It’s easy to get to the Isle of Wight, just drive onto the ferry at Portsmouth and enjoy the ride of an hour. There’s plenty to keep you busy on board, café, bar etc and the on-deck experience was exhilarating with a sea blue, you can see both mainland and the island at all time (weather permitting).
We lodged at the Barton Estate in a brilliantly refurbished chicken coop known as Lake Cottage. That makes it sound small, it wasn’t. Two vast rooms; the main bedroom and sitting room some 20 sq ft each, a 2nd bedroom and a large farmhouse kitchen that could accommodate at least a dozen around the table and a couple of bathrooms. On our arrival we found a very welcome Waitrose food pack with tea, coffee, milk, bread, butter and jam etc. Our view was over the lake with green all around. All one level (chickens were never good at stairs) it made for easy living with all the mod cons we could ask for. The log burner in the sitting room was a joy of an evening.
The Isle of Wight is, we discovered quite charming and beautiful. It’s a cliché but it’s like Britain in the 1950’s but in a good way. Independent shops, plenty of open countryside, not too much traffic on the roads and people who give you the time of day. There are also quite a few things worth doing and seeing on the island.
The Barton estate, which is mentioned in the Doomsday Book was once part of Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s Estate and winter holiday home from 1841 until she died in 1901. She had spent many happy times here as a child and grew to love the island. Subsequently Robert Stigwood owned the estate the Australian film producer and music impresario who brought Grease, Tommy and Evita to the silver screen. He chose well as it’s a secluded spot with plenty of privacy at the end of a long tree lined drive.
The island has always been a lure for the creative. The poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson lived there at Farringford House. Beautifully restored this 1802 Gothic grade I listed building hosts guided tours and is packed with stories from his life. The grounds are extensive too. Lewis Carol and Edward Lear were regular visitors. You get a real sense of Victorian life wandering through the house with the drawing room with its enormous fireplace where it is said that Tennyson gave poetry recitals to his guests.
There are plenty of good places to eat on the island (that are not stuck in the 1950’s)! We tried The Basque Kitchen in Cowes, which was packed with locals and visitors. The food is a hybrid of Spanish tapas and steaks. They have a refreshing gin menu, which I would recommend anyone to sample, the Imberico ham we had as a starter was impeccable. The tapas was tasty and generous, the black seafood on rice was a particular favourite of M’s. This is tip-top harbour restaurant that buzzes with friendly staff and satisfied customers.
Driving around the island it’s easy to see the draw for people seeking the quieter life. The rolling hills reminded me of the West Country, but of course it’s only a couple of hours from London. There are sleepy towns closed on Sundays, little cafés and teahouses offering fresh cakes and plenty of pubs and restaurants. The sea of course is never far away there are 57 miles of coast to choose from. It doesn’t take much more than half an hour to drive from one side to the other so it’s ideal for exploring.
Osborne House is open to the public and well worth seeing. An Italianate pile remodeled extensively between 1845 -1851 by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It is packed with paintings and sculptures collected by the royals. Often commissioned from well-known classical pieces they liked smaller copies made to adorn the house. All the art belongs to the royal collection. In 1891 The Durbar Room was added, an enormous dining room constructed in the Indian style. The walls are intricately carved from plaster designed by Lockwood Kipling whose son Rudyard wrote The Jungle Book and special wallpapers were created depicting ancient Indian scripture. After the queen’s death King Edward VIII who was not fond of it gave Osborne House to the nation. Since then it has been a convalescence home for WWI officers, in 1999 English Heritage took over and have embarked on a programme of restoration.
Our last cultural stop on the island was a personal journey, Dimbola Lodge, the home of Julia Margaret Cameron the pioneering Victorian photographer. Now a museum with many of her works hanging on the wall and other exhibitions including the Isle of Wight Pop Festival – great to see the acts who have performed over the years from Jimi Henrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones to Miles Davis, Paul McCartney and Blur to name a few. There is a little shop where you can buy Julia Margaret Cameron’s work in prints or collections in books. I find her work very truthful and almost haunting. She also mixed with the great and the good having Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, Charles Darwin and Edward Lear among her sitters. She carved a way for aesthetic beauty in her work and the field of photography. Emotion and composition were way ahead of its time, great for photographic enthusiasts and gallery goers alike.
We stayed with Classic Cottages who have 200 properties for rent on the Isle of Wight and many others across the UK.
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass