A trip through Alum Bay, Isle of Wight
As often happens with the trips I take, I go searching for one thing and end up finding the unexpected. On this occasion I’m travelling to the Needles rock formation and lighthouse. Yet what I end up discovering is the pre-historic stomping ground of Alum Bay – the UK’s version of Jurassic Park. I might have to exhaust the thesaurus to find adequate expressions to describe this wondrous place. Or I will have to use the pictures to tell their own story as my words simply won’t do it justice.
I spend the morning hiking the Headen Warren
After a good view of the Needles from the cliff tops above, I start my descent down the steep wooden staircase not having a clue as to what lies ahead. A rather rickety looking chairlift runs overhead, the 2 person kind you find at old French ski resorts and seem like they would be pretty easy to fall out of. It carries people from the attraction site above to the bay below. Halfway down the staircase I look to the left and see some interesting colored cliffs and stop to take a quick snap. I see a sign warning people that removal of sand is “strictly prohibited” and think back to an article I read in the paper a couple of summers ago about a man who had taken a sack-full of pebbles from a Cornish beach and was tracked down and requested to return them (which he did apparently!)
I am desperate to see the Needles rock formations with its red and white striped lighthouse and although its mid-October I am optimistically hopeful that the boats are still running. However, the pandemic is still at large hanging its dark cloud over most activities and hence upon arrival I note that the passenger gateway is boarded up. I quickly conclude I will not be needing the shark-themed lifejacket I purchased for Mia earlier in the week.
Awestruck in Alum Bay
My disappointment is almost instantaneously zapped out of me by the sight of the rock formations behind me. Surprising me so I do a double take. I’ve long poured over the patterned landscape photography of Zhangye, China, the painted desert in Arizona, or rainbow mountain Peru. And although not quite in the same league as the former, I had a wonderful time photographing the stripy undulating landscape of the Masada desert in Israel last year. But gazing up at the colorful backdrop before my eyes I am momentarily dazzled. Where on earth am I?
Yet I realise with some amazement I am not in Eurasia or the Americas. Nope. Just good ole, Isle of Wight. I’m left feeling rather silly I had never known or heard about this place before. Upon reflection I realize I am but a “victim” of the times. Having come of age in an era where cheap package holidays and budget flights were all the rage it was cheaper to fly to Spain for a week, sup on tempranillo and feast on tortilla de patatas for a sun-assured holiday. Versus the prospects of a week on the Cornish coast at around double the price and far less desirable weather. Certainly there would be no boast-worthy tan to accompany. Fair to say I was too busy globe trotting exotic lands afar to consider exploring my own back yard.
I’m glad to say in my present mid-30’s state I’ve long since matured beyond that antediluvian view. Yet the pandemic is undeniably the stimulus for me exploring my own land much more intensively. Returning to places where I once holidayed as a kid, I’m rediscovering the UK again. A sort of healing, returning full-circle kind of experience.
Alum Bay – a History
The history of this place spans about 50 million years. The striations tell their own story each revealing a distinct layer of history. From what I learned, the sediments once lay horizontal but after much shifting and moving of tectonic plates over some million years or so they have now come to lay in an upright position which is what has caused the pattern you see today.
Apparently the rocks found in Alum bay were laid down in warm shallow seas and span the Palaeocene to the Eocene era purportedly around 34 – 56 million years ago. Basically a total mind f$*K.
Each colour arises from its own chemical process and material whether that is white from pure quartz sand, different shades of reds and browns from oxidised iron, blacks from lignitic materials, bright yellow from jarosite encrustations or duller yellow and brown from limonite or goethite.
A roaming reverie
I gaze up at the sight above and in true Jurassic Park style feel like I am looking at the back of a stegosaurus. I can imagine weighty footprints, the ground vibrating beneath me and the colossal whip of a dinosaur tail swopping past. Dinosaurs literally once roamed these ancient lands and quite frankly I find this mind-boggling. The sands of the far shore are said to be absolutely littered with fossils and certainly their are some fossil hunters both young and old eagerly scanning the shores for bivalve and gastropod shells.
From another angle the rocks reveal a couple of figures with their heads arched backwards. I imagine they have been thirstily walking through the desert, parched and scorched they arch their heads towards the sky, in desperate vain the mouths open waiting for the rain to quench their never-ending thirst. Its not hard to let the imagination run wild in a place this dramatic.
Alum Bay is at the same site as the Needles. If you want to go see the Needles themselves take the passenger boat from Alum Bay. These run from June to September.
You can get to Alum Bay via a chair lift from the car park at the main Needles Attraction site. Alternatively walk from Headon Warren which is what I did for fantastic views of the Needles and coastline.
Don’t remove any sand from the area – this is strictly prohibited!