I was worried my first trip to the Isle of Wight might be too late. These days, a holiday island would surely be no more than fanciful tearooms with hardening scones and flashing arcades. But alighting from the ferry at Ryde, I not only stepped into another place, but another time. It may not be fanciful or flashy, but the Isle of Wight has a faded charm, in the white-painted hotel fronts along the esplanade, the over-manicured patches of public gardens, and a pier without any fruit machines, but with a railway running all the way along it.
I travelled around this 1950s throwback in a futuristic fashion — by electric bike — soaring up hills as if mere molehills. I’d never been on one before, and they go quite fast with very little effort. My bike was provided by the Seaview Hotel, a lovely spot in Seaview village decorated like the home of a retired sea captain. There are ship models in glass cases, cushions with nautical flags, and a monthly print laid out on the coffee table of the dates, tonnage and destination of ‘ships that pass’ along the Solent outside.
The advantage of holidaying on a small island is that you can conquer it in a weekend. If you’re not up to an electric bike, the Seaview provides a free bus pass whatever your age. Within two days, I was an expert on the entire place. With my electric bike, early-onset bus pass and the nearby Ryde train station, I could reach nearly everywhere. The Island Line runs from Ryde Pier Head south to Shanklin, using converted 1938 London Tube trains with wooden window frames, making it some of the oldest running stock in Britain.
The island is rightly proud of its railway heritage and stations also serve as museums. I was greeted at Brading station by a wobbly mannequin wearing a former station manager uniform with a badge saying his name was ‘Sam Spooky’, standing by a splendid display of ‘Isle of Wight railway tickets through the decades’. There’s even a tearoom where I was served a soft drink through a hatch. A short walk away is Brading Roman Villa with its mosaic of the famous Cockerel–headed Man. It may also be the only ancient villa in Britain that has recently added a cinema to show the latest releases.
One morning, I sped down from the Seaview to nearby Priory Beach on my bike. The coastal path, like much on the Isle of Wight, has an undertow of melancholy. Pedalling along was like wading through a Polaroid photograph, the salt-washed small boats overturned and pulled up on to the rocks, fading colours seen through the faint fuzziness of the early mist.
Since that first visit, I’ve returned to the island a few times, but whichever month, there’s an end-of-season feel, as if the striped windbreakers on the sand are just about to be furled, the benches looking across the grey water to the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth are about to be scraped down ready for a fresh coat of varnish, and the waiter is about to tell you — with a sorry shake of his head — that you’re eating the last local lobster available. Even in the height of summer, the island seems to be preparing for hibernation. And if I had to bed down somewhere for the winter, I can’t think of a more cosy and comforting spot than the Seaview on the Isle of Wight.