An Island Retreat

Henley was staging an ‘ultra-triathlon’ last Sunday with many road closures scheduled from 6am till late into the evening. Competitors were to complete a 3.8 km swim, a 180km cycle ride and a 42km run, which meant that many properties would be cut off from dozens of roads. A phone number was given out to enable motorcycle marshals to be despatched to escort trapped homeowners to their destinations – and then only if important journeys were contemplated.

Given that the road by my flat was very likely to be closed for most of the day, my young friend and I decided to avoid any problems by spending the time in the Isle of Wight. I’d last visited it as a boy and my friend had never been there. So on Saturday morning we headed south. Before catching the afternoon ferry we stopped at Mottisfont in Hampshire. Originally an Augustinian priory in the 12th century, it was converted into a private house after the dissolution of the monasteries. For more than 800 years people have lived and worked on the Mottisfont estate, sheltered in the valley of the river Test. Anglers have been coming to Mottisfont for generations.

We wandered through the house and eventually came across the cellarium. This dates from the early 13th century and is the most complete part of the mediaeval monastic building to survive.

In 1934, Gilbert Russell, a merchant banker, whose much younger wife was a society hostess and patron of the arts, bought the house and breathed new life into the place. Among Maud Russell’s many friends invited to stay at Mottisfont were Ian Fleming and Rex Whistler. We visited the ‘Rex Whistler Room’ and I must say I was spellbound by his amazing trompe l’oeil murals painted in a light- hearted gothic style. Most impressive was this marvelous trompe l’oeil alcove.

While Maud Russell was away for the weekend Rex Whistler decided to embellish his paintings and at the same time tease her about her hatred of bonfires (the butler would be sent to put them out). You can see how Whistler’s ermine-draped urn is puffing out clouds of smoke as it sits in the alcove surrounded by objects signifying Maud Russell’s interests, including books and a lute. You need to see the actual painting to appreciate the effect. (Sadly this work was Rex Whistler’s last and finest piece before he was killed on active service in France during the Second World War). 

In another room we came across a whole table devoted to iced cakes. (And we didn’t eat any of them!)

On to Lymington where we caught the ferry that afternoon to Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight

After a very windy visit to the Needles

…where I was too lazy to attempt the steep 40 minute walk to and from the Old Battery as it was howling a gale – we made our way to a very comfortable B&B near Yarmouth where we stayed the night.

The following morning we decided to visit Osborne – the estate bought by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1845 as an escape from court life in London and Windsor.

The rooms are full of exquisite works of art. (The only things I didn’t much like were little marble sculptures depicting the limbs of many of Queen Victoria’s babies). She used Osborne for more than 50 years, and entertained visiting ministers, foreign royalty, and her own extensive family there. We weren’t allowed to take photographs inside the house but the tour was quite thorough in true Victorian style. Stepping outside the house we wandered around the garden – again beautifully maintained.

A twenty-minute walk in the grounds led us to the Swiss Cottage garden. In one of the thatched- roof huts was a collection of little wheelbarrows and pulling carts – all marked in gold initials of the various Royal owners. Prince Albert gave the children a plot of ground in the garden where he or she could grow soft fruits and vegetables to sell at commercial rates to Prince Albert as a practical exercise in market gardening. The gardens were left as the children had them until 1905, when they were given over to flowers. This is a view of the Swiss Cottage from the garden

Further on we came across Queen Victoria’s bathing machine. This photograph of the bathing machine shows some of the original stone rails brought from the beach. Behind it you can see the Alberta deckhouse. It came from the royal steam yacht Alberta – a tender to the Royal yacht Victoria and Albert. (This deckhouse spent many years as a garden shed in Portsmouth until rescued by the Navy and given to Osborne in the 1970’s)

Next stop, the Butterfly Farm on the east of the island. It was like stepping into a tropical garden as we entered the aviary (or whatever it’s called). A number of really beautiful, large blue butterflies fluttering around greeted us. I wondered why we never saw one at rest, until my young friend pointed out that when settled they showed a completely different pattern from the other side of the wings. Like this

I tried gentle blowing on one of them to see if she would reveal her blue underside but she was having none of that and fluttered off again, but a very large white butterfly brushed my head as it went by. My young friend said it was trying to mate with my white hair! This green and black butterfly appears to have lost one of its appendages but the white one looks perfect to me.

We carried on round the island, enjoying an ever- changing undulating landscape – even seeing a red squirrel – well I didn’t, but my companion did. Luckily the grey squirrel hasn’t reached the Isle of Wight yet.

The Dinosaur World attraction was a little disappointing but at least they had a lot of real dinosaur bones as well as the gaudy models. As we parked the car a lady gave us her tickets, as it seems her young son was frightened and they didn’t get past the first exhibit. This one is real however.

So our day ended with a visit to a photographic studio at Freshwater. I was particularly interested as they were holding an extensive exhibition of the inspired Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, who lived on the Isle of Wight. We were hoping to buy a little glass jar full of multi-coloured sands from the island, but by the time we reached the only place that sold them (the Needles) we were too late as the shop had closed. We’d booked the evening ferry back to the mainland so had time to enjoy an early fish dinner at the Blue Crab restaurant in Falmouth before we drove on board under the arch of this rainbow.