Take an outdoor winter holiday in Britain and you need to pack for all weathers. So as I stride up the close-cropped grass of Tennyson Down in the westernmost tip of the Isle of Wight, I can hardly believe I am clad only in a jumper, gilet and light trousers.
It’s late November and the temperature is comfortably into double figures. Last week’s chill wind has dropped and the flat sea gleams silver in the winter light.
Better still, my friend and I have it all to ourselves.
As we approach the dramatic rock formations of The Needles – a magnet for tourists in high season – we encounter just one other couple exploring the gun battery that guards the approach to the Solent.
I have always appreciated the daily choice of routes offered by HF Holidays on their guided walking holidays, but if you can find yourself a like-minded travelling companion, HF’s self-guided walking option provides an extra dimension, the freedom to be as active or passive as you please.
Simply borrow their excellent laminated route cards from the Discovery Point in each of their 17 country house hotels to follow a well-mapped trail. Or do your own thing and combine walking with sightseeing, shopping, or just reading a book. It’s entirely up to you.
Friends for more than 50 years, Liz and I planned to do all four during our 4-night self-guided break at Freshwater Bay House, where HF’s cliff top hotel affords glorious views of the unspoilt bay.
Even this late in the season, every room was taken with a mix of solos, couples, and pairs of friends like us, more passionate than our partners about exploring on foot.
Walks are categorised as Laid Back (2-3 miles), Leg Stretchers (5-7), and Full On (8-15), and we chose a couple of contrasting circular routes of around 6.5 miles each that would leave time for other activities. So there we were on the Tennyson Trail, named after Victorian Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson who came to live at Farringford House at Freshwater in 1853.
After walking through woodland, we had climbed gently up along the roof of the peninsula to The Needles.
I’d already seen this iconic rock formation from the other side on a spring walk from the HF property at West Lulworth.
So it was lovely to take a different view of the gleaming white chalk stacks, offset against a deep blue sea, before walking back above the strata of multi-coloured sands at Alum Bay, gloriously empty in low season.
HF’s self-guided walkers enjoy the same meal deal as guided guests, including a full English breakfast, picnic lunch, and home-cooked dinner with choices to suit dietary needs.
Sitting beneath the Tennyson Monument, we ate our salads, sandwiches and snacks then, after a brief chill-out at base, we drove 15 miles along the south coast to Ventnor where the Botanic Garden is open all year round. Once a hospital for TB patients from London, the site enjoys a micro-climate conducive not just to treating respiratory disease, but also to exotic plants.
In contrast to the undulating coastal walk of our first day, day two saw us heading north from coast to coast on a 6.5 mile round trip to Yarmouth, which stands opposite Lymington in the New Forest. An old railway line provides a straight track up the east side of the winding river Yar with numerous opportunities to spot waterfowl.
Stopping to explore the independent boutiques of Yarmouth, we returned to Freshwater on the opposite bank via the Afton Nature Reserve. Try as we might, we failed to spot one of the island’s elusive red squirrels, but we did spot the flash of a kingfisher flying low along the river beneath the autumn foliage.
Back in Freshwater, we stopped to investigate the tiny thatched church, beloved of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and admire its stained glass window by painter and sculptor George Frederick Watts, who also lived nearby. The face of Sir Galahad is that of the artist’s first wife Ellen Terry, and the face of the angel, that of Lady Emily Tennyson, the poet’s wife.
Amongst Tennyson’s many visitors from London who fell in love with the area was Julia Margaret Cameron, Victorian pioneer of portrait photography. Close to the church is her former holiday home at Dimbola Lodge, open all year round, where you can discover her fascinating story and see examples of her work, as well as more contemporary images. The 1970 Isle of Wight Festival took place at nearby Afton Farm and visitors to Dimbola can see iconic photos of headliner Jimi Hendrix whose statue stands, unexpectedly, in the garden outside.
Dimbola Lodge is just five minutes’ walk from Freshwater Bay House, which enjoyed some illustrious visitors of its own under its original name of Plumleys Hotel. Amongst them were scientist Charles Darwin and mathematics don Charles Dodgson, otherwise known as author Lewis Carroll.
Today it exudes a different kind of atmosphere with its super-friendly staff and modern bedrooms, recently refurbished and many with sea views.
Our last full day saw us on the other side of the island at Osborne House, beloved family home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and a 40-minute drive from Freshwater Bay.
This grand but homely country property is packed with personal mementoes of the royal family, and we particularly loved the royal beach where Albert taught the children to swim whilst Victoria sampled the sea from her bathing hut.
Enjoy views of Portsmouth and the Spinnaker Tower over coffee and cake on the café terrace.
Back on the west coast, there was still time for a circular afternoon stroll between Colwell and Totland, before our grand finale. Tucking a mini bottle of wine and a glass each into our rucksacks, we headed back up Tennyson Down for an al fresco aperitif at sundown.
As the horizon glowed orange, we toasted our energising short break and vowed to come back soon to explore further. The Isle of Wight has so many tempting trails to offer and we still need to spot a red squirrel!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends HF Holidays