Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took just four hours to travel from Buckingham Palace to their much-loved family retreat at Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, in the 1850s. That shows how rapidly Industrial Revolution Britain was modernising. In the 21st century, a very similar trip took me a day and a half.
But then, Victoria and Albert did not have to contend with a lorry driver being taken ill on the motorway, resulting in a three-hour tailback on all surrounding routes. That prevented me getting to the late-afternoon ferry I had booked.
Fortunately for me, Wightlink managed to rearrange my crossing, and the following afternoon, I was leaving Portsmouth.
I had wanted to visit Osborne for some years, after discovering that this rather grand private family home has its own beach. Apparently Victoria, along with being a dab hand at poker, was an early advocate of the benefits of sea-bathing.
Added to that was the fact that it is on an island, so would involve at least a short sea crossing. Last summer the ravages of Covid-19 had prevented me from sailing anywhere further away.
Even after that short sea crossing, it felt odd to drive off the ferry at Fishbourne and not immediately switch sides of the road. However, apart from that, Isle of Wight roads are by no means typically British.
Narrow roads ahead
I ended up having to take quite a detour to reach my first destination, Adgestone Camping and Caravanning Club Site, because almost every side road came with a warning that it was only 6ft 6in wide.
Although I later discovered that not all of these roads were quite as narrow as that, the approach road to the site seemed to be. You need to take care on it with a caravan.
Once unhitched, it was an easy drive back to Osborne. The estate was acquired by the couple in 1845. In 1848, Victoria celebrated her 29th birthday there, being serenaded by a brass band – just as royalty were falling out of favour across the Continent in that Year of Revolutions.
Osborne was as much Albert’s project as Victoria’s. He insisted on the house being built in an Italianate style that was only just becoming fashionable. He was a champion of innovation: the house was completely wired for electricity in 1893.
Albert was just as keen about swimming. He designed a floating bath that was towed out 60m from the shore so the children could learn to swim.
Victoria preferred the use of a bathing machine that was pulled down across the shingle beach on rails. Since 2012, this has been restored (having briefly been used as a chicken coop) and now sits on display next to the café, where you can enjoy an ice cream while listening to the soothing sound of the rippling waters.
Statues and servants
Albert’s rather earnest style is everywhere: the interiors of the house are just what you might expect to see in the country estate of the second son of a minor 19th-century German prince.
There is a panel showing Cupid and Psyche, figures the couple felt a kinship with, and a statue of Antinous, a servant and favourite in Emperor Hadrian’s household who died tragically young.
Most of all, you can see Albert’s thinking at work in the Swiss Cottage, which he had built in the grounds at Osborne, along with a market garden, to teach his children a bit about economics and farming. Apparently the aim was to make them better rulers.
Each of them even had their own specially engraved mini-wheelbarrow. It’s strange to think this was just half a century after Marie Antoinette had lost her head for doing pretty much the same thing at Versailles.
Like all great houses, Osborne required a huge staff to run it. For example, Albert’s dressing room was fitted with a bath and shower cubicle (more innovation). After his death in 1861, Victoria was determined nothing should change, so for the next 40 years, a servant had to carry up hot water to fill the bath every night.
Later in life, Victoria was persuaded to extend the house with the Durbar Wing, including the Durbar Room – an imposing reception room with an ornate ceiling. This marked her accession as empress of India – a country she never visited.
It’s probably not surprising that her successor, Edward VII, wanted very little to do with the place. In total, Osborne was only a family residence for 55 years.
The Adgestone campsite is well located for anyone wanting to take advantage, as I did the next morning, of the excellent network of car-free trails that exists on the island.
But all too soon the clouds had come over, so while a brief stop for early lunch at The Old Smithy, in pretty Godshill, proved an interesting diversion, I wasn’t tempted out in the rain at Shanklin, but decided to move on to the western end of the island.
Fortunately, once I was past Ventnor, the sun had come out again, and as I sped along the A3055 Military Road, the Highdown Cliffs were shining like a beacon to guide me. In a caravan, you have to take the road that climbs these 147m-high cliffs quite steadily. I tried not to notice how in some places there is no barrier.
My next campsite, Stoats Farm, gave me a warm welcome. I was on a fully serviced standard pitch with a ‘Premier View’ of Tennyson Down – so named because it was one of the poet’s favourite walking haunts – rising up right behind the site. It was here that I walked the next day, on my way to what is possibly the Isle of Wight’s most famous landmark, The Needles.
Considering how fearsome this group of rocks looks, it’s surprising how few shipwrecks there are around here. But that is likely thanks to the Needles Lighthouse, which you can also visit.
The south side of this promontory was used during the late 1960s as a testing site for Black Arrow rockets, Britain’s short-lived attempt to enter the space race. It looks, appropriately enough, rather like a film set from Thunderbirds.
The north side includes the Old Battery, a fort dating back past Victorian times that looks imposing but seems to have been an also-ran in military history: it only fired at one ship during the First World War, and that turned out to be friendly fire.
As you would expect, the views out to sea and back towards the mainland and Hurst Castle are spectacular. The foreground is rather marred by the chairlift down to the beach at Alum Bay, but this stretch of coast is historically important.
Studying the area in the late 17th century, Robert Hooke, an early member of the Royal Society and a native of nearby Freshwater, noticed shells embedded in the cliffs some 60 feet above the high-water mark. This led him to conclude that the Earth must have been formed by a series of earthquakes.
Such theories were ignored at the time, but are seen as pioneering now. You can follow the Robert Hooke Trail to find out what else he did on the island.
Castles and crossings
My final visit the following morning, before catching the ferry back to the mainland at Yarmouth, was Carisbrooke Castle.
This impressive fortress (with copious amounts of parking) was besieged by the French in 1377. So much for the French never invading Blighty after 1066. It was substantially strengthened under Elizabeth I in preparation for a Spanish invasion – which, as we know, never happened.
But it is perhaps best known as the last place Charles I stayed before he was taken to London for his trial and execution in 1649. He tried to escape, but was too fat to fit through a window. Miraculously, that window still survives. You can look up at it and marvel at the “what ifs” of history.
So I bade farewell to the Isle of Wight, but not completely to islands off the south coast. Arriving in Lymington, it was a quick toddle around Bournemouth to reach South Lytchett Manor Caravan Park, a site that made it onto our best caravan park round-up, and prepare for my final excursion, to Brownsea Island.
Brownsea is, of course, best known as the venue for the first-ever Boy Scout meeting. But it was of greater interest to me for its more recent owner, a Mrs Bonham-Christie. She far outdid Queen Victoria when it came to eccentric lifestyle choices.
An early champion of animal rights, Mrs Bonham-Christie bought the island in 1927, and promptly evicted all but a handful of its human inhabitants, forcefully (sometimes violently) expelling anyone who dared to come and visit.
She particularly disliked the famous youth movement the island had spawned. “My experience is very poor of the Scouts. They treat the poor dumb animals who cannot speak nor have money to defend themselves so cruelly,” she said. Even her adult son had to write to ask permission to visit the island.
Mrs Bonham-Christie also detested all forms of conservation, believing nature should be allowed to run its own course. Many thought her mad, an impression she did nothing to dispel by remaining on the island until she died, aged 95, in 1961.
She lived in just one room of the island’s Tudor castle, eating nothing but bread and eggs and using a paraffin stove to cook. Apparently the fumes worked wonders for her skin. Even after she broke her arm, she refused painkillers, because animals had been “tortured” in their development.
Stories were also rife of the island being overrun by giant rats. Not all of the stories were true, however, and it is largely thanks to her that Brownsea has become a haven for one animal that has virtually vanished elsewhere in the UK – the red squirrel. Peacocks roam about freely here, too.
After a short boat ride from Poole Harbour, where I parked, to Brownsea, I was very keen to see the residence of this real-life Miss Havisham. Unfortunately, the castle itself is now only open to employees of John Lewis, its new owner, to use as a holiday home.
In any case, Neil, my guide on the island, clearly did not think much of Brownsea’s former owner. He pointed out that by the time she died, the place was overrun with one species – the rhododendron – which it took the National Trust 50 years to clear.
He was much more positive about the island’s Scouting links. Wandering around, coming across clearings in the pine forest leading down to little bays with paddle boarders passing by, it’s easy to see why Brownsea would have appealed to Robert Baden-Powell back in 1907.
You have all this potential for adventure to explore, yet the island is less than half a mile from one of the largest conurbations in southern England.
Baden-Powell was also keen for less advantaged boys to benefit, too. Half of the 22 boys who turned up for that first camp were from public schools, but the others were selected from less well-off districts of nearby Poole – an idea seen as deeply radical in Edwardian England. Just a few years later, six of the 22 would die on Flanders Fields.
Neil tells me they managed to get the Scouts back onto the island for a centenary celebration in 2007, when troops from all around the world put up their flags.
That’s one of the many wonderful things about these lovely islands of the UK – they’re packed with a fascinating history that has been influenced by events and characters from across the world. These days they’re more likely to see tourists than heads of state, but they still provide a warm welcome for all – and long may that continue.
After some more great touring ideas? Then why not take a look at our round-up of the best caravan sites with fishing?
Find out more
Where I stayed
Lower Road, Adgestone, Isle of Wight PO36 0HL, 01983 403 432
- Open: 21 April – 3 October
- Charges: From £8.60
Dorchester Road, Lytchett Minster, Poole BH16 6JB, 01202 622 577
- Open: 1 March – 2 January
- Charges: £16-50-£34.00
Weston Lane, Totland, Isle of Wight PO39 0HE, 01983 759 608
- Open: 1 March – 31 October
- Charges: £25-£50
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