“We could go away,” Madam suggested, “you have a week between appointments.”
“But I’ve been in hospit…” I started to say but she gave me a look that spoke of daggers and I fell into silence.
She stared at me a little longer then said, “You’re looking much better today. We’re going to run out of decent weather soon.”
It’s true that spring was a memory and summer was passing quickly, but I was still getting breathless if I walked upstairs. “I have all these tests scheduled at the hospital,” I told her, pressing my hand against my heart for added emphasis. Then I remembered it was my lungs and moved my hand.
We can go somewhere warm,” she suggested, “maybe an island in the south with lots of beaches. It will be good for you. Book somewhere. You choose but remember: South. Island. Beaches.”
“Do you have the right translate app loaded on your phone?” Asked Madam when I told her everything was arranged a couple of days later.
“No need my sweet,” I replied, “most people there speak English.”
“Like Malta you mean?”
“Sort of…” I replied.
She gazed into the distance distractedly. She thought for a while, smiled and said “the sea… it’s so blue.”
“How about foreign currency?” she asked.
“They will take British pounds” I replied.
“So, is it Gatwick or Heathrow?” she asked.
“Neither my sweet, we leave from Portsmouth.”
She looked at me suspiciously. “Portsmouth has an airport?”
“You need to start packing my sweet, we leave tomorrow.”
She peered at the sign at the ferry terminal and said “We’re going to the Izzel of Wigget?”
“Yes, my sweet, it’s south and definitely has beaches. It has a really lovely royal palace as well. You won’t find that on remote Pacific islands.” I told her.
When Victoria married Albert in 1840, they only had three palaces to live in: Windsor Castle, the 775 room Buckingham Palace and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. The guide book to Osborne House informed me that these were unsuitable for the parents of a growing family, so in 1843 they sought a country house. They purchased the estate in 1845 along with 2,000 surrounding acres and promptly set about building the current house. I did search the guide book to see how many rooms it had but it is either a secret or there are way too many to count.
Entrance to Osborne House was ambitiously priced at £39 or we could have a fifteen month membership of English Heritage for £93. The pleasant young woman at the entrance attempted to persuade us to join and assured us that it was very good value. She told us that the money would only be sucked from our bank account at some vague date in the future. Maybe September, or even October. Quite possibly sometime next year. “We may even completely forget,” she said vaguely. “I can give you a membership card right now. It’s very good value,” she said as she handed me a pen and an application form.
Madam agreed that an annual membership was much better value, but we would just HAVE to see lots more royal palaces to make it worthwhile.
The house consisted mostly of an endless succession of extravagantly decorated rooms full of royal memorabilia and paintings of dead royals. It was packed with visitors and we moved slowly through the rooms behind old people taking photos on aged Nokia phones. To break the tedium, groups of ebullient ten-year olds elbowed past us followed by harried looking teachers. Madam of course loved every room, ornament and picture.
They had a special exhibition on Victoria and Albert’s birthdays at Osborne. The pocket guide told us that they had lots of empty rooms to furnish and they used their birthday gifts to do this. What a hard life it must have been. Their gifts to each other seemed to consist mostly of paintings and statues of scantily clad or naked women. Eighty of the gifts remain in Osborne House.
My feet were aching and I was tired tired after two hours of trudging through seemingly identical rooms. “Is there a coffee shop anywhere,” I asked Madam.
“Later!” she said, “we still have another twenty rooms to get through yet.”
I made small whimpering noises and alternately clutched my knees and chest. She relented after a few more rooms and we headed out to the cafe in the grounds for a snack and a welcome sit-down.
“£3.50 for a scone?” asked Madam, “did Queen Victoria bake them herself at those prices?”
I poked at the dry edges and replied “quite possibly.”
Swiss Cottage, a nine room Swiss-style chalet was built in the grounds of Osborne House in 1854 as a gift from Albert and Victoria to their children. The children would grow vegetables in the garden and sell them to Albert at market prices. They would also play at being servants and serve lunch and tea to visitors. . No doubt the servant’s children were simultaneously playing at being rich, dressing up in fine clothes and eating eight course meals.
We had a quick look round the cottage then walked down through dense thickets of rhododendrons to the beach. Signs along the path told us to watch out for Red Squirrels. The Red Squirrel used to be widespread throughout Britain until the Grey Squirrel was introduced from North America in the 1870’s by collectors. The Grey carries a virus fatal to the Red which has led to the decimation of the latter. Red populations now only exist in isolated areas, on offshore islands and in Scotland. We stopped several times, hopefully peering into the trees, but never saw any.
Prince Albert was a firm believer in the health benefits of sea bathing and the nearby beach was instrumental in their choice of location. The queen had her own bathing machine which ran down to the sea on stone rails. After her death the bathing machine was was used as a chicken shed. I wonder if she would have been amused.
There was a long line of deckchairs, all empty, looking out over the water. We headed towards the chairs then noticed that everybody close to the water were flapping their arms and feverishly brushing their face and clothes. Even for the Isle of Wight this seemed strange behaviour.
“The locals can be a bit weird,” I told Madam, “just try to ignore them, I’m sure it’s not contagious.”
As soon as we reached the chairs, thousands of tiny beetles, smaller than a grain of rice, were swarming and covering our clothes and in our hair. They were trying to get up my nose and in my mouth and crawling in my ears. I started flapping my arms and feverishly brushing my face and clothes. We abandoned any thought of sitting and gazing over the Solent and headed to the nearby cafe. I bought an ice-cream, only to calm my nerves you understand, which quickly turned into a vanilla and beetle crunch. It’s probably not vegetarian any more, I thought, as I picked out beetle remains from between my teeth.
“Let’s go back to the house,” suggested Madam, “We’ll be away from these beetles and I’m sure there’s a few rooms we haven’t seen.”
“What is there to do on a Saturday in Shanklin,” I asked Madam.
We were staying in a three bedroom holiday rental house in Shanklin for the week which worked out much cheaper than staying in a hotel. The Isle of Wight is only 25 miles by 13 miles so we figured we could reach anywhere on the island by car easily. The house was advertised as being five minutes walk from the beach.
Madam peered into her phone. She pursed her lips, her finger flipping up and down the screen.
“One of the top rated attractions is the Shanklin Chine. It opens at 10:30.” she said.
“Umm, what’s a Chine?” I asked.
She peered into her phone again.
“It looks like a path through the woods,” she said, “it has trees and rhododendrons…maybe a waterfall.”
“We might see a red squirrel,” she added hopefully.
“A bit like walking in Osborne yesterday then,” I asked, “is it free?”
“No, it’s £3.50.”
“£3.50 for a walk through the woods,” I asked by way of confirmation.
We both agreed that we didn’t need to spend seven pounds to see a few rhododendrons and a waterfall, so we walked down to the beach instead. It was only a little after 10am when we reached the sea after a 15 minute walk down a long steep winding hill.
There wasn’t much to the seafront. A large play park and a few souvenir shops. Deck chairs and loungers were set up on the beach but had no customers.
“Only £10 for two loungers,” said Madam, “we could lay on the beach all day.”
Laying baking and blistering in the sun on a beach ranks lower than royal palaces as far as I’m concerned.
“Lets walk a bit,” I suggested, “Sandown isn’t far. It has a pier.”
It didn’t look that far – I could see a hazy outline of the pier in the distance – but it turned out to be two miles. The weather forecast was for a high of 16C so we were wearing jackets. Empty sandy beaches and a bright sparkling sea to our right stretched onwards to Sandown. The tall brown sandstone cliffs to our left reflected the heat and before long we were carrying our jackets and were hot and thirsty. There was nothing much between Shanklin and Sandown but for a succession of colourful beach huts and we were glad to finally reach the pier so that we could sit in the shade and get something cold to drink. The cafe on the pier was still closed when we arrived but there was a young woman bustling about behind the shutters, getting ready to open.
“Donuts!” Shouted Madam, “they have donuts! Will eight be too many?”
“I’ll probably only want one, maybe two if they are small.” I told her.
“Are they full sized?” Asked Madam as the server pulled open the shutters.
“Yes, full sized.” She replied.
“Just four then.”
They were hot and sugary, just as donuts should be, but not particularly large. We had two each which was plenty. We walked the length of the pier and through the amusements, and into the town. We got an indifferent cup of coffee in the town and looked around a couple of shops. It was just before 1pm and we had exhausted Sandown’s attractions.
“What now?” Asked Madam.
I looked at the island map.
“There’s a train to Ryde,” I said, “they have a hovercraft terminal so it might have a bit more to see.”
“You normally pay a lot more for heritage trains,” I told Madam as we took our seats on the train.
The line was opened in 1864 and electrified in 1967 and, apart from the occasional light dusting, seemed little changed from the latter date. Madam didn’t look happy as we lurched from side to side in the rattling and shuddering carriage. I later read that they were still using London Underground trains built in the 1930’s which explained a lot.
“Think of it as a fairground ride” I told her, but she still didn’t look happy.
She was first off the train at Ryde station. She stopped by the station exit and turned to look back at the train and said “is there a bus back?”
Ryde has the second-longest seaside pier in the country. Only Southend pier is longer. The original wooden structure opened in 1814 and was extended in 1824 and 1842 to reach its present length of nearly half a mile. It is actually three piers in one. The one on the left is for cars and pedestrians, that on the right for the train which runs out to the catamaran ferry to Portsmouth. The centre pier was built in 1864 to support a horse-drawn tram. This was abandoned in 1969 and lies rusted and part derelict.
We had a nice late lunch at the Farmhouse Pantry opposite the pier. In spite of the name, it was an American themed diner with red plastic booths and Route 66 posters on the walls. There were pictures of 60’s film stars all along one wall. It was so authentic they had freezing cold air-conditioning and we had to wear our jackets while we were eating.
American restaurants have a lot going for them. Ample portions, friendly service and free soft drink refills amongst them. In the spirit of more is better, they all seem to have their air-conditioning turned up to somewhere approaching freezing. It would be 40C outside and we would be dressed in shorts and t-shirts. As soon as we stepped inside, the sweat would freeze on our skin and we would soon be fighting hypothermia. I may be exaggerating a tiny bit but we soon learned to carry coats to wear indoors in Texas. And maybe a sweater, some gloves and a hat.
Madam had fried shrimp in the Farmhouse Pantry and declared them to be the best she’d ever had in this country, so if you find yourself passing pop in for a few. Just remember to take a jacket.
We drove down narrow country lanes towards Carisbrooke Castle. A red squirrel ran across the road narrowly missing our front wheel. We passed through Godshill with its pretty thatched cottages, model village and tea rooms. There was a 20 mph speed limit through the village and it was already busy with visitors dodging the steady stream of cars.
“We should stop there on the way back” said Madam.
There has been a fortress at Carisbrooke since before the Norman conquest in 1066 but the current fortifications was begun around 1100 when Richard de Redevers was made Lord of the Isle of Wight by Henry I.
In the late 13th century the last of the de Redvers family, Countess Isabella de Fortibus transformed the castle into a magnificent residence. The Countess Isabella married an older man and found herself a rich widow at the age of 23. Two years later her brother Baldwin died, possibly from poisoning, and she became both richer still and found herself owning the Isle of Wight as well as lands in Hampshire and Devon at the age of 26.
After her death in 1293 the estate passed to the Crown since she seems to not have had any descendants left. I’m sure there was nothing underhand going on though.
Madam was waiting, her face pressed hard against the iron gates, when the castle opened at 10am.
We had a look around the small but well-run castle museum first. This is independently run by volunteers and cares for over 30,000 items connected with the Isle of Wight including a JMW Turner painting of the castle gatehouse and an embroidered linen nightcap worn by Charles I on the eve of his execution.
Madam looked round briefly then walked up to the elderly custodian and demanded to know the connection of the Woodville family to the castle and whether they were related to Elizabeth Woodville. He looked flustered, his mouth sagged open. “Ummm…” was all he could manage.
I know exactly how he felt.
Many years ago, when I was a custodian at Battle Museum, two elderly ladies marched in and stood squarely in front of me. One crossed her arms and said “you must know the names of all the Cinque ports!” and stood waiting for an answer.
“Ummm..” I said, “Hastings definitely, Dover I guess… I think Hythe…”
“I would have thought that somebody working here would have known that!” she snapped.
I was about to explain that I was just a volunteer that only minded the till one day a week but she had already stormed out.
I made a point of learning the five Cinque ports but was never asked again. They are Hastings, New Romney, Dover, Hythe and Sandwich if you are interested. Similarly, Elizabeth Woodville was the wife of Edward IV and the mother of Edward V.
Above the museum is the room where Charles I was imprisoned prior to his execution. He had a fairly comfortable imprisonment, more house arrest than dank and dingy cell, until he tried to climb out of a bedroom window in an escape attempt. He is famously quoted as saying “where my head goes, my body shall follow.”
Unfortunately for the king, his knowledge of anatomy proved lacking and he became firmly stuck and had to abandon his escape. Security was increased after this attempt, and increased again after a second attempt, until he was taken to London to have his head removed in January 1649.
We walked around the castle outer wall for fine views over fields and woodland then up steep and narrow steps into the remains of the keep. We sat on a wooden bench by the castle bowling green where Charles I played bowls during his enforced stay and tried to imagine his time here.
“I wonder what is happening in the 21st century,” I said.
I checked my phone. No signal. I held up my phone at different angles. Still no signal. “You would think with all that money, the Countess Isabella would have installed WiFi” I said.
“And comfy benches,” replied Madam.
We drove back to Godshill which the ‘Visit Isle of Wight’ website describes as ‘.. the quintessential English Village,… charming thatched-roofed cottages and a winding main-street lined with traditional tearooms.’
It was crowded with visitors and slow moving traffic. We found our way to a vast car park. It had massive signs telling us that the car park closed at 5.30. I was already getting the impression that it was ‘spend your money then bugger off and leave us in peace.’
Every house in the village seemed to have been turned into a tea room or a gift shop. There were no pavements so walking down the main street meant being inches from passing cars. We had a late lunch in one of the tea rooms and Madam looked in all the gift shops at every ornament and knick knack. I was bored after the third gift shop (they all had exactly the same stuff) and noticed a sign pointing to the ‘Old Smithy and Gardens.’
I wasn’t expecting much but the garden was packed with garden gnomes, miniature cottages, cockatiels in an aviary and animated dioramas of village life. Somebody must have spent many hundreds of hours and as lot of money setting it up and maintaining it. There was no entry fee, just a small polite notice to donate to a local charity if you enjoyed the garden. Madam wasn’t impressed but I thought it was wonderful. I even dropped a coin into the plastic collecting box on the way out. There was a dull thud as the coin hit the bottom. It was 3pm and mine was the first donation of the day.
We were driving through narrow country lanes fringed with flowering Wild Mustard, Cow Parsley and bright red Poppies. Tall hedges and banks on either side prevented much of a view beyond. Suddenly, and without notice, the road opened up to reveal dramatic brown sandstone cliffs a few feet from the side of the road plunging down into the sea below.
“Wowser,” said Madam as she looked out towards the sea.
“Is that a word?” I asked.
“Definitely,” she said.
She paused and pursed her lips. “Probably,” she said with less certainty.
We were heading to the far west of the island to see the Needles, a row of three stacks of chalk that rise 30m out of the sea. The Needles Lighthouse stands at the outer, western end of the formation. The Needles takes its name from a fourth needle shaped pillar called Lot’s Wife (don’t ask me why) which collapsed in 1764. The remaining chalk columns are not at all needle-like but the name has stuck.
“There’s a pound off for National Trust members,” the car park attendant said, “just £4 then. It’s a twenty minute walk up the hill to the needles viewpoint or there’s a bus.”
He seem immensely pleased to be saving us a pound.
As bus I thought. That sound good. I closed the car door and looked over at the side of the bus, already waiting at the stop. It was £10 each for a return ticket.
“I feel like a walk,” I told Madam.
It was a long climb uphill along well-trodden paths over chalk cliffs. We saw only a couple of other people on the walk. A crowded bus passed us halfway along the road, faces peering from the windows. It was misty when we started and more fog rolled in over the sea as we walked further towards the summit, forming a dense impenetrable blanket that reached almost to the top of the cliffs.
We walked up to the New Battery and out to a secret rocket testing site but all we could see was a white bank of fog. Nearby is a small exhibition and a recreation of one of the control rooms, revealing the story of Britain’s ‘race for space’, when British-made rockets were tested. It was a top-secret site but rumour has it that it was so well know about on the island that locals would line the cliff tops to watch the firings. It was more interesting than it may sound but you will have seen the pictures by now.
It’s probably still officially a state secret, so please forget I ever mentioned it.
We waited a long time for the fog to lift but it scarcely thinned. “Let’s get a cup of coffee,” I suggested, “it may have cleared by then.”
The cafe was in one corner of the smallest National Trust shop I’ve ever seen. The middle aged server looked startled when we walked in. “Do you have soy milk” asked Madam.
“No, I’m afraid not. They may have it down in the Old Battery Cafe. It’s much bigger.”
Madam wasn’t to be dissuaded so she looked around at the closet sized gift section.
“Do you take credit cards?” Asked Madam.
“Oh no, they may take them down in the main shop in the Old Battery. I’ve only been here an hour and a half. My scanner isn’t plugged in yet.”
“I have cash,” said Madam.
“Oh, I can’t open the till yet, I’ve only been here an hour and a half. I’ll have to recharge my scanner.”
“I’ll have a cappuccino while we wait,” I offered.
“Oh, you will get much better coffee down at the main cafe. They have china cups and everything. And you will get a much better view of the needles from the other site.”
We took the hint and headed down the hill to the Old Battery and wandered around the small museum feigning interest in the war time exhibits, but there is only so much time you can spend looking at old ration cards and powdered milk cans.
We were told that the best viewpoint was from a searchlight position cut deep into the cliffs and overlooking the Needles. I walked down a steep metal twisting circular staircase and along a long, low and narrow damp tunnel. The floor was slippery and I had to steady myself against the walls. I eventually reached the viewpoint and could see… a close up view of a dense bank of fog. I could hear the blare of the lighthouse foghorn a few hundred feet away but couldn’t see even the nearest chalk column.
We hung around for a while, hoping the fog would lift but it refused to even thin a little, so we headed back down towards the car park. They have built a Needles Landmark Attraction right next to the car park with a 4D Cinema, a chairlift to the beach, an adventure golf course, children’s rides, food stalls and of course the obligatory gift shops. It was crowded with visitors. We could ride the chairlift to the beach for £6, watch someone glass blowing for £2 and see a sweet making demonstration for another £2.
“Gift shops!” shouted Madam as she disappeared into the nearest.
I wandered round the attraction, dodging overweight coach trippers and trying to summon some interest. There was annoying canned music everywhere. It reminded me of the Land’s End Experience. I hated it.
Madam had finally had her fill of the gift shops and we stood by the cliff overlooking the beach hoping for a glimpse of the Needles through the fog but it wasn’t to be. It seemed to thin briefly before another dense bank drifted in.
“Look on the bright side,” said Madam, “we got to hear the fog horn.”
“Your turn to decide where we go today!” said Madam.
I looked in my iPad at the island’s top rated attractions.
“There’s a dinosaur and geology museum,” I told her, “that sounds interesting.”
I think she was hoping for another royal palace or maybe an exhibition of dresses.
“Dinosaurs?” She queried by way of confirmation.
“It’s highly rated,” I told her.
“Lots of dinosaur and local fossils.” I told her.
I could see this circular conversation could have lasted some time so I added, “there’s a zoo next door. We could look in there as well.”
“I’ll bring my knitting,” said Madam.
The museum was small but very well run. It was packed with models of dinosaurs, not exactly life-sized but big enough to be interesting, and was full of excited, and apparently unsupervised, children. There was an overlying sound track of what dinosaurs might have sounded like which seemed to consist of a loud roaring designed to appeal to children. I wandered around every fascinating case of fossils and dinosaur bones found on the island while Madam found a seat in the corner. “This is brilliant!” I told Madam.
She didn’t reply.
“Let’s go down to the beach to look for fossils,” I suggested.
Nearby Yaverland beach is well known for dinosaur bones, reptile and fish fossils, and many of those on display in the museum were found there. We walked along the beach, kicking at stones and trying to look as though we knew what we were doing. Madam found a couple of interesting rocks that may or may not have contained fossils. There was a school trip of teenagers following along behind us who were running up to their teacher showing him their finds.
“They have better eyes,” I told Madam.
Better knees as well I thought as they powered passed us, their hands diving down to pick up rocks from the beach.
Empty handed, we walked back up to the road. Madam held out a large shopping bag and said “I brought this to carry home all your fossil finds.”
“Umm,” I said.
She pushed the bag towards me and looked at me expectantly.
“Umm,” I repeated.
She can be so cruel sometimes.
Madam stopped to talk to somebody in the car park about knitting, while I went ahead to the zoo entrance. I let out a small squeal of pain when I saw that it would be a shade under £30 for the two of us. Madam finally joined me by the entrance.
“Exactly how keen are you on going to the zoo?” I asked her.
“It’s not very big,” I said, “and almost certainly full of screaming children,” I added before she had a chance to reply.
Madam doesn’t like screaming children.
“I think it’s a bit cruel keeping animals in cages.” I said.
“I think I can hear the children screaming from here,” I added helpfully.
I finally ran out of reasons not to spend £30.
“I’m not that bothered,” she said.
We did stop in at the zoo cafe for coffee and I noticed that there was another entrance at the far end of the cafe that led directly into the zoo bypassing the ticket desk. I was tempted to leave that way for a quick look round the zoo but Madam wouldn’t let me. Besides, it was full of screaming children.
“We could go to the garlic farm,” I suggested, “I think it’s free.”
I imagined the garlic farm to just be rows of garlic but right by the car park was a large wildflower meadow with a profusion of wildflowers including Cornflowers, Poppies, Daisies, Corn Marigolds and Corn Cockles as well as several I couldn’t identify. Signs told us they were trying to replicate how a field of corn might have looked before the days of herbicides to control weeds.
“Have you ever seen a prettier field of wildflowers?” asked Madam.
I had to agree that I had not. How the countryside must have looked a hundred years ago I thought. I know that yields have increased dramatically following the introduction of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides but what have we lost in return for higher yields?
“Turn right onto Beacon Alley,” said the SatNav.
“Alley,” said Madam, “what’s an alley?”
“It’s like a lane but narrower,” I told her.
“Fudge!” she said in a loud voice, gripping the steering wheel tighter. She really said “Fudge.”
She thought for a moment and said “Do you realise that in a week we have driven less than the distance between Austin and Fort Worth? We seem to have been in the car all week.”
AFW is a unit of measure that Madam often uses. Astronomers have astronomical units, sailors have knots, computer scientists use nibbles and bytes. Madam uses the distance between two Texas cities as a single unit of a distance that can be comfortably driven in half a day.
I looked at the SatNav. “Only three miles to go,” I told her, “it’s estimating eighteen minutes.”
We were heading towards Mottistone Gardens. It wasn’t high on our list of must-see attractions but it was listed in the National Trust handbook and we like to get our money’s worth from our annual membership.
“Oh no, we can’t possible do that!” Exclaimed the woman in the ticket office. She had a look of horror on her face, as though I had just questioned her parentage or maybe strangled her cat.
We have started to store membership and loyalty card barcodes on our phones which by some magical feat of technology transfers then to our watches. Nowadays we just hold our wrist out to be scanned in everything from supermarkets to coffee shops to historic houses. The younger staff scarcely notice and the older staff are impressed and asked how they can get one. We have been using them at National Trust properties for several months.
“No, no,” she continued, “we must see your cards. Just anybody could show us a barcode.”
Like the barcode that is printed on our plastic membership cards I thought.
“I’ll have to ask somebody,” she continued. She gave us a sideways glance and looked as though she was about to call the police to arrest us hardened criminals.
She fetched a younger assistant who I though might have more sense but no, she insisted on seeing our cards. “we can look you up on the computer if you don’t have your cards,” she added helpfully pointing to an elderly machine.
If you can ‘look me up’ you could scan our watch barcode and see exactly the same information as a search on your computer I thought, but I kept quiet as I was worried too much information all in one go might overload her brain. I may be getting old and grumpy but sometimes I just feel like poking people in the eye and demanding they take an IQ test under the threat of euthanasia to improve the species. Mostly I just let Madam deal with people, she has far more patience and skill.
The gardens, by contrast to the staff, were lovely. You should go there immediately – just don’t expect to use any technology from this century.
We wandered round the gardens admiring the herbaceous borders and displays. We climbed up a steep hill and had the gardens to ourselves. All we could hear was bird song and the sound of the wind in the trees.
“This is nice,” I said.
Madam nodded and said “It’s been a good trip,” she said.
And it had.