Osborne House stars in a new film and in real life along a trail of Her Majesty’s favourite holiday places. By Ruth Brindle
For a monarch who did her best to stay private and even at times to hide away from public gaze, we are now learning a lot about Queen Victoria’s life through the ITV series Victoria and Stephen Frears’ new film Victoria & Abdul.
That story of an unlikely friendship between the Queen and her Indian servant is a fascinating insight into her private life following Albert’s death in 1861. But it is clear that his early death had a devastating effect on her life. Theirs was a loving partnership and together they produced a large brood of children and there was nowhere they liked to celebrate and enjoy family time more than on the Isle of Wight.
They treasured their holidays on the island enjoying its beauty, from its understated delights to spectacular sights. Now Visit Isle of Wight has made it excitingly easy to follow in Her Majesty’s footsteps and visit some of her favourite places and other locations of royal significance.
This not only takes in their grand and gorgeous ‘holiday home’ Osborne House in East Cowes but also other smaller venues Victoria and Albert favoured as off-duty holidaymakers – even the hotel where she regularly enjoyed to take afternoon tea.
So as I started on my own journey along Victoria’s island trail which includes 13 stop off points around the island I fully expected to be treated right royally and I wasn’t disappointed.
Taking the car on one of Red Funnel’s regular ferries across the Solent to Cowes is easy. The journey takes around an hour and the place to be is the new Signature Lounge on selected crossings. For a small extra charge you can sit in comfort and away from the crowds to enjoy panoramic views of the passing scenery from your comfy armchair sipping a complimentary coffee or tea. Take your pick of pastries too. It was a great start.
On arrival in East Cowes it was then just a very short drive to my base for an all-too short stay on the island. My base was the Albert Cottage Hotel which is both charming and has its own connections with Victoria and Albert.
The 10-bedroom boutique hotel was bought in 1852 by Prince Albert to be part of the Botanic Garden development of the Osborne House estate, and was used together with the adjacent Osborne Cottage by Royal guests.
You can walk in the footsteps of Royalty along a covered corridor constructed to link the two properties during the building’s Victorian heyday. Now it leads you from the main hotel to the Consort Restaurant and bar area.
When Queen Victoria died in 1901 Victoria’s youngest daughter Princess Beatrice briefly used the cottage before moving to Carisbrooke Castle in 1913.
My room was spacious and beautifully decorated with dark, Gothic-style furniture and the bathroom was enormous and luxurious.
A good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast later it was just a couple of minutes’ drive to the first stop on Victoria’s Island Trail – Osborne House to delve more into Victoria’s life on the island.
It’s a stunning building from the outside, designed in an Italianate style by Prince Albert. But as soon as you enter the palace it is obvious this was a much-loved home too. The corridors are lined with classical-style statues many of which Victoria and Albert gave each other as gifts. Along the Indian corridor you’ll find a portrait of Abdul, the Queen’s servant and companion and the subject of the film featuring their relationship starring Judi Dench and Bollywood actor Ali Fazal.
The walkway leads to the spectacular and surprising Durbar Room inspired by Victoria’s role as Empress of India. Its intricate carvings are a marvel.
The rooms are sumptuously decorated, of course, but it’s easy to imagine the Royal family living there. The nursery is particularly fascinating kept as it would have been for the Royal couple’s children – nine in all – cots and toys still on display.
A framed family tree leaves visitors in no doubt how important this dynasty was in shaping Europe’s Royal families today.
Albert was also particularly interested in teaching his children the day to day necessities of life and in the charming Swiss cottage he built in the grounds the children could learn to cook and produce meals with fresh produce grown by their own hands in the cottage garden.
As a keen swimmer I was particularly interested in visiting Osborne’s private beach where the public can take to the waters where Victoria also dipped her toe in the sea. Unfortunately her private bathing hut is not available to the hoi polio, although it’s on display and makes a popular photo spot, but splashing about in the water is allowed. You can relax, enjoy the sea view and slurp an ice cream or cup of tea in the café too.
The beach is quite a long walk from the house but there are regular minibus shuttles available. Osborne House is wonderful location where you can fill a whole day with activity.
Although I didn’t have time in two days to enjoy all the stops on the trail, I’d urge anyone following in Victoria’s footsteps to visit the seaside resort of Ventnor and particularly Ventnor Botanic Garden, it’s a gem.
Billed as Britain’s hottest garden it is 5 degrees hotter than anywhere else thanks to the sheltered microclimate of Ventnor’s Undercliff. As I wandered around the 22 acres of the sub-tropical garden packed with 30, 000 rare and exotic specimens it was difficult not to take snaps of every plant. They are spectacular and none more so than those in the Victorian era Palm Garden. The Chusan Palms here are the oldest in the British Isles and were presented to Queen Victoria. She wanted them planted at Ventnor which was originally a convalescent hospital for sufferers of tuberculosis. The spot had been chosen for the health promoting benefits of the microclimate and this tradition of growing plants that promote wellbeing is still carried on at the botanic garden. There’s so much to discover here for all ages, not least some eye-poppingly large water lilies. It’s a fascinating and beautiful place to spend time and learn a lot about plants, their place in the world and how their preservation is so important to the planet we live on.
Also in Ventnor is The Royal Hotel, another favourite spot of Queen Victoria’s. The monarch came to Ventnor on recommendation of her surgeon Sir James Clark who was very vocal about the resort’s health giving climate. The Ventnor Hotel was renamed The Royal Hotel after the Queen visited to take afternoon tea in 1855. The hotel is stunning and taking the Royal afternoon tea on the south-facing Geranium Terrace was a very special experience for me. It’s the first time I’ve seen a ‘wall’ of geraniums. This climate really is out of the ordinary.
Filled to the brim with sandwiches and exquisite cakes, it was then on to Shanklin Chine. You may ask what is a chine? I had to look it up – it’s a steep-sided coastal river valley. But this does not prepare you for the almost mystical atmosphere of the verdant valley with a waterfall at the end of a not too difficult climb. At night it’s magical. Queen Victoria visited with her mother in 1833 aged 14. She also returned in 1846 with Prince Albert and Leopold and Louise, the Belgian King and Queen.
I was able to pack in one more stop on the trail at Carisbrooke Castle in Newport, once the residence of Queen Victoria’s daughter Beatrice. It was a royal prison in the Civil War of 1642-1651 and I was spellbound by the story that King Charles I was imprisoned here before his execution. He did try to escape out of one of his room’s narrow windows only to get stuck half way. Beatrice became Governor of the Isle of Wight in 1896 and lived with her mother the Queen at Osborne House. Her museum of local history is fascinating and don’t miss the 16th century well house where donkey power draws up water. The views from the castle’s Norman battlements are worth the climb too.
My own trip to the island was far too short and I’m determined to go back to visit more of the Queen’s favourites such as The Needles Landmark Attraction, Blackgang Chine, Egypt Point and Farringford in Freshwater Bay. This was the island retreat of Alfred, Lord Tennyson a regular guest at Osborne, who also hosted Prince Albert in his home.
Cue another island trail: Isle of Wight Literary Heroes.
So this island is drawing me back, just as it did Victoria. She knew when she’d found somewhere special and I feel it too.
Visit Isle of Wight
For more details and an interactive map of Victoria’s Island Trail, plus information on attractions, events, accommodation and more go to the official tourism website visitisleofwight.co.uk
Albert Cottage Hotel, East Cowes, PO32 6BD
B&B room rates: Double/Twin from £120 to £140 per night. 01983 299309.
Royal Hotel, Ventnor PO38 1JJ
Royal afternoon tea £23pp.
Shanklin Chine, PO37 6BW
Open April 7 to October 29, 2017
Osborne, East Cowes, PO32 6JX
Carisbrooke Castle, Newport PO30 1XY
Ventnor Botanic Gardens, PO38 1UL
Red Funnel operates a regular services between Southampton and Cowes on the Isle of Wight. The vehicle service between Southampton and East Cowes takes just 55 minutes and costs from £44 for a day return and £56 for a short-stay return for a vehicle and up to seven passengers. The high-speed foot-passenger Red Jet service between Southampton and West Cowes can take just 23 minutes and costs from £9.70 for an adult return. For more information please see redfunnel.co.uk
Red Funnel has recruited young film maker, vlogger and classic MINI enthusiast, Charlie Lower to produce a series of short films around his mini-adventures on the Isle of Wight. Accompanying each of the films is a downloadable itinerary which suggests lots of things to do and see during a short break on the island, find them at miniiowadventures.co.uk
Watch a trailer for the BigIoWAdventure at bigiowadventure.co.uk