THERE WAS A TIME when one could take a train from London to Portsmouth, cross the Solent by ferry to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and then take another train from Ryde to Ventnor. This was before 1966 when the station at Ventnor was closed forever. A century earlier, in 1866, this station opened to rail traffic. The closure was part of an extensive plan (devised by Dr Richard Beeching [1913-1985]) to reduce Britain’s railway mileage.
The station, the southern terminus of the isle of Wight Railway, with its associated sidings was located on the site of an old quarry. It was almost completely surrounded by high cliffs. Trains reached it from Shanklin by emerging from a 1312-yard-long tunnel running beneath St Boniface Down. It must have been dramatic emerging from the tunnel to find oneself in the space surrounded by vertiginous rocky walls.
Today, the entrance to the tunnel, through which water pipes now run, is hidden by dense foliage. Nothing remains of the tracks, and only a small part of the former station building (ticket office etc.) remains. The space once occupied by the platforms and railway lines is now occupied by an assortment of buildings, comprising an industrial estate. Trains still run between Ryde and Shanklin, but Ventnor station has all but vanished.
FOR THOSE WHO DO NOT know, a gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow.
In 1851, Sir Thomas Brisbane (1773-1860), who gave his name to a city in Australia, donated a tall gnomon to the town of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. In sunny conditions, this object casts a shadow on a line marked on the pavement at noon GMT (1 pm BST). Sir Thomas had spent some time in Ventnor during the mid-19th century, and sadly his daughter Eleanor Australia MakDougall Brisbane died in Ventnor in 1852 at the young age of 29.
As we are discovering during our visit to the Isle of Wight, the sun does not always shine in Ventnor (or anywhere else on the island). Recognising this problem that renders the gnomon useless when the sun is not shining, the town erected a short clock tower near to the gnomon in 1870. This clock was rebuilt in 2001. It bears a plaque commemorating Fred Blake (1924-2001), who, along with his father (Adolphus) and grandfather (James), were: “… proud to maintain this barometer for over 120 years”.
We did not see the gnomon working because of cloudy weather conditions, and the two faces of the clocks displayed different times and neither of them appeared to be working. The barometer seemed to be working. It is curious features such as the gnomon that help make towns on the English coast endlessly fascinating.