Visit the Isle of Wight to follow in the footsteps of a queen, writes Ruth Brindle
You’ve watched the TV series and seen the film Victoria & Abdul at the cinema, now experience some of those locations for yourself on a tour around the Isle of Wight.
This was Victoria’s favourite place to take a holiday with her beloved Albert and their children and after spending a long weekend here it’s easy to see why.
Admittedly I wasn’t staying in the splendour of the royal home at Osborne House, but I was just next door in a building that was once part of the estate. The Albert Cottage Hotel is charming and very individual. But more of that later.
Quite rightly the Isle of Wight tourist board Visit Isle of Wight is making the most of all this on-screen exposure to lure many more tourists to this already popular island with the recent launch of a fantastic and well thought out Victoria’s Island Trail.
You can follow in the Queen’s footsteps around the island with an interactive online map or by picking up a leaflet to see some 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.
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 at 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 with a big bath and spacious walk-in shower. As I was travelling with my sister this was ideal as the small suite included a separate bedroom.
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 which stars Judi Dench and Bollywood actor Ali Fazal. Directed by Stephen Frears the film tells the story of an unlikely friendship between the Queen and her Indian servant who became her Munshi, or teacher. It was his grand clothes in the same portrait which initially sparked the interest of the book’s author Shrabani Basu. She felt he was not just an ordinary ‘servant’ and the film provides a fascinating insight into Victoria’s private life following Albert’s death in 1861.
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.
Queen Victoria’s bathtub is a revelation as is the bed where she died.
Albert was also particularly keen to teach 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 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 a wonderful location where you can fill a whole day with activity.
Although I didn’t have time in just 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 the site of a convalescent hospital for tuberculosis sufferers. The spot had been chosen for the health promoting benefits of the microclimate and the 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 (not least because of its outdoor swimming pool) and taking the Royal afternoon tea on the south-facing Geranium Terrace was a very special experience. 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.
The other stops along the trail are:
St Mildred's Church, East Cowes
Just a short carriage ride from Osborne, St Mildred’s Church, Whippingham was redesigned by Prince Albert, and rebuilt in a style considered to be more suitable for the Royal family.
The family worshipped at St Mildred’s when in residence at Osborne. Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter Princess Beatrice and her husband were married here and buried here.
There’s a permanent exhibition of royal memorabilia in the church.
Newport Minster, Newport
Initially rebuilt by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert because they thought it wasn’t suitable to house the remains of Princess Elizabeth, Charles 1’s daughter, Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the new church in 1854.
Queen Victoria also commissioned a marble memorial to Princess Elizabeth by sculptor Carlo Marochetti, which was presented to the church in 1857.
Northwood House, West Cowes
Bought in 1793, and extensively renovated in 1837, Northwood House was part of a huge estate owned by the Ward family. The manor house was the venue for Victorian high society balls and parties, many of which were attended by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family.
Needles Landmark Attraction, Alum Bay
The Marconi Monument at The Needles Landmark Attraction commemorates the spot where Guglielmo Marconi set up his revolutionary wireless equipment and sent the very first wireless transmission.
In August 1898, Queen Victoria was said to be “delighted” when Marconi, summoned to Osborne House, went on to establish radio communication between Queen Victoria at Osborne and the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) who was onboard the Royal Yacht ‘Osborne’.
Farringford, Freshwater Bay
The Isle of Wight retreat of Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Farringford was the centre of the Freshwater Circle group of writers, artists and intellectuals.
Tennyson was a regular guest at Osborne. Prince Albert visited Farringford in 1856, leaving with a handpicked bunch of cowslips to take back for the Queen.
Blackgang Chine, Chale
Blackgang Chine received the royal seal of approval when Queen Victoria visited in August 1853 to see the skeleton of the whale that had washed up near the Needles – it was Blackgang Chine’s very first attraction which is still on view today.
Prince Consort Building, Ryde
Now a private residence, the Prince Consort building was previously known as the Royal Victoria Yacht Club and overlooks the Solent from the western end of the esplanade at Ryde. It was built as a private place for the Queen, because the Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes would not allow female visitors - whether they were royal or not.
Egypt Point, West Cowes
The coastal viewpoint between Cowes and Gurnard was one of Queen Victoria's favourite places. The Queen had an irresistibly romantic nature and it was from here that she enjoyed the magnificent sunsets and a panoramic view of the Solent which people still love today.
Fort Victoria Country Park, Yarmouth
During the early part of Victoria’s reign, her Government made a huge investment to protect Portsmouth from the threat of French invasion and Prince Albert, an avid Army reformer, was involved in the design and naming of the first of Palmerston’s coastal defences on the Island, Fort Victoria.
Occupying a commanding view of the Solent west of Yarmouth, and now on the edge of a woodland country park, the Fort’s brick casemates currently host a series of indoor family attractions including an archaeology discovery centre, cafe, model railway, reptilarium and planetarium.
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 www.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
You can also follow the Island’s Literary Heroes’ Trail on your next visit.
Red Funnel operates 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 www.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 www.miniiowadventures.co.uk
Watch a trailer for the BigIoWAdventure at www.bigiowadventure.co.uk