The Wight stuff

The Wight stuff

Jenni Frazer finds much to enjoy on a ‘bijou island paradise’ conveniently close to home

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Watcombe Bay
Watcombe Bay

Even the shortest trip to the Isle of Wight gives a holiday atmosphere, as drivers and foot passengers alike throng one of the majestic Red Funnel ferries for the quick 45-minute trip from Southampton to East Cowes.

Make sure you nip up straight away to the top deck, to enjoy the sea breezes and the astonishing range of shipping in the Solent — we saw one of the huge Princess Line cruise ships, complete with hundreds of waving passengers — and, in complete contrast, a fishing boat surrounded by thousands of hungry gulls as the lone sailor threw fish heads into the sea.

If, like us, you are staying on the east coast, your first challenge on leaving the ferry will be arguing with the satnav as it directs you to “get on the ferry”.

In this case, the satnav is right. You are being directed to the tiny but efficient chain ferry, built in 1859, which links one part of Cowes to the other across the River Medina.

If you don’t use the chain ferry,  which takes you over in a rapid 15 minutes, you instead face  a 10-mile trip to the island’s centre and capital, Newport, before making your way to the coast.

You are treading, of course, in the footsteps of Queen Victoria, whose summer palace, Osborne House, made the island a must-visit tourist destination from the 1880s onwards.

But the monarch, who died at Osborne House, wasn’t the first to discover the pleasures of this bijou island paradise, as a Roman villa archaeological site testifies.

Osborne House
Osborne House

Henry VIII fortified the island and Charles I was imprisoned there. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, had a holiday home and, to his wife’s great annoyance, used to sneak out to the back garden and into the house of pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, great-aunt of the novelist Virginia Woolf, where he would pose for pictures in her garden.

Cameron’s house, Dimbola Lodge, is now a photography museum at Freshwater Bay, and well worth a visit.

The island’s main income comes from tourism, no surprise given that the place has a year-round micro-climate that offers reassuringly better weather than on the mainland.

In the summer, the Isle of Wight is sunnier than most parts of the UK, while in some years there is rarely snow in the winter and only a few days of hard frost.

So many of the island’s attractions, from the Dinosaur Activity Centre to the Alpaca Farm, are aimed at children, not forgetting the fabulous slew of bucket-and-spade beaches.

It’s easy to overlook guilty pleasures such as the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. But the lovingly recreated stations and puffing billy trains have the power to charm everyone, young and old, and the railway is truly not to be missed.

Isle of Wight Steam Railway.
Isle of Wight Steam Railway.

The deeply-patient station staff, heroic in their waistcoats and red-banded caps, seem happy to pose for endless pictures, as is the engineer, who deftly turns round the engine at the end of the line.

Restored train carriages from Victorian and Edwardian times whisk oldies back to their childhoods and children are lost in wonder. Havenstreet, the central station, decorated with evocative signage, has a lovely train museum and what tastes like real old-fashioned ice cream.

Food is also a large part of this holiday destination. Besides the ice-cream — the late film director, Anthony Minghella, came from the family of Isle of Wight ice-cream makers — the island is famous for apricots, tomatoes, delicious dairy produce, glorious fresh eggs, super tart apple juices and ciders, edible lavender and, of course, fabulous garlic.

The owners of the Garlic Farm in Newchurch have gone in for the foodie experience in a big way, offering products you never knew could have garlic in them, from the very mildest to the truly fierce Vampire jars.

When they warn you about the latter by the way, do take them seriously and not as an invitation to show how tough you are. Products such as roast garlic jam are divine for putting on a slowly-roasted chicken, and garlic mayo will pep up the most tired of salads.

Driving round Wight is easy. It’s almost impossible to get lost and everything is well signposted, although it is slightly unnerving to emerge from a single-track B-road covered in misty foliage, to drive into a suburban street full of neat houses. But you get used to it.

There is a Reform Jewish community on the island at Wroxall, looked after by the Bournemouth Reform Congregation.

Here on the Isle of Wight your mission is simple: relinquish the day-to-day responsibilities, escape to the island, and you can’t fail to have a good time.

Jenni Frazer travelled with Red Funnel Isle of Wight Ferries. Red Funnel offers day-return crossings for foot passengers from £9.40 and short-break return vehicle crossings from £51, together with ferry-inclusive holiday accommodation, attraction tickets, festival and event tickets and activity packages for visitors to the Isle of Wight. For more information and to book, visit or call 0844 844 2687. For tourist information and events, visit


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