26th Feb, 2017

All aboard the coach for the Isle of Wight

Ian Hughes 12th Jan, 2017

MANY regularly venture overseas on holiday, to Spain, Greece and further afield, but a fair number of those will never have taken, or probably even thought of taking, an overseas holiday closer to home – on the Isle of Wight.

Just a few miles off the mainland – an easy ferry crossing for Midlanders from either Portsmouth (Wightlink) or Southampton (Red Funnel) – the Isle of Wight is a destination with a proud, rich and diverse history, coupled with stunning beaches and countryside. It can also claim more sunshine per year than anywhere else in Britain.

And there’s no better way to visit than on a coach tour. The island’s road system was never designed to cope with the demands of 21st century traffic levels, and not only does the coach relive the headache of driving, but, as in the case of IOW Tours, also provides the bonus of an informed guide. With the island only being some 25 miles by 13 miles, it means you are never far away from the next attraction and will not spending endless hours on a coach – however comfortable coaches may be these days.

Our first port of call on a three day visit was to The Garlic Farm, just a few miles from the ferry terminal.

Now admittedly, first mention of a visit to a garlic farm is hardly likely to have the kids in rapture, and even some adults may need convincing. Rest assured, it really is fascinating.

A family labour of love for over 50 years since Granny Norah planted the first few cloves in her garden, the farm now does just about everything imaginable with garlic – chutneys, beer, ice cream. You name it and they have it with garlic.

Learn about the full history of garlic and its many varieties, while also taking a tractor ride, seeing the highland cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals, or having a bite in the excellent restaurant and café.

Just down the road is Shanklin. A quiet seaside town, it makes an ideal base. We stayed at the Ocean View. Sat high on a hillside, it lived up to its name with a stunning sea vista. The hotel may be a little tired, but it was very comfortable, the food was plentiful and tasty, and the welcome warm. There’s not really a lot more you could ask.

Shanklin also boasts the Shanklin Chine. A stunning natural towering tree-line gorge, it is a magical place which has captured the great imaginations of the likes of author Jane Austen and painter JMW Turner, and which continues to work its magic on modern day visitors. A marvel by day, a wonder by night, the gorge is also lit up after dark.

The Isle of Wight Steam Railway is another labour of love the island is rightly proud of. The island once boasted an extensive rail network covering 55 miles, but no more. Part of that rich rail heritage has however been preserved and is now a thriving and hugely popular attraction.

A railway buff’s paradise, the casual visitor will also find plenty to enjoy as a result of the sheer dedication of an army of volunteer enthusiasts whose attention to detail is second to none. Stepping onto Havenstreet station is to step back in time to the golden age of steam. Aside from the chance to ride the rails pulled by a steam loco for five miles, the recently opened Train Story is an immersive experience for young and old alike, bringing to life the history of the island’s railway, and the work being done to preserve that heritage.

Attention to detail is something they also know all about at The Model Village at Godshill. The front of the souvenir guide bears the slogan ‘you have to see it to believe it’ – and they’re not lying. A visit is guaranteed to raise a smile or two on the way round the extensive displays, from airfield to church, football match to beach bathing at Osborne House (more of which in a bit).

Aside from Osborne House, the island is arguably best known for the landmark chalk stacks rising from the sea at Alum Bay known as the The Needles. You can now get a chairlift – not for the faint-hearted – down to the shore and take a boat ride round the rocks. Don’t be put off by the rather tacky theme park look on arrival. The chair lift and the boat trip are worth it.

The jewel in the man-made crown of the Isle of Wight is undoubtedly Osborne House – one time home to Queen Victoria.

Since the first series of the lavish ITV drama Victoria air last year, visitor numbers to the English Heritage-cared for property have rocketed.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought the estate in 1845 to escape the public eye. They built the house and designed the gardens to their tastes. There is grandeur and oppulance in spades, but also evidence this was a family home, from nursery to the children’s Swiss Cottage hidden in the woods.

And there are not many royal residences which have their own beach, let alone one which the public can take advantage of, but Osborne has a charming one with views across the Solent to Portsmouth. On a hot summer’s day this is a full day out – and don’t forget your swimming gear.

Albert died in 1861, but Queen Victoria clearly loved Osborne House and welcomed visiting minsters, foreign royalty and her own extensive family there for over 50 years. The Queen’s love for the Isle of Wight is not hard to understand, and it is why many thousands continue to make the short crossing every year.

IF you were to spend a week at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard chances are you would still not see everything.

The national museum of the Royal Navy is home to historic household names such as the Mary Rose and HMS Victory, together with the likes of the first iron-hulled armoured warship HMS Warrior; the sole remaining British veteran of the bloody Gallipoli campaign HMS M.33; the National Royal Navy Museum; Royal Navy Submarine Museum; Royal Marines Museum; Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower, and harbour tours offering a sailor’s eye view of the historic dockyard and warships of the modern Royal Navy. And the list goes on.

As most will be visiting for the day, a little cherry-picking is necessary, and as long as that includes the Mary Rose and HMS Victory it will be a day well spent.

The new-look Mary Rose visitor centre opened last year and it is truly stunning.

The Tudor warship was built in 1510, was in service for 34 years, before it sank in 1545. It was discovered in 1971, and raised in 1982, since when it has been subject to one of the most extensive and expensive conservation projects ever undertaken.

With props now removed, Henry VIII’s warship can now be seen in all its remaining glory in the purpose built centre. Every aspect of the history and life of the ship is explored and explained in visitor-friendly fashion.

The remains of the ship itself have a ghostly-quality in the half light (for protection purposes) and at regular intervals it is lit up with projections of the crew at their various work.

Sitting next to the centre in dry-dock is Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory.

To actually walk the decks of the world’s old commissioned warship in the footsteps of the crew and stand at the very spot where Nelson died, is a genuinely moving experience.

For a bird’s eye view of the dockyard and out across the Solent where The Mary Rose and HMS Victory both once sailed, then head for the Spinnaker Tower. With three viewing decks – the highest at 110 metres – it offers views stretching up to 23 miles across the city, the harbour, south coast and beyond.

Isle of Wight Fact Box

I travelled as a guest of Visit Isle of Wight www.visitisleofwight.co.uk and the Coach Tourism Association which promotes travel by coach on behalf of 150 UK coach tour operators via www.findacoachholiday.com They include:

Harry Shaw (024 7645 5544 www.harryshaw.co.uk) departing July and August from £399.95 for seven nights DBB. The holiday includes visits to Ventnor, the dramatic east coast shore line, Alum Bay and the famous Needles rocks as well as the Island’s capital – Newport – and the Victorian seaside resort of Ryde and also Godshill. Visits to Cowes and Osborne House also featured.

Note: Visits to Portsmouth can be made on a day trip by coach. Check with your local operator to see what they have to offer.