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The isle where time stood still

PUBLISHED: 11:30 28 August 2014

Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight

Paul Nixon Photography 01473430707 07904296577

Mention the Isle of Wight and images of yachts crashing through waves probably come to mind.

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And while the island is rightly proud of its sailing heritage, for me, its chief attraction is the way life seems to have stood still. Three cars represent a traffic jam.

But visit Cowes and there is no mistaking its sailing heritage. Shops, pubs and restaurants all have a nautical feel.

Ryde is the most traditional of seaside towns, complete with promenade, pier and theatre, as well as a golf course and seafront bowling green. On the day we visited, the pub where we had lunch couldn’t take payment by a new-fangled debit card.

The powers-that-be have turned The Needles into something of a mini theme park, where you buy supersaver tickets that entitle you to a ride on the chair-lift and assorted fairground rides. If you do nothing else, you must take the chair-lift, which provides spectacular views. Young children will love the fairground attractions. There are also plenty of places to eat.

Osborne House is visited by more people than any other attraction and it’s not difficult to understand why.

It was built between 1845 and 1851 for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a summer home and they spent a lot of time there. Prince Albert designed it in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo. It was built by Thomas Cubitt, a London architect and builder whose company built the main façade of Buckingham Palace for the royal couple in 1847.

Queen Victoria died at Osborne House in January 1901. Following her death, it was given to the state with a few rooms retained as a private royal museum dedicated to Queen Victoria. From 1903 until 1921 it was used as a junior officer training college for the Royal Navy.

Today, Osborne House is under the care of English Heritage. The former Naval College’s cricket pavilion was converted into a holiday cottage in 2004 and can be booked by members of the public. Guests at the cottage can use the Estate’s private beach.

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At Swiss Cottage, the inside story of life as a Victorian royal child is revealed. Vivid new displays, a garden trail and a new play area enable families to experience how the children of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert played and learnt here.

Visitors can discover the interests and personalities of each of Queen Victoria’s nine children in the ‘Childhood at Osborne’ exhibition.

Incredibly, Thomas Banyard Dowsing, the great-great-great uncle of Paul Nixon who took the photographs for this article worked for Queen Victoria, spending 13 years here as lodge keeper from 1869. He retired in 1892 and died two years later. Paul said: “It was a moving experience to visit Osborne House and see where a member of my family worked all those years ago.”

Osborne House is open daily from 10am until 6pm and tickets cost £13.90 for adults and £8.30 for children aged five to 15. A family ticket (two adults and three children) costs £36.10, terrific value.

Dimbola Lodge was the Isle of Wight home of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron from 1860 until 1875. Cameron bought two adjacent properties and linked them with a stunning Gothic tower. Dimbola Lodge was her home and her studio where the greatest of her photographs were produced. Dimbola Museum and Galleries is now open to the public.

In 2006, a sculptural tribute to Jimi Hendrix was erected – Hendrix, of course, gave an unforgettable performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1968. It really is another must-see for first-time visitors.

No self-respecting foodie can leave without visiting The Garlic Farm. The owners have been growing garlic on the island for more 50 years and are the UK’s largest specialist garlic grower. Check out http://www.thegarlicfarm.co.uk/ where you will also find some super recipes.

The island covers 150 square miles, with more than half designated as an area of outstanding beauty. It is home to red squirrels, bats, pyramidal orchid, a protected species of dormouse and the Glanville Fritillary butterfly, which thrives on the crumbling cliffs.

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There are glorious beaches and for the more adventurous, pony trekking or forest walks. And only one small stretch of dual carriageway.

You can’t fail to fall under its spell.

The Golf

The island is just 25 miles long and 13 miles wide at its broadest part, but it still boasts eight golf courses - and some of them are crackers. You could argue until the cows come home (or should that be ‘until the Cowes come home’?), about which is the best, but the indisputable truth is that this is a wonderful place to come for a golf break.

My favourite is Freshwater Bay, which is one of only two 18-hole courses on the island. Measuring just 5,725 yards, it provides proof positive that a golf courses doesn’t need to measure in excess of 7,000 yards to provide a great test.

It is situated on Afton Down and offers glorious panoramic views of the Solent and the English Channel on almost every hole.

A downland links course on which Neolithic and Bronze Age Burial mounds form “natural” hazards on most holes, the site is owned by the National Trust and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a European Special Area of Conservation, home to many rare and endangered forms of fauna and wildlife.

Play this course on a windy day and you will struggle to remain on your feet. Fortunately, I played it on a glorious summer day and had the good fortune to play really well, playing the par 69 in 72 strokes after coming home in a one-under-par 34.

The front nine is probably the more challenging, with sloping fairways demanding well-placed drives and the well-protected greens calling for approach shots to the fat part of most putting surfaces.

Turn for home and you face several blind tee shots. Put the ball in the right place (and there are plenty of well placed marker posts) and you will be left with straightforward approaches; put it in the wrong spot and a bogey is a good score. Many of the holes on the second nine are flatter, but no easier for that. The signature hole is the par three 14th, measuring 186 yards. Called The Drop, it plunges more than 100 feet from tee to green and is surrounded by thick rough, with out of bounds no more than 15 yards behind the green. It is a beautiful hole.

So, too, is the 18th, a long, downhill par four with a sloping fairway. Some 50 yards or so in front of the green is a huge gulley - put your ball in there and you can run up a cricket score and require the services of a search party to get you out.

I can say without fear of contradiction that the greens are among the best you will find anywhere - fast and true.

Freshwater Bay is a wonderful course and the best news for visitors is that you can be sure of a warm welcome from the secretary and the bar staff.

Shanklin and Sandown Golf Club is another welcoming club, which also boasts terrific facilities for members and visitors alike. The course measures 6,063 yds and is a par 70.

Founded in 1900, it is recognised for its natural beauty and challenging qualities. The fifth and 13th holes are two of the best you will find anywhere in the South of England. There are some strong slopes and gradients, with gorse, tree and shrub-lined fairways making accurate driving and careful club selection essential for low scoring.

And, like Freshwater Bay, the after-golf experience is marvellous. There is a spacious, elevated clubhouse that looks out over the ninth hole and serves some of the best food you will have at any golf club.

Founded in 1896, Newport Golf Club is another scenic downland course, measuring 5,579 yards with a par of 68. With views over to Southampton, Newport has nine testing holes plus a challenging back nine. The fifth and sixth holes are especially challenging. You will once again find a warm welcome in the clubhouse, where you can enjoy a pint and a meal.

One of the island’s most popular attractions is Osborne House, which I will deal with separately. Within the grounds of Queen Victoria’s much loved holiday residence lies Osborne Golf Club. It is a nine-hole layout that you play twice, adding up to 6,070 yards with a par of 70. Renowned for its red squirrels, it is a classic parkland course featuring several woods and copses and fabulous views out across the Solent.

Other courses are Cowes Golf Club, a nine-hole course played twice to make a length of 5,878 yards with a par of 70; Ryde Golf Club, another nine-hole course played twice, has recently been extended to a par 70. It was designed in 1895 and is an undulating parkland layout that runs adjacent to the coastal path; Ventnor Golf Club was founded in 1892 and is the oldest course on the island. There are 12 holes, seven of which you play twice; Westridge Golf Centre has the only floodlit driving range on the Island, and the largest golf shop. It is another nine-hole course.

Where to stay

If you stay at the Priory Bay Hotel in Seaview, you may feel like you have died and gone to heaven. It is a stunning country house hotel, set in 60 beautiful acres, with fabulous gardens and woodland running down to the nearby beach and bay. It also boasts an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, croquet, petanque and its own six-hole golf course.

It’s the sort of place where you would want to hold a fairytale wedding, and it is becoming increasingly popular for that very purpose so if you want to check it out you had better get it booked quickly. Priory Bay can accommodate about 100 people in a series of rooms in the main building and in period buildings in the grounds. We stayed in the Tithe Barn, which comes with a thatched roof, three bedrooms and two bathrooms, one of which is ensuite and includes his and hers sinks, and a massive bath, complete with jacuzzi. There is also an ample lounge-cum-sitting room.

Inside the hotel, there are a series of lounges and drawing rooms, a bar, two restaurants and an outdoor eating area which is perfect on a warm summer’s evening.

Priory Bay is the Isle of Wight’s leading country house hotel. Set within a 60-acre estate, its period buildings have spectacular views out to sea, with gardens and woodland running down to the bay. The hotel says that the gardens and woods inspire their chefs to use the finest seasonal ingredients. “Whether foraged, farmed or fished we are passionate about local produce,” it says.

And I can vouch for that. There is much to like about Priory Bay, but I guarantee that the most treasured memory you will take away with you will be of the oustanding quality of the food. Even thinking about it now has my mouth watering.

A typical menu contains a selection of starters that includes Celeriac and Apple Soup, Seared Scallops (cooked to perfection, I might add), Ham Hock Terrine, Home Cured Salmon and Cured Brisola, with mains including Whole Plaice, Confit Duck Leg, Seared Loin of Cod, Local Sea Bass and 35 Day Aged Rib of Island Beef. For dessert, you could try the best Eton Mess I have ever eaten, or Lemon Tart, Chocolate Brownie, Summer Fruit Crumble or the Priory Cheese Board. There is a first-class wine menu, and the staff are happy to recommend specific wines to accompany your food.

But the experience I will never forget is the tasting menu prepared by Darren Williams, the operations manager who has worked as a chef as several top restaurants, including Le Gavroche. First came our snacks - Homemade Crisps, Pickles, Home Cured Salmon, Ham Hock Terrine and Caper Popcorn. Our first course was Isle of Wight Asparagus served with Poached Duck Egg, washed down with a fabulous Fabiano Setiere Castello 4357 Prosecco.

Next came our second course, Fillet of Sea Bass, with Mussels and Scallops, accompanied by a 2012 Casa Maria Verdejo Sauvignon. And then, the piece de restistance, 70 Day Aged Rib of Hay Roasted Island Beef, Barbecued potatoes and pickled onions, with a 2009 Chateau Deville Bordeaux - a very good year!

And then to dessert, Priory Posset, with a delightful pudding wine, 2010Clos Lapeyre Sec and Petit Fours - peanut butter fudge, fresh cut honeycomb, Homemade Honeycomb and Mango Pate de Fruits.

It was a feast fit for a king, and I loved every last morsel of it. Not only did it all taste fabulous, but the presentation was wondrous.

The Priory Bay wants a Michelin Star - the only surprise for me is that they don’t already have one. I cannot believe you will find better food than this is any of London’s top eateries - and certainly nowhere else on the Isle of Wight.

The hotel says: “We are just two-and-a-half hours from London, and our aim is to spoil you, whether you are here for a short break, a family holiday, a wedding or a company outing.” They achieved that - with bells on!

Getting there

From Portsmouth, it’s a 40-minute ferry ride, and you can also travel from Southampton and Lymington. You can make the crossing with Red Funnel, Wightlink Ferries or Isle of Wight Ferries.

Our trip was organised by the Isle of Wight Tourist Board - you can contact them at http://www.visitisleofwight.co.uk

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