Monday, 31 October 2011

On the lost road

15 - Shakespeare Memorial Fountain
There's a better photo, not by me, at Flickr.
I've mentioned in a couple of previous posts - see particularly IOW (3): Return to Blackgang - the "lost road" at the southern tip of the Isle of Wight. This is in the Blackgang landslip complex, where a section of the former road between Blackgang and Niton remains isolated, cut off at each end by major slips (see Google Maps, and for technical details, see page 191, Slope Stability Engineering: Developments and Applications, 1991).

I've been intrigued by it for a while - actually quite obsessed with the prospect of going there - and finally visited it on Saturday. It's completely inaccessible from the Niton end, where Sandrock Road from Niton ends at a sheer cliff above a mess of overgrown landslip (see Google Maps view). But from the Blackgang end, at the end of the truncated road is an established path over the landslip; the problem, however - I'd been warned from reading online discussions of the place - is that this path runs close to the cliff edge. That proved to be an understatement: coastal erosion has proceeded to the point where there are now two short sections where the path is about a foot away from an unstable cliff edge over a drop of some 300 feet to the beach (undergrowth and general terrain stop you taking any alternate route further from the edge). I'm pretty good with heights as such, but it certainly scared me; Clare, very sensibly, stayed behind to raise the alarm if I didn't come back.

Once over the scary section, there's a lot to enjoy about the walk, which is somewhere between country ramble and urban exploration. The landscape is classic undercliff: an overgrown tumbled terrain on a clifftop ledge backed by further, higher, cliffs. There are superb views of the landslip and the 550-foot Gore Cliff above, and (the visibility was good) along the coast to the Tennyson Down and the Needles, and  even across to Old Harry Rocks on the mainland. The road - some quarter of a mile of it exists - is now extensively overgrown, having shrunk to a single tarmac path. But in places, it's still recognisable as a tree-lined country lane flanked by stone walls, and in one of these walls is the now-dry Shakespeare Memorial Fountain with its text "TAR AND THE RO" (the remnant of the logo "The water nectar, and the rocks pure gold" from Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2, Scene 4).

I admit I found visiting the remains of this fountain, which I remember from my childhood, a powerful experience. I've since had a tattoo of it as a memento: see "Ursula" and Blackgang.

There are still buildings, too, though considerably more overgrown and run-down than in recent accounts; for instance, of a pair of caravans that was there until not long ago (and visible on Google Maps), one has gone entirely and the other has been vandalised. Being by myself, for safety's sake I didn't venture much off the road, but it was possible to see from it the huts of the defunct nudist holiday camp, the South View Sun Club; and at one point the road is crossed by water and power cables leading to an two-storey house some way below - I've since found out that this is the coach house of Southview House, the old home of Thomas Letts - where I could see someone working. I didn't investigate that (a YouTube comment suggested the owner, having had tools stolen, doesn't welcome explorers). I didn't see or meet anyone else on the road.

(Addendum: the house has since been destroyed by fire - see Southview goes west).

It was, overall, a fascinating and probably unique place, at least in England. (While the Lyme Regis - Axton and Hooken undercliffs have similar terrain, those slips are much older and don't intersect roads and recent habitation).

We didn't actually notice, until walking back out, the Isle of Wight Council sign, on a footbridge way above normal viewing height, saying "Danger. No public access. Active landslide. Keep out". That's an accurate description and warning. The access path is genuinely scary and dangerous; and I don't say that as a teaser, boast or challenge. It just is. If you really must go there, don't go alone; and don't try it if you're not very sure on your feet or get very jittery about heights. And even with all possible precautions, the cliff edge is unstable and could well choose to collapse as you're crossing it; in fact the whole landscape is on borrowed time. I had a tense walking-on-eggshells sensation all the time I was there.

In fact, although I've done far more strenuous and objectively dangerous walks, I found this the most intense experience of landscape I've had for decades - the more so for the powerful 'double exposure' sensation of finding a place I just about recall from childhood preserved in post-apocalyptic isolation only a few hundred yards from the mundane world of tea-shops and bus routes.

There's a YouTube video of the walk (not by me) taken five years ago: Walking over the lost Blackgang Road. The creator omits the scary bit.

Addendum: "Stef" kindly sent me a link to an archived ITN report - Shotlist Ref: BSP130194015, 13th January 1994 - of the last major slip in 1994. At 2:03 you can see the hut dwelling in image 10 below.

Addendum 4 May 2014: Chris Bedford sent me a link to his website Dumpman Films, which offers a large selection of videos of out-of-the-way and abandoned places. "Abandoned railways/disused railways feature heavily; what magic there is in seeing an abandoned railway station or tunnel or other such relic left behind as a result of Dr Beeching's axe. However, wartime bunkers, sewers, canal tunnels, collapsing piers, disused industrial sites, old roads and ruined Victorian asylums crop up too." It has links through to many other interesting sites.

- Ray

Here's a gallery of Saturday's expedition (click any image to enlarge):

1 - Blackgang landslip from NW

2 - looking NW from landslip

3 - Gore Cliff

4 - Gore Cliff

5 - the road acquired

6 - vandalised caravan

7 - on the road

8 - on the road

9 - on the road

10 - a hut dwelling

11 - the abandoned nudist site

12 - looking SE, end of road

13 - slip at Niton end

14 - slip at Niton end


16 - looking NW from slip

17 - the drop!

18 - Gore Cliff

19 - Gore Cliff

20 - the warning!

Update, March 2015 We visited Blackgang Chine recently - see Blackgang Chine, March 2015 (which links to some new posts related to the Chine) - and I can confirm what I've seen mentioned in forum discussions: the Blackgang end has now been comprehensively fenced off (whether by the Council or the Chine management I don't know). Apparently this is because the unofficial footpath has now fallen away, which is unsurprising, considering it was only a few inches from the cliff edge in 2011. I don't know if there's any access from the Windy Corner end.

2015: Blackgang end fenced off
- Ray


  1. Hi
    I'm glad that some of the road still exists - I grew up in the area and remember what it was like before the 1994 slip. I visit the Island often, but am not brave enough to risk a visit in person (young children!) but my brother walked from the Blackgang end a few years ago and said mcuh the same as you report.
    It really is a fascinating piece of history - and such a loss.

    1. Back in the 1960s a substantial section of the old road (about 50 yds. or more) remained suspended higher up towards the base of the cliff, about mid-way between the turnround at the Niton end and where the footpath ends now. The road surface and walls either side were clearly visible. I would expect that with later subsidence that has now gone.
      Thanks for your fascinating web pages.
      Patrick Hall

    2. Thanks, Patrick. I didn't know that, but the location is clear on this 1991 map - the section between the 1928 and 1952 slips.

  2. I made a film about this in 2012. Have a look at if you are interested. I completely share your sense of wonderment at the place, it really is quite extraordinary and unique.

  3. Thanks, Chris - I've added a link.