Finally had a full week away and am now able to string a sentence together again. Must have been quite tired after putting on Ravilious show, but a week on Wight has set me straight. I can't believe it's taken me this long to cross the Solent, especially as we went to Poole every summer for years when I was a kid, but I think I know why I failed to discover the island before now: it's because of the Beatles.
Every summer we can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight
If it's not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck & Dave
In my mind these lyrics got scrambled perhaps, so that I imagined an island entirely populated by people with cheery old-fashioned names, all scrimping away. Not a very glamourous picture.
At first sight the island didn't seem any different to 'the mainland' (ie the rest of Britain). Red brick houses, mini-roundabouts, Waitrose, lots of trees. Driving on the left seemed disappointing, as did the excessively regimented, hedge-bound campsite we had booked. Rather more startling was the nearby town of Shanklin, which ought to be made a World Heritage Site for its concentration of thatched tea shops.
|The fabulous Compton Bay|
It took a day or two, but we gradually discovered another Wight, away from the yachts and caravans, the tea shops and bizarrely named amusement parks - fancy a day at Blackgang Chine anyone? Ventnor, a town that sounds as though it belongs in a Terry Pratchett story, offered impressive Victorian buildings and family-owned shops - a feature of the island generally. Saturday afternoon everything seemed to be shut by 4 (except for the inevitable Tesco Express). We had fish and chips on the Esplanade, looking out over the sea with a simultaneous sunset/moonrise for atmosphere and about a million less people than you would find in, say, Lyme Regis.
|Barbara Jones was a fan of the island|
My favourite region of this surprisingly magical island was the south west coast. We did try to see the Needles but were stymied by thick fog. Instead we went bodyboarding in the rain in Compton Bay, which ought to be in a Top Fifty British Beaches, and probably is. There's a campsite above it which seemed impressively bleak in the generally grim weather; behind a farm which should be used as the set next time someone films 'Cold Comfort Farm'. Geese guarded the approach, while a turkey glared out from an open shed. Fabulous.
Having taken the tent down in an outrageous downpour we sought shelter in the lovely Piano Cafe in Freshwater Bay, surely a building dating from the island's late Victorian heyday, then walked up onto the downs to visit the Tennyson Memorial, put up to commemorate his years living in Freshwater.
I studied the gloomy laureate for A Level but could only remember:
She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said,
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'
This was deemed too miserable for a (now) sunny day. To which I ought to have responded with this...
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.
Back in Bristol the drizzle is a-drizzling and it doesn't look like we will ever be able to get through the inevitable mountain of post-camping laundry. Meanwhile, the Ravilious show is about to end, and we're putting the finishing touches to 'The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden'. More about that soon.