VICTORIA’S ISLAND, IN ALL ITS REGAL GLORY
Isle of Wight was once home to royals, and has many other charms
As we pulled out of the picturesque town of Ryde after the ferry from Portsmouth delivered us to the Isle of Wight, I asked our driver, Sarah Tyler, how the rest of England viewed the residents of her hilly, bucolic island.
“Laid-back, backward. Sort of country bumpkins, I suppose — which is true,” she said cheerily, adding that she loves the lifestyle.
So do many others. As Tyler steered along a narrow, winding road into the nearby village of Seaview, she pointed out the entrances to some multimillion-dollar waterfront properties — many owned by wealthy weekenders.
“DFLs, they’re called. Down from London,” she explained.
The original DFL, the one who led the way for the rest, was Queen Victoria. She and her husband, Prince Albert, fell in love with the Isle of Wight and in 1845 built a royal seaside retreat, Osborne House. They and their nine children spent as much time as they could in the opulent, yellow pile with the grand view of The Solent (the strait separating Wight from the English mainland). After Albert’s early death, the deeply bereaved Victoria often retreated to Osborne, conducting the Empire’s business far away from the clatter of London. It is also where she died in 1901 after her long, momentous reign.
Now Osborne House is a major attraction for the Isle, where it stands as a window on the Victorian age and more recently served as a set for the movie Victoria & Abdul.
Next year marks the 200th anniversary of Victoria’s birth, an opportunity for Britain to highlight the many influences that persist from the woman who gave her name to an age, a Canadian provincial capital, countless streets and a moral code.
While the Isle of Wight has a wealth of Victoriana, it has many other charms that make it worth a visit.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate, bought Farringford House as an escape from pestering fans in London. It has now been lovingly restored and you can see the office where he penned his later works and the deep blue dining room where he supped with Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll and Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Among the poet’s friends was the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was a visual chronicler of notable Victorians. She was a regular, long-term guest of the Tennysons, leveraging his connections to meet and photograph celebrities. Eventually, Tennyson’s wife, Emily, pointedly suggested that Cameron might wish to find her own house on the island.
Her home still stands, thanks to the heroic efforts of a group of locals who ignored carping skeptics to save it from demolition in the 1990s. It hosts the Dimbola Museum, where you can see samples of Cameron’s work, including a haunting, evocative photo of the famed actress Ellen Terry and a portrait of a dishevelled Tennyson, which the poet described as “The Dirty Monk.”
The Dimbola Museum radiates a quirky charm, as evinced by Brian Hinton, the affable, self-described former hippie who was one of the leaders of the effort to save the house. He showed me the room devoted to memorabilia from the famed Isle of Wight music festival. Hinton was in the crowd of 600,000 people who swarmed the island for the legendary 1970 edition — the British Woodstock — which featured Canadians Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen along with an array of iconic performers including The Doors and Jimi Hendrix.
The nearby Piano Café claims a Victorian link, reputedly once owned by the Queen’s piano tuner. True or not, it was a fine spot for a locally brewed beer and crab sandwich for lunch. A more recent arrival is Glamping the Wight Way, where we overnighted in comfortably elegant accommodations.
If you wish to explore the Victorian Age without venturing quite so far from London, there is an ongoing exhibition, Victoria Revealed, at Kensington Palace — the place where she spent an unhappy, isolated childhood as the sheltered heir to the throne and where she held her first meeting with advisers on the morning she became Queen at the tender age of 18.
A short train ride outside London, Windsor Castle is more recently famed as the setting for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but it is also a key centre of the Victoria story. She preferred it as her full-time home over Buckingham Palace and her influence persists over both the castle and the town.
The beauty of the Isle of Wight has drawn celebrity visitors since Queen Victoria used the island as a retreat.