I’d only heard a few things about the Isle of Wight in my life and none was particularly inspiring.
I remembered the words of a friend, who’d described his childhood holidays there as ‘numbingly dull’. At best, the island is presented ambiguously. On the one hand, it witnessed the invention of the hovercraft and still has red squirrels. One the other, it gave us Level 42 and has welcomed the likes of David Icke and Alan Titchmarsh as residents.
So when friends decided to book a few days’ holiday there for rambling, charity shopping and drinking, I was more amenable than enthusiastic.
Britain in miniature
From our arrival at the dinky jetty at Fishbourne, an idyllic little harbour with neat houses peeking from the steep wooded hillside, the distinct character of the Isle of Wight became apparent. It satisfied the stereotype of looking like a Britain in miniature, assembled from collective memories (imperfectly) preserved in aspic. Keen to avoid the brash pubs and amusements of Sandown and Ryde and the yacht-club types on the harboursides at Yarmouth and Cowes, we sought refugue in one of Vintage Vacations’ quirky holiday homes. The Mission is a converted corrugated-iron chapel, which once served as the Blackgang Mission Hall. The 1895 structure has been renovated sympathetically to leave it much as it would have been when first built, with warm wooden floors and interior walls.
It’s in the quiet village of Chale at the southern tip of the island, a mile or two from the ‘family attraction’ of Blackgang Chine. Claiming to be the UK’s oldest theme park and established as a pleasure garden in 1840s, Blackgang Chine is a series of steep cliffside paths linking a bizarre selection of themed rides, mad home-brewed fibreglass figures and garden-shed animatronics. Charmingly uncorporate to us, but possibly a bit underwhelming for modern kids, its days are probably (and sadly) numbered due to the relentless erosion of the sea cliffs as much as changing trends in fairground fun.
Sea mist and rolling downland
Also nearby is Whale Chine, a breathtaking 140ft-deep ravine that cuts through powdery sandstone to the beach. A rickety and rotten wooden staircase plastered with ‘DANGER – KEEP OFF’ signs deterred all but the most foolhardy of our band, who reported that he would have got to the beach if the last 20 feet of staircase hadn’t been missing. The rest of us stood at the top and marvelled at the solid wall of sea mist that was rolling up to the cliffs like white loft insulation.
After a hard day wandering safely over rolling chalk downland, through hushed woods and around hospice shops – the IOW is rarely rock ’n’ roll – it was a pleasure to return to our church. It’s easier to find locally grown produce, deli treats and farm-shop delights than it is to shop in supermarkets on the island – and, as we had two highly competitive amateur chefs in our group, we ate in every evening. After dinner, and mundane chores such as loading the dishwasher, we’d relax with a game or two of table football then adjourn to our local. The Wight Mouse served decent beers but wasn’t exactly the cosy seventeenth-century smuggler’s den we’d hoped for, having expanded into a sprawling family restaurant and hotel.
And the verdict? For this Vectis virgin, the experience turned out to be a pleasant one. The ‘little England’ feeling can get a bit eerie at times, but quirky accommodation provides something like light relief. I’ll be going back with my bike in July, but I’ll check into a retro trailer or a luxury tent. Do an ordinary B&B-plus-beach break in the Isle of Wight and you might just get sucked into that timewarp.
Where to eat
Ocean View chippy
We were resolutely self-catering on our break, but we enjoyed some ace fish and chips from the Ocean View, high on the hill behind Ventnor. It’s takeaway only, so we ate ours on the sea wall in glorious evening sunshine.
The Mission is a beauty and ideal for biggish groups. It has a well-equipped kitchen-diner fitted with 1950s ‘English Rose’ units, which are made out of old Spitfires. Each of the four bedrooms has a piece of period detail or a quirky feature. High-style furniture from the ’60s and ’70s counterpoints Victorian whimsy and ’50s kitsch along with wi-fi and an iPod dock. The chapel is just one of the buildings managed by Vintage Vacations, best known for its American Airstream trailers.
Vintage Vacations (07802 758113, www.vintagevacations.co.uk).Rates £545, Fri and Sat night, sleeps eight. Price includes all linen, towels and fuel (logs chargeable); price valid till July 9. Mid-summer, weekly stays only: £1,725 per week.
Kevin Younger travelled by Wightlink car ferry from Portsmouth and paid around £70 per person, but it’s worth phoning all the operators to ask about deals. The crossing takes about 40 minutes. Check: Wightlink (0871 376 1000, www.wightlink.co.uk); Red Funnel (0844 844 9988, www.redfunnel.co.uk).
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