Faced with carbon footprints and spiralling fuel prices, more and more holidaymakers are rediscovering the simple pleasures of a traditional English holiday. And what could be more English than a summer break on the Isle of Wight?
Seduced by its pristine, sandy beaches, deserted country lanes and inexhaustible supply of family-friendly attractions, my wife Sarah and I have taken our family there for the past three years. Every time we step off the ferry at Fishbourne, life seems to slow down to a more dignified pace and we feel as if we’re privy to a charming little secret.
The crossing from Portsmouth takes just 35 minutes. While on board the ferry, be sure to pick up an Isle of Wight tourist guide; my wife spotted an advertisement there – if you are unlucky enough to lose your wedding ring or keys on one of the island’s many beaches, simply ring Steve. He will arrive on his moped with a metal detector and try to find it – for free. It’s just that sort of place.
If, like us, your recipe for a perfect day at the beach is roughly two parts sand to one part people, then head for Shanklin Beach – it’s a more sedate alternative to the busy resorts at Ventnor, Ryde and Sandown. Here Joel, our four-year-old, was always in sight as he paddled, built sandcastles and ran free on the sand, and my wife also felt comfortable breastfeeding our three-month-old baby, Ben.
The esplanade here has cafés selling hot food, ice creams and buckets and spades, and I never tire of the view along the cliffs. The one downside is the trudge back up the hill path. Standing at beach level, it bears a resemblance to the north face of the Eiger, but worry not – waiting at the top is the Bay House Hotel, a favourite with the locals, where delicious food from the child-friendly bar menu restores spirits.
As the father of two boys, the first stop after the beach tends to be The Isle Of Wight Steam Railway. A pleasant elegiac feeling always comes over me when I smell the coal from the locomotives and we all climb aboard one of the lovingly restored 19th-century carriages. The line runs through five miles of picturesque countryside on its way to Smallbrook Junction, where the steam railway connects with the Island Line. The return journey takes just 40 minutes. A ticket entitles you to a day’s unlimited travel and, if you can, make sure you have time for the traditional gift shop and museum too.
Every August Bank Holiday, the Isle of Wight Steam Show pitches its tent in the railway grounds. Joel loved the mini Thomas The Tank Engine ride, the steam tractors and the Victorian-style fairground with its traditional carousels and swing-boats. I even found myself standing next to David Icke to watch a motorcycle display team; I sent a text to my wife saying: “Darling, just had an Alan Partridge moment…”
Given the fictitious chat show host’s penchant for owl sanctuaries, a visit to Appuldurcombe House, our next destination and home to the Isle Of Wight Owl & Falconry Centre, had a certain twisted logic. When he wasn’t getting hitched, Henry VIII practised falconry here, and after a game of hide-and-seek amongst the ruins of the partly-restored 18th-century baroque building, the four of us sat open-mouthed as owls, hawks and eagles swooped down literally inches above our heads on to the wrist -of the chief falconer. The flying displays take place daily (inside too, if it rains) until the end of September. During July and August, children of seven years and over can also learn to fly one of the trained birds, under parental supervision.
From here, it is only a short drive to Godshill (punctuated by a short stop to buy a bag of Isle of Wight potatoes for my mother – she won’t cook with anything else if she can help it). This sleepy village with its traditional thatched cottages is the perfect place to relax. But be warned, parking is limited.
The Model Village here is a delight. We marvelled at the detail of miniature churches, pubs, a railway and hot-air balloons (there was even a streaker on the cricket pitch) and enthusiastically took part in the challenging children’s quiz about what we had seen.
After a quick visit to the nearby Toy Museum, we crossed the road to Hollies Tea Gardens, where we sampled the island’s famous Minghella ice cream, the closest thing I’ve yet found to the vanilla ice cream of my childhood. Creamy, deep yellow and tasting like… sunshine.
For us, a trip to the Isle of Wight wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Calbourne Water Mill, the only working mill left on the island. Children love grinding corn into flour in one of the traditional grinding stones – almost as much as feeding the peacocks and laughing at daddy’s attempts to punt down the river that winds its way through the grounds. Add to that a croquet lawn, miniature golf and a pottery barn where children can create their own clay figures and Calbourne Mill is something of a one-stop shop. Over a plate of sandwiches made from homemade bread in the café, Joel said “Daddy, I want to stay here all day today and tomorrow too and I won’t get bored.” From a four-year-old with a notoriously short attention span that is a ringing endorsement.
Pottery is a must if your children love arts and crafts. While my wife browsed the gift shop and gallery dedicated to local artists, I watched Joel decorating pottery from the kiln, before introducing him to the delights of an English cream tea made with fresh clotted cream from the local farm. We had intended to just drop in, but emerged two hours later with decorated plates, a marble game for the children and some traditional kitchenware.
From here, we headed south to Blackgang Chine. Perched precariously on the cliffs near Niton, this amusement park is arguably the most famous family attraction on the island. In one form or another, it has been operating since 1843; it’s also gradually disappearing into the sea, so visit while you still can. Older children will enjoy the Cliff Hanger roller coaster and WaterForce water slides, while toddlers will love getting lost in the Giant Hedge Maze, Nurseryland and the disorientating Crooked House – the effects of which, unfortunately, reminded me of a bad hangover.
Road rage and gridlock a distant memory, we now headed north-west along the breathtaking coastal road to Freshwater and The Needles. If you can tear your eyes away from the rugged splendour of the cliffs and beaches – easily as spectacular as the ones we saw during our drive down the West Coast of the US from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Glance heavenwards and you are likely to see a kestrel hovering against the clear blue sky. The journey, as they say, is everything, but here the destination’s pretty good too.
After watching the glass blowers and confectionery makers at The Needles Park, we plucked up the courage
to board the chair lift down the vertiginous cliffs to Alum Bay, ready for our boat trip past the famous Needles Rocks and lighthouse aboard Ramblin’ Rose. Boats leave every 15 minutes during the peak season and the trips are just £4 for adults and £3 for children.
After non-stop childcare for the best part of three days, my wife took a well-earned shopping break in Cowes. The harbour here explodes in a riot of colour during Cowes Week, the world-famous sailing regatta in August when 100,000 enthusiasts descend on the resort for seven days of non-stop partying, with a spot of sailing thrown in for good measure. Parents with young children shouldn’t be put off – the young ones will love watching the yachts bobbing around in the sea, and there are plenty of family-friendly bars and cafés, such as The Anchor Inn which serves good food and has outside seating for views of the harbour.
Most young children love farmyard animals and at Brickfields Farm everything is geared towards keeping little minds occupied. While Sarah and Ben explored the barns crammed full of antique radios and farm equipment, Joel and I watched the blacksmith at work and were introduced to Harry, one of the tallest shire horses in the country. After watching other children riding on the Shetland ponies, Joel was ready to give it a try and, with a little gentle coaxing from the friendly staff, he was soon off and trotting. He later announced this was his favourite part of the whole holiday! After indulging our inner redneck at the pig races, we headed home, tired and happy.
If you prefer your animals a little more exotic, then head to Sandown and the award-winning Isle of Wight Zoo. It was raining when we last visited, and no amount of coaxing could persuade the zoo’s famous collection of big cats to venture out. But then there’s always Amazon World. Boasting the largest collection of rare and exotic creatures on the island, including birds and crocodiles, it is a great place for children to learn about conservation and see endangered species – such as anteaters, and porcupines – in their natural habitat.
The Isle of Wight is simply packed with possibilities: there are the cliff-top walks past St Catherine’s lighthouse, the Isle Of Wight Lavender Farm, Dinosaur Isle, picnics at Robin Hill Country Park, my first taste of garlic fudge at the Garlic Festival… But enough: if you’ve visited the island before, you’ll have your own memories; if you are going for the first time, well then, lucky you. Just don’t be surprised if, upon returning home, you suddenly yearn for the smell of the coal from steam trains, late afternoon walks along forgotten country lanes and that ice cream tasting like… sunshine.
- www.hovertravel.co.uk Crossing the Solent in just ten minutes. Tel: 01983 811000.
- www.islandbreaks.co.uk For island information
- www.redfunnel.co.uk Routes operating out of Southampton. Tel: 0844 844 9988.
- www.wightlink.co.uk Operating out of Portsmouth. Tel: 0871 3761000.
Places to stay
- www.theanchorcowes.com A hotel that is perfectly placed for the regatta. Tel:01983 292823.
- www.isleofwight.com/bayhouse With beautiful sea views and an indoor pool. Tel: 01983 863180.