The Isle of Wight? Really . . . ? By which I mean – seriously? I visited as a child: who didn’t? Why, some of the most eccentric and outspoken Britons have holidayed there and, in middle age, decided to return and reside. Queen Victoria certainly qualifies for this: her mother took her for a couple of visits when she was a girl and then, in the 1840s, when she and Albert were casting around for somewhere to build a retreat from the rigours (!) of court life, they settled on the Isle and had a summer house built there.
Seven decades after she died there, I visited the neo-Palladian pile Albert designed for his queen. Needless to say, I remember nothing at all about it, save possibly for seeing a dog cart in which her litter of whelps was dragged about the estate. (But after all, there’s a dog cart in which posh puppies were dragged about the estate in just about every stately home open to the public.)
No, if the Isle of Wight made any impression on me, it was a beige one – beige, because that was one of the many shades of sand I saw at Alum Bay, where the cliffs are multicoloured, a mixture of browns with the more typically sable stuff.
Our parents bought my brother and me a couple of cork-stoppered test tubes, full of the coloured sands arranged into pleasing strata, which we took back to London, and that was that – apart from the week I spent about a decade ago at Milford on Sea, which is about five miles from Alum Bay but on the right side of the Solent. I remember staring across the turbulent waters to the Needles and thinking, “Really . . . ?”
Notoriously, on his first visit to Australia, Gore Vidal pronounced: “I have seen the past – and it works . . .” I suppose that’s a little bit how I feel about the Isle of Wight: I may remember few of its particulars, but the overall atmosphere has stayed with me, wreathing my head with swags of candlewick bedspread smeared with Brown Windsor soup. Most of Britain’s islands are worth very many trips and a fair few are inviting places for extended sojourns; but with the exception of the Isle of Man (which should never be attempted), only the Isle of Wight is a one-time offer.
I remember (or perhaps only think I do) James Burke on Tomorrow’s World in the mid-Sixties, showing us the new transport revolution: the Hovercraft. Looking rather, um, Victorian in its black rubber skirts, the curious vehicle slipped over the sands at Ryde and into the briny. Whoa! Astonishing! And the good news, according to Burke, was that the service was already up and running – just one of many that would soon be bearing us into the future. Fifty years later the Southsea-to-Ryde transit remains in operation, but Burke, otherwise a canny prognosticator (he anticipated big data, for instance), got it utterly wrong: it remains the only scheduled passenger Hovercraft service in Europe.
So, I took it and would have done so on that basis alone; after all, it’s not that often you get the opportunity to step aboard the amphibious equivalent of a DeLorean car and travel forward to the past. It was a bright and sunny morning, and on the front at Southsea the amusement parlours, the funfair’s Ferris wheel and assorted cafés formed a sort of solid rampart, faced in a chequerboard pattern of blue and yellow and surmounted by a rotunda with letters that said “Clarence Pier”. I didn’t even need to go into the Wimpy to feel I’d arrived already in another country.
The actual procedure for boarding the Hovercraft was annoyingly prosaic, though: we presented our tickets, walked a few paces across the slipway, and climbed a small set of stairs. It looked and felt like an old Sealink ferry but smaller, and on account of the slack rubber skirting, rather more, um, transvestite. But there was the characteristic perfume of vinyl-and-salt, and as the engines grumbled into life, I half expected my long-dead parents to materialise beside me, arguing.
And then we were off, ploughing a wide furrow of wake across the Solent, passing by the strange First World War forts that have been converted – you guessed it – into luxury hotels, establishments which, according to their illiterate website, are “surely the most unique venues in the world”. Then came the moment I had been waiting for since 1965: the dowager Hovercraft lifted its skirts and scooted over the sandbars guarding the entrance to Ryde Harbour. At last, I had done it! I’d finally travelled seamlessly across sea, land and sea again. This, I thought, must be how the first ancestral reptiles had felt, as they hauled themselves out of the primordial ocean and got on with the business of evolving into creatures with warm blood and overdrafts.
I didn’t hold that thought for long, because we were already disembarking from the Hovercraft, and there to meet us on the quayside was a man who’s got a bit of a thing about the reptilian: David Icke. He was, of course, my real reason for undertaking this second, superfluous visit to the Isle of Wight: I wanted to interview him for a series of radio programmes I’m making about the meaning of life. Yes, yes, I know; I can hear you cry across space and through time, “Really . . . ?” Which is to say, “Seriously?”
Next week: Madness of Crowds