see the Old Battery from the sea, especially where you could see some of the other secret tunnels came out for gun emplacements down at sea level.
Alum Bay itself is stunning. I remember buying my mum a souvenir glass bottle with layers of the coloured sand in it but I didn’t really recall how the cliffs themselves looked. Up close you can see just how vivid some of the colours are, but from the boat or the cliff top road you get the overall picture seeing just how varied the colours are. Amazing when you stop and think that this is a natural phenomenon.
Boat trip complete all that was left was to climb back to the top of the cliff and make sure we were in time to get a souvenir bottle of sand before the shop shut for the day. I was dreading this climb back up as at this stage of the day the kids are usually complaining enough about tired legs, but unbelievably both of them made it back to the top without any trouble.
Back in the car heading home to our holiday cottage it really felt like we’d “done” The Needles and Alum Bay. We may not have hung around for long at all the over-commercialised bits, but we’d had a fantastic day out. Wed taken in an open-topped cliff-top bus ride, a boat trip, seen a lighthouse, learnt lots of history, discovered a lovely vintage tea room, the kids had been on fairground rides and the sun shone all day long. As far as I’m concerned you can’t really beat a day like that on holiday!