Mid January and daylight is returning. On the Isle of Wight this light seems to begin earlier and end later than anywhere else in the UK. Even in deepest winter it never seems to go really away.
And the nautical light is already unfolding ahead of the rising sun as I stand on the bow of the first ferry of the day from Lymington. Nudging its way towards Yarmouth, the well-named Wightlink ferry, the Wight Light, offers a wide-angle lens view of the Solent and the Island. Mudflats squeeze up either side of the strict navigation route that the ferry master must follow.
Black-headed gulls rise and fall on the breakwaters, curlews busily hack away in the gloop, their beak acting like a scythe in the hunt for breakfast worms and shellfish, herons – half a dozen – are hunched, as always, seemingly biding their time.
Looking south, the Island now fills the view, the horizon infilled by a chalk backbone of downland. Some cliffs tumble gracefully into the sea; on the Island’s western edge, Tennyson Down appears to have been guillotined. The molar-like chalk pinnacles of the Needles begin to peak out to the west of the down.
Today though, I’m heading east. The ferry berths in Yarmouth and I make my way by bus across the top of the island. I’m accompanied, in turn, by the sea and woodland overhanging hidden dips, each adding further physical and mental distance from my everyday routine and chores.
A dogleg negotiates Ryde and then, at Nettlestone, I walk from the turn off for the village of Seaview. I love arriving in this village. You pass a fetching green, then a sign for Seaview FC (with a name like that I always feel they should be a Premier League, rather than a Saturday afternoon, team). The road begins a stately descent to the sea, past ever higher, more elegant townhouses. There’s a crossroads where I pause every time, just in case there’s another car coming. There rarely is. The village shop – a community enterprise selling Island cheeses, biscuits, beer and honey (what more do you need for a picnic?) – is already open.
Then, just a pace or two back from the Solent’s edge, is journey’s end, the Seaview Hotel. Independently owned and blissfully chain free, the Seaview exudes charm from the minute you step across the terrace and through the front door into the conservatory. To your right as you approach reception is the Naval Bar, a homage to a naval officer’s mess and decorated with an extraordinary collection of naval yesteryear photographs. Across the corridor is a snug room – I always make a mental note to get down early before dinner to enjoy a glass of wine, a beer or a cocktail in one of the deep sofas. This cosy, away-from-the-world’s-troubles haven deserves iconic status: you could imagine Humphrey Bogart sitting here and looking up to see Ingrid Bergman walk in.
Despite its emphasis on yester-year charm, there is nothing stuffy about the Seaview; every square inch of chintz has long been exterminated. All rooms are immaculately stylish, some with deep, sink-in-all-afternoon baths, others with bay windows where you can gaze at the activity on the Solent. For families, the top-floor apartment is perfect: spacious, with three rooms and lounge that seems to have been designed to play board games in, or just loaf, read and – yes, I know it’s going out of fashion – chat.
If you can pull yourself away from the interior charms, the hotel rents out electric bikes to guests and non-residents and has teamed up with Wight Cycle Hire to produce local bespoke routes that keep away from the busier roads. Alternatively, the hotel can provide free bus passes (no age restriction). The Island buses are good and you can get anywhere and back easily in a day and fill the gap in between with a walk.
Dinner at the Seaview is something of a treat. You can choose between the bar and the restaurant. The bar is often bustling (if you need a little tranquillity, you can dine in the Naval Bar at the front of the hotel) and offers top-class classics such as fish and chips and burgers and crab ramekin, served with salad, lemon and sourdough.
Alternatively, the restaurant is outstanding and is the only one on the Island to boast a Michelin rating known as the Bib Gourmand. This accolade is for food pitched just below the quality of a Michelin star but which offers creative and affordable food, with an emphasis on local and regional sourcing. Three courses are typically priced at £28 and can include crumpets with ox cheek, plaice with prawn tortellini, and mouth-watering crumbles and bay leaf ice cream for dessert.
That night after dinner, I go for a wander. The tide is low, there’s a wolf moon and I don’t need a torch to find my way along the coast path. I walk 600m along an uneven path towards Ryde; the pier is illuminated, as is the Spinnaker tower in Portsmouth across the Solent. The water sloshes around the edge of the rockpools; oystercatchers have huddled down for the night.
The next morning I heave myself out of bed before 7am. Why do I always do this on a day off, I ask myself, when I have to do it every day for work? For the off-chance of seeing something special, I remind myself, and I’m not disappointed. Outside the hotel I’m halted – in January – by two bats that are flying in and out the eves of an adjacent property. In the clear, still dawn light, they seem surreal, rather like broken umbrellas jerked up and down by an invisible hand. The oystercatchers appear not to have moved, even though the tide must have displaced them during the night. I look up and see a line of cormorants flying east along the Solent; another flock follows, this time in pyramid formation. Honking geese join in.
Returning to the hotel, breakfast cements my life-enhanced mood. Phillipe, the head waitress, runs a laid-back, easy-going regime and the menus, printed in Art Deco text on nautically themed paper, are another example of the hotel’s tasteful, light touch spirit. I end up in a pleasing agony of indecision – cooked or vegetarian breakfast? Or perhaps salmon and scrambled eggs. Or eggs florentine? I could always stay a second night…
I’m the author of the Slow Guide to the Isle of Wight. Wightlink runs services between Lymington in the New Forest and Yarmouth, and from Portsmouth to Fishbourne. Another good source of information for visitors is the excellent visitisleofwight.co.uk