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Newtown - Nature Reserve and Ancient Borough

Discover the fascinating history of the island's former capital and the excellent birdlife on the salt marshes and creeks of the Newtown estuary.

Distance 3.5 miles (5.6km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 85ft (25m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Tracks, field paths, raised dykes and some roads, 4 stiles

Landscape Gently rolling farmland, woodland and salt marsh

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 29 Isle of Wight

Start/finish SZ 413894

Dog friendliness Keep dogs under control

Parking Shalfleet village car park, off A3054

Public toilets None on route

1 Turn left out of the car park, then right at the fork down Mill Road to pass Shalfleet Mill. Cross the footbridge and follow the path up through woodland to a metalled drive. Bear left and follow the drive to a road. Turn left and keep to the road for 200yds (183m) to a gate and permissive path on your left. Keep to the right-hand edge of two fields, parallel with the road, to a gate. Turn left, then left again along Town Lane, signed to Newtown. Cross the bridge at the head of Causeway Lake and take the path left over a stile. Walk along the edge of the tidal creek to a stile, then along the edge of Hay Meadow. Keep to the path as it bears right to a gate to join a tree-lined path leading into Newtown.

2 At the lane, keep ahead and follow it left to pass a parking area. Take the path through a gate beside the Old Coastguard Station. Beyond a further gate, keep to the left-hand edge of the meadow to a gate and follow the raised path alongside the estuary.

3 Continue to the sheds at Newtown Quay, then head inland across the narrow jetty to a gate. In a few paces turn left and follow the footpath towards the bird hide. Bear right inland to a drive and the lane. Turn left, cross the stile on your left and proceed behind the houses to a stile and lane. Turn right, pass the old town hall and follow the lane down to the bridge at Causeway Lake. From here retrace your steps back to Shalfleet Mill and the car park. An enjoyable extra mile (1.6km) can be added by following the footpath you'll see right at the end of Mill Lane. Walk along the track parallel with the tidal Shalfleet Lake to Shalfleet Quay for a different view of Newtown River and its tidal creeks.

Shalfleet developed where the Caul Bourne widens into a creek at the head of the Newtown estuary. Take a look at the church with its impressive, fort-like tower, built in the 11th century with 5ft (1.5m) thick walls and used as a refuge from French invaders during the 14th century, and stroll out to the small 17th-century quay, once busy with boats unloading coal or taking on corn and now popular with yachts and sailing dinghies.

The most ancient of the island boroughs, Francheville, as Newtown was once known, was the island's capital, being founded by the Bishop of Winchester in 1218. Situated on the Newtown River estuary, it developed into a major seaport, with great, masted ships dwarfing bustling quays and trade thriving with local salt and oysters. Its streets were designed on a grid system and their names recall the medieval merchants and craftsmen - Gold Street, Drapers Alley - although most are now only grassy lanes. All this changed in 1377 when the town was burnt down by a combined French and Spanish raid. It was never fully rebuilt, although the town hall was rebuilt in 1699 and until 1832 it returned two Members of Parliament.

Today, Newtown, which has no through traffic, is a tranquil place and best explored on foot. You can wander along a network of footpaths through the old streets and visit the beautifully restored Victorian church, and the isolated town hall where you can learn more about the history of this fascinating place.

Perhaps surprisingly, the windswept salt marshes and mudflats were only created in their present form as late as 1954, following a violent winter storm which breached the sea wall. Bordering shallow creeks and the estuary, it is a magical place, and a paradise for both birds and birdwatchers. Wildfowl and waders abound here. Oystercatchers and redshanks probe the mudflats for morsels, a variety of ducks dabble in the shallows, nesting gulls squabble on Gull Island, and common and little terns gracefully glide through the shimmering summer air, while flocks of geese wheel overhead in winter, and always and everywhere you will hear the evocative bubbling call of the curlew. For a small fee you can visit the bird reserve and watch from well positioned hides.

Where to eat and drink

The welcoming, 200-year-old New Inn at Shalfleet boasts flagstoned floors, a huge open fireplace, scrubbed pine tables, a good range of ales, and an interesting menu that specialises in fresh local fish. There's also a sheltered rear garden.

What to look for

Note the finely painted board or inn sign, featuring the arms of the former borough, above the doorway to a fine stone house called Noah's Ark in Newtown. Formerly the village inn, it is the village's oldest surviving building and surrendered its licence in 1916.

While you're there

Visit Newtown Old Town Hall. This small, brick and stone building was built in the 17th century and stands as a monument to Newtown's past eminence. It houses an exhibition depicting the famous Ferguson's Gang who restored the building before giving it to the National Trust, and a copy of ancient documents of this notorious 'Rotten' Borough.

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