Sunday, May 13, 2007

Kurt in the Isle of Wight

I’ve talked about the Isle of Wight for ages. I’ve had it in my head since I started working on Victorian English subjects, and then we saw it on a couple of occasions on A Place in the Sun and it looked really ‘me’. So it was always supposed to be a part of this voyage, somewhere, sometime. But, somehow, it kept on slipping out of the programme. It was the date that was always going to happen, but never quite did.
Until yesterday.

Andrew and Wendy determined that – especially as my time in England had been unscheduledly extended - I WAS going to ‘do’ the Isle of Wight, and on Saturday morning – in spite of grey skies and an unfavourable weather-forecast -- at 8am we set out, with Wendy at the wheel of the Lamb family BMW, and headed for the South Coast. At 10am we boarded the Wightlink car ferry, the ‘St Helen’, at 10.45am we berthed at the village of Fishbourne, Isle of Wight, and by 11am we were in the island’s main town of Ryde.

Ryde was not quite what I had expected. Except that I am not sure quite what I had expected. It seems, from the short glance that we bestowed on it, to be a curious mixture of rather splendid, large upper-middle class Victorian houses, a few once grandish hotels, and a decidedly plebeian sort of ancient holiday resort on the familiar British lines of a century ago. The whole set on quite a steep hillside. It also seems nowadays to be rather in need, notably in much of its main street and foreshore, of a jolly good wash and paintbrush-up.
I photographed the long pier, which carries the local train right out over the sea to meet the incoming passenger ferries, I photographed a few of the Victorian architectural features, we ferreted around a little arcade which claimed that it sold Victoriana and found the sort of almost-junk shops that used to be so plentiful in British provincial towns and which you rarely see nowadays, and finally we paid a visit to the local cemetery. I had hoped to find there the tomb of Maria Billington Merest, the celebrated contralto, who died in Ryde, but had to be contented with that of Michael Maybrick, baritone and songwriter (‘Stephen Adams’) and sometime mayor of Ryde. He could do with a brush-up too. Maybe its all that salty sea air.

Our next stop was Sandown. I was in search of a cemetery there, too, for it is in Sandown that the singing Alexander sisters from Smithfield (otherwise Enrichetta and Adele Alessandri) are buried, and I was keen to find their memorial.
Sandown is smaller than Ryde, also where Ryde seems to tumble down the hillside towards the sea, Sandown runs what you might call alongwise, one layer up the cliff above the sea. Until, that is, you descend the winding road to the actual beachside where you get a large and bright pink amusements pier, a rather splendidly curving beach, and all the usual fixtures and fittings of a British holiday resort.
Sandown seemed to me to have rather more character than Ryde – the bit of Ryde we saw anyway – and to be distinctly less scruffy. But it is equally olde worlde. As I hurried to the local library, in search of cemetery info, I passed a ‘novelty’ shop (postcards ten for 80 pence) which featured proudly displayed in its window ‘The original fart machine’. I don’t think even Blackpool has stocked such ancient comic merchandise since the 1950s. As for the baker’s shop, it boasted shortbreads made in the shape of the Island. I lost count of the fish and chip shops. And the guest houses, large and small, ancient and modern, and utterly ubiquitous..

Alas, all the cemetery records for Sandown are kept … in Newport, so in spite of visiting the pretty church and cemetery of Christ Church we didn’t find Harriet and Adelaide but I am fairly sure that – even though they were Jewish – they are probably there somewhere. I shall research better before I return.

From Sandown, we skittled along the coast – more or less bypassing new Shanklin, but taking in the very pretty old version of the town – and as lunchtime-ish feelings began to be felt, arrived on the seafront at Ventnor.
In spite of an electric blue luminescent amusement arcade plumb in the middle of its beachside promenade, and other such ‘popular’ items as the pie’n’mash bar, the something-or-other museum (entry: two pounds) and ‘the diner’, Ventnor seems to be distinctly ‘one notch up’ from the two towns we’d visited so far. It was certainly much better cared for, and one could not miss the very new and rather aggressive block of apartments which are a modern feature of the promenade. Someone has spent a lot of money here. Probably with reason..
Drolly, right next to the new apartments, stood what is probably one of the oldest houses in the town: a dilapidated and literally crumbling Victorian villa which someone has painted up in bright red and yellow. It is for sale, so I imagine that by the time I return it will be history.
We walked – with the assistance of a very stiff breeze -- the length of the promenade and, following the crowd, settled on the Spyglass Inn, a large, cobbled-together but evidently in part at least ancient hotel, for our lunch. The crowd obviously knew its stuff. We sat in the sun (yes!) and wind, out on the jolly terrace overlooking the bay, with the best ‘beer-n-sandwich’ imaginable -- Andrew had fresh crab, I had what they promised was home cured ham and certainly seemed like a quarter of a Wightish pig, and for the first time in my life the barmaid asked me if I wanted my Guinness chilled or otherwise. Chilled, of course. Ah, yes,all felt extremely right with the world.
And from where I sat I could see two ‘holiday flats, lo let…’. I wonder if they have wi-fi.

Beyond Ventnor, you get out of the fairly solidly built-up area of the east part of the island and head out into some attractive green countryside. Well, it’s attractive most of the time. Sadly, the route is punctuated by a few modern equivalents of the aged and traditional ‘resort entertainments’ that one can look over rather fondly in the main towns. The para-gliding looked marvellous, and there are apparently some other sweet spots off the road, but a couple of the fabricated ‘Sights’ and ‘Resorts’ along the way had me shuddering. There are just occasional moments when you feel that the Isle of Wight is in danger of becoming nothing more nor less than one huge and too often tacky Playground or Entertainment Arcade. But then you come across the secluded (except from the hordes of what seemed to be Japanese tourists) and lovely former home of Lord Tennyson (Farringford House)...

At the very western tip of the Island, however, there is a sight which is largely natural and very much worth seeing. The Needles – the rocky spires from near which Marconi made some his earliest trials in wireless telegraphy – and Alum Bay with its cliff of variegated red, yellow, black and white sands.
To get to these sights, one has to park one’s car (3 pounds ‘for the whole day’), and weed one’s way through a small but freshly-white-painted old-style funfair (entrance FREE, but 9 pounds a book of tickets for the rides,) which clearly must do the business ‘in season’. From there, one descends by a chairlift (4 pounds, but only operative ‘in season’) or by a set of 188 new, wooden steps to the seaside. Its worth both the 3 pounds and the descent – and re-ascent! A genuine ‘sight’ and one with historical significance as well.

The Needles was the turning point of our trip. We headed back via the attractive Freshwater area and the outskirts of the yacht-filled Yarmouth to the edge of Newport. Newport is apparently not so large as Ryde, but it looked to me very much like the Island’s commercial and administrative centre. The vast and very new and spotless buildings on its perimeter contrasted very much with what we’d seen on the east coast. Here, it seems, is the Isle of Wight of the 21st century. So we skipped it, and instead set off back to Fishborne and the 4pm ferry.
By half past six we were back in Shirley.

Well, its perfectly possible that I haven’t given all parts of the Isle of Wight fair and equal consideration. It’s quite certain that I’ve made snap judgements on instant impressions all the way round. And, of course, we didn’t take the time to look at Cowes, for example. But I came out of our trip with a distinctly different idea of the island to that with which I’d gone in.

And also with the feeling that I could very happily take myself back for a little while, before too long, to Ventnor.

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