Island of Memories.

14 Oct

Back in the 1950’s, when I was still in short trousers, my parents took my sister and I on a magical stroll through an enchanting glen. We wandered, open-mouthed, through a tiny, picturesque gorge. It was clothed in luxuriant vegetation and had a charming stream gurgling through it, crossed by little stone, curving bridges. At its head the gorge was crowned by a narrow, plunging waterfall. It was a lovely spot but what made it so special for us kids was that the whole place was festooned with twinkling, coloured fairy lights. It was like enjoying Christmas on a balmy summer’s evening. We loved it!
The place that generated such heart-warming memories was Shanklin Chine on the Isle of Wight. We visited several chines — mossy, fern covered ravines that tumbled down to the sea. We collected shells with paintings of them from the souvenir stalls. The chines were an extra treat on top of our usual seaside holiday delights of: sand castle building, donkey rides, paddling in the sea and licking ice creams. Our family spent several of our annual holidays on the Isle of Wight, famed for its sandy beaches, chalk cliffs and mild climate. It was an exciting adventure — catching the boat from Portsmouth, crossing the busy Solent, then being picked up by a little steam train that chugged its way down the east side of the island to the resorts of Shanklin and Sandown where we stayed. Even in the 50’s , a visit to the Isle of Wight was like travelling back in time. Everything seemed to be quieter, smaller and more relaxed than on the mainland. The pace of life was slower.
There’s something about islands that stirs the imagination. To some, an island stands for “purity” — a place untainted by “reality”. To others it stands for “escape” — a trip away from the stresses and strains of normal life. No wonder islands are so often associated with holidays. Surrounded and protected by sea, they are somehow detached from the problems and worries of everyday existence. I think that although it is only a 30 to 40 minute ferry ride from the mainland, the Isle of Wight still retains some of this aura. Once the boat slips its moorings one can almost feel one’s troubles being left behind on the receding shore. It’s as if the traveller is escaping to a different world.
I’ve recently returned to the island after a 50 year gap because my mother-in-law has retired there. I would like to say that nothing much has changed but of course it has. The little Thomas the Tank engines have been replaced by old London Underground trains. They look very incongruous in the green, gently rolling countryside. The twisty narrow roads ( basically country lanes) are now often choked with cars and coaches, making travel in some parts of the island, slow and tedious. 30 mph is a good speed on the island and a car journey is often a bumpy, uncomfortable experience as many roads are poorly maintained and frequently dug up. They are unsuitable for large coaches but these still pile off the ferries in their droves bringing fresh loads of mostly older tourists. Some of these visitors decide to stay and spend their later years here. Many hotels have morphed into retirement homes as a result.
I can see why the island is still so popular. It has quite a lot of places that can be described as quaint or twee. I think another phrase is “picture postcard.” They represent an older England that still lingers on in the memory. They are like a reminder of what England used to be like ( at least in our rose-coloured imaginations), before the frantic rush of the modern age. Ironically, tourists, in flocking to these places that represent a bygone era, end up destroying the very thing they have come to experience. For instance, Godshill, a beautiful old village with an ensemble of thatched cottages clustered round an ancient church, is now dominated by a very large car and coach park and has spawned a rash of tourist “attractions” such as souvenir shops, cafes, an old smithy and even a miniature village. Coach companies nearly always include it on their island tour itinerary so that, in summer especially, the locals are totally swamped by the visitors.
When we arrived at Godshill one lunchtime, there was already a nearly full car park which included 5 large coaches. While there, 2 more coaches arrived, decanting 40 to 50 people at a time to wander round what used to be a little quiet village. We had to queue for our tea and scones. It serves us right for deciding to visit one of the island’s mass tourism “honey pots” The village down the road was very quiet. Places such as Godshill have to be careful as they are in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
The Isle of Wight still has pretty countryside, charming villages and interesting sights. Its south coast features spectacular chalk cliff scenery and has a wilder, more remote feel to it as there are less settlements.( and tourists.) I particularly enjoyed visiting Dimbola Lodge at Freshwater Bay in the south west. It’s an interesting museum created from the former home and studio of a pioneer photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. She was part of Victorian high society and was a neighbour and friend of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Other visitors were her great nieces: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, along with luminaries such as Charles Darwin and Lewis Carroll. Her early black and white portraits make a fascinating exhibition. I also liked Brading Roman Museum on the eastern side of the island. It has excellent mosaics. Carisbrooke Castle in Newport, in the centre, is another impressive and enjoyable destination. It features lots of stuff about King Charles I as he was imprisoned there after losing the Civil War.
I’ve also walked over the wonderfully bracing Tennyson Downs from Freshwater Bay to the Needles and Alum Bay. I did try to drive to the Needles, a famous series of pointed chalk stacks, but got stuck in an endless traffic jam, much to my initial surprise. The tiny country road couldn’t cope with the huge volume of traffic. It was almost like the M1! The reason for this was because what had been a lovely, quiet area has now been turned into The Needles Pleasure Park, complete with: fairground amusements, a glass studio, a cable car ride, boat trips and of course a very large car/coach park. What a travesty! I believe the same sort of crass commercialism has taken over Land’s End on the tip of Cornwall.
As with most places, the IOW has a mix of good and not so good.( in my opinion.) Some places have been spoilt while others are well preserved. Tourism is still a major source of income and the island has done all it can to keep the punters rolling in. It’s only 23 miles long at its widest point but that has not stopped it from packing in a whole raft of attractions for people to visit. What other tiny patch of Britain features a: Pearl centre, military museum, zoo, Garlic Museum, Tiger and Big Cat Centre, Roman villa, castle, Victorian Royal palace, botanical gardens, arts and craft centres, smuggling museum, glass centre, waxwork museum, miniature village, steam railway and the aforementioned chines?
So, returning to the Isle of Wight has been a mixed experience for me. Fond childhood memories have been reignited and new, interesting destinations discovered. I wandered up Shanklin Chine again, this time stripped of my rose-coloured glasses. It is still a nice spot with a very good tea shop, but on a damp autumn day and with no fairy lights, it had last much of its magic. The island is pleasant rather than spectacular despite the hyperbole in the holiday brochures. It still has a staid, old fashioned air and a slower pace of life, which is appealing to many. The Rough Guide describes it as “desperately unadventurous” which sound damning, but a “safe”, familiar destination is very attractive to the large numbers who are not addicted to thrills and spills and have no desire to have their senses assaulted by culture shock. The IOW is particularly attractive if you are a fan of Victoriana. Queen Victoria loved the place. She may have been Empress of India but preferred the Isle of Wight. After the premature death of Prince Albert, she took up permanent residence at Osborne House near Cowes.
It’s still a mini adventure catching the ferry from Portsmouth or Southampton — a trip overseas without needing a passport. I’m pleased I have had the excuse to recently return to a beloved childhood haunt. Being able to mix the past with the present has added an extra dimension to my excursion. It has been a neat and enjoyable way of linking up my childhood with my retirement years.

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