As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Isle of Wight, Rhiannon Batten picks out a selection of heritage, shopping, festivals and family fun on this glorious island off the south coast of England.
From Royal residences and listed windmills to family-friendly music festivals and a tour of the island’s artists’ studios, whether it’s history, music, art or even shopping that excites you, the Isle of Wight comes up trumps every time.
Its strategic position in the Solent as a kind of floating full stop to the UK means that the Isle of Wight has an especially rich maritime and military history. Whether you want to explore that by taking a guided tour of the Needles Old Battery or by knocking back cocktails during Cowes Week as a flotilla of yachts sails by on the horizon, it’s all there for the enjoying.
Understandably, given this history, many of the island’s attractions were built as lookouts, making them brilliant spots for picnics with a view – or lots of climbing up ancient staircases if you have fidgety children in tow – today.
Swim off the private beach that Queen Victoria once bathed from, go hunting for fossils on beaches once trampled by dinosaurs, organise a game of bowls on the green Charles I used to play on, drink wine from vineyards once cultivated by the Romans and hear how the mischievous but benevolent Ferguson’s Gang saved one of the island’s most significant buildings for the nation.
Then rest your legs with a night at a pop-up opera, an afternoon painting your own pottery or a ride on a restored steam train.
The proverbial jewel in the island’s crown, Queen Victoria’s stately Italianate summer residence was designed by Prince Albert (apparently the views of the Solent reminded him of the Bay of Naples), and is by far the grandest building on the island. Inside, tour the lavish state rooms, nosey through the more intimate family rooms and make sure you see the stand-out Durbar Room with its elaborate plasterwork ceiling, akin to a banqueting table of upside down wedding cakes. Since 2012, visitors have also been able to swim off Queen Victoria’s private beach, 20 minutes’ walk from the house. Be inspired by a visit to the newly refurbished Swiss Cottage: buidling started in 1853 under the direction of Prince Albert for his nine young children so that the neophyte royals could experience being 'ordinary citizens' and was carved with improving quotations in German like 'You will carry your load more easily if you add patience to the burden', it now houses a musem filled with strange and wonderful objects from around the world set in a gorgeous garden. english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/osborne
There aren’t many places in the UK these days where you can hear a windmill’s sails creaking on a windy day but this is one of them. A Grade I listed monument, and the only surviving windmill on the island, it was built around 1700 and in working use until 1913. Visits here are topsy turvy – you climb to the top then see how the machinery operated as you work your way back down its four floors. nationaltrust.org.uk/bembridge-windmill/
Famously used as a prison for Charles I in the months leading up to his execution, this motte and bailey castle is a little more welcoming to visitors these days. Within the castle and its surroundings are a Great Hall, a chapel, a museum, an Edwardian-style garden and a clutch of resident donkeys. There’s plenty of space for younger visitors to run around and let off steam or try your hand at a game of bowls on the same green that Charles I used. english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/carisbrooke-castle/
The Needles Old Battery
There are few places on the island where you can get as good an insight into the Isle of Wight’s seafaring history and strategic military heritage as the Needles Old Battery. Inside this Victorian fort a series of exhibitions expertly leads you through its dramatic story, and don’t miss the underground tunnel which leads to a searchlight emplacement overlooking the Needles rocks. The nearby New Battery has its tales to tell, too. Not least when British-made rockets were secretly tested here during the Cold War. nationaltrust.org.uk/needles-old-battery-and-new-battery/
One of the Palmerston forts built in Britain in the late 19th century, as a response to the supposed threat of invasion by the French Navy, this one is currently being restored by the National Trust. Open for pre-bookable volunteer-led tours on Tuesdays throughout the summer it’s not only a chance to see restoration work in progress but also a memorable starting point for walks on Bembridge and Culver Downs. nationaltrust.org.uk/bembridge-fort/
Brading Roman Villa
Hadrian’s Wall may be, arguably, the most famous Roman ruin in Britain but you don’t have to go nearly so far north to get an insight into our ancient conquerors. Remnants of walls, mosaics and a hypocaust underfloor heating system from this 1st century house can all be seen here on the Isle of Wight. It’s family-friendly, too, with a Roman garden and meadow trail to explore and, if you’re lucky, the chance to dress up as an emperor or gladiator. While you’re there, stop off at the neighbouring vineyard. Though they’ve since been replanted, vines are thought to have been grown on the site by the Romans bradingromanvilla.org.uk
The last, and most refined, of Henry VIII's coastal defences, Yarmouth Castle was one of the first in England to have an 'arrowhead'-style artillery bastion rather than a more rounded shape. Finished after his death, in 1547, the castle looks anything but intimidating today, though the exhibition of local shipwrecks is pretty sobering. Perched right by the Solent’s edge, with a carpet of soft green grass, it’s a glorious spot for a picnic. And if it gives you an appetite for more of Henry VIII’s handiwork, you can toddle two miles down the coast afterwards to explore Hurst Castle (also English heritage). english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/yarmouth-castle/
Newtown Old Town Hall
An improbably elegant building for a rural hamlet, this one-time town hall points to former glories as the centre of a borough important enough to have sponsored two MPs. Now managed by the National Trust it was famously saved for the nation in the 1930s by Ferguson’s Gang. This group of anonymous and mischievous female benefactors spoke like pirates and adopted the National Trust as their funding mission; one was finally ‘outed’ on her death in 1996 as Dr Margaret Steuart Pollard, a Sanskrit scholar, Cornish bard, historian and great-niece of Gladstone. nationaltrust.org.uk/newtown-old-town-hall/
Isle of Wight Festival
In 1968, a group of entrepreneurial islanders organised the Isle of Wight Festival of Music to raise funds for a public swimming pool. It didn’t make a profit, sadly, but it did help change the UK’s musical landscape. Two years later Jimi Hendrix famously rocked the island at the festival’s third outing, and although the festival then disappeared until its relaunch in 2002, it set the scene for Britain’s love affair with music festivals. Now a highlight of the nation’s cultural calendar, the festival takes place each June, with recent headline acts including The Rolling Stones, Coldplay, Kaiser Chiefs, Stereophonics, Paul McCartney, Paul Weller and The Stone Roses. isleofwightfestival.com
If the Isle of Wight festival heralds the start of the UK’s festival season, this boutique festival plays a fond farewell to it. Held each September and organised by DJ and record producer Rob da Bank. As the boutique label implies, it’s a more intimate size than the Isle of Wight festival, with a more alternative musical offering, a focus on vegetarian food and fancy dress, support for social and environmental causes (Bike to Bestival and Swim to Bestival are two of its carbon-saving initiatives) and a family-friendly spin-off, Camp Bestival. bestival.net
International Cowes Week
Not culture as you know it, perhaps, but sailing is one of the most well known local traditions and Cowes Week is one of the world’s longest-running regattas. Held in the Solent each August, if you want to be in on the action, make your way to Cowes for live music, cocktails, crab salads and views of the racing. aamcowesweek.co.uk
Isle of Wight Arts
With its sun-soaked skies and coastal landscapes it’s little surprise that the Isle of Wight has been home to more than its fair share of artists over the years. To catch some of the current crop in the act, time a trip for July, to coincide with the annual Open Studios weekends, which take place in the east and west of the island over two weekends. Meet artists and makers whose doors are not usually open to the public, buy work direct from its creator or simply hop from studio to studio through some of the island’s most delightful scenery. isleofwightarts.com
The former home and studio of pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Dimbola was named after her family’s plantation in Sri Lanka. Now seeing service as a gallery and museum, most of the displays relate to Cameron’s own work and life but a lively program of changing exhibitions means there’s always something to see however regular a visitor you are. And another excuse to stop off at the on-site tea room to try the excellent homemade cakes. dimbola.co.uk
Chessell Pottery Barns
Paint-your-own pottery cafes are two-a-penny these days but Emma Bridgwater’s the Pottery Café was one of the first. The company now runs three London studios as well as this one in conjunction with Chessell Pottery on the Isle of Wight. Choose one of the Emma Bridgwater shapes (all made in the UK) and paint your own design or, if you’re not the creative type, pick up some of the pottery’s own strawberry patterned Chessell Ware in the adjacent shop. chessellpotterybarns.co.uk
Housed in 19th century brewery warehouse complex, in the centre of Newport, this multi-tasking arts venue was opened in 1997 to provide a focal point for the island’s creative drive. See the latest independent films, watch a theatre, dance or music performance, pick up a souvenir in the Crafts Council-listed shop, catch the latest exhibition of paintings, sign up for a workshop or just stop off for a pint of local ale or a bowl of soup in the café quayarts.org
Pop Up Opera
It’s a clever idea: take young, talented opera singers (often more convincing as their performances’ youthful leads than their more established – and rotund – counterparts) and let them loose to gain experience around Britain in unconventional, and informal, venues that appeal to broader audiences. One of the company’s summer haunts is the island’s Garlic Farm but you’ll have to be quick if you want to grab a ticket. thegarlicfarm.co.uk
A purpose-built, interactive museum Dinosaur Isle is designed in the shape of a giant pterodactyl to house the island’s rich collections of geology and fossils. An informative introduction takes you back to the time when dinosaurs roamed on what is now the Isle of Wight. You’re then free to explore over 1000 fossils, skeletal re-constructions, life sized re-constructions and two animatronic dinosaurs. Eager to find out more? Book in for one of the attraction’s guided fossil walks dinosaurisle.com
Isle of Wight Steam Railway
Open from March to November, though much more widely during high summer, this heritage railway offers plenty of scope for a steam-powered day out. From rides along the rails to a new visitor attraction housing the railway’s rolling stock, a woodland walk and children’s play area, it’s one of the best-loved attractions on the island. iwsteamrailway.co.uk
Bembridge Lifeboat Station
It may be a working lifeboat station but that doesn’t stop Bembridge Lifeboat Station opening to visitors at certain times. Approached via a causeway and manned by volunteers, they’ll let your children have a look at the lifeboat and, if they’re lucky, dress up as a lifeboat man or woman. Don’t forget to ask when the crew are training if you want to see the boat being launched. There’s also a well-stocked shop. bembridgelifeboat.org.uk
Robin Hill Adventure Park & Gardens
Unlike its sister attraction Blackgang Chine, which focuses on rides and slides, this leafy space is based firmly on nature. There are rides here, too - among them a toboggan run and train ride - but there are also ‘troll’ bridges across ponds, rope towers to climb, an adventure playground, a butterfly garden and a treehouse packed with information about local wildlife. Still need to let off steam? Go wild in the park’s eight acres of woodland gardens. robin-hill.com
St Catherine’s Lighthouse
Warning lights for ships have been in this point, the most southerly on the island, since the 14th century but the iconic octagonal tower of today’s St Catherine's Lighthouse dates from 1838, following the nearby wrecking of The Clarendon ship. Older children will love the volunteer-led, 40-minute tours here, which involve a climb up the 94 steps to the lantern at the top. Park near the Buddle Inn and walk in after lunch or, if it’s a sunny day, pack a picnic and eat it overlooking the sea. It’s also worth stopping off at nearby St Catherine’s Oratory, a pepperpot-shaped medieval lighthouse a couple of miles away. trinityhouse.co.uk
Coleman’s Farm Park
Giant ice creams aside, there’s nothing like a farm visit to put smiles on younger children’s faces during a countryside holiday. And while this farm park, outside Newport, isn’t the most sophisticated one you’ll ever see, there are lambs to pet, a model railway, pedal tractor park and a playbarn complete with hayloft, zip slide, swings, slides, tunnels, pits and climbing wall. colemansfarmpark.co.uk
Classic Boat Museum
If your children are starting to learn port from starboard and tacking from jibing take them off to this East Cowes museum to give them a headstart on sailing history. It’s one of the best value attractions on the island, with 50 heritage boats to discover, among them a modern Olympic vessel and a collapsible lifeboat dating back to the 1890s. classicboatmuseum.org
Made on the Isle of Wight
When the owners of this store, Serena and Robin Courage, first visited the Isle of Wight they were wowed by the island’s talent. From its local food producers to its artists, potters, jewellers, photographers, musicians, textile designers, writers and cosmetics companies, the island was producing some wonderful local buys. What it didn’t have was a one-stop shop where visitors like them could find it all under one roof. So they built one. Now breezily designed in seaside blue and white, the shop stocks the fruit of over 200 local businesses, and is home to a café besides. If you’re feeling lazy it’s a brilliant place to find a souvenir. madeonisleofwight.com
Home to Farmer Jack’s farm shop and the Dairyman’s Daughter pub village-like collection of barns is also home to some great local shopping. Decorative glass is one of its most popular items but other local present-buying possibilities include bowls and platters made with local timber, organic skincare and soaps made from locally grown lavender and homemade fudge. If you want to get your hands dirty, many of the shop owners offer short courses and workshops for visitors. arretonbarns.co.uk
For information on local food and drink, nearby visitor attractions and activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to the Isle of Wight