Isle of Wight

    Isle of Wight

    Mari Nicholson

    Popularised as a holiday resort after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert established their island retreat at Osborne House in Cowes, the Isle of Wight remains a diamond of the Solent, with old English charm and a surprising story.

    Popularised as a holiday resort after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert established their island retreat at Osborne House in Cowes, the Isle of Wight remains a diamond of the Solent, with old English charm and a surprising story.


    “The air here is worth 6d a pint,” was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s verdict on the Isle of Wight. Today, this historic haven off England’s south coast retains a Victorian air – a legacy of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who lived an enjoyable family life at their Italianate villa, Osborne House at Cowes.


    Osborne House remains much as it was in the mid 19th century, the interior still adorned with a selection of the original furniture from cradles to desks, casts of the young royals’ hands, photographs, china and plate. Very much a family home, it is one of English Heritage’s most important royal residences.


    The royal residency accelerated the island’s development from retreat to resort as nobility, writers, poets and philosophers also took the steamer across the waters to the diamond shaped island in the Solent. “This island is a little paradise!” wrote Karl Marx to Freidrich Engels in 1874 from his convalescent home in Ventnor, and Charles Dickens was moved to write from his home in Bonchurch “It is the prettiest place I ever saw in my life.”


    Thackery, Swinbourne, Longfellow, Keats, Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Turgenev, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf were others who were seduced by the island’s charms. Victoria’s favoutite poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, bought Farringford House in Freshwater where he entertained dazzling figures like Garibaldi and Mazzini and was a frequent guest at Osborne House. It is said that he composed The Charge of the Light Brigade while walking on the coastal path behind his house – a walk that offers spectacular vistas to Freshwater Bay and the Needles, where the Old Battery, a cliff top fort built in the 1860s, is sited. The Needles, a series of chalk stacks rising defiantly from the sea and overlooked by a headland lighthouse, can be viewed from a tunnel inside the Battery.


    After the Romans the Saxons arrived in AD560, but post-Norman Conquest the island was governed by independent Lords for two centuries until it was bought by Edward I in 1293, since when it has been part of mainland England.


    From fishing and farming the island developed boat-building, sail making and related crafts. During and after the second world war its industrial history included the manufacture of the flying boats, the world’s first hovercraft, the testing and development of Britain’s space rockets and in the late 1960s, the development and manufacture of The Islander, the best-selling commercial aircraft produced in Western Europe.


    Nowadays it lives mainly on tourism, Cowes Week Regatta and the Music Festivals that punctuate the season. Although it may never again play host to the reigning monarchs of four nations as it did in 1909, the royally rich with their billion pound yachts flock to the island during Cowes Week. Thousands more come for the Isle of Wight Festival and Bestival, and the Jazz Festival gains fans every year.


    Locomotives that may have serviced the original railways can be seen at the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, some dating back to 1876. The Museum houses vintage signalling equipment, station signs, loco nameplates and railway artefacts and visitors can watch the heritage stock being restored in the workshop.


    As befits an island, there are delightful beaches all round and dinosaur fossils are regularly dug up at low tide. The magnificent crescent of Sandown Bay, which incorporates Sandown and Shanklin, is hugely popular not only for its sandy beach. Located on the Esplanade facing the sea at Sandown is the island’s Zoo and Tiger Sanctuary, where rescued tigers are rehabilited and just a few paces down from the zoo is the custom built Dinosaur Museum with its renowned dinosaur collection.


    Away from Shanklin beach is the picture postcard thatched roofs of the Old Village and the quarter mile long Shanklin Chine, a deep narrow ravine leading to the sea, formed over the last 10,000 years by water cutting through soft sandstone. It is unique in the quality of its flora and fauna – a cool, other-worldly place. While here, look out for the sign designating the place where the PLUTO (Pipe Line Under the Ocean), one of the great successes of the Second World War in transporting petrol to France for the invasion of Normandy, ran from the Chine to Cherbourg. A video of the story can be seen at the Heritage Centre.


    Brading also once had a seaside and was a thriving seaport before the marshes were drained and reclaimed in 1881 to enable the railway to progress. The town’s history can be seen in the Norman church and the well preserved 16th and 17th century houses in the High Street and it has one of the finest 3rd century Roman villas in the country, with beautifully preserved mosaic floors and a charming Roman garden.


    The Romans had their villas, but castles were what the defenders of the island needed and Carisbrooke Castle, from which Charles I attempted to escape in 1647 before he was transported to London and beheaded, with its stark grey stone exterior, its drawbridge and moat, is the most popular castle on the island, offering freedom to roam the interior, walk the battlements and visit the celebrated donkeys who draw the water from the well.

    The other fortress castle lies in the little town of Yarmouth, which was the first island settlement to be granted a royal town charter in 1135. The castle was built later, in 1547, as part of Henry VIII’s coastal defences. It offers magnificent views over the Solent.


    But if the island is about one thing it is about the sea and sailing, and the Sir Max Aitkin Maritime Museum in Cowes, housed in an 18th century sail maker’s loft, boasts a superb collection of nautical artefacts from items belonging to Nelson to figureheads and photos. The late Sir Max was a racing yachtsman, a powerboat pioneer and founder of the London Boat Show and his personal collection is well worth a visit.


    It is easy to see why Victoria and Albert fell in love with the Isle of Wight and why poets and writers found so much inspiration in the landscape. It still seduces.



    Leave a Reply