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Return to the Isle of Wight


The mere few miles of Solent waters separating Hampshire and the Isle of Wight starts the journey to an island where Queen Victoria spent much of her widowhood in isolation, feel like moving to a foreign land.  Brian Spencer took the opportunity of renewing his love for the island when he and his wife joined one of Matlock based Slack’s Coaches tours.

Having spent a few years living near Winchester in the past, where I was able to join my sailing friend Terry on day jaunts around the Solent, dodging massive tankers on their way to Esso’s Fawley refinery – they never seemed to remember the rule about steam giving way to sail!  This time we took a more leisurely route by way of Red Funnel Ferries, past a clutch of monstrous cruise liners.  

The last time I visited the island was planned to coincide with a few hours pottering about on the water.  Unfortunately I hadn’t taken any notice of the weather, after all it looked quite fine when I joined the Portsmouth to Ryde ferry.  Things began to change rapidly as we left harbour and the ferry tried to copy some nautical jig; up down, side to side, the boat never seemed to know which way it should be heading.  Terry’s first words when I set foot on solid earth were some of the best I have ever heard, they were: ‘it’s a bit too rough for my little boat, so I suggest we go for a walk instead’.  A walk on Tennyson Down (the poet spent his holidays on the island), seemed an excellent alternative, especially when I found a huge ring of blue caps, a mushroom favoured by Nottingham folk, but not apparently by passing walkers; all I could hear was the one word ‘poisonous’.  As a result I had no qualms in filling my rucksack with the delicious fungi which kept us going for months.

The land to the west of Tennyson Down narrows to the awe inspiring Needles, a place where many a small boat has come to grief.  During that last visit to the island, due to the occasional ‘Blue Streak’ rocket whizzing out from trial launching pads high above the Needles, a close view of these attractive chalk stacks was strictly out of bounds.  However, since Britain’s love affair with space flight was abandoned, the land immediately to the east of the Needles is now owned by the National Trust.  We took a short stroll along the cliff-edge path before going for a look at Alum Bay and its famous coloured sands where a chair lift now takes the strain of climbing up and down the steep path.  During the Napoleonic Wars and even as far back as Henry VIII’s time, the Isle of Wight being strategically placed across the mouth of the Solent became a land-based gun-ship.  Remains of Prime Minister Lord Palmerston’s folly (the guns were never fired in anger) line the cliff tops near that more modern folly, the rocket launching pads.

Slack’s coach drivers are a knowledgeable lot.  We had met Steve before and knew we could trust him to find the sort of place his passengers would enjoy. Everywhere we stopped was conveniently close to somewhere new to explore.  From Alum Bay we were dropped off right next to Yarmouth, where the sturdy RNLI rescue lifeboat was ready and waiting to rush off at a moment’s notice.  Yarmouth Castle was one of Henry VIII’s strongholds, its guns could blast away at any French privateer trying to sneak past.  Considering its age, the tiny castle still looks ready to mount its cannons.  As a plus to our visit to Yarmouth, we found a perfect little pub down one of the streets leading to the marina.

We stayed at the Trouville in Sandown, a sea front hotel with only a narrow strip of road between it and the sandy beach. As usual with a Slack’s tour, everything at the hotel was just right – pleasant staff, excellent food and rooms with a view out to sea where all manner of shipping waited patiently to nip up the Solent and into dock.  Our stay coincided with the annual scooter rally, when the promenade became a similar version of Matlock Bath, but with smaller bikes.  Any concerns about ‘mods and rockers’ rioting were soon dispelled when we realised that the polite middle aged riders were probably the grandsons of those mods and rockers of the late fifties.

Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert had Osborne House built to his design.  It was here she came out of her lengthy widow-hood, helped by Scotsman John Brown.  This was our only disappointment.  We would have liked to combine a trip to Cowed with a private visit to Osborne House, but due to Covid restrictions, only pre-booked visits can be made just now. Fortunately both Sheila and I have been there before, but maybe next time, who knows.  We were able to enjoy an afternoon in Ryde as a pleasant alternative.  The place is an unspoilt Victorian gem, everything one could wish for in a holiday resort, sandy beach, a long pier and carefully tended municipal flower beds and children’s play parks and, not a single kiss-me-quick hat or candy floss stall anywhere.

Godshill Model Village, where all miniature houses are models of actual buildings

Although it wasn’t on the itinerary, we both wanted to see the Roman Villa at nearby Brading.  It must be thirty years since I first saw it.  Then it was the centre of an archaeological dig busy discovering the beautiful mosaics the Romans used before carpets were invented.  Now the villa’s main rooms and other features are protected within a light catching, airy museum.  Nothing has been removed from the time when archaeologists ranging from John Philip Munns (1809 – 1864), who first found the villa, to modern explorers still discovering wonders beneath surrounding fields.  We were enthralled by mosaics, ranging from portraits of Roman gods such as Orpheus and angry looking Medusa with her head dress of snakes, to hard fighting gladiators.  Probably the oddest of the multitude of people and gods is the mosaic featuring Gallus, the cock-headed man.  Experts are uncertain about just what he represents; one suggestion is that he is the gladiator trainer known as lanister, or venator, a hunter of wild animals.  This was an important role, as the task of a venator was trading in exotic beasts from North Africa, captured to fight in amphitheatres on special days.  In the field outside the modern entrance, a small formal garden displays flowers and herbs that would have grown nearby in Roman times.  It is approached by way of a Nymphaeum, a small decorative pool, believed to be a source of healing. And of course there is the one thing no Roman villa should be without – a hypocaust – underfloor central heating, something we have only recently come to think of as a ‘good idea’, almost 2000 years after the wealthy Roman first built his place in the English sun.

Godshill is a popular village on the ‘must visit list’.  Frequently these places are full to bursting with cheap nick-knack shops and hot dog stands, but fortunately this is not so in the case of Godshill.  While there are a couple of very pleasant pubs and the odd ice cream seller, the main reason, at least for me, was Godshill model village. Dating from 1952, it is a perfect reproduction of many of Godshill’s dwellings, including the local school, the cricket field and church where a tiny couple are having their wedding photograph taken.  Diminutive bonsaied trees carefully pruned by a small dedicated team of gardeners who also keep the rest of the layout and its winding paths in totally immaculate condition.

The beautiful sea views all around the island

Despite it being bank holiday weekend, our journey back to Matlock went like clockwork, even allowing time to make Steve’s official rest break in Broadway, the popular Cotswold village.


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