I had heard of Isle of Wight way back in 1973 during my first visit to England. I was lunching with a Gujju friend, Ritesh at a small time restaurant somewhere in East London, where I was introduced to Maria, his British friend. During a casual chat I asked Maria about the place she belonged to. “arl ev wart” was her response. Not knowing what she said, I looked at Ritesh and he told me what she meant was “Isle of Wight”, an island off the coast of Portsmouth in South East England. She said something about the island in her thick cockney accent, I didn’t understand a world of which. Later on Ritesh told me that she was talking about the beautiful beaches and the heritage of the island, which was home to the poets Swinburne and Tennyson and to Queen Victoria.
Well, the idea of travelling to the Isle didn’t materialize during my sojourn of the seventies and subsequent three visits due to time constraints. However, during my stay in the U.K. in August, I was firm on doing three things – Scotland, Isle of Wight and The Oxford. Let’s start with the Isle of Wight.
Isle of Wight is one of the counties and the largest and second-most populous island in England. It is located in the English Channel about 6km (4miles) off the coast of Hampshire. The island is separated from the mainland by the Solent, a strait which is 20 miles long and varies in width between two and a half and five miles. You can reach the island either from Portsmouth to Fishbourne through a car/ passenger ferry, which takes around 45 minutes or from Portsmouth to Ryde by passenger catamaran, which takes about 22 minutes. Alternatively, you can take a car/passenger ferry from Lymington to Yarmouth, which takes around 40 minutes. You can also take a fast passenger ferry docking in West Cowes and a vehicle ferry in East Cowes, both from Southampton.
There are train and bus services from London to Portsmouth. You can also take a guided day return trip by luxury coach from London or get a tailor made customized tour of the island.
Though the isle of Wight is just 13 miles from north to south and 27 miles from east to west, for administrative purposes, it is divided into six small townships.
Townships – Principal attractions
North East : Ryde, Bembridge, Seaview and St. Helens
North : Cowes. East Cowes, Northwood, Thorness and Fishbourne
West : Freshwater, Totland, Alum Bay, Brighstone and Yarmouth.
South : Ventnor, Wroxall, Niton, Chale and Blackgang
East : Sandown, Shanklin, Yaverland, Brading and Lake
Central : Newport, Arreton, Godshill and Rookley
Tour of Isle of Wight
On the morning of August 23, I heard a gentle knock on the door and as expected, it was our friend, Bachitter Singh, punctual as usual with his endearing smile. We had a quick breakfast and started for Portsmouth, a distance of around 87 miles. It was a lovely sunny morning and with no prediction of rain or any other tricky London weather conditions, we were happy to be on the move. We took M4 (Motorway) and passing/bypassing through Heathrow, Slough, Reading, Bracknell, reached 20 miles short of Portsmouth, where we were confronted with some sort of traffic jam, with the vehicles in front of us just crawling. I was constantly looking at my watch and the GPS on Singh’s cell phone and he was patting my thigh, assuring that we will be there safely. With the passing of every minute, I was becoming restless and had almost given up the hopes of reaching the Isle. A few paces ahead, we came to know the reason for the slow movement of cars. We saw a small truck loaded with fruits and vegetables lying half-turned after hitting the road divider. A BMW car with tilted car bumper was standing close by, probably banged by the truck.
It was heartening to see the traffic spreading to the 3 lanes and Singh took the opportunity of using his driving skills (he was a driving instructor with The Royal Mail during his hay days) and I could see the speedometer touching 140 km per hour. We had a sigh of relief seeing the Portsmouth Town at a distance. We entered the port and reached the Wight Link station. The security staff, after checking our credentials, asked us to rush as the boat was almost about to leave. Our car was perhaps the last to enter the ferry vehicle parking and we headed towards the spacious passenger lounges on the upper deck. The first thing we did after settling was to head for the café-bar and pick up a drink, a richly deserved chilled beer.
The Solent was very quiet and we could see small boats and a couple of catamarans sailing at a distance. The observation decks gave an awesome sea and we could catch a glimpse of isle of Wight remotely.
The boat reached the Fishbourne Pier five minutes ahead of the schedule and since we were one of the last entrants, we were the first to exit the deck. Fishbourne is a little settlement nestled on the eastern bank of Wooton Creek. There are a few houses stretching down from the road towards the sea, but the main focus is on the large ferry terminal that delivers vehicles from Portsmouth.
Leaving Fishbourne, we were on the way to Ryde, a seaside resort facing the Solent. Ryde is the largest town on the island and it stands next to a golden sandy beach which goes on for miles. On the way we passed through a couple of old churches, St. James’s Church and perhaps St. Paul’s Church.
Ryde is fronted by a large expanse of sand at low tides, which makes it a popular place for visitors in the summer months. The sands also led to the construction of the three long piers that dominate the seafront. A long promenade runs eastwards from the town, passing Puckpool Point before finally ending in Seaview.
We parked the car outside the Seaview water front. Singh took out couple of pints of Beck’s beer from his basket and handed over one to me. While he was changing into his swimming gear, I sat on a bench in the adjoining lawn. I was sipping the beer when suddenly a football hit me on my tummy. Four boys were playing and inadvertently made a shot in the wrong direction. The boys came apologizing and retrieved the ball. Father of one of the boys came slowly towards me to check whether I was hurt and regretted the incidence and asked me “Sir, are you from India”. Surprised, I asked him how he guessed. His reply was simple “I have worked in New Delhi for three years and I can recognize an Indian from a distance” We had a hearty laugh and parted our ways.
Accessible by foot, car or public transport, the six miles of beautiful golden sands extend from Seaview all the way round to Ryde Pier. A level walk runs between Ryde and Puckpool which passes cafes, gardens and children play area. Continue along the seafront and you will discover the imposing Appley Tower and further along this walk you will reach the Victorian Fortification Battery at Puckpool Park.
The beaches are sandy and extend far out to sea at low tide, though a point of caution here. Care should be taken, especially with the children, as the tide can come in very quickly. Lifeguards are based on the Ryde beach with safety equipment, but still personal care is foremost.
Is there a better way to spend an afternoon enjoying the golden sunshine, than sharing a picnic with friends and family in a beautiful spot like this? Building sandcastle, digging moats and collecting shells are just a selection of uses for these essentials of the beach.
Ryde hosts some of the biggest events that take place annually. Every August bank holiday thousands of scooter enthusiast descend upon Ryde High Street for the Isle of Wight Scooter Rally. I met one of them riding a beautifully embellished Lambretta Scooter. Incidentally, Lambretta and Vespa, a craze in the 60s, 70s and 80s in India, started finding it difficult to maintain their respective market shares with the introduction of fuel efficient Hero Honda, Bajaj and Yamaha Motorcycles. With the initiation of Maruti 800 cars, the scooter market eroded further.
The Island hosts a number of annual festivals including the Bestival, The Isle of Wight Festival, Newport Jazz Weekend, Island Steam Show, etc, but it was heartening to see Festival of Light, inspired by Diwali poster on the Ryde promenade.
Ryde is the terminus of the sole remaining railway on the Isle of Wight, which skirts the eastern side of the island to reach the town before extending over the pier.
And if you are fond of wines and liqueurs, there are free guided winery tours and vineyard trails at Rosemary vineyard. Admission and tasting is free. At the winery the winemaking process and equipment used can be seen, which is followed by a free tasting of wines, juices, liqueurs and ciders.
From Seaview, we drove down to Sandown, a sandy beach, perhaps the best place to have fun. The Esplanade is full of cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels and gift shops. There is also the Isle of Wight Zoo, Brown’s Golf Course and Sandown Lawn Bowl club. Sandown beach with its famous golden sands and safe bathing areas, is also popular site for water sports of all kinds.
Having visited the alluring beaches and taking our lunch at one of the seaside restaurants, we decided to go to Cowes, a bifurcated town, split into two by the ria of the River Medina. As mentioned above, this is a docking station for ferries from Southampton. The town has a rich and varied shipbuilding history.
One of the major attractions at Isle of Wight is Osborne House, large stately home of Queen Victoria, who made her much-loved summer residence and final home at East Cowes. The house was built between 1845 and 1851 as a summer house and rural retreat for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It was designed by the prince himself in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo. It is complemented by the addition of two Belvedere towers that must allow superb views over the Solent.
At the Osborne House, you can see a few associations with the British Raj and India, housing a collection of paintings of Indian persons and scenes.
Queen Victoria loved the house, and it is fitting that she spent the last days of her life there. After last days of her life there; following her death, her children gifted it to the nation. It saw various uses, including as a Naval Training College and an officers’ convalescent home. It is now in the care of English Heritage, and is open to the public.
Our return ferry was scheduled for 8.50 p.m. and the reporting time was 8.00 p.m. We had time at our disposal and decided to have snacks and drinks at nearby Pub “Prince of Wales”, one of the best pubs I visited in England and headed for Fishbourne Pier.
Thank you for being with me on this memorable experience of Isle of Wight.