The tide has turned
Queen Victoria’s private beach on the Isle of Wight is back in fashion
THE public ostentation of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion may have suited the rakery of the Regency period, but Queen Victoria was not amused by the lack of privacy at England’s seaside palace.
After one particularly tumultuous outing, she recorded her outrage in her diary: ‘‘We were mobbed by all the shop-boys in the town who ran and looked under my bonnet, treating us just as they do the band when it goes to the Parade!’’
Enough was enough. In 1851, the royal family decamped to the privacy of the Isle of Wight, building Osborne House as its summer home, a huge Italianate mansion with a view down a wooded valley to the English Channel.
By royal train and the royal yacht Alberta, it was a gentle three-hour, door-to-door steam from Buck House to Victoria’s ‘‘paradise’’, a place to which she retreated for longer and longer periods after Prince Albert’s death. The empress of India lived on, dressed in widow’s weeds, with her sentimental paintings and retinue of subcontinental servants, until her death in 1901.
The house has changed little since and is a time capsule of 19th-century aristocratic life. The design of Melbourne’s Government House is one of many structures influenced by its architecture. However, instead of the tsar and the crowned heads of Europe descending, it is now visited by 250,000 day-trippers annually. Until this year, though, the queen’s private beach was off limits, except to those who hired the self-catering Pavilion Cottage on the 138ha estate.
Albert believed that sea bathing was beneficial to health and a bathing machine was installed at Osborne’s beach so that Victoria could enjoy the waters. And so she did — she bathed in her hat — until she put her head under the waves and thought she would drown. Complete with changing room, toilet and curtained verandah to allow a modest dip, the machine ran on wheels down 146m-long rails into the sea, but served as a hen house on a neighbouring estate before being restored and returned to the beach.
A decorative stone alcove on the beachfront where Victoria or some of the nine royal children would sketch or write letters has also been restored. The view, with bobbing yacht masts counting the breeze like metronomes, apparently reminded the royals of the Bay of Naples.
‘‘It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot,’’ she wrote to Lord Melbourne in 1845. ‘‘We can walk about anywhere by ourselves without being followed or mobbed, which . . . is delightful.’’
The children came down from the house with their governess, Lady Lyttelton, to collect seashells and learn to swim in a floating sea pool devised by Albert. The