Slip back in time on the Isle of Wight, whose villages have a vintage flavour and whose chalk downs and stunning coast were beloved of Queen Victoria
It takes less than an hour to reach the Isle of Wight from the English mainland, but as you emerge from the ferry you travel back half a century. Long a favourite holiday destination for Brits, this diamond-shaped island in the Solent – some 23 miles across by 13 north to south – is a place of gentle, sedate charms; almost determinedly old-fashioned.
Closely resembling England’s south coast, the Isle of Wight has the cheerful beach resorts, quaint villages, fossil-studded cliffs, chalky downs and dramatic seascapes – but all on a miniature scale. Its unspoilt charm was officially recognised in June 2019 when the island was crowned a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve: one of the world’s best places for managed landscapes, where human activity doesn’t interfere with nature. A winning combination of stunning scenery, rare wildlife and locally produced food, together with heritage sights and royal connections, make the Isle of Wight a rewarding holiday destination, reached in as little as two and a half hours from London.
Foot passenger ferries deposit you either in Ryde on the east coast or in Cowes to the north. The latter, a well-to-do town that’s awash with yachties in Cowes Week (8-15 August), is right next to the island’s biggest heritage attraction: Osborne House, the palatial holiday home from which Queen Victoria ruled an empire for over 50 years,
in between dips from her own private beach.
For the queen, Osborne represented a rare opportunity to get away from it all and escape the pressures of court life. “It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot,” wrote the queen. “We can walk anywhere without being followed or mobbed.” An Italianate mansion in primrose yellow overlooking lavish terraced gardens, Osborne offers a unique insight into the private tastes of Victoria and Albert, their values and their passions. Only ever lived in by the queen and her family, it remains a time capsule of those far-off years, and is dotted with possessions offering glimpses of family intimacy.
Of course, the queen was on duty even when away, and during the day the royal couple sat side by side at twin desks in Victoria’s sunny sitting room, working through the despatch boxes, a steady stream of which arrived from London via the queen’s messengers. But above all it was a house built for relaxation, entertainment and family fun.
Victoria and Albert were devoted to their nine children, and the nursery was sited immediately above their private apartments to allow easy access. The room still holds a row of cribs and cradles, sketches of family pets by the royal couple, a multitude of photographs of pudgy babies, and a collection of their hands and feet that the queen had sculpted in marble.
Victoria always made sure she was at Osborne for her birthday on 24 May, when certain traditions were observed: the day started with a band playing outside the queen’s bedroom window, and after dressing in a new frock she was greeted at the foot of the stairs by her children carrying nosegays, after which the family exchanged presents in the dedicated ‘present room’.
On Victoria’s birthday in 1854 the children received a special gift: the Swiss Cottage, an Alpine-style chalet constructed in the grounds. It was a life-sized playhouse in which the children could learn cookery and housekeeping, and entertain their parents. The children were given their own vegetable plots, selling the produce to Albert at commercial rates as an exercise in market gardening.
A wooded path leads to a private sandy beach, much loved by the children. Prince Albert was a firm believer in the benefits of sea bathing, and devised a floating bath moored out to sea in which his children learnt to swim. For Victoria, a carriage-like bathing machine was constructed (“I bathed in the sea for the first time”, she wrote in her diary. “I thought it delightful until I put my head under the water, when I thought I should be stifled.”) It still stands on the original stone rails, down which it trundled into the sea.
The Isle of Wight has a strong royal pedigree. Due south of Osborne at the heart of the island, Carisbrooke Castle enjoys a scenic hilltop perch near the island capital Newport. A fort has existed here since the time of Edward the Confessor. It was said that whoever ruled the castle, ruled the island, and it was home to medieval lords, 16th-century captains and from the 18th century onwards, the island’s governors, including Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter Princess Beatrice.
The castle’s biggest claim to fame is that it was here, following the English Civil War, that Charles I was imprisoned in 1647. The king was well treated, his captors thoughtfully turning the outer bailey into a bowling green for his enjoyment. After a bungled escape attempt – humiliatingly, Charles became wedged in the bars of his window – they were less accommodating. The little museum here holds some poignant memorabilia, including the king’s crumpled linen nightcap, worn on the (presumably sleepless) night before his execution on 30 January 1649. Back on the coast, where the craggy cliffs of the west and south meet, the Needles are the island’s most breathtaking seascape: a series of jagged chalk stacks piercing the blue waters like the spiny back of a slumbering dinosaur. A hair-raising chair-lift that creaks its way down the cliff face offers the best views, or you could take in the panorama from Tennyson Down, a chalk ridge that rises to almost 500 feet above sea level. Named after Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate, who lived at nearby Farringford House for nearly forty years, it was a favourite spot for bracing walks. According to the poet, the air here was worth “sixpence a pint”.
The south of the island is known for its mild and sunny microclimate, and two coastal gardens here reap the benefits. Rambling around an Elizabethan manor at Mottistone is a magical garden that mixes English country exuberance with colourful Mediterranean plantings; while the exotic blooms of Ventnor Botanic Garden sun themselves beneath the natural windbreak of St Boniface Down. Giant echiums, red hot pokers and spectacular agapanthus thrive in this balmy spot. Ventnor itself was once a mecca for sun-starved Victorians and, like pretty Shanklin further east with its thatched cottages and tearooms, still exudes the retro seaside charm that is so typical of the Isle of Wight. After a stroll along Ventnor’s promenade, you can follow in the footsteps of Queen Victoria and take afternoon tea at the Royal Hotel, or get your thrills at Blackgang Chine, Britain’s oldest amusement park. Built into a craggy gorge in the 1840s to house a blue whale skeleton, its endearingly homespun feel still persists to this day.
The highlight of the east coast is the Edwardian village of Seaview, whose buckets-and-spades beach is busy with rockpooling children in the summer months. A few miles inland, the gleaming engines of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway puff and whistle through rolling countryside, stopping at sleepy rural stations and offering yet another chance – the Isle of Wight is generous with these – to journey gently back in time.