14 August 2021

Isle of Wight, Summer 2021


I last visited the Isle of Wight during a Railrover in 2005. It was a fleeting visit, involving a trip along the full length of the Island Line, from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin. There I walked to the town’s bus station and caught a bus direct to Yarmouth before heading to Lymington by boat and travelling aboard a 3-CIG (Class 421). I’ll be honest, my impression of the Island was nondescript – I wasn’t left with any lasting memory other than the 1938 Stock (Class 483) ex-London Underground trains that worked the Island Line being not at all comfortable or practical and I suspect those who had to rely on them for their daily commute would have much preferred a Pacer.

Sixteen years later I took advantage of the very low prices initially offered by the hospitality sector upon publication of the government’s ‘roadmap’ out of perpetual lockdown in February. Three nights overlooking the English Channel in a family room for £105 wasn’t to be sniffed at, and coupled with the planned introduction of newer stock to the Island Line, I could sample the new Vivarail Class 484 ex-District Line Tube trains at the same time.

The Needles

Sadly the latter didn’t come to pass, as the line’s planned reopening at Easter was delayed until ‘later in the summer’ as the new ‘484s’ were having technical problems and Vivarail graciously admitted full responsibility for the delay while it ironed out the problems. Speculation continues to be made concerning what ‘later in the summer’ meant, and inferences have been drawn over the expiry date of the replacement bus timetable on the National Rail website; initially this showed 31 July 2021, but was amended to 31 August 2021, and as I write much discussion online suggests the Island Line will be up and running from 1 September. Yet speaking to a passenger at a bus stop on my second day on the Island, he told me a contact of his who is directly involved in resolving the technical problems believes trains won’t be running until ‘October at the earliest’ and assumed the replacement bus timetable expiry would simply be amended again.

From my observations of the replacement buses, journeys are provided by Xelabus and Portsmouth City Coaches, the latter using ex-Centrebus Scania ‘deckers – one not only still wears its former operator’s orange, white and purple livery, but still bears the Centrebus fleet name above the driver’s cab despite having been acquired in 2019. There are two replacement bus timetables – one is from Ryde Pier Head, the location at which the Fastcat from Portsmouth Harbour docks, to Ryde Esplanade, where the town’s bus station is situated and the other is from Ryde Esplanade to Shanklin, following the line of route taken by Island Line trains as much as possible (only Smallbrook Junction is omitted). In a number of cases the location of the replacement bus stop is more central to the towns and villages than the station (Brading, Sandown). Frustratingly, the timetable on the official South Western Railway website is wrong – it shows the off-season timetable, with an hourly frequency along the Ryde Esplanade–Shanklin route – when in reality since May there are two buses an hour, matching that of the trains (improving it even as the distribution of Island Line services is at 20/40-minute intervals, rather than evenly spaced 30/30 intervals). One other thing to note is that while a timetable does exist between Ryde Pier Head–Ryde Esplanade I never saw a bus travelling along the Pier; I did, however, see a procession of private hire taxis bearing Island Line A4 paper logos affixed to their passenger seat windows. It could be taxis on a demand-responsive basis provide the timetable here.

Last year’s holiday was to Edinburgh and it’s easy to forget just how well connected Lincolnshire is to the Scottish capital thanks to the ECML. Even with a change at Newark Northgate, the kids and I reached Edinburgh from Grantham in just over four hours. It would take almost 50% longer to reach Sandown. That said, the journey was simple enough: LNER Grantham–London King’s Cross, Undergroung to London Waterloo, SWR to Portsmouth & Southsea and Hovertravel to Ryde Hoverport. There is a half-hourly Hoverbus transfer, linking Portsmouth & Southsea station (and other central terminals) to the Southsea Hoverport, so actually reaching the Isle of Wight is relatively straightforward enough.

Stagecoach in Portsmouth provide this Enviro200 for use as the Hoverbus

Although having to book seats to travel with LNER is a pain (the train in front of ours was shown as having no seat reservations applied), we found our seats empty and upon sorting ourselves out were offered complimentary breakfast by the on-board hosts. We arrived in the Capital punctually and a nice touch by LNER appeared to be a member of staff stood by every door as we alighted. The Underground route to Waterloo was simple enough – we could change at Euston or Warren Street and I opted for the latter as the station is quieter. Our SWR ‘444’ to Portsmouth Harbour was shortformed of just 5 coaches, so things were a little cosy, but having boarded at the first stop we were able to be seated. The air-conditioning was working well and engineering work meant we omitted Woking. We almost missed the Hoverbus, however, as it appeared to leave two minutes early (ex-Portsmouth & Southsea station at xx12/xx42 past each hour) and it undeniably started to depart at xx10, but the driver – dressed in what would soon become apparent as Hovertravel uniform – graciously stopped and allowed us to board.

Southsea Hoverport is subsumed in a bustling seafront comprising traditional arcades and rides and my kids would have preferred to have caught a much later crossing, but laden with bags and a suitcase they were overruled and we showed our tickets to the Isle of Wight.


Seating within the hovercraft is not dissimilar to larger aircraft, with two outlying rows of 2 seats and a central row of 3 seats

At this point I should point out that a return crossing (with the return portion valid anytime within 1 month of the outward crossing) costs £29 if booking from Hovertravel direct. The bus transfer – provided by Stagecoach in Portsmouth, using an ADL E200 in a special all-over livery – is £2.20, yet a Portsmouth & Southsea to Ryde St John’s Road return train ticket whose route is ‘via Hoverlink service’ is £26.50 and includes travel on the Hoverbus. The option to book to Ryde Esplanade is not possible, so I chose the next stop along the Island Line (St John’s Road). If you were to visit for just one day an even better option exists – buy from any Stagecoach in Portsmouth bus for unlimited travel thereon, plus a day return using the Hovertravel service and unlimited travel on all Southern Vectis buses on the Island for just £23.50. My version, however, required me to then purchase a single Ryde St John’s Road to Sandown and an equivalent in reverse on the day we left, for use on the much more direct replacement bus service.

I don’t recall ever travelling on a hovercraft before (maybe I did as a child) and as we left Southsea and hovered atop the Solent, I couldn’t help but think of the short-lived hovercraft service from Grimsby Docks to Hull in the late-1960s; trials took place from Cleethorpes beach, but the service was a flop owing to the strong currents in the Humber Estuary and persistent damage to the crafts. There appeared to be two vessels on hand for our journeys to/from the Isle of Wight – the Island Flyer and the Solent Flyer. Both our crossings saw us use the Island Flyer, which was immaculately clean inside and attentive crew ensured the boarding process was straightforward.

I showed my train tickets to the attendant at Southsea and she stamped them with a very large HOVERTRAVEL red stamp and we were directed to the departures area, from where it became immediately noticeably that a craft was incoming. It reminded me of the scene just over half way in the movie The Lost World (Jurassic Park) in which an Ingen ship containing a T-Rex was headed for the dock in San Diego, only for it to sail at full speed into the pontoon. I suppose the hovercraft did collide with land, in a control manner, but none of its crew had inexplicably been eaten by a dinosaur that was still contained within the ship’s hold. Our crossing wasn’t as smooth as it could have been and I suspect that sitting in the middle section of seats would make turbulence a little less obvious. I used an app on my phone to triangulate our position using GPS and thus calculate our speed – we were attaining 22mph for much of the trip.

Upon arrival at Ryde Hoverport, literally sandwiching the Island Line with the bus station, the lack of trains was evident as the railhead looked rusty. Crossing a footbridge was the obvious way to reach the bus station, from where the replacement bus departed. This would also have been required had our final leg been undertaken on the forthcoming ‘484s’. A lengthier route is possible for those unable to manage steps, using the small coach park.

It wasn’t immediately clear from where the replacement bus left, though I assumed it was the Xelabus-liveried Scania N94UD/East Lancs in the corner. A trip to the bus station enquiry office bore fruit as I was informed by the lady there that the Xelabus ‘decker was indeed the rail replacement service, and she also directed me to the enormous box of timetable booklets for the Southern Vectis operation during the summer period. This booklet was instrumental in planning our short break here and it is clear that Southern Vectis ‘gets it’, and is willing to reintroduce printed timetables en mass, despite the manner in which this has been treated during the pandemic.

Only the Centrebus fleet name from above the door had been removed (and not very well at that); the one above the driver's cab was still extant

A collection of drivers had gathered around the front of the Xelabus and we were directed on board. The bus left a couple of minutes late and operated via St John’s Road, the next stop along the Island Line, from where an old 1938 Stock train could be seen alongside a D-Stock (Class 484). Smallbrook Junction isn’t served by the replacement bus – a shame since this is a very convenient connection for the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. We alighted in Sandown some distance from the station: our driver confirmed this was the stop because reaching the station was too tight for a full-size bus. This did us a favour as we had less far to walk to the hotel.

All in all our entire journey took under 6 hours, undoubtedly aided by the very efficient connections at Portsmouth and Ryde; I was mindful that it wouldn’t have taken much to significantly extend the journey time.

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The Needles Landmark Attraction has a bus turning circle that also acts as the terminus for Services 7 & 12, with the Needles Breezer and the Island Coaster passing through. Assistance is on hand in the form of staff employed by the attraction as traffic became hellishly bad

Returning some days later saw us board one of the ex-Centrebus Scania ‘deckers, operated by Portsmouth City Coaches, on the rail replacement bus service from Sandown Broadway to Ryde bus station. This bus was atrocious to travel in – there was no sponge in the seats, cloth directly covered plastic. I did muse just which was more uncomfortable, my 2005 journey aboard a 1938 Stock or this journey. I think it was a tie. We headed directly to the Hovercraft terminal and saw Solent Flyer depart seconds after Island Flyer arrived. Two departures per hour were timetabled, though no sooner had we arrived in the terminal than we were ushered to Island Flyer (having shown our tickets) as it was ready to depart. We left eight minutes after the previous departure, with 19 on board, and it became apparent that Hovertravel had effectively suspended its scheduled timetable and were running both craft to and fro in order to meet demand, which appeared to be from the mainland to the Island. Around five minutes out from Southsea, Solent Flyer could be seen headed back to the Island fully loaded and upon our arrival there were plenty waiting to board.

Leaving Southsea Hoverport, access to the Hoverbus service is located immediately outside. Departures claim to tie-in with hovercraft arrivals, but since craft were running as required this wasn’t strictly true. But having saw awaiting departure for just two minutes, the engine started and we were off towards Portsmouth City Centre. We could have left at The Hard Interchange, adjacent to Portsmouth Harbour station, as this was the first station on our next journey, but we stayed on to Portsmouth & Southsea, so we could undertake the full, circular route. Our SWR Class 444 to Waterloo was correctly formed of two units and the journey was straightforward and we arrived in London on time. Our Underground trip to King’s Cross was diverted via the Hermanos Columbian coffee shop in London Victoria, from where, rather than board another Tube, we caught a 390 bus bound for Archway, alighting outside St. Pancras. How long has it been since Service 73 was curtailed to terminate at Oxford Circus? We boarded a Lincoln-bound Azuma and the pre-booked seats system went as smooth as possible.

***

A number of Southern Vectis's vehicles are blue with Vectis Blue fleet names, that seem to suggest their use is more for the southern routes around the coast. This was out first bus of the holiday, to The Needles from Sandown

While staying on the Isle of Wight, we made a number of trips, visiting many locations. From a bus perspective we made use of the thrice-daily, closed-top Island Coaster service, some of whose bus stops displayed Island Breezer, implying that in times past this route was topless. The route links Ryde with Yarmouth in a clockwise fashion, calling at Sandown, Shanklin, Ventnor and The Needles and offered, as its page in Southern Vectis’s timetable booklet suggested, stunning views of the island coastline. Hills are aplenty, especially down to Shanklin seafront and seemingly from all directions into Ventnor. 

The Needles Breezer at journey's end in Yarmouth

We caught the Needles Breezer from The Needles Landmark Visitor Centre up to the Needles Battery and it’s quite a journey. To my regret and eternal shame, this open-top route had never featured on my radar. From the Visitor Centre, the route uses a bus-only road and negotiates two hair-pin bends to reach the top of the outcrop, at which the new Battery is located and from where you can walk down to the iconic former Battery and see up close the multiple rocks jutting off the mainland into the sea. The Needles Breezer’s route starts in Yarmouth and undertakes a one-way route to the Needles Visitor Centre; having then completed the most interesting section, buses return to Yarmouth via a more linear route. Automated announcements are made on board. Three buses appeared to work the half-hourly service.

The other open-top route, the Downs Breezer, takes in a large circular route from Ryde to Sandown, heading anti-clockwise inland and across the Downs, offering spectacular views of the Island’s largest hills. Very comprehensive automated commentary is offered, and all manner of details of the Island’s history are given – some aspects are not for the faint-hearted. Unlike all the other routes we used, the Down’s Breezer has a serious problem with punctuality, seemingly always fifteen minutes later by Sandown. From here it heads north to Ryde via the coast, taking in the north west coastline.

Aboard the Downs Breezer heading from Sundown to Ryde

We used some standard routes, generally operated by ADL Enviro400s and Scania double-deckers, from Newport to Sandown (Service 8, whose next stop announcements stated a bus stop called Hairpin Bend (it was a rather tight corner!)), Yarmouth to Newport (Service 7) and Ryde to Newport via Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor (Service 3). The latter was of most interest as it appeared to be the most spectacular in terms of hills and bends. Heading north from Ventnor to Newport Service 3 takes in a number of hairpin bends on steep hills, one having a dip immediately before it, necessitating the driver to counter-intuitively reduce speed to prevent the bus grounding, then being left to floor it from an almost-standing start. The bus kicked down impressively, giving the impression it was offering all it could in first gear and we ascended the hill without issue. 

One of the most frequent routes is Service 9, linking Ryde with Newport every 10 minutes

Meeting buses coming in the opposite direction is likely to cause problems, as standard routes operate every 30 minutes. From Newport do you find the most frequent services, to Cowes (Service 1) and Ryde (Service 9) running every 10 minutes.

There are a few, newer Enviro400MMCs in operation, this being allocated to what was one of my favourite inland routes, Service 3, seen at Ryde bus station

Body damage seemed minimal, which genuinely surprised me. I suppose you get used to the terrain and topography, but even so there is clearly an additional layer to skill required to undertake these routes on a daily basis.

Everything slows when a bus meets oncoming traffic, including this route that has a white line down the middle

The Southern Vectis timetable book offered full details of the network’s Rover tickets. There are two types – one excluding the Breezer open-toppers and one including them. I opted for a 48-hour ticket inclusive of the Breezers, and since my children are under 10, it was cheaper to buy theirs individually, rather than a Group ticket. £16 adult and £8 child for 48 hours’ travel on all Southern Vectis routes seemed decent value for money and the 48-hour period was specifically that; we bought ours on Monday at 0904 and ticket expiry stated Wednesday at 0903, technically allowing more than 48-hour use provided you boarded your final bus before the time was up. I purchased from the driver who dutifully laminated them each in a wallet. It is possible to purchase the full range of Southern Vectis tickets via the company’s mobile app.

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