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Laid back is also my initial impression of this island. On our journey to the south-eastern corner, I’ve sensed a distinctive 1970s feel about the place. When I mention this to Archie, a Scotsman who we meet later in our trip, he laughs and says: “It’s more like the ‘50s in parts”.

It’s at Godshill that I find the first of the quaint thatched cottages that I’ve seen in the postcards. That other ubiquitous postcard scene, the cottages of Winkle Street, is close enough to one of our bases at Newbridge to be able to walk. ‘Just as well, as parking is very limited.


At Seaview Wildlife Encounter, the tiny otters are named after members of the Rat Pack. We can only watch them being fed as they have very sharp teeth and even stronger jaws, but we actually get to feed the penguins. There’s a lot of shrieking from families and splashing from the penguins as they leap up to catch the fish we throw. Sophie’s extremely taken with the wallabies, who love her stroking them in their walk-in enclosure.

At sunset, we walk around the coast from Seaview towards Ryde. The ambience is suddenly shattered by the racket of a hovercraft skimming across the Solent. We’re standing opposite the easily recognisable Spinnaker Tower and it feels distinctly odd to be getting such a different view of this Portsmouth landmark to the more familiar one from a cross-channel ferry.

Park Resorts Lower Hyde, where we’re staying for the first half of our trip, offers entertainment and activities and has indoor and outdoor (in season) pools. We can walk to the moss-covered ravine of Shanklin Chine from Lower Hyde. Whilst Sophie explores winding paths which lead through the lush greenery down to the beach or up to a scenic viewpoint across the channel, I’m intrigued by the pipe running down from the top of the steep chine to the sea. This, I discover in the little museum, is the PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) built during WWII to carry petrol to Cherbourg to supply the advancing Allies.

True to Dean’s promises, we discover many more interesting aspects of the island’s history. Within six miles of our second base at Yarmouth is Freshwater Bay. Walking the coast path above its dramatic chalk stacks becomes our favourite sunset stroll. From the top of the cliffs I can see Dimbola Lodge, the home of the celebrated Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. When Julia was 48, her daughter gave her a camera so that she might photograph her “solitude” at Freshwater”. Dimbola’s corridors are hung with pictures and exhibits. There are photographs of Charles Darwin and the poets Lord Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. Darwin recuperated here in 1868 whilst working On the Descent of Man and Tennyson was a close friend. Under each picture is a description of the models and the story behind the pictures. Fascinating stuff, but the views beyond the windows of Dimbola beckon…

You can walk the 3.5 miles from Dimbola around to The Needles headland or, if you park (charge) at Alum Bay, it’s a bracing and beautiful 20 minutes’ walk to get to The Needles Battery. I follow a spiral staircase down to a narrow whitewashed tunnel at the end of which are The Needles and the Needles lighthouse. This is as close as I can possibly get to these distinctive landmarks. I’m in an observation post built in 1899 to pick out by searchlight any enemy shipping trying to slip past. Above the headland I look across to the coast around Bournemouth about 13 miles away. In the other direction, 70 miles off, lies Cherbourg. At this point perhaps I should question whether I would rather be in France, but the answer is ‘no’. I’m rapidly being drawn in by the charm and character of the Isle of Wight and am beginning to think that Scotsman Archie, who has lived here for 18 years, hasn’t been exaggerating after all. In the Battery’s northern cell I can look back at Alum Bay. The area above it has been turned in to a major tourist attraction with cafés, rides and amusements and a chair-lift down to the famous sands of many colours. But it is the spectacular views that many people come here for.

Our visit to the island has coincided with an unseasonably warm spell, yet winds of over 100mph winds have been recorded at The Needles. We climb up the hill to the New Battery (free) and then head along the coast to the site where engines for the Black Knight and Black Arrow rockets were tested between 1956 and 1971. Some of the supports for the rockets remain and it is hard to equate this rather eerily-silent place with the chaos it would have been during those times.

More fascinating history emerges at Fort Victoria, now a country park. In some of the 21 casements in which artillery was once stored with which to defend the narrow Needles Passage there is now the Island Planetarium, an aquarium, Sunken Secrets exhibition and a café. The fortifications here have guarded the back door to the Solent since the early sixteenth century and look across to Hurst Castle on the spit opposite. The nearby castle at Yarmouth was built to protect the Yar estuary after France attacked the Isle of Wight in 1545. There’s not much left of the castle now, but the tiny town has many enticing pubs and a pier from which we can get a close-up of the ferries heading back to the mainland.

Robert Hooke, described as: ‘One of the most ingenious men who ever lived’ was born nearby. In the Island Planetarium, among the four shows a day and the exhibits about Apollo missions and life beyond Earth, is an equally fascinating exhibition about the man and his achievements. This is the man who designed the universal joint used in many forms of mechanical engineering, the spirit level and the compound microscope. On top of all that, he was also the surveyor of the City of London who planned the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire.


Queen Victoria is, without doubt, the island’s most famous former resident and we spend all day at the place she called a ‘paradise’ – Osborne House. As we glide through the lavishly-decorated rooms of the home where Victoria and Albert set about creating a private life for their family I begin to see Victoria as an entirely different character from the austere one I was schooled about. There are pictures of the monarch’s favourite dogs and horses in the Horn Room and we get an enchanting insight into the younger royals’ childhoods in the Swiss Cottage where they played.

It’s a huge old oak in Appley Park, in Ryde, that becomes a tree-climbing paradise for Sophie and her dad. They have to learn the ropes first, of course, but these are quickly mastered. As Sophie dangles 50 feet up she shouts; “It’s so much fun!” before relaxing in one of the hammocks, which are not quite so easy to get in to as you would think.

What isn’t difficult is finding fossils on Yaverland beach with paleantologist Alex from Dinosaur Isle at Sandown. We begin by trying to find dinosaur poo, which Alex says “looks pretty much like you would expect”. Sophie and the 20 or so others in our fossil walk party keep dashing back to Alex with their finds, which he patiently examines. There’s a ripple of excitement when we split open large mudstones to reveal dozens of tiny snail shells 120 million years old. We don’t unearth any more shark bones like the ones Alex had found the previous week, but someone does find some dino poo and Sophie picks up fossilised coral, sea sponge, mussel and clam shells. Before long we are looking at dinosaur toes in a foot cast under the cliffs, possibly those of an iguanodon. The walk with an expert is inspiring enough for us to have a fine collection of rocks rattling around in one of Roly’s compartments.


One evening we visited the Festival of Light at Robin Hill, near Newport (seasonal). The woods, water features and pagoda are lit with changing colours and a shadow theatre makes it even more magical. On our last afternoon we venture through the woods of the Mottisford Estate and stroll up past the long stone and on to the downs to take a lingering look at Freshwater Bay. It seems fitting to seal our memories of our time on the island with this spectacular view. By the time I’m back on the ferry to Portsmouth and heading out of Fishbourne, instead of St Malo, I’m not thinking of my next trip to France – but my return visit to the Isle of Wight.



IT’S ALL WIGHT!

WORDS: Helen Werin
PHOTOGRAPHY: Robin Weaver

Soon after we land on the Isle of Wight, we meet Dean, who works at the zoo in Sandown. “Just arrived?” he beams. He’s a terrific ambassador for the island. “People think that this is a small island, but the amount of history and things to do is incredible. Their jaws drop when they discover this!” he enthuses.
Dean’s words are very reassuring because I’ve had a bit of a pang on the ferry over from Portsmouth, heading across the Solent instead of in our ‘usual’ direction of France. But we’ve not come just for the island’s tourist attractions – ‘though our teenage daughter Sophie would like to think otherwise. I have rather romantic visions of walking cliff paths at sunset, wandering across windswept downs and along olde-worlde streets of thatched cottages. I also want to see if the view from Queen Victoria’s family home at Osborne House really is as reminiscent of the Bay of Naples as Prince Albert proclaimed.
Even so, The Isle of Wight Zoo becomes our first stop. The zoo is within the ruins of a Victorian Fort built to guard the coast and we park outside overlooking the magnificent stretch of Yaverland beach. Sophie’s read that the zoo owners used to walk their tiger cubs along this beach. We won’t be seeing that today, but we do get to meet a couple of charming old tigers, Asia and Diamond. This pair have been hand-reared by the zoo’s director and we watch them nuzzling up to her like a couple of big softies. It’s immediately apparent that Asia is very much the boss with a bit of a jealous streak and Diamond is very laid back.

INFORMATION

* visitisleofwight.co.uk

* For Goodleaf Tree Climbing; goodleaf.co.uk


WHERE WE STAYED

* Park Resorts Lower Hyde offers a choice of lodges, caravan holiday homes and chalets in which to stay, plus entertainments, pools, bar, restaurant, take-away and shop. www.park-resorts.com

* The Orchards Holiday Park has a range of comfortable holiday caravan accommodation, plus indoor and outdoor pools, coffee bar, take-away, shop and games room. orchards-holiday-park.co.uk

Freshwater Bay

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