Back in Time
To celebrate the 35 years that Island Visitor magazine has been in circulation, we wanted to highlight some of those attractions on the Isle of Wight that have stayed the course – if not quite as long as we have (or some much longer), then close, which is saying something in these troubled times. And it turns out that there are lots – so hats off to them, and here’s to many more years entertaining visitors.
Blackgang Chine is not only the oldest theme park on the Island, but also the oldest in the country, established in 1842 by Alexander Dabell with a little help from a skeleton of a fin whale (which you can still see today). Now home to life-sized Pirate Ships, Fairy Villages and a Cowboy Town, it’s still run by a descendant of the same family. That same family also looks after 88 acres of glorious parkland behind Newport known as Robin Hill, offering year-round events, from acrobatics to festivals. And talking of fabulous green spaces, if plants are your thing then head to Ventnor Botanic Garden, which boasts 33,000 species from across the globe, including exotic sub-tropical and far eastern plant collections, which flourish in the warm Ventnor Undercliff micro-climate.
“What is the secret to our longevity? Put simply, tapping into people’s imagination. The process of imagining is utterly timeless and endless, and it’s relevant to absolutely everyone, regardless of age, background and interests. Our mission is to create magical family memories to be treasured for a lifetime.”
ALEC DABELL, BLACKGANG CHINE
Shanklin Chine celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2017 and is the Island’s oldest tourist attraction, opening in 1817. Expect a dramatic tree-lined gorge, which is illuminated at night from May to November, offering events galore. Just down the road you’ll find Sandown Pier, built in the 1880s, and still pulling them in today with its dodgems and amusement arcade, cafes and bars. And if you like an old-fashioned day out then head to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and offers rides in beautifully restored carriages pulled by historic stream-driven engines through idyllic countryside.
Though you could argue that the Island’s two Roman Villas are the Island’s oldest attractions, in Newport and Brading, as they date back to AD280 and AD300 respectively, the former a Roman farmhouse, the latter a loftier Roman villa, with jaw-dropping, beautifully preserved mosaic floors.
Nearby, The Lilliput Museum contains one of the finest private collections of antique dolls and toys in Britain, and also boasts exhibits dating back to 2000BC. If you like that, you’ll probably love Godshill Model Village in the small, picture postcard village of the same name, which can’t fail to excite even older audiences (check the model, of the model, of the model).
Not far away you’ll find Appuldurcombe House, a masterpiece of English Baroque architecture and though now just a graceful shell still wows with its fine architectural detail (and salacious stories), and Capability Brown-designed grounds.
The Island’s most impressive residence (and most popular attraction) is without doubt Osborne. Located in East Cowes, Queen Victoria’s iconic seaside home offers an intimate glimpse into royal family life on the island. Continue the royal theme with a visit to Carisbrooke Castle, steeped in history from the Norman Conquest to Charles I, popping into the Carisbrooke Castle Museum, the only public museum founded by a member of the Royal Family – back in 1898 by Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter.
“Osborne has changed very little since Victoria and Albert’s time. Inevitably changes were made after Victoria’s death in 1901, but her rooms and the things in them have survived remarkably intact.” MICHAEL HUNTER, CURATOR, OSBORNE
Back in the day coach tours would stop by to see Quarr Abbey. Now visitors roll up in their cars or walk to this imposing working Benedictine monastery, founded in 1132. Set in tranquil grounds, it offers a cracking tearoom with homegrown produce for sale, and resident pigs that have become quite the hit.
On that animal note, you might not know that the Isle of Wight has been home to some truly exotic species since 1990 – all safely-contained, of course. Amazon World Zoo Park has all manner of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and insects, whilst the Wildheart Animal Sanctuary, until recently known as the Isle of Wight Zoo, is doing what it has always done caring for a variety of big cats, plus many other animals. Ditto The Isle of Wight Donkey Sanctuary, which has been providing a home for more than 90 donkeys and 20 ponies for the last few decades – quite the draw they are, too.
But all roads – and boats – must lead to The Needles Landmark Attraction. Pretty much every visitor will rock up here, at the Island’s most western point, to enjoy the various activities on offer and ogle the iconic teeth-shaped rocks, before taking a cruise from the pier on Alum Bay Beach below with Needles Pleasure Cruises, which has been navigating these challenging waters since the 1970s.
“Most images that you see of The Needles are from the air, or the looking down from the cliff top, or from the beach, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it close up from one of our boats. Historically this is a tricky bit of water, and many sailors have come unstuck around The Needles over the last 200 years, most famously the SS Varvassi in 1947. Her boilers still lie about 150m west of the lighthouse.”
PETER LEMONIUS, NEEDLES PLEASURE CRUISES