Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The art of Shanklin Chine

Shanklin Chine is a coastal ravine on the south-east coast of the Isle of Wight, prettily-landscaped as a visitor attraction, and only a few hundred yards from the town of Shanklin. We visited it about four years ago, but we were in a little of a hurry then, and I fancied a more leisurely look when we were back on the Island at the end of September.

This is the "Longfellow Fountain" by the Crab Inn in Shanklin Old Village. The inscription ...

O Traveller, stay thy weary feet;
Drink of this fountain, pure & 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.


... is a poem credited to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he stayed at the Crab Inn in 1868 (below the poem is a little twin-flag logo, UK and USA). On investigation, this attribution appears a trifle shaky. The book The Poetical Works of Henry W. Longfellow (18??) carries this explanation:

The following quotation from a private letter, dated "Shanklin, Isle of Wight, 1st October 1879," is the authority for ascribing this inscription to the Poet:—

"just look at this group of thatched cottages! The one on the right is a library where we go for books. In the middle is the Crab Inn. Do you see what looks like a pile of stones to the right of it? That is a fountain for the use of the public. I read some verses painted there on a piece of tin, and said to myself: 'That must be from Longfellow.' I found afterward that they were written by him, by request, when he was here some years ago:
The author of this "private letter" is unidentified. The first citation to Longfellow appears in George Shaw's The tourist's picturesque guide to the Isle of Wight (1873). There doesn't seem to be any great reason to doubt it - nevertheless, there is no primary evidence from Longfellow himself that he wrote it.

The place has changed a deal since Longfellow was there. Shanklin Old Village is a characteristically commercialised English "olde village", a cluster of thatched houses of genuine antiquity adapted into a complex of pubs, tearooms and gift shops, all on a busy main road. But just a minute's walk takes you down a quiet pedestrianised lane to the top of the Chine, and you find you're in a different world.

Clare at Chine entrance
You can take a slight detour first to the adjacent park, Rylstone Gardens, where there's a good chance of seeing red squirrels. I saw one in the distance, and it wasn't the best day for views. But there was an interesting and unexpected feature in the now rather dented stainless steel commemorative Elvis plaque by the clifftop, installed by the Isle of Wight Rock and Roll Society in 1978.

It has short score quotations from four Elvis classics (below): 1 is "Hound Dog"; 3 is "Teddy Bear". Any thoughts on the others? Although I'm perfectly capable of reading the score, they're quite difficult to place without the rhythm backing.

click to enlarge

Back to the Chine. The rustic-styled entrance booth takes you instantly into the fresh and humid microclimate of this mini-ravine. It's virtually silent apart from birdsong and the sound of the stream.

After initial steps, the path levels out to a shallower descent with rustic bridges, benches and landscaped pools, with a choice of exits to beach level or via an aviary, tearoom and exhibition centre, up to the clifftop. It began to rain, but surprisingly little made it down to the chine floor level; we sat for a while in one of the little shelters, and just chilled out. It's very obviously a managed landscape, but I really don't care; Shanklin Chine is unique, a calm and lovely experience. "A very great Lion," as Keats put it. *

If you're visiting in the near future, the current Heritage Centre exhibition is Turner's Isle of Wight Landscapes and the Discovery of Shanklin Chine. I'm a great fan of historical Isle of Wight scenic artwork, and this exhibition follows JMW Turner’s journey around the island from his sketchbook of 1795. It also features scenes of the Chine and elsewhere in the Wight by other artists including Thomas Rowlandson, Richard Banks Harraden, Samuel Howitt, William Daniell, Charles Tomkins, and Lefevre James Cranstone. It's extremely well-selected and well-annotated, and thoroughly worth a visit.

Chine Cottage, and the Heritage Centre, from the seaward end of the Chine
A bonus to the visit: on the way out, going up the path back to Shanklin, Clare and I saw our first fully-fledged red squirrel. We've seen them before, but they were rather dark brown. This was the real thing, a brilliant marmalade-coloured squirrel. Unfortunately it zipped by and up into the treetops too fast to bring the camera to bear ... but it was there.

See the older post - Shanklin Chine - for more background on the Chine's history, as well as one of my favourite poems, Mimi Khalvati's The Chine, which means a lot to me as an uncannily accurate impression of how the chine powerfully evokes that 'double exposure' sensation of reconnecting with the landscape of remembered childhood.

See also the official website

- Ray

* Lions = an archaic expression for "Things of note, celebrity, or curiosity (in a town, etc.); sights worth seeing" (Oxford English Dictionary).


  1. Looks like a harsh music critic has been potting at the Elvis plaque with an air rifle...?

  2. Yes. It's miserable, attacking a sincere and significant commemoration - even if it's rather strangely placed, given the zero connection of Elvis with the location. I have a great respect for Elvis, musically - in fact I'm currently practising a kind of sub-Zydeco version of "Hound Dog" for a gig on the 20th.