Tales from Titchmarsh
For those who love pottering about the countryside, beaches and glorious gardens, nothing beats the Isle of Wight, says Alan
Alan waxes lyrical about the Isle of Wight
I spend quite a bit of time on The Island, loving it for all kinds of reasons, not least my ability to grow plants that fail just 35 miles away
he thinks of nothing but the Isle of Wight, and she calls it The Island as if there were no other island in the world.’ This rather carping criticism is levelled at Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and I fear that I am falling into the same trap as Jane Austen’s shy heroine. Back then – 200 years ago – its population amounted to ‘2,600 souls’*. That number has grown to around 140,000 as of 2017, and even I can’t pretend that such expansion is due to the fact that the ‘Wight Isle’ has also been known as ‘The Garden Isle’ for the past century. But in my case, that certainly helps. I spend quite a bit of my year on ‘The Island’, loving it for all kinds of reasons, not least my ability to grow plants that fail to thrive in my garden just 35 miles away as the crow flies on the mainland. Give a gardener a patch of ground where he can grow something different from his usual suspects and he will relish the opportunity. I first journeyed across The Solent – the strip of water that separates the Isle of Wight from mainland Britain – when I was about ten years old. We were visiting friends who lived in a suburb of Southampton, and so a day trip was organised. We travelled by steamer; I know that because I remember the deckchairs that we occupied on the upper deck were covered in smuts that wreaked havoc with my mum’s pale-blue cardigan and my dad’s cream flannels. I recall nothing of the island itself from that visit, but fast forward to the 1990s and we would travel over on our small live-aboard boat, exploring the creeks and harbours of The Solent by day and tying up in a marina or anchoring in Osborne Bay by night. We loved our visits so much that in the late 1990s we bought a flat on the island, then two flats, as our family grew, and three years ago we bought a house with a garden that I am, bit by bit, turning into a tropical-looking jungle, with allowances made for four small grandchildren (the Wendy house is the latest addition, accompanied by a sandpit made from an ancient Mirror dinghy). In the 15 years or so that we enjoyed our bolt-hole life in the flat, I never felt the need for a garden, but our desires change with time, and thanks to the expansion of the family that necessitated upsizing, I realised that I was ready for the challenge. And a challenge it is. The climate may be milder, but the garden slopes to the north-west and the soil is intractable slipper clay. However, 50 tonnes of topsoil plus sharp sandy gravel and a drip-irrigation system later, I find that the range of plants I can grow and get through the winter is expanding: aeoniums, echiums (though one or two perish when their roots strike the cold, wet clay), hedychiums (ginger lilies), brahea palms and oleanders in pots plus osteospermums, and agapanthus that grow like weeds. Like Fanny Price, I find myself waxing lyrical about ‘The Island’, but not just because of my own garden. There are others such as those at Mottistone and Carisbrooke Castle, as well as the island’s two jewels – Ventnor Botanic Gardens on the south coast and Osborne House in East Cowes. I feel for those who travel to Devon and Cornwall for the weekend, for although I love both counties and holiday there regularly and happily, the prospect of a journey that on a Friday evening will take at best four hours and at worst nine hours (with small children in the back of the car), is a prospect that is daunting in the extreme for a weekend stopover. It is our good fortune that our journey to the island can be accomplished in less than two hours door to door. I sing the island’s praises regularly to those who love rolling countryside, staggeringly beautiful views, sandy or pebbly beaches (we have a choice), fine restaurants and secret coves, with walking, cycling and sailing in abundance. When they say, ‘I went there once as a child and it rained’, I have some sympathy. But deep down I know that they don’t know what they’re missing.