If England were the star of an Austin Powers movie, this bite-size chunk of chalk off its south coast would be its Mini Me. It has most everything...
ISLE OF WIGHT — If England were the star of an Austin Powers movie, this bite-size chunk of chalk off its south coast would be its Mini Me.
It has most everything the mother country has:
Castles, a royal palace and Roman ruins; a web of walking paths to rival the Cotswolds’; white cliffs à la Dover; memorabilia of famed Victorian literati chums Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lewis Carroll and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; a culture steeped in the sea; and enough blustery weather to ruddy your cheeks like a local’s.
It was the weather that nearly sent us scurrying back to the mainland before we had a chance to explore much of what Wight residents call “England in miniature.”
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Just as we began boarding the afternoon ferry in Southampton for the island town of Cowes, a wintry wind blew up, sending inky clouds and heavy seas scudding across the Solent, the narrow stretch of sea that separates Wight from England proper.
“It may be May on the calendar, but it’s winter out there,” the ticket clerk affirmed as commuters and tourists stampeded aboard to get out of the cold. “All the plants I put in last week are shriveled. Actually December was more lenient.”
By the time we had taxied to our B&B and scampered inside, an icy horizontal rain had us looking like we’d swum the Solent. We blew on our fingers to get the feeling back and consoled ourselves that tomorrow should resemble May more than December and we’d be able to take a look around.
The Isle of Wight, a diamond-shaped island off Britain’s south coast, measures only 23 miles east to west, and just over 13 from north to south, making it about two-thirds the size of Whidbey Island.
Many of Wight’s 130,000 inhabitants never venture north to Britain for reasons people we talked with couldn’t express. And it’s hard to find a Londoner who’s ever taken the two-hour trip by train and ferry to see what Wight has to offer.
The island is best known for sailing the Solent and taking long walks across emerald-green moors, along white sand beaches and through quaint villages.
Sailing season starts with the Round the Island Yacht Race in early June (the America’s Cup originated here in 1851). And, every May, during the annual walking festival, some 15,000 intrepid walkers take to more than 500 miles of footpaths that criss-cross the island.
We were a week too late for the walking festival (it’s billed as the U.K.’s largest) and a couple of weeks too early for the first regatta, but we hoped to spend the better part of three days seeing as much of mini-England as possible.
With a freezing rain still blowing off the Solent the next morning, we took up the offer of a local to give us a bit of a tour by car. We drove past rolling farmland with fat black-and-white cattle and signs offering fresh-laid eggs for sale, through seaside villages and past the Needles, great lumps of chalk that rise out of the sea like icebergs at the westernmost point of the island.
We stopped the car to marvel at the sea foam that blew up from the beach and skittered across the road like stiffly whipped egg whites.
“Our island weather is complicated,” our driver apologized. “The south is seen as very mild, but our north is more like Britain. Sometimes it’s sunny here and awful on the east side of the island. We often tell visitors you should have been here yesterday.”
Emperors and queens
With instructions how to catch the bus back to Cowes, our new friend let us off in Brading, where the ruins of a Roman farm and vineyard are being dug up and preserved.
The Romans arrived in Britain and on Wight around 43 A.D.
The original inhabitants apparently called the island Wiht, a word some experts think described how the land rises from the sea. The Romans translated that as Vectis, from a Latin word for “lifting.” The original name has been resurrected, but the island’s bus company is called Vectis today.
There are remains of eight Roman-era settlements on Wight, though most are ruins too far gone to be tourist attractions. Excavation began on the Brading villa and grounds in 1880. The well-preserved mosaic floors and wall paintings are now protected by a large temperature- and humidity-controlled museum structure.
The inhabitants probably herded sheep on the chalky hillsides nearby, Jo Cowan, a guide, told our group of visitors. And there’s evidence they traded dried beans, smoked meats, cereals, fruits and vegetables with other islanders.
“The Romans are just one tier of our history,” Cowan said. “The Victorians [who lived during Queen Victoria’s reign in the 1800s] were the first to excavate and try to understand this site. Now we’re digging them up and trying to explain them at the same time we’re working on explaining the Roman presence.” Much of Britain’s Victorian past is on view at the island getaway of Queen Victoria and her prince, Albert, across the Medina River in East Cowes.
“You really can’t come here without seeing Osborne House,” Sandra Fussell, our B&B hostess, told us as she plopped a plate of sausage, beans, eggs and broiled tomatoes — a traditional English breakfast — before us.
“It was Victoria’s royal residence, her favorite place to be, much more than London, and it’s as magnificent as any of our palaces.”
The queen once wrote of the place, in a sentiment Britney Spears might second: “It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot … We can walk about anywhere by ourselves without being followed or mobbed, which is … delightful.”
The house, built between 1845 and 1851 under Prince Albert’s direction, has been kept in much the same condition that Victoria’s royal family — the only occupants the place ever had — left it. It’s filled with the trappings necessary for the rich and famous of the time — lush mustard-colored brocades and rich ketchup-hued velvets.
The Durbar Wing, built to house the royals’ extravagant gifts from potentates in India at the edge of Victoria’s empire, is intricately carved plaster, floor to ceiling.
“Heavens, it looks like a wedding cake exploded in here,” a visitor said, eyes rolling.
A walk in storied fields
By our third day on Wight, the rain had stopped and a hesitant sun peeked out from leftover clouds that marched south across the Solent from the mother country.
We caught the bus for Needles Park, a rather cheesy little amusement park with an arcade and kiddie rides perched atop chalky cliffs. This would be Wight’s answer to England’s traditional seaside playgrounds in Blackpool.
The Needles, named for the sharp spires that stutter off into the Solent from the chalky ridge above, are a starting spot for one of the island’s most famed country strolls, along the airy ridge of West High Down and across Tennyson Down to the village of Freshwater Bay.
The downs are high grassy plains that blanket the chalk ridge. Tennyson Down, three miles in length, was named for Alfred Lord Tennyson, who walked here daily from his nearby estate, Farringford, which is now a small hotel.
It was here, not in London with its big-city distractions, that the nation’s famed poet laureate wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and here that locals say his buddy Lewis Carroll pondered material for “Alice in Wonderland.”
Below our hilly path cows grazed and birds whistled among the hedgerows. Behind us came a gaggle of middle-schoolers on a field trip, shouting as they ran for the granite monument.
They looked for all the world like Mel Gibson and his hordes of Scots running toward the English in “Braveheart.”
The monument marks the highest point of the down and serves as a lighthouse of sorts. It reads, simply, “Tennyson, 1809-1892.”
To Britain’s lovers of literature, no other identification is needed.
The sun was setting behind the Needles as we caught one of the last buses of the day back to Cowes.
We slid into seats near the window of a dark eatery with a seamen’s ambience and ordered pub grub for our last dinner before catching the ferry back to the mainland.
The mother country may lay claim to more countryside to walk, we decided, bigger castles, more splendid palaces and a more complex history.
But the Isle of Wight is living very large as its mirror-image “Mini Me.”
Sally Macdonald is a retired Seattle Times reporter; John Macdonald retired as Seattle Times travel editor.
IF YOU GO
If you go
Isle of Wight
• Getting there is part of the fun. From London, it’s a two-hour train ride southwest through the countryside to either Southampton or Portsmouth. Both cities offer easy ferry connections to the island.
• Rental cars are available, but you may not want to bother since the island bus system is geared to the needs of tourists.
• Walking is one of the island’s most popular activities for both locals and visitors. The annual walking festival each May features some 200 themed walks all over the island, some especially for children and all led by experienced guides.
Here are some information sources:
Isle of Wight Tourism: www.islandbreaks.co.uk. Has information about the island, getting there, transportation, activities, lodging and food. It also has links to other sites with useful visitor information.
British Footpath Guide: One of the best guides to the island, while emphasizing walking paths, includes bits of history and local lore that even nonwalkers will find useful and fun. It’s written by Richard Hayward of Bellingham, who has produced nearly 20 footpath guides to England, Wales and Scotland. Contact him at 360-671-1217 or see www.britishfootpaths.com
Britain tourist information: Phone: 800-462-2748; www.visitbritain.com.
Southeast England tourism: www.visitsoutheastEngland .com.
Portsmouth Visitor Information Service: www.visitports mouth.co.uk.
Southampton Tourist Information Centre: www.visitSouthampton.co.uk.