Every day the Isle of Wight becomes England’s smallest county: when-ever the tide comes in, the island steals the crown from Rutland, if only for a few hours. Taking the Wightlink ferry reminds you that the isle gave us the hovercraft, Christopher Cockerell’s early experiments there involving a hairdryer and some empty cat-food tins. Less successful as a seafarer was Lord Lucan, who once sank a powerboat off the Needles. It never surfaced, leading some to believe that when the time came to disappear he returned to the area and drowned himself.
Current exports include most of the signage for the London Underground (A.J. Wells and Sons, vitreous enamellers of Newport), and all manner of garlic from the Garlic Farm in Newchurch (fresh, black, smoked, elephant). The plant was brought to the island by Free French sailors stationed there during the second world war — the bland British food, they thought, needed livening up a bit. If you have similar taste buds you could head to Branstone as well, where the House of Chilli offers a ‘Psycho’ range. Gentler souls will prefer Minghella’s ice cream in Wootton. (Before you ask — yes, Anthony was related.)
The Isle of Wight also boasts Britain’s oldest theme park, Blackgang Chine, there since 1843. The animatronic dinosaurs in its new ‘Restricted Area 5’ are seriously scary. In fact the island is big on the creatures generally: Dinosaur Isle in Sandown is also well worth a visit. (Before you leave Blackgang, though, check your pink Ordnance Survey map — you’ll see that the small lines denoting the cliffs there have been tweaked to spell ‘Bill’, the name of the cartographer who drew them.) Other must-sees? Osborne House, of course, home to Queen Victoria’s billiard table, built two inches higher than standard so the 4ft 11in monarch could play without bending over. And the Donald McGill museum in Ryde is fantastic, a fitting tribute to the king of the risqué postcard. It’s incredible that as late as 1954 he was prosecuted for obscenity. The pretty woman on one card tells a bookmaker she wants to back the favourite: ‘My sweetheart gave me a pound to do it both ways!’
Insularity can produce either suspicion of outsiders or a self-assured calm — the Isle of Wight happily chooses the latter. Where should you stay to explore it? For locally-sourced-eggs boutiquery you need the Hambrough in Ventnor, home to Winston, the coolest bulldog in Britain. If it’s a roaring log fire in the wood-panelled bar you’re after, check into the George at Yarmouth. (Specifically room 12, as then you’ll be able to say you’ve slept in the same room as Charles II.)
Meanwhile, for a 1,000-year-old monastery in 60 acres of grounds, with several luxury yurts and a private beach, try the Priory Bay near Nettlestone. It’s surely the only property in the world to have been owned at different times by both the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union and Eton College.
wightlink.co.uk, thehambrough.com, www.thegeorge.co.uk, priorybay.co.uk