It provided a retreat for Queen Victoria and now Peter McNerney is royally charmed by the Isle of Wight.
Had the royal baby and our new heir to the throne, Prince George of Cambridge, been born in the mid 19th-century he’d now be getting use to waking up on an island well away from the hurly burly of Victorian London. A British island that to this day has no connecting bridge or tunnel and yet is only a few miles off the mainland.
His forebears, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, may not have had to face the phalanx of paparazzi that today’s royals endure, but one place they could get away from it all was their beloved summer retreat complete with its own private beach, Osborne House.
Built in the style of an Italian renaissance palace it offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of Britain’s longest serving monarch. Perhaps the most poignant moment is when you enter the bedroom where the 81-year-old Queen died in 1901.
On the beach at Osborne you can see Victoria’s bathing machine from where she could discreetly enter the water. From there she could gaze across the Solent, little knowing that some 150 years later ferries would carry thousands of passengers and vehicles across every day.
Even though one of those journeys, the Red Jet foot passenger ferry from Southampton, only takes around half an hour over the water, there’s a sense of “going away”. As the southern coastline of England recedes the island looms before you.
You can travel by hovercraft or car ferry to an island that’s some 23 miles by 13 miles, but should you leave the car behind, there are plenty of buses and taxis to ensure you get to where you want to go. The only difficulty might be knowing where to start. Every corner of this diamond-shaped gem has something to see and do.
At Ventnor the clean sandy beach is ideal for families, with hotels, guest houses, bars and restaurants just a sandcastle’s throw away. Among them is the Waterfront Inn, where live music adds to the holiday ambience. A short distance away is the charming Steephill Cove. A narrow path leads down to a small beach and a couple of cafés where you can sample the freshest crab sandwiches you’re ever likely to eat.
Back in Ventnor, prepare to be delighted by the Botanic Gardens. The microclimate allows an impressive range of sub-tropical and exotic plants to grow unrivalled by anything else in the UK. There’s even a plant that would have been around at the time of the dinosaurs. They may have been extinct for millions of years but at the Dinosaur Isle museum in Sandown you can see how and why these terrifying creatures were calling the island home long before Victoria and Albert turned up.
The island’s geology means this is one of the best places on earth to discover dinosaur fossils. However, if rooting around for old bones isn’t your idea of fun then you can, in a virtual sense, go walking with dinosaurs, providing you download the island’s amazing dinosaur app. Details can be found at www.visitisleofwight.co.uk.
For my stay I based myself in the heart of the island at Rookley Country Park. You can choose from a selection of cottages, caravans or even pitch a tent or park up a tourer. Set around a picturesque fishing lake, Rookley has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, along with a full range of entertainment. You could happily stay on site all day or from its central location head out to discover more about an island the Romans called “Vectis”.
If history floats your boat (and there are plenty of those on view!) the Roman villa at Brading won’t disappoint. A modern visitor centre now showcases the artefacts and floor mosaics unearthed at the site.
History was made on the island in Victoria’s twilight years when a certain Italian called Marconi set up what he described as the world’s “first permanent wireless station” at the Needles. A memorial stone marks the site that at the time drew scientists from around the world to marvel.
Talk to the locals or “caulkheads” as they are colloquially known and the prospect of a physical connection to the “overlanders” via a bridge or tunnel sparks a healthy debate. In the current economic climate it’s unlikely, but who knows how Prince George will arrive should he ever wish to see his ancestor’s favourite holiday home?
If Dad’s involved he could be landing by helicopter on the lawns of Osborne. I somehow think Queen Victoria would be amused.
Peter McNerney travelled to the Isle of Wight on a Red Jet Ferry from Southampton
prices and times at www.redfunnel.co.uk/redjet
Accommodation courtesy of www.rookleycountrypark.co.uk
Full details about the Island can be found at www.visitisleofwight.co.uk