A stroll through the Old Village

As the main road winds its way down from Shanklin town centre and snakes its way through the Old Village and up Church Road towards Ventnor, visitors are treated to an arrays of pubs, hotels, restaurants, tea rooms, shops  – and maybe even ghosts – with some of the oldest dwellings on the Island nestled neatly in its streets.

Shanklin Old Village is the amateur photographer’s dream venue, with its quaint buildings, the majority of which are  thatched. And within strolling distance you can discover the tranquility of Rylstone Gardens, the serenity of St Blasius Church, and the splendour of Shanklin Chine, which first opened in 1817, and is generally accepted as the Isle of Wight’s oldest tourist attraction.

The 20mph speed limit through the Old Village helps to ensure pedestrian safety, although it is easy to become immersed in the sights and sounds of the area, and forget about the passing traffic just a couple of yards away. But as the best way to indulge yourself in Shanklin Old Village is on foot, and with street parking virtually non-existent, the easiest option is to head to the Vernon Meadow pay and display car park, a site on which some of the older locals still remember cattle roaming on the grassland. Indeed, many years ago the road through the Old Village was little more than a dirt track, with the main road running to the west of it.

The famous stream of water that eventually cascades down Shanklin Chine and into the sea below can first be seen at the top end of the Old Village near St Blasius Church. It wends its way down through the Old Village forming an integral part of some of the houses’ truly spectacular landscaped back gardens.

Shanklin Chine itself is a leafy gorge that has been much loved by poets, artists and writers over the years. The winding woodland, with its steep sides is a magical place for rare plants, wildlife and breathtaking waterfalls. The footpath down through the Chine also provides a convenient short-cut from the Old Village to the sea front.

The Chine is also home to a permanent reminder of PLUTO – the Pipe Line Under The Ocean. A video and display portray the incredible story of how petrol was carried by the pipeline to the Allied troops in Normandy.

The Fisherman’s Cottage pub stands right next to the beach at the foot of the Chine. The pub was built by William Colenutt in 1817, and this spring had to undergo extensive refurbishment after being flooded by gushing water from the Chine during the horrendous storms that hit the Island around Christmas.

The Village Inn, the Crab Inn, King Harry’s Bar and Holliers hotel are at the hub of the Old Village, standing so close together you could almost cover them with a beer mat! With entertainment and food in most of them at some or all times during the week, the quartet combine to provide the perfect place to reflect on the idyllic location.

Rylstone Gardens are so tucked away at the back of the Old Village they can be easily missed. But they should be sought out as they are well worth a visit.

Once again, because of very limited parking, access is easiest by walking. Rylstone Gardens are free and open to the public, and Shanklin beach is also accessible from this area, down steps from the coastal edge of the Gardens, which are also popular for sunbathing and picnics, and are relatively quiet, even in peak season.

There are now very few parts of the country inhabited by red squirrels, but they can regularly be seen scurrying around the Gardens. There is also a tea shop and crazy golf course, both of which are adorned with beautiful flower baskets during the summer months.

The chalet in Rylstone Gardens is home to the very successful Shanklin Town Brass Band. Across from the chalet, the bandstand is a popular open air venue for concerts by the band and many others through the summer months.

St Blasius Church, at the extreme south of Shanklin Old Village, heading towards Ventnor, was built during the reign of King Stephen, making it more than 850 years old, and for much of its time was the family chapel for Shanklin Manor.

As Shanklin began to grow in Victorian times the Lord of the Manor gave the church to the town as the parish church for the Old Village, and it has remained in many ways a true country church. Each spring and summer the churchyard is covered with a spectacular and colourful array of plants and flowers, and the church itself is not only historic, but very quaint and well worth a look inside.

Back in the centre of the Old Village stands Vernon Cottage, a tea room, tavern and restaurant, which also houses Shanklin Tourist Information. It was built in 1817 by Edward Vernon Utterson, an English lawyer, and talented artist whose works remain in the British Museum to this day. There is a long smuggling tunnel, which runs all the way from beneath the cottage to the bottom of Shanklin Chine. It is reckoned that Vernon Cottage was at the heart of the Island’s huge smuggling empire in the early 19th century.

Vernon Cottage also has a large 10ft ‘secret’ room underneath the present day upstairs lounge which was used to hide huge amounts of contraband. It is also reported to be home to a beautiful female ghost called Frances, the housekeeper who fell in love with the original Master of the house, and lived there for 30 years until she fell down the stairs and died. Frances, who appears as her stunning younger self, loves Vernon Cottage and leaves five pence pieces for the owners – and visitors – when she approves of their behaviour!

The historic building that is now Daish’s Hotel is almost directly opposite Vernon Cottage, and had a reputation for being one of the premier hotels on the Island, having once welcomed Queen Victoria, who stayed in Room 31.

Its decline saw it fall into serious disrepair by the 1970s. The Daish’s Group was founded by Jeanne Wilson, who purchased Daish’s Hotel in Shanklin, and after a year of renovation, mostly carried out by family and friends, Daish’s re-opened, and has been a thriving establishment ever since, welcoming coach parties from all over the country.

There is an excellent choice of restaurants in Shanklin Old Village, which also has its own fish and chip shop and rock shop, both situated opposite the War Memorial, which is dedicated to the local men who lost their lives in both World Wars.

One of the most photographed buildings in Shanklin Old Village is Pencil Cottage, a 17th century thatched cottage nestled right in the heart of the Village, and situated just above the entrance to Shanklin Chine. Pencil Cottage has gifts and antiques on offer for all tastes, and also has a fine tea garden.

Next door is the Crab Inn, which has changed with the times, but still retains the Victorian drinking fountain in its front garden which bears the inscription:

“O traveller stay thy weary feet, Drink of this fountain pure and sweet, It flows for rich & poor the same, Then go thy way remembering still, The wayside well beneath the hill, The cup of water in his name.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868.

Paul Ottley has lived in Shanklin Old Village for more than 60 years, moving to the Island from London in 1953 when his father took over the Glenbrook Hotel, now known as King Harry’s bar, and easily recognisable with its wooden stocks near the entrance.

Since then Paul has had close ties with three of the four licensed premises that stand so close together, surrounding the famous twist in the road. When he settled here the road through the old Village was virtually devoid of traffic. The only vehicle he vividly remembers belonged to the owner of the hotel that is now Daish’s, who drove around proudly in a large Cadillac Convertible, and chose to park virtually anywhere because in those days there were no parking restrictions.

After attending catering college in Portsmouth, Paul worked in the King Henry VIII kitchen at the Glenbrook, which in fact did not become a licensed pub until the year 2000.

The Village Inn was bought by Paul’s father in 1969. Paul and his wife Joan have owned it since, and the premises was formally known as Vine Cottage. Over the years it was a butcher’s shop, a grocer’s shop, a bakery and also the staff quarters for the adjacent Holliers Hotel, which itself used to be a farm house with land stretching up to the Big Mead. The old farm house’s well, with its crystal clear water, can still be seen below Holliers.

The Village Inn was opened by the Ottleys as a restaurant until Joan came up with the idea of transforming it into the popular pub that it remains to this day. Paul’s father Denis also bought Holliers in 1972, with Paul and Joan taking it over in 1979, and running it for 27 years. Ironically Paul and Joan never really wanted to move into the pub trade, but have been doing it since 1979!

The Old Village is in an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, with many of its houses and shops being listed buildings. Consequently many of the houses look the same today as when they were originally built. One house in Church Road still has the original chapel of rest in its grounds for those who were making their final journey to St Blasius churchyard!

Not surprisingly the solid brick walls stood up admirably to the floods that hit the Old Village in the early 1970s, leaving much of the area knee deep in water, and even bringing down trees and lamp posts. That prompted the road through the Old Village to be closed to traffic soon afterwards so that massive storm drains could be laid. Thankfully the drains solved the flooding problems – usually brought on by water running off the Big Mead and down Church Road. Big Mead is a large expanse of open parkland to the south of Shanklin Old Village. Within the park there is a recreation area for children and a duck pond.

A few months ago when the Island was hit by torrents of heavy rain, Shanklin Chine rose to its highest level in decades. But when the sun shines there are few better places on the Island to visit than Shanklin Old Village, whether it is to browse in the shops, sample the delights of one of the cafes or restaurants, or pop into one of the pubs for a pint of ale and some fine food.